Mutiny on the Bounty

by James Norman Hall, Charles Nordhoff

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1046

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 contrast to the appeal of the exotic—more immediate and understandable to modern readers. This perspective also helps modern readers understand the novel’s sequels. Byam is a sympathetic eyewitness to history: He is idealistic, well spoken, ambitious, and likeable, and as someone easy to identify with, he serves to involve the reader emotionally with the story.

Third, Byam provides the authors an opportunity to present their own answers to the overriding questions posed by the events themselves. Was Captain Bligh as brutal as portrayed, and was Fletcher Christian truly justified in leading a mutiny? The simple answer to both questions is, probably not. Records reveal that flogging was practiced less often on the Bounty than on other British ships of the day. Likewise, there is no concrete evidence that Bligh used his position to benefit himself financially, and it is unlikely that the real Bligh—an educated, highly experienced, and certainly a blunt, sharp-tongued individual—whose distinguished naval career spanned more than fifty years, would have risen to the position of vice admiral if his leadership qualities did not outweigh his flaws. By...

(This entire section contains 1046 words.)

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contrast, though Christian seems noble, subsequent events show him to be inconsistent in his actions, a characteristic that detracts from his abilities as a leader.

Because Byam has transparent attitudes toward his shipmates and because he is drawn with preconceived notions of guilt and innocence, he is not necessarily a reliable narrator. He reflects the authors’ prevailing attitudes about the living, breathing persons who actually existed. Paradoxically, though a fictional creation, Byam is the most fully rounded and believable of all the characters in the novel. Captain Bligh is a one-dimensional, though memorable creation. Christian, presented as a courageous man of principle, is shown to have apparently initiated the mutiny for reasons of wounded pride rather than for compassion for his beleaguered shipmates. When Christian assumes command of the ship he becomes as autocratic as Bligh, illustrating a sad truth that revolutions often only replace one form of tyranny with another. The impetus for the voyage—to procure a cheap source of food for slaves—is never questioned by any of the characters. Slavery, of various forms, is a recurring theme in the novel: in the onboard relationships between officers and crew, in the hierarchy of Tahitian society, and, more subtly, in the class structure of British culture itself.

Whatever its weaknesses as an accurate depiction of history, Mutiny on the Bounty is excellent fiction, one of the most popular sea stories ever written. It is a contest of wills between the domineering protagonist, Captain Bligh, and his antagonist, the proud, headstrong aristocrat Christian. The novel can ultimately be reduced to a collision between the principles and temperaments of two unyielding men against the backdrop of the primeval forces of nature and to the consequences of their actions. The story of the mutiny is so dramatic and so colorful that it has served as the basis for several motion pictures, beginning in 1916, with others, the first in 1935, drawing upon the novel.

Nordhoff and Hall capitalized on the popularity of Mutiny on the Bounty by producing two subsequent novels, completing the Bounty trilogy. The first sequel, Men Against the Sea (1934), follows a similar structure as Mutiny on the Bounty by presenting information through a first-person narrator. The story tracks Bligh and his companions as they courageously battle the elements in voyaging thousands of miles toward salvation in a small boat. The second sequel, Pitcairn’s Island (1934), which is written in the third-person, traces the violent struggles of Christian and his English and Polynesian cohorts to establish a safe haven on a remote Pacific outpost, Pitcairn Island. Descendants of the real mutineers still eke out an existence on this island.