Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 577
Frederick Marryat wrote from experience, having been a captain in the British navy, and his book gives a fully detailed account of life aboard a war vessel, including vivid accounts of several battles at sea. Unlike many other stories about the British or American navy in the early nineteenth century, he did not charge the naval system of discipline with being too harsh. Rather, he tried to show that it developed the best that was in a man. Marryat thought poorly of the theories of equality that had been popularized in France during the French Revolution.
MR. MIDSHIPMAN EASY is an action-filled tale of adventure on the high seas, abounding with beliefs and assumptions from the conservative end of the spectrum of Victorian values. Captain Marryat’s most avid audience was the British schoolboy population, which imbibed certain notions of class, religion, and sexual roles along with the exciting fare of Jack Easy’s adventures.
MR. MIDSHIPMAN EASY is in many ways an antidemocratic tract. Marryat dramatizes his conservative stance by making the Royal Navy a microcosm of English society, which serves as the school where Jack grows to be both a man and a gentleman. Although born into the landed gentry class, Jack is nevertheless reared on the egalitarian principles of his father, Nicodemus Easy, whom the author makes into an absurd and imbecilic figure in order to ridicule his ideas. When the hero runs off to join the Navy, which he envisions as the haven of freedom and equality, his reeducation begins. He learns that in the Navy, as in society generally, men are ordained by birth as well as natural talent to occupy given positions within the social structure. Therefore, Wilson was meant to be a leader of other men, while Gascoigne, although he is a worthy and likeable fellow, will always be a midshipman; and Jack, who soon discovers and accepts the fact that his gentlemanly birth earns him certain privileges, inevitably distinguishes himself and rises to the top of the authority hierarchy, commanding his own ship.
Marryat generously allows some men of humble origins, such as Sawbridge, to rise in the system eventually by dint of their unflagging loyalty, perseverance, and competence; but he also provides object lessons against presumption and false expectations, such as the case of the midshipman who dies bitterly lamenting the fate that kept him from promotion. For the hero, the Navy is a stage in the growth process, a sort of preview glimpse of life before he comes into his full birthright; at the end of the novel, Jack realizes that his true place is at the Forest Hill estate keeping hounds and a full larder, hosting balls and banquets, and standing for Parliament.
In addition to his social outlook, Marryat’s religious biases are made manifestly clear as well. A strain of anti-Catholicism runs throughout the novel. Jack is nominally an Anglican—the English gentleman’s religion—but is independent, sensible, and freethinking in spirit. Marryat’s views on women are even more traditional. Women characters appear on less than a dozen pages in the entire novel, and when they do, it is in the form of one-dimensional and rather ludicrous stereotypes. Agnes Rebiera’s sole function in the plot, for example, is to provide romantic interest and a suitable mate for the hero. While the novel is interesting and lively, the author’s conservative stance and strong convictions will no doubt alienate many modern readers.
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