Analysis

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Last Updated on May 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 761

Meant for young readers, “The Ship That Found Herself” utilizes conventions of allegory, the nautical story, and anthropomorphic tales to propel its narrative. The difference here is that unlike other well-known stories for young readers that use anthropomorphic elements, such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Kipling’s story imbues human characteristics into machine parts. It is often assumed that children’s literature uses anthropomorphism through talking animals, plants, and natural elements; however, anthropomorphic machines were a frequently used convention in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Kipling, in particular, used the convention well, such as in his poem “The Secret of the Machines.” Through imbuing machines and their small parts with human qualities, Kipling celebrates the power of human ingenuity and artifice, as well as the value of work.

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Combining the nautical tale with allegory, Kipling uses the Dimbula as a metaphor for the human condition. The Dimbula’s journey symbolizes the journey of life itself or a rite of passage from unknowing innocence to seasoned wisdom. A ship on troubled waters is a well-mined metaphor for life under duress; however, Kipling adds an extra layer to the convention by exploring the inner workings of the ship. By humanizing each part of the ship and describing its function, Kipling offers not only a metaphor for a perilous journey, but also a metaphor for exactly how such a journey can be transforming.

Along with literary devices such as personification, such as when the steam, foremast, engines, and other parts are personified, the story’s language is also rich with literary puns. The collared thrust block, for instance, accuses the screw of making it “hot under the collars,” a statement which is literally true and also implies that the screw is bothering the thrust block. Through the vivid language, each ship’s part mentioned assumes a distinct personality and voice, such as the pompous Prince Hyde valve, the rough-sounding iron pillars, and the paternal Steam. Again, the polyphony of voices is both literal and metaphorical. Not only do the parts actually sound different, they also have different roles to perform in the working of the ship:

If you lay your ear to the side of the cabin, the next time you are in a steamer, you will hear hundreds of little voices in every direction, thrilling and buzzing, and whispering and popping, and gurgling and sobbing and squeaking exactly like a telephone in a thunder-storm.

Kipling animates his action-packed sea tale through the generous use of verbs, such as “hammered,” “punched,” “bobbed,” and so on, as well as nautical terms like “capstan” and “deck-beams.” The nature and descriptions of the ship’s parts by and large accurately represent their real nature as well. For example, cast iron is said to "say very little," which reflects the material’s unbending nature. True to the description, the cast iron pillars of the hold are far less loquacious than the more flexible and clattering steel plates. The rivets are said to never “chatter,” because they lack teeth. Thus, through the use of imagery which is both technically accurate and allegorical, Kipling immerses the reader in the world of the Dimbula and the sea. The celebration of the ship’s structure and inner workings is emblematic of the time period, when the steamship and other mechanical inventions, from the railroad to the sewing machine, were much lauded. Also relevant to the era are the names of the vessels mentioned: the Paris refers to the actual vessel The City of Paris, while the Tourmaine, too, was a real ship. The name Dimbula itself appears to be an invention of Kipling’s, though it has been suggested that Kipling borrowed the ship’s name from that of a village in Sri Lanka. The name carries undertones of a spirit of adventure made possible by international travel and global trade.

Ships with engines powered by steam first started to be used in the 1800s and revolutionized international trade like never before. Since steamships were less dependent on wind power, could cover greater distances in less time, and were able to carry heavy cargo, the use of steam power greatly aided Britain’s imperialist and commercial enterprise. At the time “The Ship That Found Herself” was published, in 1895, steamships were in their heyday. The enormous Titanic would set sail for its maiden and last voyage in 1912, less than two decades later. Steamships ruled the oceans well into the twentieth century, until the diesel engine, better at conserving heat, elbowed them out soon after World War II.

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Characters