One of the primary issues examined in Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall’s Mutiny on the Bounty is the passage of time. More than five decades elapse over the course of the novel, which is narrated in the first-person by Roger Byam, a midshipman on the Bounty. Seventy-three years old when the story is told, Byam refreshes his memory, which time has dimmed, via a daily journal he had kept when he was a callow youth in his impressionable teens. Another one hundred years elapsed between the period of Byam’s reminiscence and the date of the novel’s original publication. The images related in the novel remain as vivid, and the story remains as relevant, as if events of the novel occurred just yesterday.
Although the 1789 incidents upon which the story is based are real, and are supported with the facts of exhaustive research (some of which was ignored by Nordhoff and Hall for dramatic reasons), the character of Byam is a fabrication. The authors had several purposes in using a fictionalized participant to relate an essentially true story. First, in the time-honored literary tradition of tall sea stories, represented by such works as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s long poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) and Herman Melville’s 1851 classic, Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (also based on actual occurrences), Byam has survived an ordeal to which persons weaker in mind, body, or spirit would have succumbed and has lived to tell a cautionary tale.
Like all such stories, which have unfolded from the age of Homer, the ocean is an implacable presence, constantly testing the mettle of those who venture the sea. The deep, dark waters that cover three-quarters of the earth’s surface display incredible beauty and abundance; they also display unimaginable violence and terror. The unpredictable nature of large bodies of water is a force that can shape, reveal, or destroy the character of individuals: It also is a force that challenges the concept of the survival of the fittest at its most basic and elemental.
Second, Byam puts a human face on the long-ago events that led to mutiny. Such a character allows the authors, as in all historical novels, to invent dialogue that might have been spoken, to extrapolate from bald facts, to make educated suppositions, and to draw conclusions, about which the evidence is silent. A single, unified perspective makes the novel’s complex themes—law versus justice, the order of discipline as opposed to the chaos of freedom, the comfort of the familiar in...
(The entire section is 1046 words.)