"The Ship That Found Herself" Themes

The main themes in “The Ship That Found Herself” are the importance of teamwork, self-discovery, and the wonder of machinery.

  • The importance of teamwork: Much like people faced with a crisis or challenge, the separate parts of the Dimbula can only weather the stormy seas by working together.
  • Self-discovery: On its journey across the ocean, the ship learns and grows from its experiences, eventually realizing its true nature and achieving a sense of wholeness.
  • The wonder of machinery: Kipling’s story reflects a contemporary fascination with new, steam-powered technologies and acts as a celebration of human inventiveness.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1071

The Importance of Teamwork

The journey of the Dimbula can be read as an allegory for overcoming a shared crisis. Just like rough seas and pelting rain test the Dimbula, sometimes crises confront a group, a town, or even the entire globe. The text suggests that the best way to face these crises is by working in harmony. However, working in harmony does not equate to working alike. Just as each part of the Dimbula discovers that it has a specific function to perform, teamwork involves recognizing one’s own strength and that of others. At the beginning of the Dimbula’s journey, each part insists that its way of existing is the right way: the side frames want to expand because “expansion is the way of life,” while the engines insist on “absolute, unvarying rigidity.” It is only when the seas test the parts that they begin to understand that they can coexist in difference.

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Further, the text makes the subtler point that the best teamwork involves discovery, rather than negation, of individual uniqueness. If the parts of the Dimbula imitate each other, the ship will sink. It is only when they find their own strengths that they begin to work better in tandem. Often the parts also discover that they are more capable than they thought: the garboard strake finds it can give a little despite its strength, and the rivets find they can move a little without compromising their hold. Thus, good teamwork also requires people to challenge themselves in unexpected ways. Finally, teamwork requires the implicit understanding that strain lessens when it is shared, just like when the Steam tells the rivets to share their load, as “no one rivet” alone was meant to stand the pressure of the sea.

Self-Discovery

When Miss Frazier calls the Dimbula a real ship at the beginning of the story, the captain gently replies that though the vessel may have the form of a ship, it has yet to “find” itself. The captain’s observation reflects one of the story’s most prominent themes: the idea of self-discovery. The text suggests that such a discovery is possible only through practice, work, and facing challenges. At the start of its voyage, the Dimbula is like a child, unaware of its own strength and potential. It may have shining new parts and a fresh coat of paint, but it does not know what to do with these parts. Buffeted by wind and sea, the parts begin to wake up and talk but are not yet aware of their larger purpose, “bound down one to the other in a black darkness.” It is experience which increases the awareness of the parts. In this context, the Steam acts as the ship’s innate wisdom or gut instinct, guiding it toward finding its voice. Like the Dimbula, an individual needs to work hard and face challenges before discovering their true self and purpose.

As the plot progresses, the cacophony of the parts begins to ease and is gradually replaced by their declarations of pride. Like a child or teenager taking joy in discovering their capabilities, the ship’s parts experience delight in achieving what they believe is a feat “without parallel in the history of marine architecture.” Here the ship’s parts echo the voice of adolescence and youth. However, to fully discover their purpose, the parts need the tempering hand of wisdom. It is only when they successfully complete their journey and the Dimbula is docked in quarantine that the Captain’s prophecy for the ship comes true. The parts fall silent, and for the first time in the story, the Dimbula speaks as itself.

I am the Dimbula, of course. I’ve never been anything else except that—and a fool!

The Dimbula’s cryptic statement that it has been “a fool” is significant in the context of self-discovery. So far, the ship has only thought and expressed itself through its parts, just as a human being thinks they are their intellect, talent, physical strength. However, experience has woken up the Dimbula to itself and made it realize that it is more than its parts—it is an entity with a “soul.” The idea of the soul does not necessarily have religious connotations here; rather, the text suggests it means a sort of self-awareness. Although the narrative voice earlier remarked that the conversation of the ship’s parts was not as wise as “our human talk,” the Dimbula’s assertion disproves that observation. With experience and self-knowledge, the Dimbula is now as wise as any seasoned individual or vessel.

The Wonder of Machinery

One of the subtler themes of the story is a celebration of machines, as well as the human spirit of invention and adventure. “The Ship That Found Herself" was published in 1895, when machines were familiar but could still evoke a sense of wonder. Further, advances in steamship technology, such as the triple expansion engine mentioned in Kipling’s story, were much lauded for furthering Britain’s commercial and imperialist enterprise. “The Ship That Found Herself” reflects some of the time’s enthusiasm for mechanical invention, but it also goes further in narrowing the dichotomy between nature and machines. Mechanical parts are imbued with human personalities and character and need to learn in tandem with the forces of wind and water to find themselves. Significantly, the steam that powers the ship establishes that it is the same steam which is found in clouds and which rises from puddles. Thus, humans, nature, and machines exist in a continuum rather than in opposition to each other.

The story also celebrates the nitty-gritty aspects of work, which are commonly ignored. In that sense, it also sympathizes with the workers performing the work. The ship’s parts can be read as stand-ins for the laborers and sailors who steer vehicles. Ship’s parts from rivets to stringers to foremast are mentioned and given personalities, honoring the importance of every kind of work and worker on the ship. Thus, the story celebrates the human traits of hard work through machines. Machines are both symbols and expressions of human ingenuity, as much as books or art. Kipling’s story is thus striking in shedding light on labor that is often overlooked as drudge work. Finally, machines are not the enemy in the universe of the story; science, mechanics, and nature must advance together for the world to flourish.

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