Captain Horatio Hornblower

by Cecil Lewis Troughton Smith
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 774

C. S. Forester’s Captain Horatio Hornblower, composed of three short novels—Beat to Quarters (1937), Ship of the Line (1938), and Flying Colours(1938)—falls in the middle of a series that begins with the intrepid officer’s sea apprenticeship and concludes with Commodore Hornblower (1945), Lord Hornblower (1946), and Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies (1958). For its broad scope and sustained vigor, the whole series has appropriately been described as a modern saga. While Forester’s Hornblower stories lack the philosophical and moral dimension of the sea fiction of Joseph Conrad, Richard Henry Dana, and Herman Melville, they certainly are the equal of sea-adventure novels by Captain Frederick Marryat or James Fenimore Cooper. Forester’s novels combine meticulous historical reconstruction with a flair for storytelling. In 1932, he began writing screenplays for Hollywood. Unlike many other distinguished novelists who either failed or were only moderately successful in adapting their skills to this medium, Forester excelled as a scriptwriter and thereby learned how to use certain cinematic techniques in his fiction. Lively and fast-paced, the Hornblower stories, in which each scene builds to a climax, are easy to visualize. They are also based on historical information. The celebrated battle scenes bristle with sharp, concrete details that capture the excitement of the moment, and in Forester’s descriptions of English manners, customs, and topical interests during the early nineteenth century, the robust age comes alive.

A realist, Forester does not gloss over the unpleasant truths about warfare at sea or the rigors of nautical life. Early in Captain Horatio Hornblower, readers learn that Hankey, the previous surgeon attached to HMS Lydia, died of the complications of drink and syphilis. Hornblower must perform several grisly operations on his wounded men. After one battle in Beat to Quarters, he cuts out a great splinter of wood lodged in a seaman’s chest. Forester does not spare his readers the terrible details of Hornblower’s crude operation, in which he uses no anesthetic. In Flying Colours, Hornblower must relieve the gangrenous pressure on the stump of his friend Bush’s amputated leg. Applying cold vinegar to the stump to reduce the inflammation, he opens, cleans, and then sews up the victim’s wound. Many such similar scenes of grim realism impart a sense of truth to the plots. In Beat to Quarters, Hornblower sees a man horribly tortured by the cruel El Supremo for no reason but that the man is judged “one of the unenlightened.” Hornblower also witnesses the aftermath of battle: “dirty bodies with blood and pus and vomit.” Forester creates realistic touches not only in the stark scenes of battle but also in the smallest details. He describes how ships are loaded with provisions, how the officers and crew function in a hierarchy of responsibilities, and how the ships operate in calm or storm. At one point, Hornblower’s friend Gailbraith describes a poem that he admires, “The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” whose author is “an Edinburgh lawyer.” Instead of identifying the author as Sir Walter Scott, Forester thus creates a sense of contemporaneity, for at the time of the action, Scott was not yet famous and might easily have been known primarily as a lawyer who dabbled in poetry.

In his characterization of Horatio Hornblower, Forester provides sharp, realistic details that make his hero seem human. Although he is high-minded, courageous, and capable, Hornblower is not without frailties. He is vain, sometimes squeamish, and—strange to say—naturally indolent. Near the beginning of Beat to Quarters, Hornblower views himself critically in a mirror, noting all of his physical liabilities as well as his strengths. He does not like his “rounded belly” and fears that he is growing bald. Several times in the book he reflects unhappily on his receding hairline. For a hero, he has a weak stomach for scenes of squalor or bloodshed. He must be shamed by Lady Barbara Wellesley before he allows her to dress the wounds of the injured. Furthermore, he is, by his own admission, lazy. After a battle involving the Lydia, Hornblower retires to his hammock to sleep. Although he feels “a prick of shame” that the other officers and men have to clean up the bodies and wreckage, he confesses to his physical limitations. Again, in Flying Colours, he wishes “to be idle and lazy.” When his gentle wife, Maria, dies, he is plunged into grief; when he holds his child in his arms, he feels paternal elation; and when he courts Lady Barbara, he is an ardent yet awkward lover. Forester humanizes Hornblower, making him a man as well as a hero and thus a hero worthy of his victories.

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