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Characters Discussed

Tom MacWhirr

Tom MacWhirr, the captain of the steamer Nan-Shan. Dutiful, calculating, mechanical, mature, and effectual, the main character of the story does his job correctly although he does so without any manifest confidence from the men serving under him. His job is to take two hundred Chinese coolies to their destination of Fu-Chau and to do so directly and without delay. The obstacle to this plan is the typhoon, presenting MacWhirr with the central dilemma of the novella as he must decide whether to proceed straight into the hurricane or run from it. This latter choice would be a relinquishment of duty, which he cannot accept. In confronting the typhoon and surviving it, MacWhirr somehow comes to terms with all of life’s adverse universal forces.

The typhoon

The typhoon, a hurricane that Captain MacWhirr must confront. Violent, strong, forceful, and controlling, the typhoon represents not only the power of nature but also all the adverse conditions that humanity must face and struggle against. The typhoon does not succeed in destroying the Nan-Shan and the men on board; however, it does not surrender the battle to MacWhirr so much as it simply ceases to struggle.

Young Jukes

Young Jukes, the chief mate. Innocent and inexperienced in the evils of life and the violence of nature, Jukes rightfully depends on Captain MacWhirr for guidance, and he exactingly follows the orders of his superior. The central sections and the major portions of the plot are told from Jukes’s perspective, though he is not the narrator. In following Captain MacWhirr’s cold and calculating orders, Jukes realizes that he must be functional and mechanical to survive.

Solomon (Sol) Rout

Solomon (Sol) Rout, the chief engineer, the tallest man on each of the ships on which he has served. Old Sol’s towering height accounts for his “habit of a stooping, leisurely condescension.” As engineer, Rout is perhaps the most mechanical of the men on board; his ability to follow MacWhirr’s orders and to maintain a rather automaton-like existence helps ensure the preservation of the ship.

The second mate

The second mate, a secretive loner who is “competent enough.” He has failed to master the subservience to duty, responsibility, and effectuality possessed by MacWhirr. He is an older, shabby fellow, one who is a ghost of what MacWhirr would become were he to fail. During the typhoon, the second mate loses his nerve and is unable to carry out his responsibilities.

The boatswain

The boatswain, the first in charge of the crewmen on deck. Once described as an “elderly ape” and in another place as a “gorilla,” the boatswain embodies raw strength, gruffness, and stupidity in human nature. Surprisingly, Captain MacWhirr likes the boatswain, presumably because he knows he controls him and can put his strength to good use.

The steward

The steward, a personal attendant to Captain MacWhirr. Unable to mind his own business, the steward reads Captain MacWhirr’s personal mail to his family. Consequently, the reader is informed about the contents of these letters and MacWhirr’s character is further revealed.

Two hundred Chinese coolies

Two hundred Chinese coolies, who exist in the story literally as cargo; they are returning to China after working several years abroad. They represent the thoughtless, purposeless mass of humanity toward which MacWhirr feels his duty and responsibility as well as his contempt. Several of the coolies die as the typhoon proceeds.

Style and Technique

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The means by which the adventure of MacWhirr and the Nan-Shan is narrated is the chief challenge of Conrad’s tale. The principal characters are themselves all storytellers of different...

(This entire section contains 545 words.)

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sorts. MacWhirr writes his dutiful letters to a wife who fears and dreads them, as she does his return to her and their children. Only the steward has some notion of the purity of the events they describe. When he reads MacWhirr’s account of the storm, he is so reluctant to tear himself away from the letter that he is almost caught. Solomon Rout, in the habit of sending his wife and aged mother long and picturesque accounts of his travels, is curiously unable to lend romance to the events he has experienced. His wife is disappointed by the letters’ paucity of description. Solomon, the reader infers, has perhaps learned somewhat more from the adventure than the others, for the typhoon has brought forth in him a desire to be reunited with his family, as well as making him aware of his mortality. Jukes’s account, written to his friend in the western ocean trade, somewhat more animated than is usually the case in his correspondence, concludes that MacWhirr has gotten theNan-Shan out of a difficult predicament and that he reconciled the claims of the Chinese workers fairly creditably “for such a stupid man.”

The overall narrator of the tale, who is privy to the correspondence of MacWhirr, Rout, and Jukes, for his part recounts the adventure in a tone of astonished and incredulous surprise. His is a tone compounded as much of a satiric and ironic awareness of MacWhirr’s limitations as of a grudging acceptance of the man’s determination to survive and an appreciation of his ability to provide fair play, not only for the coolies but also for the second mate. It is the tone of tolerant yet bemused irony that transforms the narrative into a remarkable comedy, a form unusual within Conrad’s oeuvre.

The comedy of “Typhoon” depends chiefly on the reader’s awareness that neither MacWhirr nor Jukes changes as a result of his experience. Perhaps Solomon Rout changes, but if he does, it is left ambiguous so as not to intrude on the happy ending. Young Jukes, as does MacWhirr, passes the test of self, but he remains unaware that without MacWhirr he might have failed. This awareness, that the characters remain largely unchanged, comments, furthermore, on an absurd cosmos beyond the stars that allows for surprises of all kinds, even to the promise of hope in humanity.

Jukes and MacWhirr can ultimately be seen as comic foils for such characters of deep introspection as Jim of Lord Jim (1900) and Razumov of Under Western Eyes (1910), characters whose failure propels them into an ethical universe and defines the form of the novels in which they appear. If Marlow’s willed descent into the self transforms the setting that he observes in Heart of Darkness (1902) into meaningful symbolism, then MacWhirr and Jukes’s inability to fathom the depths of the self explains the straightforward and objective description of the storm, as well as the narrator’s incredulousness. MacWhirr, Jukes, and Rout perform their comic parts admirably and make “Typhoon” equal to the best of Conrad’s novels.

Literary Techniques

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One of Conrad's most effective techniques in his description of the storm is to show how it is perceived by different members of the ship's officers after the storm makes its memorable impact. Multiple points of view are used here and throughout the novella; hence readers should not be upset at the use of multiple points of view at the story's end, although Conrad's technique has the effect of destroying the possibility of a melodramatic ending.

Another useful technique is Conrad's revelation of the characters of different officers through the various letters they write during calm times on board ship. MacWhirr, for instance, in his letter to his wife after the storm does not even begin to convey the fierceness and frightening quality of the ordeal his ship has survived.

Conrad also uses straightforward description effectively, although always in a controlled manner; when the hurricane strength hits the rolling Nan-Shan, Conrad presents it in this sentence: "It seemed to explode all round the ship with an over-powering concussion and a rush of great waters, as if an immense dam had been blown up to windward . .." Although the ship pitches wildly, Conrad's prose is always careful to portray the precise effect, as in the use of the breaking dam simile.

The storm's effect is mainly dramatized through its psychological impact on the different crew members of the Nan-Shan, particularly in the contrast between MacWhirr, who struggles to maintain his position in the wheel house, and Jukes, who is sent on a perilous journey down to the engine room. Whereas MacWhirr merely acknowledges that the storm may overturn and sink the ship, Jukes at first gives way to despair, believing at first that the Nan-Shan is "done for."

Conrad's most venturesome use of technique is to conclude the story in a less dramatic key. Leaving the ship wallowing in the storm at its height, the narrator finishes the novella with the differing reactions and views of the main characters afterward, when the Nan-Shan reaches port. Here readers are given the letters and comments of the various characters, from the bitter comments of the disgraced second mate (put ashore because MacWhirr believes correctly that the mate had lost his nerve) to the comments made in letters by MacWhirr, Solomon Rout, and Mr. Jukes. As might be expected, MacWhirr's letter gives the facts without the drama, or even his fears that the Nan-Shan would be lost; Rout expresses admiration for MacWhirr's leadership without trying to explain matters to his wife; and Jukes offers a full description with a frustrated acknowledgment that MacWhirr's leadership had indeed been successful.

Although some readers might find Conrad's ending sequence as exasperating as MacWhirr's literal-mindedness, this method of resolving the story underscores Conrad's ironic theme that perhaps a captain would be more successful if he were not particularly aware or imaginative about the possibilities for failure or disaster.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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Since there is a great interest in disaster stories and the motion picture Titanic (1997) has been a great commercial success, readers may wish to consider the nature of typhoons in the China seas. Certainly Conrad's novella provides a fine description of a ship wallowing in the wind and seas caused by a typhoon.

Another approach might be to discuss the relationship between Captain Mac- Whirr and the ship owners and the nature of their conveyance of the Chinese workers back to China. Is the story related to the imperialism of the day? If so, how? And what are the different attitudes revealed by the Captain and the crew toward the Chinese? Are they guilty of racism, or merely a European sense of patronizing superiority?

1. What are MacWhirr's strengths and weaknesses as a captain? How does Conrad make us aware of them?

2. What is the actual strength of the winds in a typhoon? What perils for ships do such storms pose? Does Conrad's novella present these perils adequately?

3. What influence do MacWhirr's employers have on him? What principles govern MacWhirr's actions whether in or out of peril?

4. Why are the Chinese laborers on board? Where is the Nan-Shan taking them? What is so important about the money they are taking?

5. Does the story's attitude toward the Chinese laborers seem racist? Is the attitude of the chief officers of the Nan-Shan racist, or merely patronizing toward the Chinese?

6. How does the Nan-Shan manage to survive the storm? What actions help her to survive?

7. How do the various officers and crew members act during the crisis of the ship's passage through the typhoon? What is revealed about each officer and the crew members?

8. Why is the second mate so offensive? What happens to him during the storm? Is MacWhirr's dismissal of him fair? Why or why not?

9. What motivates Captain MacWhirr to confiscate the money of the Chinese passengers? Is this act legal or not? Is it sensible?

10. Why does MacWhirr have such an easy time in redistributing the money to the Chinese?

11. Why is Mr. Jukes uneasy about sailing under the Siamese flag? Is the reason for his uneasiness revealed near the end of the novella, when the officers are concerned about the problems of redistributing the money to the Chinese?

12. What attitudes and feelings are revealed in each of the letters written about the storm at the end of the story?

13. What is the relationship between MacWhirr and Mrs. MacWhirr, if we may judge from the letters MacWhirr writes and from Mrs. MacWhirr's responses?

14. What has Mr. Jukes learned—if anything—about MacWhirr and about life at end of the novella? Is the novella in part a study of Mr. Jukes's initiation into manhood?

Social Concerns

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Typhoon, one of Joseph Conrad's most famous stories of the sea, is a narrative in which the interest is primarily focused on the behavior of men at sea—both under ordinary circumstances and when facing extreme danger during a storm. Judged simply as a description of life at sea, like "Youth" (1898; see separate entry) and The Nigger of the Narcissus, (1897), "Typhoon" may be read and valued as realistic depictions of maritime life. However, as with Conrad's other first-rate works, the social and intellectual interest of the narrative extends far beyond its surface realism.

Certainly, a major feature of the novella is Conrad's memorable description of the typhoon that strikes Captain MacWhirr's ship. The consequent reactions to it of the different officers and men reveal their inner natures. While MacWhirr worries mainly about his present discomforts and what commands he needs to give to save the ship, the other men aboard respond in widely varying ways. One of the areas of social concern is a judgment of Mac-Whirr's conduct as captain of this vessel. Obviously, MacWhirr's refusal to attempt to avoid the storm was foolish, but his conduct during the ordeal may be seen as admirable.

Another area of social concern is the reactions of the other and more imaginative men, such as the first mate, Jukes. It is obvious that these men show varying degrees of courage and presence of mind in the face of imminent destruction, although nearly all acquit themselves adequately.

Yet another area of social interest is the attitude of the white European characters toward the Chinese aboard. It is an interesting point that most of the men see the Chinese as more of a threat than as a group of humans whose survival is important. Not only are the officers and men of the ship tested by their attitudes toward the Chinese, but the commercial attitudes of the ship-owners are also brought under scrutiny. Indeed, the entire realm of social and political relationships between Europeans and Asians at the end of the nineteenth century may become an issue for thoughtful readers.

Literary Precedents

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Conrad's literary precedents for "Typhoon," as with most of his sea fiction, included the novels of Frederick Marryat and the sea fiction of James Fenimore Cooper. In fact, Conrad once published an essay in Outlook (June 4, 1898) praising the fiction of Cooper and Marryat, which he claimed were his favorite reading in boyhood and youth.

On the other hand, it seems unlikely that Conrad had much knowledge of Herman Melville's fiction at this time; but if he had, Melville was never a major influence. In fact, it is recorded in Zdzislaw Najder's Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle (1983) that Conrad late in life expressed dislike for Moby-Dick (1851).

It should be noted, however, that despite the precedents of such writers as Marryat and James Fenimore Cooper, Conrad's fiction was more influenced by the French realistic tradition associated with Gustav Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant. The realistic tradition certainly influences his treatment of life at sea, and Conrad's sense of realism emerges in his refusal to treat the storm in a spirit of melodrama, and in his low key ending to a dramatic narrative.