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The main characters are Captain MacWhirr, whose limited and literal-minded approach to his work provides the central focus of interest in the novel. Even Mac- Whirr's wife seems to resent MacWhirr and prefer his absence on long voyages. Jukes constantly finds MacWhirr tiresome and aggravating, but fortunately, Mac- Whirr is too much absorbed in his duties even to understand the degree of exasperation and contempt felt by Jukes and some of the others. MacWhirr is a courageous and heroic man in his own way, since he does acknowledge the possibility of Nan-Shan being lost in the storm, but perseveres anyhow; yet Conrad's narrative implies that much of his courage and the efficacy of his actions are due to Mac- Whirr's inability to understand the perils he faces. MacWhirr's capabilities are shown by the fact that he is not imaginative enough to change course and avoid the typhoon; but he is tenacious enough to handle the ship and its men as well as could be done during the time of trial while the Nan-Shan is at the mercy of the storm. MacWhirr can also understand the need for calming the Chinese laborers when they are scrambling after their dollars during the storm; but he fails to grasp the potential for a riot when he redistributes their money during calm weather. However, MacWhirr's reliance on the traditional symbols of authority proves to be sufficient.

As a foil to MacWhirr, the first mate, Mr. Jukes, is a literate and intelligent man, but it is possible that he has too much imagination. He worries perhaps too much about sailing under the Siamese flag and he foresees numerous perils from the Chinese laborers, especially after MacWhirr confiscates the money they are fighting over during the storm. His apprehension leads to his helping arm the crew with rifles when the money is being re-distributed, a precaution MacWhirr correctly supposes to be unnecessary. During the voyage, Mr. Jukes gains experience about how to survive in a storm, but he has difficulty admitting the wisdom of MacWhirr's actions.

Unlike Mr. Jukes, the engineer, Solomon Rout, is an experienced seaman who values MacWhirr's limited qualities of mind. Rout proves to be a cool head in a crisis and like MacWhirr, understands that the ship's only chance is to ride out the storm. At the end of the novella, Rout, a good family man, makes an admiring assessment of MacWhirr's handling of the storm and the Chinese, a judgment which stands in contrast to the grudging compliment paid to MacWhirr by the youthful and less experienced first mate. Rout does not give his wife a detailed description of the storm and its perils, but the experience has had a sobering effect on him, for he ends his letter to Mrs. Rout with the wish that they might be together more. It appears at the end of the story that Rout has matured a bit and his days of careless seafaring without much worry for the consequences may be coming to an end.

Although a minor character, the second mate of the Nan-Shan is a bitter and cynical man, probably from West Hartlepool originally, with a sharp nose, bad teeth, and "no hair on his face." Hired in an emergency after the regular second mate has been injured and put ashore, the second mate is, as Conrad's narrator comments, "one of those men who are picked up at need in the ports of the world." Since he has no friends or relatives at home, the second mate writes no letters and tends to stick to his own thoughts. His career appears...

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to be one of bad choices and poor luck, and his experiences on various voyages have made him cynical. When the storm hits theNan-Shan, the second mate proves useless, since his habitual pessimism impels him to believe that the ship will be lost. Although it is not strictly true that he "lost his nerve" as Captain MacWhirr and the engineer believe, the second mate illustrates an important theme in Conrad: The man who is too alienated from humanity seldom functions well in a crisis.

Another minor character, Mrs. Mac-Whirr, is not only the recipient of MacWhirr's letters, but a foil to MacWhirr. Mrs. MacWhirr is herself an imperious woman and a petty tyrant, and just imaginative enough to feel superior to her itinerant husband. Conrad's readers are informed that she prefers for her husband to be absent on long voyages, mainly because his absence allows her to dominate the household. MacWhirr's final letter to her does not convey his deeper feelings about the storm and the ordeal he has gone through, and Mrs. MacWhirr is much too stupid to read between the lines. Thus, although MacWhirr becomes in his own way somewhat heroic in the eyes of the reader, his wife fails to understand the magnitude of what he has done.

By contrast, Solomon Rout's wife and his mother who share the information in Rout's letters show themselves to be more perceptive and concerned about Solomon. However, Mrs. Rout, Solomon's mother, has had many children and outlived all but Solomon. She is unable to think of Solomon as more than a ten-year-old boy, the baby of her family. Solomon's wife, a "jolly woman" is also deeply concerned with her husband's fate, but annoyed that he does not share the details of his ordeal with her.