The Caine Mutiny is primarily the story of Willie Keith's maturation, which is catalyzed by his military career. In the beginning of the novel, Willie is a spoiled rich boy. By the end, he is a confident, persevering leader. Willie is helped along the way to manhood by several factors. The first is a letter sent to him by his dying father. The letter cements Willie's determination to succeed in the Navy. The Navy provides all of the hardship needed to harden Willie. Captain De Vriess immediately recognizes the potential in Willie, and helps him along by being strict with Willie. This prepares Willie for Queeg's brutality, which makes Willie able to withstand any amount of torture, mental or physical. Willie makes a major step in his development when the court martial forces him to recognize his own subjectivity. Because of the court martial, Willie ceases to feel that he is always right. After the kamikaze attack, Willie realizes that he has made the final step into manhood. The event forces him to look the horror of war in the face. Willie knows that he will never again feel the youthful excitement for conflict that he felt at Ulithi Atoll.
The development of Willie's relationship with May Wynn is a good barometer of his rising level of maturity. Initially, May falls for the youthful energy of Willie, but as Willie grows, so does her love for him. When Willie sees May on his first day of his leave, she wants him to either grow up and marry her or to never see her again. Later, May sees that Willie has discovered the right path, but is following it for the wrong reasons; he wants to marry her because he feels guilty. When Willie returns after the war, May understands that Willie has become a man and wants to marry her for all of the right reasons.
In The Caine Mutiny, a stark contrast exists between the regular Navy and the men enlisted for the war effort. Though the physical standards for enlistment are lowered, the enlisted men are often more intelligent, more educated, and more confident in their marketable skills than the regulars. On the other hand, they are not used to military discipline and operating procedures, which often strike them as ridiculous, cumbersome, and oppressive.
The conflict between Thomas Keefer and Captain Queeg is a perfect example of the tensions created by having enlisted men and regulars on the same ship. The highly educated Keefer finds the very stupid Queeg intolerable. Keefer does all that he can to undermine the captain's authority, thinking that authority undeserved. Keefer is actually destroying Naval tradition and trust, not doing the right thing. Though Queeg proves somewhat incompetent at carrying out the non-routine aspects of military life, he was selected by the Navy for command, and should have been treated accordingly. Queeg would have been the perfect peacetime commander. His attention to detail, determination to keep things by the book, and oblivion to boredom was exactly what the Navy looked for in a captain. Unfortunately, wartime conditions made captains of Queeg's type ineffective.
Throughout the Caine's adventures, Herman Wouk inserts updates on the proceedings of the war, both to provide a chronology and to underline Willie's perspective of the war. Willie is one of the millions of participants in World War II. The narrator jokingly points to the fact that Willie had no idea what his role in the war was. He did not have the perspective of the later historians, or even the high commanders who were writing the millions of war stories.
Part of the purpose of the novel is to penetrate the historical and journalistic accounts of the war that proliferated after the Allied victory. In the excessiveness of their numbers, and in their huge scope, many of those reports did not communicate what war was about for the individual. At the library, anyone can read about the attack on the Philippines, but the plight of the individual soldier and sailors are not so easy to come by. That reader will understand that the offensive was difficult and that many losses were sustained, but he or she will not hear about the plight of a fresh ensign being piloted around a typhoon in a tub of a ship with a maniac for a captain. When the war at large makes appearances in The Caine Mutiny, it is to remind readers of the perspective of the book; to remind them that Willie was part of something much larger than him.
In his marriage proposal to May Wynn, Willie notes that the phenomenon that most defined his experience in the Navy constantly woken up from sleep. Indeed, almost every major event in the story begins with Willie being interrupted from rest. More abstractly, Willie is also awakened to an understanding of his father, his own subjectivity, and his only regret.
In the face of all the crazy things that happen aboard the Caine, one thing that stays consistent are the meals. In the middle of the ship's horrible rolling during the typhoon, Willie is comforted when he notices Whittaker and the rest of the kitchen staff bustling around the dining area trying to make sure that the afternoon meal will be ready. The mood of the crew at meals is always indicative of the condition of the ship in general. It is also at meals, while the officers are gathered, that Keefer's discontent with Queeg spreads to the other officers.
On many different, the Caine is constantly being renewed. Whenever there is a moments' rest, the crew is at work scraping off the old paint and applying new coats. The destroyer-tender Pluto, the source of many elements of renewal, is revered around the Navy as precious. A spot at her side is regarded as the most desirable possible berthing. The crew itself is entirely transient, renewing itself constantly. At the end of the book, only two officers originally on board with Willie remain. Ensign Farrington, especially, gives Willie a sense of how the crew is constantly renewed, because young Farrington is almost an exact replica of what Willie was when he came aboard.
The two tiny metal balls that Captain Queeg constantly rolls around between his fingers are a symbol of his mental problems. The balls are like his security blanket, without which he would fall apart. The balls make the captain's nervousness and insecurity visible to the world. The turning point of the court martial comes when Greenwald badgers Queeg to the point that Queeg has to take out the balls to keep himself from falling apart.
Multitudes, Multitudes, Thomas Keefer's novel-in-progress about World War Two, is a symbol of the conflict Keefer has with the regular military. Whenever he feels oppressed by the conundrums of the Navy or by Queeg, Keefer turns to his writing. It is the last vestige of his former life, the jewel of his intellectual pursuits, and a constant source of debate between himself and Queeg, who thinks the novelist should be spending more time on his duties. When Willie finally gets to read part of the novel, he finds it entertaining, but utterly lacking in the literary merit that he expected from such an educated person. Because the novel is a failure, Keefer is a failure in what he may have thought was the only worthwhile thing he did aboard the Caine.
When Willie lends his hat to Harding so that the height-sick ensign does not have to vomit all over the ship, the hat becomes a symbol of their friendship and of Willie's acceptance aboard the Caine. It is also somewhat symbolic military stupidity. It was not necessary to make Willie and Harding climb to the crows nest, but they do, and the result of their submission to military ways hangs over their heads, waiting to wreak havoc.