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The Caine Mutiny

Herman Wouk

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Study Questions

Was Maryk right to relieve Queeg of command?

Yes and no. Lieutenant Maryk relieved Captain Queeg in the moment of the Caine's near peril because he thought that it was the only way to save the ship. He had been convinced by Keefer and by his personal study of psychological texts that the captain was not right in the head. Maryk's analysis and prior experience led him to believe that the captain would stubbornly hold to the impossible fleet course, even if he knew that it was wrong, until the Caine floundered and sunk. Maryk did not commit the act out of any personal dislike of the captain, as is shown by his good treatment of Queeg after the relief. Maryk acted solely with the safety of the crew of the Caine in mind, which justified him under Article 184 of Naval Regulations.

The final word about the event does not lay with Maryk, however. It comes out later that of the forty-plus ships that had been stranded in the typhoon, only three had sunk. Though none of them may have been in the state of mechanical disarray that the Caine was, most of the rest of the fleet had managed to survive the storm without deviating from the directed course. Furthermore, Barney Greenwald's accusations against the crew present another side to the incident that calls Maryk's actions into question. Viewed in some lights, the mutiny was an attack against all that is sacred about the Navy. The inexperienced wartime recruits took down Queeg, a man who had been fighting for the United States for years. The civilian sailors unleashed their frustrations on their captain. In removing him, they violated the Navy's trust in command. Willie Keith eventually realizes that he supported Maryk because of his personal antipathy for Queeg. Because we see events from Willie's perspective, we initially see Maryk's actions in a heroic light, and then begin to see them as wrong.

Maryk was a simpleminded, sturdy sailor who had been corrupted by the novelist Keefer into thinking that Queeg was crazy. While each of the questionable incidents in his log could be explained separately, Keefer took them together and interpreted them as a clinical case of paranoia. He misapplied a Naval regulation in order to override a Naval order. Though the novel often makes the Navy seem ridiculous, stubborn, and simpleminded, it also maintains that the Navy is good, so it is hard to excuse Maryk's attack on the Navy.

Why do you think Willie joined the Navy? Why do you think he stuck with it, and even went so far as to volunteer for an assignment as dangerous as minesweeping?

Willie joins the Navy for a variety of reasons. He was contacted by the draft board, so he chooses to enlist in large part so that he can go into service as an officer. Willie chooses the Navy because it is arguably the safest branch of the service, but then he volunteers for one of the most dangerous assignments possible. Willie says that he hoped to be assigned to a communications school in Annapolis; but if he wanted to do the safe thing, he could have done it earlier. Willie learned that his mother was arranging a plush post for him in the Army's public relations division, and asked his father to stop her. Many of Willie's choices in the Navy seem geared toward asserting himself over his mother. Willie says that after Princeton, he went into the lounge singing business against the wishes of his mother, who wanted him to pursue a graduate degree in comparative literature. When Pearl Harbor is first attacked, Willie comes home and talks to his parents about joining the Navy, but is forced to reconsider because he is upsetting his mother. Willie joins the Navy to take the easy way out of his required service, but then rejects comfortable assignments out of a desire to assert himself over his mother.

The main reason that Willie stays with the Navy and his dangerous and oppressively boring position aboard the Caine is the letter from his father. Once Willie settles in to his routine, other reasons for staying develop. When Willie is on his way to the admiral's dinner party to ask for transfer, however, the only thing that stops him is letter containing the dying advice of his father. The letter creates a determination in Willie to be his father's last success: to avoid the easy road, and to truly make something of himself. At several points, Willie falls back on this advice to keep up his moral.

Of the major influences on Willie (his mother, his father, May, Keefer, etc.), which do you think is the strongest?

Throughout the opening chapters of the book, Willie's parents influence him very strongly in different ways, but after Willie has been out at sea for a while, he begins to shake off their influence. Tom Keefer becomes a friend to Willie, and Willie respects his mind and his experience in literature, but Willie resist being entirely influenced by Keefer, as evidenced by his refusal to condemn Queeg as a coward after the Yellowstain incident. In fact, Queeg himself becomes the most important influence in Willie's life. At one point, Willie explains that he liked to sit out and watch the ocean because it was the only thing bigger than Queeg to him.

Almost all of Willie's actions become related to Queeg in one way or another. When Queeg moves about the ship to avoid the side exposed to shore fire, Willie makes sure that he is in plain view to the beach. When Queeg is not around, Willie is constantly on the alert for him to appear somewhere, and when Willie is in the captain's presence, he does everything he can to leave it as soon as possible. Even when Queeg is secluded in his cabin, Willie is thinking about him down there doing jigsaw puzzles, eating ice cream, or just staring at the ceiling. When Willie makes the crucial decision to recognize Maryk as the commanding officer of the ship, he initially thinks that he is acting for the best, but he later realizes that he had been motivated primarily out of hatred for Queeg. The pervading presence of Queeg permeates all of Willie's actions and inactions on the ship.

Suggested Essay Topics

At the end of the novel, it is unclear whether or not May Wynn will accept Willie's marriage proposal. Do you think she will marry him? Why or why not?

Why do you think May Wynn sleeps with Willie during their vacation in Yosemite?

Discuss the ways in which Willie Keith matures over the course of the book.

Compare and contrast the line of captains of the Caine with Willie as he is at the end of the book. How does Willie integrate the various captains' traits as people and as leaders?

Does Willie Keith successfully follow the last advice of his father and the quotation from Ecclesiastes?

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