Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Java Head is an indictment of the evils Hergesheimer sees in his own society, evils that he believes can be traced to changes that occurred in the previous century. Once, he suggests, people cherished honor, integrity, and independence. When they abandoned those values, as William does in Java Head, Americans doomed themselves and their descendants to meaningless lives.

The author illustrates this conflict between tradition and change, principle and profit, by dividing his major characters into two groups. For Jeremy and Gerrit, tradition and principle are both important. They disapprove of the new clipper ships as much as they do of opium. Taou Yuen, too, represents tradition and principle. Even though it would have made her life easier had she attempted to adopt American ways, Taou Yuen clings to old customs because they represent more profound values and reinforce her own integrity.

By contrast, William Ammidon welcomes change, hopes for profit, and refuses to let tradition or principle get in his way. Although William is not malicious like Edward, there are marked similarities between them. Both act in their own self-interest, ignoring the consequences to others; both are willing to conceal the truth in order to attain their goals; and both are involved with opium, which clearly symbolizes the poisonous effects of greed.

In Java Head, life at sea represents tradition and integrity; life on land, the new corruption. At sea, as in the early years of the Republic, the dangers are external. As Jeremy’s stories show, storms can usually be survived if one has skill, courage, a good ship, and a little luck. On land, however, hypocrisy reigns, as is evident when Taou Yuen attends church with the Ammidons and is politely made to feel like an outsider, unworthy to live in Salem.

While right and wrong are clearly differentiated in Java Head, there are also hints of determinism. Jeremy’s temper is so much a part of his nature that it is not clear he could control it, any more than Gerrit could become more perceptive, Taou Yuen less reserved, or Edward less malicious. Since Roger Brevard is one of the most civilized characters in the book and obviously one of the most sympathetic, it is significant that even he cannot take charge of his own life. The fact that his defeat ends the book suggests that Hergesheimer sees events as proceeding inevitably from flaws in character.