The Caine Mutiny: Essay Q&A
1. On a number of occasions Captain Queeg asserts that "you can't assume a goddamn thing in the Navy." What is the significance of this statement?
An assumption is a supposition or a premise, a statement that is assumed to be true and from which a conclusion can be drawn. While assumptions are a necessary part of everyday life-even in the Navy-one of the novel's themes is that assumptions can be dangerous. In fact many of the characters suffer as a result of their assumptions.
While Queeg espouses this philosophy, we see that he operates under many assumptions. One clear example of this is seen in his approach to the missing strawberries. Queeg assumes that one of the crew members possesses a duplicate key to the storeroom. Though he claims that his reasoning is based on logical deduction, in reality it is based on a previous crime he solved earlier in his career. Both Queeg and the men of the Caine suffer from his assumption: Queeg suffers mental anguish from his inability to solve the crime and from a loss of respect by the men; the men suffer from the tiresome investigation.
Willie is another character who suffers from his assumptions. For much of the novel he assumes that although he desires May, ultimately their relationship will not succeed because of their differences in social class and religion. Willie's assumption leads him to break off the relationship and to undergo a great deal of mental distress as he realizes that his assumption may have cost him the relationship. Of course, May too suffers from Willie's assumption.
Perhaps the assumption with the most tragic consequences involves Steve Maryk. Keefer, whom Maryk believes is an intelligent and reliable source, convinces Maryk to believe that Queeg is mentally unstable. As Maryk scrutinizes Queeg's behavior, he seems to find the evidence he needs to prove the case, and, in a moment of extreme tension, he relieves Queeg. As a result of his act, his hope of a career as a regular Navy officer is all but eliminated.
Perhaps the novel's overriding theme is that much of our lives are governed by false assumptions.
2. What is the significance of Tom Keefer's novel, Multitudes, Multitudes?
Tom Keefer spends most of his time aboard the Caine working on his novel, Multitudes, Multitudes. In fact, he values it so much that he takes it with him when he jumps overboard during the kamikaze strike. Though he feels it is not very original, Willie is certain the novel will be a great success because of its action and sex scenes, and Keefer receives a one-thousand dollar advance for the work. Yet defense attorney Barney Greenwald predicts the novel will "show the war in all its grim futility" and will depict "military men for the stupid, Fascist-minded sadists they are," an assessment supported by Keefer's disdain of military life. The novel is, in essence, Keefer's way of getting back at the military by exposing its flaws.
The title comes from a passage in the Book of Joel in the Bible which reads: "Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision: for the day of the Lord is new in the valley of decision." In this passage, God is passing judgment on his numerous enemies. The novel clearly demonstrates how in the military many judgments are passed, often with serious consequences and often by men who appear to be both dictatorial and weak-minded. However, as Greenwald makes clear, in the larger scheme the military is a necessary component of a free society. During his rambling speech at Keefer's victory dinner, Greenwald comments on how the military, including men like Queeg, fought to protect his people, who were dying at the hands of the Germans. Thus, the issues that sailors complain of on a daily basis are but minor offenses and a part of the cost of freedom.
The novel may also be seen as a symbol of one of America's greatest freedoms, the freedom of speech. Keefer lives in a society where it is possible to speak against the establishment.
3. In what ways does Willie mature in the novel?
One of the main themes of The Caine Mutiny is the maturation of Willie Keith. While the novel may not represent a Bildungsroman in the traditional sense, the education, growth, and development of Willie is a main focus.
Though clearly an adult, Willie is almost childlike when he enters midshipmen's school. The scene in which his mother accompanies him to Furnald Hall is reminiscent of a mother dropping off her child on the first day of school. It's not much of a stretch to view Mrs. Keith's attempt to give Willie his forgotten spending money as the act of an overprotective mother rushing to help a child who has forgotten his lunch money. However, as Mrs. Keith discovers, once in the care of the state, Willie is bound to undergo a transformation.
Willie undergoes a physical transformation. He develops from being a pudgy, out-of-shape young man into a much leaner, sharper man. While the transformation is not always apparent to Willie, his mother notices it immediately when he returns for his first visit.
Willie also matures emotionally. When he enters midshipmen's school, he has little sense of duty to or respect for his fellow crew members or the Navy as a whole. As his father notes, "It seems to me that you're very much like our whole country-young, naive, spoiled, and softened by abundance and good luck, but with an interior hardness that comes from your good stock." Willie's months at sea are a literal trial by fire, a period in which he realizes the important of loyalty, duty, and courage. By the end of the novel he has become a respected commander of a Navy warship.
Of course, the most significant maturation surrounds his personal relationship with May. Willie's initial plan is to have a quick fling with May, yet as he realizes how deeply they both care for each other, how rare such a love is, and how fleeting life is, his outlook changes. May suggests that Willie only wants to marry her out of a sense of duty, since he has slept with her; however, Willie's reaction to her relationship with the bandleader proves otherwise.
Interestingly, even though at the end of the novel Willie has successfully commanded a Navy warship and has renewed his relationship with May, he does not consider himself to be fully a man, a notion he plainly states to May.
4. How does loyalty operate in the novel?
One of the more interesting issues The Caine Mutiny explores is that of loyalty. The novel offers several visions of loyalty, but perhaps the most interesting are seen in the relationship between Queeg and his crew and the relationship between Willie and May.
Queeg represents the military definition of loyalty, a strict definition in which a superior's orders are to be carried out without question. Above all else, Queeg expects this type of loyalty from his crew. Any hesitation in fulfilling an order is viewed as disloyalty. This also applies to the questioning of an order, even when such questioning is warranted, such as during the cut tow-line episode or during the handling of the Caine in the typhoon. Queeg attempts to force loyalty from his crew through strict adherence to Navy regulations and harsh penalties. Of course this approach results in numerous mishaps, as well as the alienation and hatred of his crew. As a commander, Queeg's approach to loyalty is contrasted by that of Captain de Vriess. Although Willie initially viewed Queeg as the more effective commander, he later viewed de Vriess as the better leader.
In contrast, the relationship between Willie and May reveals a much different vision of loyalty. It too involves pain and suffering, but it is based more on being faithful and having a deep love and respect for another person.
Initially, May is more loyal to the relationship than Willie. She remains faithful to him during his absences and attempts to make the best of their situation. In contrast, Willie savors the time they spend together, but he doesn't really work at the relationship and eventually breaks it off. When Willie finally admits that he loves May, it seems that he is too late to reclaim the relationship. However, even though May becomes involved with Feather, on some level she remains loyal to Willie because she doesn't sleep with Feather. This complex give-and-take serves as a stark contrast to Queeg's version of loyalty, which is completely one-sided.
The novel doesn't appear to argue that one version of loyalty is right and the other wrong; instead it suggests that different visions of loyalty serve different purposes. As prosecutor Jack Challee notes in Maryk's court-martial: acceptance of anything but absolute loyalty would destroy the Navy's chain of command, its bedrock principle. At the same time, as Willie's actions in the novel's closing lines make clear, the loyalty of a man and woman involves fighting with-and for-each other.
5. What is the significance of Greenwald's speech at Keefer's victory dinner?
One of the novel's seminal scenes occurs when prosecutor Barney Greenwald appears at Tom Keefer's post-trial victory dinner. Greenwald is reluctant to attend the party and when he does show up he is visibly drunk. Keefer toasts Greenwald by lauding him as a hero, comparing him to Cicero, Clarence Darrow, and St. George. When Keefer insists that Greenwald make a speech, Greenwald delivers a rambling but biting commentary.
The sight of Keefer's cake spurs him to comment that if he were writing a war novel he would make Queeg the hero. His comment surprises the partiers, but he stresses that men like Queeg are the true heroes because, while Keefer, Willie, and he were busy living their soft lives and preparing for more lucrative futures, men like Queeg were helping to ensure that the Germans didn't overrun the country.
Greenwald notes that the victory dinner is actually a "phony" because Maryk was guilty. He wasn't, however, the one who should have been on trial. Greenwald reveals Keefer as the true author of the mutiny and states that Keefer had "run out" on the Maryk during the trial. Because he had determined that Maryk wasn't the true guilty party, Greenwald defended him the only way that he could, by attacking Queeg's character. Yet Greenwald admits that he is ashamed of his actions and that Queeg deserved better treatment.
To drive home his point that Keefer is as much a coward as Queeg, Greenwald refuses to eat with him and, more significantly, throws his "yellow" wine in Keefer's face, thereby marking him with the yellow stain. It is revealing that Keefer completely dismisses Greenwald's speech as the words of a drunken man, commenting that he will probably apologize when he sobers up. But to put it simply, Keefer doesn't get it. And since his novel is likely to be a success, by extension we can assume that many Americans won't get the point either.