The Caine Mutiny Summary
by Herman Wouk

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The Caine Mutiny Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Wealthy and sheltered, Willie Keith graduates from Princeton. To avoid Army service, he enters the Navy Reserve Officers’ Training Program shortly after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. A spoiled adolescent, his distinctions are limited to amusing friends by playing piano and inventing clever ditties. Straying from his social reservation, he also begins an infatuation with May Wynn (born Marie Minotti), a hardworking nightclub singer and the daughter of immigrants. In the first of The Caine Mutiny’s six parts, Keith passes into the bizarre world of the Navy, war, and authority. During the next three years, the once callow Ensign Keith acquires the skills of his trade, learns self-reliance, acquiesces to cabals against his superior, becomes a party to a mutiny, and ultimately captains the final voyage of the U.S.S. Caine.

At the outset, however, Keith has difficulty comprehending that there is “a right way, a wrong way, and the Navy way.” Loaded with demerits for his blunders, unclear about the meaning of service or sacrifice, and close to expulsion, he survives his midshipman’s training at Columbia University only by mustering a surprising amount of inner determination. Expecting a soft billet thereafter, he is dismayed by his assignment to the Caine, a lowly, World War I-era destroyer that was converted to a minesweeper.

Keith’s first tour aboard the battle-scarred Caine is a study in mixed signals. Boarding ship as it is being refitted in San Francisco Bay, he meets the aspiring novelist-intellectual Tom Keefer, a communications officer and Keith’s superior officer. Keefer immediately defines himself as a sneering, acerbic critic of the Navy. Keith also meets Steve Maryk, soon to be the ship’s executive officer, who admires Captain De Vreiss. Having just adopted respect for Navy regulations, Keith, however, is appalled by De Vreiss’s lax discipline and slovenly shipkeeping, despite Maryk’s stress on De Vreiss’s superb seamanship and the respect he enjoys among the weary crew. Keith’s estimate of De Vreiss drops lower when Keith’s failure to deliver an important message to De Vreiss leads him to reprimand Keith. Upon transfer of command from De Vreiss to Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg, Keith therefore feels relieved and hopeful.

In his mid-thirties, Queeg, though physically unimpressive, is a Naval Academy graduate and a believer in strict adherence to regulations. Behind Queeg is fourteen years at sea and extended combat duty, so to the officers things look promising under their new captain.

Part 3 chronicles the growing estrangement between Queeg and his officers. As the Caine alternates in the Pacific between training exercises, routine convoy duty, and then Keith’s first combat during the Marianas invasion, her officers, led by Keefer, awaken to mounting evidence of Queeg’s indecision, ineptitude in shiphandling, personal quirkiness, and preoccupation with minor disciplinary matters.

A series of episodes casts doubt on Queeg’s fitness for command. Initially maneuvering his ship in harbor, he grazes another vessel and runs the Caine aground. Called to account by his superior, Queeg blames the accident on crewmen. Later, while the Caine conducts a target towing exercise, Queeg, busy reprimanding a seaman for a flapping shirttail, allows the Caine to turn full circle, sever a towline, and sink a valuable target. Again, Queeg puts blame elsewhere. Returning his ship to San Francisco for repairs, Queeg sequesters his officers’ liquor rations and illegally tries smuggling them ashore for himself. The liquor is lost overboard by a boat party in Keith’s charge, and Keith is blamed.

Worse is to come. Responsible for guiding landing craft to an invasion beachhead, Queeg, frightened, drops a yellow marker before the Caine reaches its designated turning point, abandoning troop-filled small craft under fire. Shortly afterward, he fails to aid another ship busy suppressing enemy artillery. Keith and others, in addition, observe Queeg’s habit of seeking the safest place on the bridge during combat. For a minor infraction, Queeg deprives the crew of water for days. Theft of a gallon of Queeg’s strawberries results in turning the Caine inside out in a fruitless search that continues even after the culprits are identified. Meanwhile, at Keefer’s urging, Maryk begins a record of Queeg’s behavior.

At last, convinced that Queeg is psychologically unbalanced, Maryk, citing Navy law and joined by Keith and others, relieves Queeg of command as the Caine threatens to founder in a typhoon. Subsequently charged with mutiny, Maryk (who accepts full responsibility), Keith, Keefer, and other officers are defended reluctantly by Lieutenant Barney Greenwald, an experienced lawyer. Greenwald, with ruthless brilliance, discredits the Navy’s psychological experts who testify to Queeg’s sanity and then leads Queeg to discredit himself thoroughly on the stand. Morally, however, it is a hollow victory. At the acquitted officers’ celebratory party, Greenwald denounces them, damning Keefer in particular as the real cause of the mutiny and the person responsible for making Greenwald ruin Queeg.

Justice is done in the novel’s final section. Queeg is reassigned to ignominious service as executive officer of a Navy depot in Kansas. Placed in command of the Caine, Keefer demonstrates cowardice when he leaps overboard, his manuscript in hand, after a Japanese kamikaze plane crashes into his ship. Keith, by then seasoned and commanding, becomes the last captain of the Caine, sailing her home to decommissioning and destruction, and, despite his mother’s doubts, to renewed romance with May.


(Novels for Students)

The Caine Mutiny opens with a page torn from the book of Navy regulations outlining the articles that will become critical to the plot: the regulations describing the conditions that must be fulfilled in order for a captain to be relieved of his command.

Willie Keith
In a chapter appropriately titled Through the Looking Glass, the novel starts by introducing the reader to the protagonist of the novel, Willie Keith, from whose viewpoint the entire novel is told. Seeking a way to avoid being drafted into the infantry, Willie Keith—an educated, pianoplaying dilettante—is joining the U.S. Navy. His days in training are interspersed with a series of flashbacks that introduce us to his former life and to his girlfriend, an Italian-American singer called May Wynn. A rebellious type, Keith immediately gets into trouble, and faces expulsion throughout his training period. He eventually passes, and is assigned to the USS Caine.

The Caine
Keith arrives in San Francisco to report to his ship and amuses some military officers with his piano playing. To his horror, the Caine is a rusty vessel that seems on the verge of collapse, and Keith feels only contempt for it and his superior officer, Captain de Vriess. Keith hears that discipline on the ship is criminally lax and anticipates that the arrival of a new captain will mark a new order onboard the ship. After failing to decode an important message, Keith is given an unsatisfactory fitness report; his life is changed again when Captain Queeg arrives to take over as commander. Captain Queeg
Queeg arrives early. His habit of rolling steel ball bearings in his palms contributes to the growing belief of his men that something is not quite right. The first time the Caine sets sail, he runs the ship aground and then fails to report the incident. The dangers of his obsessive need for discipline become clear when the ship fails a training exercise and loses expensive Navy equipment because Queeg is lecturing a sailor about his untucked shirt. When the crew is granted shore leave, Queeg browbeats the other officers into giving him their alcohol rations and illegally hoards liquor. Keith finds May and his mother waiting for him in San Francisco and introduces his girlfriend by her given name, Marie Minotti.

Shore Leave
Willie, confused by his feelings after having sex with May for the first time, proposes to her, but she turns him down. He confides his feelings for May to his mother and she suggests he should look for someone of "their sort." Onboard the ship, Maryk is made Executive Officer, and Stilwell, desperate to see his wife, goes AWOL.

The Mutiny
Queeg's behavior grows stranger and even cowardly, and the officers are increasingly disenchanted. Maryk refuses to allow their critical talk whenever he is present. Unknown to everyone else, Maryk records Queeg's aberrant behavior as he believes that Queeg is paranoid and psychotic. Tension escalates when Queeg places a ban on water usage and a container of strawberries is eaten anonymously. Queeg conducts a bizarre search for the culprit. After encouraging Maryk in his concerns about Queeg, Keefer refuses to back him up when Maryk wants to take their concerns to the Admiral.

A typhoon hits. With the ship in bad shape, Maryk decides that the Captain's orders are leading them into certain death, and he takes control of the bridge. He formally relieves Queeg of his authority, supported by Keith and Stilwell, and the section closes with Maryk guiding them all to safety.

The Court-Martial
It is months later, and lawyers for Maryk's defense are being assigned. The only man who will take the case, albeit reluctantly, is Barney Greenwald. After meeting Maryk, Greenwald realizes that Keefer orchestrated the entire situation. The court martial of Maryk begins. Greenwald's strategy is to show that Maryk was justified in his opinion that Queeg had become unfit for duty. To prove this, however, the defense must chronicle Queeg's failures and bizarre behavior in court—a highly controversial strategy. Keefer sells Maryk out a second time, omitting his role in the affair. Against frequent objections from the court, Greenwald brings to light Queeg's illegal acts and wrongheaded decisions, allowing the man to incriminate himself on the stand with a show of his personality collapse under stress. Maryk is acquitted.

A party is thrown to celebrate Keefer's publishing contract and Maryk's acquittal. Greenwald dramatically accuses Keefer of setting the mutiny in motion, tells Maryk that his actions were unjustified, and says that Queeg was in fact the hero— a man who devoted his life to protecting the country and who cracked under the unbearable pressure of the situation.

The Last Captain of the Caine
Onboard the Caine, Keefer has been made captain, and Keith is second in command. During a kamikaze attack, Captain Keefer jumps ship while Keith heroically battles to save it. Keefer is forced to admit to himself that he is no better than Queeg. Shaken by his experience, Keith writes to May asking her to marry him. The war ends, and Keefer is demoted, leaving Keith to become the last captain of the Caine. He and the crew sail back to America, where he is met again by his mother. He has still not heard from May. He tracks her down and finds that she is going by her real name, has bleached her hair, is involved with another man, and doesn't want him in her life anymore. In the final scene, Keith stands in the drifting confetti of the Navy parade, vowing to himself that he will win her back.