The Caine Mutiny

The Caine Mutiny

infobox Book |
name = The Caine Mutiny
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption = First edition cover
author = Herman Wouk
illustrator =
cover_artist =
country =
language = English
series =
genre = Novel
publisher = Doubleday
release_date = 1951
english_release_date =
media_type = Print (hardback & paperback)
pages =
isbn =
preceded_by = (1948)
followed_by = Marjorie Morningstar (1955)

"The Caine Mutiny" is a 1951 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Herman Wouk. The novel grew out of Wouk's personal experiences aboard a destroyer-minesweeper in the Pacific in World War II and deals with, among other things, the moral and ethical decisions made at sea by the captains of ships. The mutiny of the title is legalistic, not violent, and takes place during a historic typhoon in December 1944. The court-martial that results provides the dramatic climax to the plot.

Plot summary

The story is told through the eyes of Willis Seward "Willie" Keith, an affluent, callow young man who signs up for midshipman school with the United States Navy to avoid being drafted into the Army during World War II. The first part of the novel introduces Willie and describes the tribulations he endures because of inner conflicts over his relationship with May Wynn, a beautiful red-haired nightclub singer who is actually the daughter of Italian immigrants, and his domineering mother. After surviving a series of misadventures that earn him the highest number of demerits in the history of the school, he is commissioned and assigned to the destroyer minesweeper USS "Caine," an obsolete warship converted from a World War I destroyer.

Willie, with a low opinion of the ways of the Navy, misses his ship when it leaves on a combat assignment, and rather than catch up with it, ducks his duties to play piano for an admiral who has taken a shine to him. But guilt-stricken by a last letter from his father, who has died of melanoma, he reports aboard the "Caine". He immediately disapproves of its decaying condition and slovenly crew, which he attributes to a slackness of discipline by the ship's longtime captain, Lieutenant Commander William De Vriess.

Willie's lackadaisical attitude toward what he considers menial and repetitive duties brings about a humiliating clash with De Vriess when Willie neglects a communications message. While Willie is still pouting over his punishment, De Vriess is relieved by Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg, a strong, by-the-book figure whom Willie at first believes to be just what the rusty "Caine" and its rough-necked crew needs. However the "Caine" is sent to San Francisco for an overhaul, and Queeg browbeats his officers into selling their liquor rations to him. In a breach of regulations, Queeg smuggles the liquor aboard ship and when it's lost by a series of careless mistakes, blackmails Willie into paying for it by threatening to withhold his shore leave. Willie sees May on leave, and after sleeping with her, decides he has no future with a woman of a lower social class. He resolves to dump her by not replying to her letters.

As the "Caine" begins its missions under his command, Queeg loses the respect of his crew through a series of incidents: he grounds the ship on his first sailing, then attempts to cover it up while blaming his helmsman, Stillwell; causes the loss of a gunnery target sled by steaming over the target's towline while distracted by a petty disciplinary action (and again blames Stillwell); hounds and court-martials Stillwell for being absent without leave; twice under fire leaves a battle area, once abandoning troops under his protection to fend for themselves; suffers severe migraine headaches and rarely leaves his cabin; and becomes obsessed over the theft of a quart of strawberries, reliving an episode from early in his career in which he solved a shipboard theft and received a commendation. He is regarded as tyrannical, cowardly and incompetent. Tensions aboard the ship lead Queeg to ask his officers for support, but they snub him as unworthy, believing him an oppressive coward.

The crew refers to Queeg as "Old Yellowstain" following the invasion of Kwajalein. The "Caine", ordered to escort low-lying Marine landing craft to their line of departure instead drops a yellow dye marker to mark the spot when Queeg fears the ship has come too close to shore under fire, then leaves the area. The sobriquet refers to both the dye marker and his apparent cowardice.

Communications officer Lieutenant Tom Keefer, an intellectual, former magazine writer and budding novelist who has chafed under Queeg's authority, and initially portrayed as a sympathetic, if not heroic character, plants the suggestion that Queeg might be mentally ill in the mind of the "Caine's" executive officer, Lieutenant Stephen Maryk, "diagnosing" Queeg as a paranoid. He also steers Maryk to section 184 of the Navy manual in which a subordinate can relieve a commanding officer for mental illness.

Maryk keeps a secret log of Queeg's eccentric behavior and decides to bring it to the attention of Admiral William F. Halsey, commanding the Third Fleet. Keefer reluctantly supports Maryk, then gets cold feet and backs out, warning Maryk his actions will be seen as mutiny. It is in this scene that Keefer is finally shown to be ultimately underhanded and cowardly, setting the stage for his ultimate denouement later in the novel. Soon after, the "Caine" is with the fleet when it is caught in the path of a severe "typhoon", a terrible ordeal that ultimately sinks three destroyers and causes great damage and loss of life. At the height of the storm, Queeg's apparent paralysis of action convinces Maryk that he must relieve Queeg of command on the grounds of mental illness in order to prevent the loss of the "Caine". Willie Keith, on duty as the Officer of the Deck, supports the decision although his decision is based on his hatred for Captain Queeg . The Caine is ultimately saved, apparently by Maryk's timely decision and expert seamanship.

Maryk and Willie are charged at court-martial with Conduct to the Prejudice of Good Order and Discipline, a catch-all charge instead of making a mutiny. When Maryk is tried first, Keefer distances himself, even though he has no Navy career in mind, and shows himself to be a moral coward. Lieutenant Barney Greenwald, a Jewish naval aviator who was a crack attorney in civilian life, is appointed to represent Maryk. His opinion is that Maryk was legally unjustified in relieving Queeg after the captain was found to be sane by three Navy psychiatrists, and despite his own disgust with Maryk's and Willie's actions, decides to take the case.

During the trial, Greenwald unrelentingly cross-examines Queeg until he is overcome by the stress and displays a confused inability to handle the situation. His tactic of attacking Queeg results in Maryk's acquittal and the dropping of charges against Willie. Maryk, who aspires to a career in the Regular Navy, is sent to command an LCI, ending his ambitions, while Queeg is transferred to an obscure naval supply depot in Iowa.

At a party celebrating both the acquittal and Keefer's success at selling his novel to a publisher, Greenwald shows up intoxicated, and accuses Keefer of being a coward. He tells the gathering that he feels ashamed of having destroyed Queeg on the stand, because Queeg did the necessary duty of guarding America in the peacetime Navy, which people like Keefer (and by implication, Willie), saw as beneath them. Greenwald further points out that without the protection of people like Queeg, Greenwald's mother could have been "melted down into a bar of soap", which is what he says is happening to the Jews under Hitler's reign in Europe. Greenwald tells the gathering that he had to "torpedo Queeg" because "the wrong man was on trial" -- that it was Keefer, not Maryk, who was "the true author of the Caine Mutiny". Greenwald throws a glass of champagne on Keefer's face, bringing the term "Old Yellowstain" full circle back to the novelist.

Willie returns to the "Caine" in the last days of the Okinawa campaign as its executive officer. Most of the officers have been transferred to other ships. Keefer is now the captain, succeeding a trouble-shooter from the Regular Navy who restored order to the crew. Ironically, Keefer's behavior as captain is similar to Queeg's. The "Caine" is struck by a kamikaze, an event in which Willie discovers that he has matured into a naval officer. Keefer panics and orders the ship abandoned, but Willie remains aboard and rescues the situation.

Keefer is sent home after the war ends and Willie becomes the last captain of the "Caine". He soon receives a medal for his actions following the kamikaze--and a letter of reprimand for his part in unlawfully relieving Queeg. The findings of the court-martial have been overturned after a review by higher authority. Willie discovers he agrees that the relief was unjustified and probably unnecessary.

Willie keeps the "Caine" afloat during another typhoon and brings it back to Bayonne, New Jersey, for decommissioning after the end of the war. After reflecting at length, he decides to ask May (now a blonde and using her real name of Marie Minotti) to marry him. However, this will not be as easy as he once thought it would be, as she is now the girlfriend of a popular bandleader. Willie faces a challenge just as great as the one he has overcome.


The film "The Caine Mutiny" was based on the novel and starred Humphrey Bogart as Queeg.

After the novel's success, the court-martial sequence was adapted into a full-length, two-act Broadway play, "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial", by author Herman Wouk. Directed by actor Charles Laughton, it was a success on the stage in 1954, opening almost exactly five months before the release of the film. The stage version starred Lloyd Nolan as Queeg, John Hodiak as Maryk, and Henry Fonda as Greenwald. It has been revived twice on Broadway, and was presented on television in 1955, as a live presentation, and in 1988, as a made-for-television film.

ee also

*Queeg - An episode of the UK sitcom series "Red Dwarf"
*The name of Captain Queeg is similar to Queequeg from Melville's "Moby-Dick".
*Typhoon Cobra, the typhoon described in the book.

External links

* [ Study Guide] of Herman Wouk's "The Caine Mutiny" from SparkNotes
* [ Raising Caine] , video of Wouk reflecting on the novel on its 50th anniversary.
* [ Photos of the first edition of The Caine Mutiny]

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