Gerard Manley Hopkins’s memorial poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland” is lofty, rigorous, and full of fiery Christian spirit. Certain of Hopkins’s themes—the might of nature, the tragedy of fate, the human capacity for despair—are equally strong in Ron Hansen’s novel of the same title. Yet Hansen’s treatment of faith is a serious departure from Hopkins’s poem. Hansen, rather than drawing on religion as a binding, inspirational force, relegates Christianity to the level of character trait. The nuns of the Deutschland are not an undifferentiated group remembered only for their piety, but a series of multifaceted, fallible characters, who happen to be Christian. The fabric of Hansen’s prose reflects a neutral treatment of religion. Hansen casts aside Hopkins’s invocation “Thou mastering me, / God!” in favor of crisp sentences and more literary goals. Religion is secondary to the author’s imaginative re-creation of history.
In dramatizing the shipwreck that so inspired Hopkins, Hansen has managed to set aside the essence of Hopkins’s poem. What happens when we consider the literal meaning of a symbolic event?