Textual Analysis of Typhoon by Joseph Conrad

12 Nov


O Captain! Misunderstood!


Joseph Conrad uses the narrator and the characters of his novel to paint a picture of Captain MacWhirr, and the stroke of his brush colors the man in hues of simplicity verging on ineptitude. From every vantage point, it seems that MacWhirr is viewed as something less than his accomplishments attest. Every relationship observes the captain through a lens of mediocrity, but the actual text alludes to something quite different. MacWhirr’s family members all come across as disinterested in the man and his career. Yet he provides well for his wife and two children. His peers dislike his logic and simple way of thinking. However, it is that very logic and simple straightforwardness that guides the Nan-Shan through the storm. As readers, it is easy for us to take at face value the ideas fed to us by the narrator. However, if we probe deeper and look at MacWhirr without the veiled goggles provided, we start to see that the captain may have everyone fooled.  No man can truly prepare for an opponent that he knows nothing about, yet the captain remains “unruffled” and in the end delivers the ship and all aboard to safety (Conrad 3).

Captain MacWhirr’s relationship with his father is a suitable place to start. A man who should have been proud of his son and “his successive promotions” instead looked upon his son “as if upon a half-witted person” (4). It is no surprise then that a “perfectly satisfactory son” so obviously underappreciated would choose “to run away to sea” at the age of fifteen (4). MacWhirr’s mother may have “wept very much” at his departure, but his father made it clear that they “could have got on without him” (4). It should not surprise us then that “it had never occurred to him to leave word behind” (4). Upon first reading, one might misinterpret this as a sign of a simple mind; however, as we break down the dysfunctional nature of his family, we start to see that MacWhirr more likely intentionally forgot to send word. A man never leaving port without his umbrella would certainly not simply forget to write home to his folks. If his father believed his own comment, “Tom’s an ass” (4), then it was a genetic trait granted by his father. “His father never really forgave him” (4), and I think Tom MacWhirr was all right with that.

In a letter written in a moment of desperation, Captain MacWhirr finally opens up to someone in the story. He confides his fears with his “darling wife” (67), but she is so self-absorbed that she doesn’t even fully read the letter. “She stifled a yawn” while “she reclined in a plush-bottomed and gilt hammock-chair” (67). “She couldn’t be really expected to understand all these ship affairs” even if it was those very affairs that gave her the trappings amongst which she had grown so comfortable (68). Captain MacWhirr had provided well for his family with his “good salary” (68). Upon his mentioning his desire to come home to his family, his wife’s immediate concern is not for her husband and what motivations have driven him to this but for the potential for financial decline. “It did not occur to her to turn back overleaf and look” at what tragedy her stoic husband had avoided and the obvious change it had created within the man (68). Once again, the narrator uses the phrase “did not occur” to suggest that it certainly occurred to Mrs MacWhirr, but she was simply too uncaring and selfish to waste any more time on something so “completely uninteresting” (67). Even the captain’s daughter “expressed a wandering indifference” toward the letter from her father (69). She seemed preoccupied with her lost ribbon and shopping the sales with her mother. His son, Tom, was “utterly indifferent” toward his estranged father (11).  A man that could “do the work” was once again unappreciated, although this seems to be through little fault of his own.

Jukes, the first mate, has problems with the pragmatic thought processes of his captain. Captain MacWhirr frustrates the young man with his lack of creativity, even in speech. When Jukes comments on the queer nature of the Siam flag, MacWhirr is quick to check the book to ensure that there is nothing amiss. He remarks that he was certain the people on the shore “would know how to make the local flag” (8). Of course, Jukes doesn’t mean that he thinks there is anything wrong with the dimensions of insignia of the flag, but that a flag with an elephant in the center was not the norm.  When Jukes makes reference to feeling as if his head where in a woolen sack, the captain asks, “you ever had your head tied up in a blanket?” (18). MacWhirr’s honesty is likened to “a lump of clay” (13), but it is unfair to assume that honesty creates an idiot. I find it to be quite the opposite since “every ship Captain MacWhirr commanded was the floating abode of harmony and peace” (4).

Contrary to our classroom discussions, I do not think that Captain MacWhirr was a bumbling idiot who somehow managed to bang his way through the typhoon. “He knew it existed, as we know that crime and abominations exist” (14), but “he was not flustered” (27).  The captain understood what the falling barometer meant in as much as any man can predict the weather, but he did not panic in the face of the gale. MacWhirr “always” knew the Nan-Shan would make it out all right (43). “Omens were as nothing to him” (5) “because facts can speak for themselves with overwhelming precision” (7). Captain MacWhirr stood tall, and his determination was rewarded. “The hurricane, with its power to madden the seas, to sink ships, to uproot trees, to overturn strong walls and dash the very birds of the air to the ground, had found this taciturn man in its path” (65).

Any man can hold solid, especially given that he has little other choice; however, Captain MacWhirr does not panic in the midst of the raging storm. In fact, he shows us his wisdom in the insanity. While others are struggling to simply survive, MacWhirr is already plotting on how he can “do what’s fair by them” (59). His insightful solution to the problem with the coolie’s money is the frame that allows the picture I have painted to really shine. No simpleton could have contrived such a plan given the circumstances in which it was created. I think there is a distinct irony in the final comment of the story, “I think that he got out of it very well for a such a stupid man” (74). “Don’t you be put out by anything. Keep her facing it. They may say what they like, but the heaviest seas run with the wind. Facing it — always facing it — that’s the way to get through. You are a young sailor. Face it. That’s enough for any man” (64).


Posted by on November 12, 2013 in From the Desk of the Author


Tags: , , , , , ,

3 responses to “Textual Analysis of Typhoon by Joseph Conrad

  1. christinehaggerty

    November 22, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    Oooh, the days of citation. Solid character analysis, Len.

  2. Colin

    January 1, 2016 at 12:51 am

    great analysis but wish you had spoken more about the coolies

    • Len

      January 4, 2016 at 2:23 pm

      The Coolies were very interesting but did not fit so well with the direction I was going. Thank you for reading.


Leave your mark

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


Illustrator, Childen's writer, New Yorker


Blog of artist Dean Scheppel

Inside the Shadowbox

Rolling the dice. Writing the words. Pushing the buttons. Eating the bacon. Smiling and waving.


One Writer's Journey

Lost Rebel Archives

The experiments of a hopeful writer.

2 Warps to Neptune

Surveying the Gen X landscape and the origins of geek

thewindedninja's Blog

A fine site

2... 1... Liftoff!

Don't worry, we're mostly harmless...

3.5 till I die

know your roll

Red Ragged Fiend

Adventures in Tabletop

Sheryl WInters

Simple Things

moleskin adventures

adventures in a moleskin notebook

Idle Thoughts and Fevered Dreams

My head is full of words...

Words & Worlds by Mauricio Buitrago

Fantasy & Sci-Fi Flash Fiction

FOTS Fantasy

Fragments of a vast new world, the writing journey, and book reviews.

The Eternal Noob

Fear me, he who fails at most endeavours in a flashy and horrifying manner!


Overanalyzer, Ninja Squirrel Wrangler, Urban Fantasy Author

33 Grams of Blog

Procrastinating, Kingdom Saving, and all other forms of Geekdom

Disperser Tracks

Photography, Fiction, Travel, and Opinions.

Scraps of Madness

Poetry, stories, role-playing, and ramblings.


Writings and musings of a badger.

Friendly Fairy Tales

Celebrating Nature and Magic for Kids of all Ages


All about gaming, from video to D&D (and other RPGS) to board games.

The sci-fi, fantasy, gaming, reading, writing blog of Jacob and H.P. Holo


This is Not the Story of a Hero.

Storyteller Davis

Creating magic on the page and in the world

Legendary Post

Stories... Art... Life

Everything and Nothing; My Journeys

The things that make the world go round

Bernie Hands

An exercise in narcissism


Welcome to my corner of the World...

August Life

Tech, Art, Music, and Books, that's life.

%d bloggers like this: