Typhoon by Joseph Conrad, 1902

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by Joseph Conrad, 1902

The preface to Typhoon, one of the most revealing of the works of Joseph Conrad, shows that his casual hearing of an anecdote about a quarrel over money below decks provided him with the first hint of the story and that he invented Captain MacWhirr as the catalyst who could unify a "bit of a sea-yarn" with a well-shaped novella. Conrad wrote, "MacWhirr is not an acquaintance of a few hours, or a few weeks, or a few months. He is the product of twenty years of life. My own life. Conscious invention had little to do with him."

Conrad must have been conscious of paradox here. Could anything be less like a great novelist than the story's hero? MacWhirr's unimaginativeness is even overstressed. It goes well beyond what we expect in the practical man devoted to his craft, so as to be comical at times.

Jukes is more imaginative than MacWhirr, but he is really more like the author, for to him MacWhirr's unimaginativeness is simply a lack, about which he writes home with contemptuous amusement. For Conrad it is not only at the heart of the story but also near the heart of the spirit of the England he loved and of the merchant navy, of which he was proud to be a member.

The contrast between the two is well illustrated by their argument about the flag. For MacWhirr, Jukes's complaint about the flag needs only to be checked against the signal codebook. When he finds it correct, MacWhirr says, "Length twice the breadth and the elephant exactly in the middle. I thought the people ashore would know how to make the local flag. Stands to reason." For Jukes, with his wider but more superficial view, the question is what Englishmen were doing sailing under a Siamese flag.

The flag becomes important again near the end of the story when the ugly situation below decks makes them wonder if they will need outside help and when Jukes is afraid (and MacWhirr still uncomprehending) that they will be unable to make themselves known as British. It is characteristic of MacWhirr that he can only contemplate the mystery of death by means of something visible, a matchbox, which he may perhaps be clutching for the last time. One or two other characters (apart from the anonymous squabbling Chinese) become momentarily vivid—for example, Rout, who understands that the dullest ass makes a better captain than a rogue, and the lonely, bitter second mate. He never writes any letters, but the letters of the other three have an importance that is sometimes overlooked. The brief but vivid account of their correspondents and of the way in which their letters are received not only places each one in his home context but also emphasizes that, though for certain purposes a Conrad ship may be a microcosm, we are not to forget that it is not so for the protagonists. A sailor is always thinking of returning to land; there is no alternative except drowning. There is poignancy in Mrs. MacWhirr's boredom with her dutiful husband's letters and of her "abject terror" of the time when he would come home for good. Rout's wife and mother enjoy his letters, and they startle the curate with little jokes depending on his having the same name as the Hebrew king Solomon. Jukes writes to an old shipmate. Thus Conrad arranges to give his characters a home context and to afford the reader relief from the claustrophobic world of the threatened ship. In describing the typhoon itself, Conrad was on guard against the danger of mere descriptive writing, as in a superior travel brochure. He avoids it by always maintaining a contrast between the exuberant effects of nature's violence and the exhaustion of lonely endurance, when even a man's companions in the ship are almost inaccessible to communication.

Jukes's memories are important here; his fears, which he strives to conceal from himself, cause him to dwell on the deaths of his parents and on playing cards with sailors since lost at sea. With occasional exceptions Conrad's seamen are brave, although more outwardly then inwardly. They feel fear while they do brave things. This explains their tendency when conditions are adverse to personalize the elements and to feel as if they are engaged in a contest against a conscious opponent of irresistible power and resources. The threat of anarchy among the Chinese below decks serves two purposes. It is a kind of miniature allegory of life without tradition, discipline, and obedience, giving almost a Hobbesian view. And it illustrates the practical superiority of MacWhirr over the more imaginative Jukes. While Jukes is willing to allow the Chinese "to fight it out among themselves, while we get a rest," MacWhirr's pedantic sense of order becomes a source of true humanity and civilization. He insists, even in the face of the unimaginable violence of nature, in being "fair to all parties." When, in the last sentence, Jukes gives MacWhirr a half contemptuous accolade ("I think he got out of it very well for such a stupid man"), we are to feel that he still has not grasped the idea of MacWhirr's real superiority. Not being English himself, Conrad had a special appreciation of English understatement. He imitates it with seasoned appreciation when he comments on MacWhirr's dislike of losing the ship: "He was spared that annoyance."

—A. O. J. Cockshut