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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 346

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Captain Courageous, Kipling's only American novel, is about the way in which its protagonist, a 15-year-old indulged boy named Harvey Cheyne, turns into what the author considers a real American boy: one who is hardworking, humble, and tolerant. Harvey is emblematic of what Kipling saw as the true American character.

It is significant that at the beginning of the book, Harvey is on a steamer bound for Europe. His direction on the sea is symbolic, as is his near drowning and his rescue at the hands of a Grand Banks fisherman named Disko Troop and his Portuguese crew member, Manuel. Harvey has become effete and spoiled (and far too influenced by European tendencies) in the hands of his rich and indulgent parents, but hard work on board the schooner We're Here strips Harvey of his arrogance and laziness.

Disko and Manuel serve as kind of replacement fathers for Harvey as he learns the ways of the sea. In one telling passage, Harvey says the following:

"'I'm, I'm ever so grateful,' Harvey stammered, and his unfortunate hand stole to his pocket once more, but he remembered that he had no money to offer. When he knew Manuel better the mere thought of the mistake he might have made would cover him with hot, uneasy blushes in his bunk."

Harvey tries to pay Manuel for saving him. Harvey at first relies on his money to make connections to others and to keep them subordinate to him. Over time, however, and with the guidance of his new father figures and his new brother figure, Dan (the captain's son), he learns how to work hard and how to relate to others, even if they are not his social equals, with respect. In this sense, he begins to relate to others with a sense of American democracy. The sea is a leveling force in this novel, and the novel is the story of an American boy's maturation into a diligent, hardworking, and tolerant character through his experiences on the sea. These are the qualities that Kipling saw as quintessentially American.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 304

Grand Banks

Grand Banks. North Atlantic Ocean region off the coast of Newfoundland that is the novel’s primary setting. Once the richest fishing area in the world, the 150,000-square-mile region mixes the frigid waters of the Labrador Current from the north with the warm waters of the Gulf Stream from the south. The mixture fosters a heavy plankton growth that makes it an ideal habitat for the fish such as cod, haddock, herring, and mackerel that Kipling’s schooner catches. At the time Kipling wrote, thousands of schooners from New England and Canadian ports annually converged on the Grand Banks, creating what Harvey calls in the novel a city on the sea. The southern part of the Grand Banks straddled the late nineteenth century shipping lane between Europe and North America, making plausible the premise of the novel’s plot. Indeed, collisions and close calls among ocean liners and fishing schooners were a common occurrence.

We’re Here

We’re Here. Gloucester, Massachusetts, fishing schooner that rescues Harvey and transforms him into a seaman. Much of the novel’s action occurs within the cramped quarters of the boat. Built for both speed and cargo-carrying capacity, the We’re Here leaves little space for its crew’s living quarters. When Harvey first boards the boat, its hold is almost empty. Three months later, when it returns to Gloucester, it may hold as much as 150 tons of salted fish. The schooner’s deck is equally crowded with fishing dories, tackle, and other paraphernalia. Harvey’s world is thus suddenly transformed from spacious luxury to a few square feet of living space in which privacy is nonexistent. Although the boat’s captain maintains a well-disciplined and clean boat, the contrast between the boat and the fastidious upper-class milieu from which Harvey comes is wrenching to him.


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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.


Critical Essays