Themes and Meanings
Mister Roberts is a tragicomedy that relies more on character development to convey its major conflict and themes than it does on plot. The play delves into the universal conflict of good versus evil as the reluctant crew struggles not only with ennui but also with their contempt for the Captain, a self-absorbed man whose cruelty unifies, rather than separates, them. As they struggle, they discover the importance of self-sacrifice, a sense of humor, and the human face of heroism.
The need for self-sacrifice is given immediate importance in scene 1, when Roberts, an intelligent, sensitive, college-educated man who is idolized by the crew, makes a pact with the Captain. Roberts will sacrifice his dream of being transferred to a combat ship if the Captain will grant shore liberty for the crew. The Captain, a jealous, self-serving individual who is concerned only with getting a promotion and forcing Roberts to adopt a demeanor of respect toward him in front of the crew, agrees.
While the sacrifice seems to be insignificant, its effects are initially disastrous. The crew believes Roberts has broken faith with them. However, when the crew learns of Roberts’s sacrifice, they emulate his actions, sacrificing their careers and futures to get him transferred to a combat ship by writing letters to the Naval Command and forging the Captain’s signature.
The generosity of subordinating one’s own dreams for someone else’s good has a ripple effect on Ensign Pulver, the morale officer, who is an ingenious and humorous, but ineffectual, officer whose fear of the Captain curtails his activities. When Roberts is transferred, Pulver unwillingly inherits Roberts’s job. Yet, at the end of the play, learning of Roberts’s death, Pulver asserts himself in Roberts-like fashion, throws the Captain’s beloved palm trees overboard (an action Roberts took earlier in the play), and confronts the Captain. Pulver thus displays the noble impact of self-sacrifice in a simple but heroic manner.