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).