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 have caused in the hold where the coolies are billeted. The storm has buffeted those below with the same vehemence it has hit those above the decks: to the brink of dissolution. The Chinese and their unsecured silver dollars have been hurled against the stairs and the bulkheads by the savage waves. MacWhirr tells Jukes to see to the confusion below and to return to the bridge as soon as he can, for it may be necessary for him to assume command of the ship. Afraid, Jukes makes his way belowdecks. During the lull, as the Nan-Shan finds the eye of the storm, he and the boatswain rig lifelines and secure the hold. It is, however, only when he hears MacWhirr’s voice through the speaking tube, with which the captain communicates with Solomon Rout and the engine room, that Jukes musters sufficient initiative to obey MacWhirr’s order and to secure the hold.
The turning point of the story occurs when MacWhirr, uncertain of the outcome of his decision to confront the storm, finds his matches in their accustomed place. “I shouldn’t like to lose her,” he says of the Nan-Shan as he gives in, momentarily, to the unaccustomed sensation of mental fatigue. Jukes, once he has settled the Chinese workmen, returns to the bridge and there experiences such self-confidence as to make him equal to the challenge of the storm—once the ship sails out of its eye—and to any future challenges as well.
Once the storm is over, the ship, grayed by salt and devastated by wind, sails into port with life restored, as much as possible, to normal order. The second mate, who had frozen on deck, is put off the ship. MacWhirr, the reader learns, has solved the problem of the Chinese and their money by dividing the silver dollars equally among them. The three dollars left over he has given to the three most seriously injured men.
The tale does not dramatize the second half of the storm. It concludes instead with an epilogue of sorts, during which the principal characters detail in written form their impressions of the typhoon.