Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 887
Captains Courageous was written in 1896 while Rudyard Kipling was living in the forests of Vermont. The period during which Great Britain’s poet laureate—who wrote during Britain’s imperial heyday when “the sun never set” on an empire stretching “from palm to pine”—wrote a sea story while living in the North American woods is a little known phase of the writer’s career. Kipling loved Vermont’s forests, especially during the colorful Indian summer season, and he also deeply appreciated the vital kinship between the United States and Great Britain. He equated such “captains courageous” of the Grand Banks as Disko Troop with the pioneers who journeyed into the American-Canadian West (Daniel Boone, George Vancouver, and Kit Carson as well as railroad magnates such as Mr. Cheyne) with Sir Francis Drake, Sir John Hawkins, Sir Martin Frobisher, Sir Walter Ralegh, Sir Philip Sidney, and other bold Elizabethan adventurers. He believed that the Elizabethan spirit of adventure and accomplishment survived in the modern fishing captains and railroad magnates and that they were blood brothers of the earlier Anglo-Saxon adventurers, displaying the same spirit of freedom, free enterprise, and bravery against odds.
Kipling lived for many years among Asian peoples, and he believed that people of his kind could never exist naturally and thus could never be more than a dissolving white drop in a colored ocean. Partly for that reason, Kipling experienced great relief to find himself in Vermont. It must, however, be conceded that in Captains Courageous Kipling reveals a certain typical respect for all sturdy breeds. The British poet implies that men and the civilizations they create need challenges, not security, and must maintain healthy folk instincts while rearing each generation of their own kind in hardiness. In Captains Courageous, the representatives of European, expansionist, seafaring races—British, French, German, Portuguese—who have braved the Grand Banks for centuries are favorably presented, as is the black cook. His nineteenth century racist belief in a white man’s burden notwithstanding, Kipling sometimes praised members of other races such as the tough Sudanese.
The novel stresses traditional virtues such as those of Horatio Alger. Harvey Cheyne learns practical skills and escapes emasculating luxury. He also learns the salutary value of hard work, sweat, and plain living, and he returns to nature and healthy simplicity by capturing his self-reliance amid the sheer beauty of the high seas. The physical environment of sea and shore is thus a character in the story, and it has been pointed out that Captains Courageous concerns the environment more than it does the protagonist. Even the theme of the boy’s conversion stems from environment, though it is also linked to individual will and hereditary character. The driving ambition of Harvey’s father, Mr. Cheyne, parallels Kipling’s eulogy of the redoubtable fishermen who brave cold storms and fogs off the Grand Banks to fish for cod in their small dories. A millionaire’s son becomes a man through enduring hardships on a fishing boat and through sharing the lot of toiling fishermen from Massachusetts, Canada, Germany, and Portugal.
The pith of Kipling’s story is found in Mr. Cheyne’s conversation with the redeemed young Harvey when the father relates the story of his life—how he had to toil for everything he earned, how he fought Indians and border ruffians before the West was tamed, how he encountered deadly struggles against odds, and how he built his railroad empire. He stresses the...
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