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Date Added: 2002-10-31

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By Prof. Michael Dopita on December 15, 2004

This is a simple tale of the sea, painted with an clean economy of style and humourous observation of the characters. Although ostensibly about an encounter of the steamer Nan-Shan with a typhoon in the South China Seas, it is really about the commander, Captain McWhirr, who, "..having just enough imagination to carry him through each successive day, and no more,.. was tranquilly sure of himself". Indeed the very characteristic of his lack of imagination gives him the ability to deal calmly and phlegmatically with the crisis and to bring the vessel through.

As Conrad puts it: "Captain MacWhirr had sailed over the surface of the oceans as some men go skimming over the years of existence to sink gently into a placid grave, ignorant of life to the last, without ever having been made to see all it may contain of perfidy, of violence, and of terror. There are on sea and land such men thus fortunate -- or thus disdained by destiny or by the sea" and, "had he been informed by an indisputable authority that the end of the world was to be finally accomplished by a catastrophic disturbance of the atmosphere, he would have assimilated the information under the simple idea of dirty weather, and no other, because he had no experience of cataclysms, and belief does not necessarily imply comprehension."

The enonomy of Conrad's descriptive style paints images of weather which most of us will have never experienced. For example, the approach of the storm is described thus: "The Nan-Shan was ploughing a vanishing furrow upon the circle of the sea that had the surface and the shimmer of an undulating piece of gray silk. The sun, pale and without rays, poured down leaden heat in a strangely indecisive light, and the Chinamen were lying prostrate about the decks".."At its setting the sun had a diminished diameter and an expiring brown, rayless glow, as if millions of centuries elapsing since the morning had brought it near its end. A dense bank of cloud became visible to the northward; it had a sinister dark olive tint, and lay low and motionless upon the sea, resembling a solid obstacle in the path of the ship. She went floundering towards it like an exhausted creature driven to its death. "

The interactions of the Captain and his officers and his stilted correspondence with his distant, bougeois and uncomprehending wife is described with elegant humour and sharp observation of human nature.

A "ripping yarn" much to be recommended.