Themes and Meanings

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“Typhoon” is remarkable primarily for the immediacy with which the storm, in its elemental and objective fury, is dramatized. It is experience so intensely and forcefully narrated that its reality is felt as it is read. The tale is adventure so brilliantly accommodated by language that one becomes oblivious of the very words that communicate the experience.

The story is, furthermore, a perfect combination of the literal and the symbolic. As he confronts the storm, MacWhirr sees beyond the vault of the sky, past the stars into a vast and lonely cosmos beyond. He defines humanity’s protest against nature as he finds in himself the determination to confront and conquer the facts of creation. The several references to the loneliness of command, to the privileges and burdens of authority, suggest, in addition, a simple but provocative allegory: A human being confronts the self through a task provided by the subconscious as a means of determining the capacity to be. The ship can be seen, in an equally viable reading, as a microcosm, MacWhirr as a god-figure on whom all depends, and his shortcomings as an index of the limitations of a godhead who has lost or never had control of his creation. Solomon Rout, in the bowels of the ship, can then be read as that aspect of the psyche on which the intelligence depends for power and drive. Jukes, who discovers his place within the human community, as Everyman, who, in doing his work under the eye and encouragement of the god figure, succeeds in discovering his courage and verifying his humanity; the boatswain as one who does not fail in matters of trust; and the second mate as one who fails in responsibility and succumbs, as a result, to fear and terror.


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One of the major themes of the novella is the contrast between Conrad's characters who are imaginative men aware of the larger issues of life and conscious of the potential for disaster and the literal minded and relatively unaware Captain MacWhirr. MacWhirr is a hard working captain devoted to routine and loyal to the needs of the Nan-Shan and the interests of her owners. Yet he lacks imagination and seems oblivious to the threat of death or disaster in any situation. His response to Jukes's concern about the dangers of flying under the Siamese flag—the colors of an Asian nation which is negligible in the international power struggle—illustrates MacWhirr's lack of imaginative vision. After Jukes's remark, MacWhirr gets the Siamese flag out and studies it carefully to see if there is a flaw in the material, a ludicrous reaction to a statement which nearly everyone would recognize as metaphorical.

The nature of MacWhirr as a commander or captain is tested by the events of "Typhoon." A more imaginative man than MacWhirr would have been concerned about the danger of the storm and changed course to avoid steaming into the teeth of the wind. Lacking imagination, MacWhirr is unable to gain insight from a book offering advice about dealing with hurricane strength winds, calling the text "a lot of words . . ." But a more imaginative commander might also have panicked under stress after actually getting the ship in the typhoon. Ironically, MacWhirr's very lack of imagination and literal-minded application to the immediate crisis enable him not only to demonstrate coolness in handling the ship, but to meet the challenge of a possible insurrection on the part of the frightened Chinese passengers with firmness and success.

Conrad also employs irony in depicting the reactions of the more aware men, from the imaginative but excitable Jukes...

(This entire section contains 534 words.)

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and the veteran engineer Solomon Rout to the cynical and vicious second mate. While Jukes foresees the danger, he acts with less self-control than his commander in the early stages of the storm. Rout is somewhat calmer, but like all of the Europeans—except MacWhirr—he fears the worst in the reaction of the Chinese to having their money confiscated. Despite the second mate's experience and understanding from many voyages, his cynical and disillusioned nature makes him of little use in the storm and he begins to tell vicious lies about MacWhirr when he is put ashore after the voyage.

A final theme—though easily overlooked— is the initiation of the first mate, Mr. Jukes into a greater knowledge of men and the trials of life at sea. At the beginning of the novella, the impatient and opinionated Jukes is contemptuous of MacWhirr, failing to recognize MacWhirr's peculiar strengths as a captain ("he's too dense to trouble about," Jukes writes his friend in the "Western ocean trade"). At the end of the novella Jukes, after surviving the storm and the threat of an insurrection by the Chinese laborers, is forced to admit ruefully that Mac- Whirr "got out of it very well for such a stupid man." In fact, one could make an argument that "Typhoon" is an "initiation" story, much like "Youth," and that Jukes is its chief protagonist.