Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Death in Kipling's boys' book - one hundred and seventeen of them

What does Harvey need to do to become a man, great or otherwise, according to Captains Courageous?  He needs to learn the value of work.  He needs to learn the various codes of masculinity – I have not written about this theme since it seems like standard boys’ book stuff.  And he must learn to face death.  Perhaps this is the usual stuff as well, courage on the battlefield or in an emergency.  I do not think so.  Kipling is up to something a little more interesting.

Death recurs in the novel.  Death is mysterious.  Perhaps the uncanniest scene is when the fishing crew sees a ship sink; it is manned by drunks and has been neglected for who knows how long.  It looks like this:

She sailed into a patch of watery sunshine three or four miles distant.  The patch dulled and faded out, and even as the light passed so did the schooner.  She dropped into a hollow and – was not.

The fishermen hurry to the spot to help survivors, but the ship is gone, as if into fairy land.  As for Harvey, he “could not realise that he had seen death on the open waters, but he felt very sick.”

Death returns in the back story of the fishermen (one lost his family in the Johnstown Flood and is addled), in stories, and in storms and accidents (“When a man has lost his only son, his summer's work, and his means of livelihood, in thirty counted seconds, it is hard to give consolation”).  In one unlikely but effective scene, Harvey faces death in as literal a fashion as possible.

Once Harvey is in Gloucester, reunited with his parents, and on the path to Great Manhood, death recedes.  I was puzzled.  What was the point of the theme?  A final, expansive scene explains.

Harvey and his parents stay in town long enough to attend Gloucester Memorial Day, which includes speeches, recitals, and a reading of:

the names of their lost dead – one hundred and seventeen of them.  (The widows started a little, and looked at one another here).

Kipling begins to list off the names, one by one.

“September 27th. – Orvin Dollard, 30 married, drowned in dory off Eastern Point.”

The shot went home, for one of the widows flinched where she sat, clasping and unclasping her hands.

Harvey is affected physically.  “Great lumps were rising in Harvey’s throat, and his stomach reminded him of the day when he fell from the liner.”  Another name is announced, “Otto Svendsen, 20, single… lost overboard,” and Harvey actually faints.

Otto is the ghost that has haunted Harvey throughout the book.  He was on the crew of Harvey’s ship, and died not long before Harvey was rescued.   Harvey took Otto’s place, slept in his bunk, ate his food, earned his wages.  Did his work.  Harvey’s life is somehow owed to this other man’s death, a man he never met, who the reader never sees.

It is time for a lesson: “he understood things from the inside – more things than he could begin to think about.”  Vague but more satisfying than the earlier thumping stuff about the value of hard work.

Then Kipling gives me one of those “a few years later” codas that is aesthetically pointless but is fortunately just a page long.  Oh well.  I did not write about Captains Courageous for three days because it is a perfect book.  Or even a second-rate book.


  1. Your posts so far on Captains Courageous are a very interesting, close, perceptive reading of what amounts to a YA book before there were YA books. This is specially so because it points out moments of great power carefully prepared and expertly delivered together with ill considered, underwhelming moments carefully prepared and expertly delivered. This shows that Kipling had both Genius and Talent in abundance, common sense? not so much. There is a reason why Henry James said: "Kipling strikes me personally as the most complete man of genius (as distinct from fine intelligence) that I have ever known".

  2. Huge talent, yes. The novel has plenty of sentences and scenes that are impressive. The character work is quite good, too. But the mix of good and bad ideas - or maybe I mean original and conventional - is frustrating. "Ill considered," that is a good description.

    I had not seen the James quote.