Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 973
The protagonist of Joseph Conrad’s narrative of a typhoon in the China Seas is Captain Tom MacWhirr. Recommended by the builders of the Nan-Shan to Sigg and Sons, who want a competent and dependable master for their vessel, MacWhirr is gruff, empirical, without imagination. Although his reputation as a mariner is impeccable, his manner does not inspire confidence; yet, when he is first shown around the Nan-Shan by the builders, he immediately notes that its locks are poorly made.
Young Mr. Jukes, MacWhirr’s first mate, full of himself, curious about others, always rushing off to meet trouble before it comes, is satiric concerning MacWhirr’s limitations, especially his literal-mindedness, his inability to communicate with others in ordinary terms, and his taciturnity. For his part, MacWhirr is amazed at Jukes’s capacity for small talk and his use of metaphorical language, for MacWhirr himself notes only the facts by which he lives. However, he is astute enough to respect in others the ability to perform their tasks ably. Having just enough imagination to carry him through each day, tranquilly certain of his competence—although it has never been fully tested—MacWhirr communicates the essential details of his voyages to his wife and children in monthly letters that they read perfunctorily. These same letters are furtively and eagerly read by the steward, who, somehow, appreciates the truths that they distill.
A minor contretemps between Jukes and the captain occurs early in the narrative when, Jukes believes, MacWhirr fails to understand the implications of the Nan-Shan’s transfer from its original British to a Siamese registry. MacWhirr reads Jukes’s displeasure at the change as a literal comment on the size and shape of the Siamese flag. He checks its dimensions, colors, and insignia in his naval guide and then tells Jukes that it is correct in every way. Jukes, nevertheless, continues to feel resentment against MacWhirr and the flag’s Siamese elephant on a blue ground, lamenting the loss of the red, white, and blue of the Union Jack, symbol of security and order. Another minor disagreement concerns MacWhirr’s and Jukes’s differing opinions over the boatswain: Jukes dislikes the man for his lack of initiative and for a good nature that he thinks amounts almost to imbecility; MacWhirr respects him as a first-rate seaman who performs his tasks without grumbling.
The other members of the Nan-Shan crew are Solomon Rout, the chief engineer, who writes colorful and entertaining accounts of his voyages to his wife and aged mother; the second mate, who finds that he cannot function during the typhoon and is later dismissed for his failure of nerve; and the steward. MacWhirr and his crew are responsible for two hundred Chinese passengers, who, with their belongings and the silver dollars they have saved during the years that they have worked in the tropics, are returning home.
As MacWhirr and Jukes notice the rapidly falling barometer that portends the typhoon ahead, they react characteristically to the “fact” of the coming storm. Jukes is amazed at, yet respectful of, MacWhirr’s decision to meet the weather head-on rather than to sail behind or around it. MacWhirr consults the textbooks; he then concludes that one Captain Wilson’s account of a “storm strategy” cannot be credited because Wilson could not testify to the activities of a storm he had not experienced. “Let it come, then,” says MacWhirr with “dignified indignation.”
The gale arrives, in ever-increasing ferocity, attacking the Nan-Shan , the crew, and the passengers “like a personal enemy.” At one point, as the storm nears its apex, the boatswain makes his way to the bridge to tell MacWhirr of the chaos that the pounding waves...
(The entire section contains 973 words.)
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