The brisk narrative focuses on the maturing of 15-year-old Harvey Cheyne, the only son of an American business tycoon. Through Harvey’s encounter with raw nature, hard work, and ordinary men, the once pampered youth learns the meaning of the American dream and prepares himself to pursue it.
Rescued from the sea by New England fishermen, Harvey at first finds life difficult aboard the schooner called We’re Here. The captain refuses to believe Harvey’s stories of wealth, so he puts the uninvited guest to work to earn his keep. For a time Harvey resists, but soon he discovers the joy of physical labor, the outdoors, masculine companionship, and even hardship. During the next few months, every misfortune imaginable at sea strikes the crew aboard the We’re Here.
Yet they survive and land safely at their home port in Gloucester where Harvey’s true identity is revealed. Here Harvey faces new trials as he attempts to reconcile his former life with the knowledge he has gained through the forced passage into manhood while aboard the schooner.
Although on one level a sea adventure with a happy ending, the novel also reflects lasting American values. Through his adventures, Harvey learns to respect hard work, forthrightness, and social equality. And he gains self-reliance, pride in a job well done, and a spirit of adventure. He has thus prepared himself to take his place in the unfolding American drama.
As the title suggests, there are two “captains courageous": the captain of the We’re Here and Harvey’s father. The first captain is an ordinary sort who makes an honest living through physical labor. The second captain is an entrepreneur whose vision takes in all of America’s potential. As Harvey learns, a successful man incorporates the diverse qualities of the two captains who have molded him.
Gross, John, ed. Rudyard Kipling: The Man, His Work, and His World. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1972. Presents interesting background on Captains Courageous based on earlier materials and sketches that Kipling developed in the book. Argues that different sections of the novel fail to mesh.
Kipling, Rudyard. Something of Myself: For My Friends Known and Unknown. 3d ed. New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1937. Fascinating autobiography that provides insight into Kip-ling’s detailed preparations for writing, which included his having boarded ships, prepared fish, and analyzed fishing charts and railway timetables.
Mason, Philip. Kipling: The Glass, the Shadow, and the Fire. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. Studies Kipling’s development as a man and an artist. Argues that the plot and characters are weak but praises the atmospheric portrayal of the fisherman’s world on the ship, where hard physical work is in conflict with the natural power of the seas.
Moss, Robert. Rudyard Kipling and the Fiction of Adolescence. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. Good introduction discussing thematic contrast between the crew of We’re Here, whose codes of behavior and values are based on years of tradition, and the self-centered world of Harvey and the new industrial age represented by his father. Concludes that Kipling admires values in both but finds the former more sympathetic.
Shahane, Vasant. Rudyard Kipling: Activist and Artist. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973. Excellent introductory study. Argues that the novel breaks traditional form and excels in observation and descriptive detail, which sweep the reader into the world of the sea, a microcosm of the larger world. Also analyzes Kipling’s treatment of character, theme, and setting.