Being Awakened from Sleep
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto commented: "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." In large part The Caine Mutiny is about individuals being awakened from sleep. Numerous times throughout the novel, Willie is forcibly shaken from his sleep; he is often confused and needs some time to regain his bearings. His experience in the military and aboard the Caine does awaken him in important ways. While he enters the service as a self-centered and rather bumbling young man, he concludes his experience with a much different view of life and the military.
Other characters undergo an awakening too. Barney Greenwald's stirring speech at Keefer's victory dinner suggests that he too has had an awakening. By extension, the novel implies that the theme of awakening also applies to America in general, which was forcibly awakened from isolationism by the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
In large part The Caine Mutiny is concerned with maturation. The process is most evident in Willie. Willie enters the Navy as a soft, self-centered individual, and his service aboard the Caine causes him to mature both physically and mentally. It's interesting that when new officers come aboard the Caine, Willie recognizes a certain immaturity in them and wonders if the more seasoned officers aboard ship thought of him in the same way when he first arrived. This self-awareness is itself evidence of his maturity. The novel shows that the process of maturation is long; in fact, by the end of the novel, Willie realizes that his maturation isn't complete. When Willie eventually reconnects with May, he tells her that he has grown up but that he isn't yet fully a man. Part of his maturation comes from his slow and steady understanding that the Navy's methods, as rigid as they may seem, serve a clear purpose. Yet the novel also suggests that maturity is often prompted by traumatic events, for, when asked by May how it is possible that he has changed, Willie points to the kamikaze incident.
Reservists vs. Regulars
One clear theme in The Caine Mutiny is the division between the Navy regulars and the reservists. The distinction might be likened to the difference between blue-collar and white-collar workers. The regulars are career Navy men, who have typically worked themselves up through the ranks, whereas the reservists are college-educated men who have been fast-tracked into officer positions. Both groups are very aware of the division, and tension often exists between them because the reservists typically have little respect for the time-honored traditions and methods of the Navy. Willie's comment to his father about Navy life shows the typical reservist's contempt for Navy ways: "If you want to know, what I've studied seems to me a lot of rubbish. The rules, the lingo, strike me as comical. The idea of men spending their lives in this make-believe appalls me." Keefer's novel, a seething attack on the military, is another clear example of how many reservists feel. However, at Keefer's victory dinner Barney Greenwald points out that while the men of the regular Navy may not be as polished as the college-educated reservists, they are just as sharp and deserve to be respected. The novel suggests that it is very difficult to cross from one category to the other, as is illustrated by Maryk's dashed hope of becoming a regular.
Trial by Fire
One of the novel's sub themes concerns trial by fire. In essence, one has to be tested under fire to see how one will perform. An individual's heroism cannot be predicted by his heritage, as is evidenced by the fact that Roland Keefer actually gives up his life working to put out the fire on the Montauk, whereas his brother Tom jumps ship during the fire caused by the kamikaze incident on the Caine. For all of his ranting about Queeg's cowardice and the general ineptitude of the military in his novel, Tom Keefer performs poorly when his true test arrives. Early in the novel Willie doesn't appear to have what it takes to successfully command the men of the Caine, yet during the kamikaze episode he acts heroically.
The Inequities of War
Another sub theme surrounds the inevitable inequity of war. Willie bluntly confronts this reality as the men of the Caine eat ice cream while a few hundred yards away Marines die as they land and attempt to take a small island. Willie is bothered by the idea, but as Keefer notes: "War is a business in which a lot of people watch a few people get killed and are damn glad it wasn't them." Other inequities are revealed through the overly harsh punishments Queeg doles out, as well as the fact that Tom Keefer is denied the last chance to see Roland before he dies. Even Greenwald's character assassination of Queeg during the court-martial can be viewed as one of the inevitable inequities of war.