- Historic Sites
May/June 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 3
Moby-Dick . Call me Philistine. I think Moby-Dick is a great crashing bore of a novel. The problem is that it is actually three books in one. It is a sea story, an extended treatise on whaling, and a work of moral philosophy. As a sea story it is hard to beat—crazy captains, crazy whales, you name it—but the endless details on whaling often get in the way of the narrative flow. As for the moral philosophy, I will admit to being totally immune to its charms. Even worse for its standing as a novel, the moral philosophy aspect tends to make the characters more paradigmatic than human. And the one thing a great novel must have is real characters the reader can relate to. Ask Jane Austen, Stephen Crane, or Graham Greene. But have you ever met a Captain Ahab?
The people of the 1850s seem to have had the same reaction to Moby-Dick . The critics were ambivalent, to say the least, perhaps afraid of appearing out of their depth. But the people voted with their dollars in no uncertain terms, and the book was a commercial disaster. It was only in the 1920s that English professors began to inflict it on their students, virtually none of whom, it is safe to say, ever read it twice. I bet the Cliffs Notes for Moby-Dick have sold far better than the book ever has. There’s a reason for that.
The Caine Mutiny was published in 1951, exactly one hundred years after Moby-Dick . Unlike that earlier sea story, it was a huge bestseller and won Herman Wouk the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Now, however, although it’s still in print, most people know the story not through the book but through the Hollywood movie of 1954, which was forgettable at best, except for Humphrey Bogart’s awesomely perfect portrayal of Captain Queeg.
But The Caine Mutiny is not really the story of Captain Queeg, it’s the story of Willie Keith. At the beginning of the book he is an overprotected son of privilege, just out of Princeton. He quickly finds himself aboard a rust-bucket destroyer-minesweeper in the midst of the country’s greatest naval war. By the end of the book, Willie Keith is a different person. The overprivileged boy has become, well, a man. That slow transformation over the course of a wonderfully exciting book is utterly convincing and could only be the work of a master novelist.
Like all great novels, The Caine Mutiny is a window into the world it depicts, the United States and the far-flung Pacific battlefields of the early 1940s. And like all great novels, it is populated by real people, people who, while unique, remind us powerfully of friends, neighbors, and enemies: the cynical, self-absorbed Keefer; the stouthearted, guileless Maryk; the failed, fearful Queeg. (By the way, could even Dickens have come up with a better name for this character?)
Thus The Caine Mutiny is not only a great page-turner, it is great literature. Like Willie Keith, the reader is a different person at the end of the book, vastly entertained to be sure, but also a little wiser about what it means to be human.