Analysis of Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous

This short novel is one of the products of Rudyard Kipling’s residence in the United States from 1892 to 1896. What Kipling described as a “boy’s story” was first published in serial form in McClure’s Magazine in the United States and in Pearson’s Magazine in Britain, and in book form by Macmillan in 1897. The title comes from one of Kipling’s favorite ballads, “Mary Ambree.” Captains Courageous is a story of maturation and redemption, a pattern of action that recurs throughout Kipling’s work. It is set mostly on the Atlantic Ocean over the Grand Banks, fishing grounds off the southeast coast of Newfoundland, although later parts of the text take place in the fishing port of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and on the West Coast of the United States. The time setting is approximately the 1890s. The protagonist is Harvey Cheyne, the spoiled and arrogant son of a multimillionaire American businessman and of a weak and indulgent mother. At age 15, on a trip to Europe with his mother, Harvey falls from the liner into the sea. He is rescued by a Portuguese fisherman, Manuel, who carries him in his small fishing boat, or dory, to the schooner We’re Here, of which he is a crew member.

On board the We’re Here, Harvey faces an incredulous reception from the fishermen. The captain and owner, Disko Troop, considers him mad when Harvey tells of his father’s wealth and his own importance. Troop offers him work on board the schooner (for $10.50 a month), and when Harvey indignantly and offensively refuses, strikes him. Troop’s son Dan, who is the same age as Harvey, does partly believe him, however, and during a conversation with the boy, Harvey begins to acknowledge that he has behaved badly, apologizes to Troop, and begins work aboard the We’re Here. He soon meets the entire multiethnic crew of the schooner, who return in the dories from fishing. Of these the only one who gives any credence to Harvey’s account of his background is the black cook, who is gifted with second sight and predicts that “one day he will be your master, Danny.”

Immediately after his apology to Troop, Harvey begins working on the We’re Here. This occurs early in chapter 2, barely one-seventh of the way into the text. The remaining seven chapters present Harvey’s experiences of life aboard the fishing schooner as it searches for, catches, and processes fish over a summer on the Grand Banks. Harvey engages in heavy physical labor; eats food that is new to him; is educated in sailing by crew members; gets to know them, their pasts, and their eccentricities; observes the skill of Disko Troop in finding the best fishing grounds; lives through bad weather and the varying moods of the sea; experiences the music and the traditional lore of fishermen; encounters violent death, danger, and the supernatural; and meets with the wide range of vessels and people that work on and pass through the Grand Banks. “ ’Tis beautiful to see how he takes to ut,” remarks one of the crew of the We’re Here.

The last two chapters of Captains Courageous are set on shore. Harvey’s father, also called Harvey Cheyne, learns of his son’s survival and with his wife arranges a record-breaking train journey from the West Coast of the United States to Gloucester. There the parents are reunited with their son and observe the change that a few months have made in his character. Formerly spoiled and rude, Harvey has become mature. The fabulously wealthy Cheynes and the Troops learn to respect each other, the text provides more details of fishermen’s and their families’ lives, and the elder Cheyne confides in his son and offers to bring him into his business empire. The text ends with Harvey agreeing to go to college to prepare himself for his role as his father’s heir.

Critics have often pointed out that Harvey’s conversion from spoiled brat to hardworking sailor is very rapid. The focus of Captains Courageous is the experiences that make him mature, rather than any internal conflicts of the protagonist. Harvey is saved by hard physical work, an encounter with the sturdily independent lower classes, and integration into a community. He learns to respect the immense skill of the fishermen and also the power and danger of the natural world. He sees death close up. Kipling did much research to get the details of life aboard an 1890s fishing schooner accurate, and critics have noted and praised the text’s realism. This includes the specifics of the Cheynes’ cross-country railway journey in chapter 9. The descriptions of the sea have also been singled out as impressive elements in the short novel. All these are aspects of Kipling’s writing as a whole, as is his use of a range of voices (different dialects, languages, and technical registers). Critics have also pointed out that Captains Courageous has a U.S. focus. Troop and Cheyne senior embody an old/new, East/West, and labor/capital opposition that has been seen as Kipling’s allegorical vision of Gilded Age America. The multiethnic and polyglot characters, too, suggest the ethnic and linguistic variety of the late 19th-century United States. In this regard, it should be noted that Troop and Cheyne are integrated at the end (although the Cheynes are masters and the Troops men), and the diversity of characters is firmly under the control of those of Anglo- Saxon origin.

A film version of Captains Courageous, with substantial changes to Kipling’s original plot, was a box-office success in 1937.

Analysis of Rudyard Kipling’s Stories


Analysis of Rudyard Kipling’s Novels


Carrington, Charles. Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Work. London: Macmillan, 1955.
Kipling, Rudyard. Something of Myself and Other Autobiographical Writings. Edited by Thomas Pinney. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Ormond, Leonee. “Captains Courageous: Introduction.” The Kipling Society: Readers’ Guide. Posted October 27, 2003.
Stewart, J. I. M. Rudyard Kipling. London: Victor Gollancz, 1966.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis, Short Story

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