The Caine Mutiny

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The Caine Mutiny
First edition cover
Author Herman Wouk
Cover artist John Hull[1]
Language English
Publisher Doubleday
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Preceded by City Boy: The Adventures of Herbie Bookbinder (1948)
Followed by Marjorie Morningstar (1955)

The Caine Mutiny is a 1951 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel by Herman Wouk. The novel grew out of Wouk's personal experiences aboard a destroyer-minesweeper in the Pacific in World War II and deals with, among other things, the moral and ethical decisions made at sea by the captains of ships. The mutiny of the title is legalistic, not violent, and takes place during a historic typhoon in December 1944. The court-martial that results provides the dramatic climax to the plot.

The Caine Mutiny reached the top of the New York Times best seller list on August 12, 1951, after 17 weeks on the list, replacing From Here to Eternity.[2] It remained atop the list for 32 weeks until March 30, 1952, when it was replaced by My Cousin Rachel.[3] It moved back to first place on May 25, 1952, and remained another 15 weeks, before being supplanted by The Silver Chalice, and last appeared on August 23, 1953, after 122 weeks on the list.[4]

Plot summary

The story is told through the eyes of Willis Seward "Willie" Keith, an affluent, callow young man who signs up for midshipman school with the United States Navy to avoid being drafted into the Army during World War II. The novel describes the tribulations he endures because of inner conflicts over his relationship with his domineering mother and with May Wynn, a beautiful red-haired nightclub singer, the daughter of Italian immigrants. After barely surviving a series of misadventures that earn him the highest number of demerits in his midshipman's class, he is commissioned as an ensign and assigned to the destroyer minesweeper USS Caine, an obsolete warship converted from a World War I-era destroyer.

Willie, with a low opinion of the ways of the Navy, misses his ship when it leaves on a combat assignment, and rather than catch up with it, ducks his duties to play piano for an admiral who has taken a shine to him. He has second thoughts after reading a last letter from his father, who has died of melanoma, but soon forgets his guilt in the round of parties at the admiral's house. Eventually, he reports aboard the Caine. Though the ship has successfully carried out its combat missions in Willie's absence, the ensign immediately disapproves of its decaying condition and slovenly crew, which he attributes to a slackness of discipline by the ship's longtime captain, Lieutenant Commander William De Vriess.

Willie's lackadaisical attitude toward what he considers menial duties brings about a humiliating clash with De Vriess when Willie forgets to decode a communications message which serves notice that De Vriess will soon be relieved. While Willie is still pouting over his punishment, De Vriess is relieved by Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg, a strong, by-the-book figure whom Willie at first believes to be just what the rusty Caine and its rough-necked crew needs. But Queeg has never handled a ship like this before, and he soon makes errors, to which he is unwilling to admit. The Caine is sent to San Francisco for an overhaul, in an admiral's hope that the captain will make further mistakes someplace else. Before the ship departs, Queeg browbeats his officers into selling their liquor rations to him. In a breach of regulations, Queeg smuggles the liquor off the ship, and when it is lost, blackmails Willie into paying for it. Willie sees May on leave, and after sleeping with her, decides he has no future with a woman of a lower social class. He resolves to let the relationship die by not replying to her letters.

As the Caine begins its missions under his command, Queeg loses the respect of the crew and loyalty of the wardroom through a series of incidents. Tensions aboard the ship cause Queeg to isolate himself from the other officers, who snub him as unworthy, believing him an oppressive coward. Queeg is dubbed "Old Yellowstain" by the officers following the invasion of Kwajalein. Ordered to escort low-lying landing craft to their line of departure, the Caine instead drops a yellow dye marker to mark the spot, and hastily leaves the battle area.

Communications officer Lieutenant Thomas Keefer, an intellectual and initially portrayed as a sympathetic character, plants the suggestion that Queeg might be mentally ill in the mind of the Caine's executive officer, Lieutenant Stephen Maryk. He steers Maryk to "Section 184" of the Navy Regulations, according to which a subordinate can relieve a commanding officer in extraordinary circumstances.

Maryk keeps a secret log of Queeg's eccentric behavior and decides to bring it to the attention of Admiral Halsey, commanding the Third Fleet. Keefer reluctantly supports Maryk, then gets cold feet and backs out, warning Maryk that his actions will be seen as mutiny. Soon after, the Caine is caught in the path of a typhoon, an ordeal that sinks three destroyers. At the height of the storm, Queeg's paralysis of action convinces Maryk that he must relieve the captain of command to prevent the loss of the ship. Willie Keith, as Officer of the Deck, supports the decision. Maryk turns the Caine into the wind and rides out the storm.

Maryk is tried by court-martial for "conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline" instead of "making a mutiny". Willie and Stilwell, the enlisted helmsman during the typhoon, are to be tried depending on the outcome of Maryk's trial. In the courtroom, Keefer distances himself from any responsibility for the relief. Lieutenant Barney Greenwald, a naval aviator who was an attorney in civilian life, is appointed to represent Maryk. His opinion, after the captain was found to be sane by three Navy psychiatrists, is that Maryk was legally unjustified in relieving Queeg. Despite his own disgust with Maryk's and Willie's actions, Greenwald decides to take the case after deducing Keefer's role.

During the trial, Greenwald unrelentingly cross-examines Queeg until he is overcome by the stress. Greenwald's tactic of attacking Queeg results in Maryk's acquittal and the dropping of charges against Willie. Maryk, who had aspired to a career in the regular navy, is later sent to command a Landing Craft Infantry, a humiliation which ends his naval career ambitions, while Queeg is transferred to a naval supply depot in Iowa.

At a party celebrating both the acquittal and Keefer's success at selling his novel to a publisher, an intoxicated Greenwald calls Keefer a coward. He tells the gathering that he feels ashamed of having destroyed Queeg on the stand because Queeg did the necessary duty of guarding America in the peacetime Navy, which people like Keefer saw as beneath them. Greenwald asserts that men like Queeg kept Greenwald's Jewish mother from being "melted down into a bar of soap" by the Nazis. Greenwald had to "torpedo Queeg" because "the wrong man was on trial"—that it was Keefer, not Maryk, who was "the true author of 'The Caine Mutiny'". Greenwald throws a glass of "the yellow wine" in Keefer's face, thereby bringing the term "Old Yellowstain" full circle back to the novelist.

Willie returns to the Caine in the last days of the Okinawa campaign as its executive officer. Keefer is now the captain, and ironically his behavior as captain is similar to Queeg's. The Caine is struck by a kamikaze, an event in which Willie discovers that he has matured into a naval officer. Keefer panics and orders the ship abandoned, but Willie remains aboard and rescues the situation.

Keefer is sent home after the war ends, ashamed of his cowardly behavior during the kamikaze attack. Ironically, Keefer's brother Roland had died saving his ship from a kamikaze fire. Willie becomes the last captain of the Caine. He receives a Bronze Star Medal for his actions following the kamikaze—and a letter of reprimand for his part in unlawfully relieving Queeg. The findings of the court-martial have been overturned after a review by higher authority. Willie agrees in retrospect that the relief was unjustified and probably unnecessary.

Willie keeps the Caine afloat during another typhoon and brings it back to Bayonne, New Jersey, for decommissioning after the end of the war. On reflection, he decides to ask May (now a blonde and using her real name of Marie Minotti) to marry him. However, this will not be as easy as he once thought, as she is now the girlfriend of a popular bandleader.

Historical background

Wouk himself served during World War II aboard two destroyer-minesweepers converted from World War I-era Clemson-class destroyers, the USS Zane being the first and the USS Southard being the second. (Wouk uses the latter name for one of his characters in the novel, Captain Randolph Patterson Southard. In an allusion to history professor Jacques Barzun of his alma mater, Columbia University, Wouk also has Queeg refer to a previous assignment he had on a ship named the Barzun, during which he had caught a cheese thief, which he later tries to reenact during "The Strawberry Business;" see above.)

The USS Caine is a fictional depiction of a DMS (destroyer-minesweeper) conversion. The Clemson class was named for Midshipman Henry A. Clemson, lost at sea on 8 December 1846 during the Mexican war, when the brig USS Somers capsized off Vera Cruz in a sudden squall while chasing a blockade runner. In November 1842 Somers was the scene of the only recorded conspiracy to mutiny in U.S. Naval history when three members of the crew—a midshipman, a boatswain's mate, and a seaman—were clapped in irons and subsequently hanged for planning a takeover of the vessel.

Many of the incidents and plot details are autobiographical. Like both Keefer and Willie, Wouk rose through the ship's wardroom of the Zane from assistant communicator to first lieutenant, and then was executive officer of the Southard, recommended to captain the ship home to the United States at the end of the war before it was beached at Okinawa in a typhoon.


In 1954 Columbia Pictures released the film The Caine Mutiny starring Humphrey Bogart as Queeg in a widely acclaimed performance[5] that earned him the third and final Academy Award nomination of his career.

After the novel's success, Wouk adapted the court-martial sequence into a full-length, two-act Broadway play, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. Directed by Charles Laughton, it was a success on the stage in 1954, opening five months before the release of the film and starring Lloyd Nolan as Queeg, John Hodiak as Maryk, and Henry Fonda as Greenwald. It has been revived twice on Broadway, and was presented on television live in 1955, and in 1988 as a made-for-television film.

The stage script was translated into Chinese in 1988 by Ying Ruocheng, a famous Chinese actor, director, playwright and Vice Minister of Culture. At Ying's invitation, Charlton Heston directed the translated play in a successful run at the Beijing People's Art Theatre, opening on October 18, 1988.[6] The play was revived in 2006, again under Heston, and has been revived there twice more (2009, 2012) since his death.

See also


  1. Modern first editions - a set on Flickr
  2. New York Times best seller list of August 12, 1951
  3. New York Times best seller list of March 30, 1952
  4. New York Times best seller list of August 23, 1953
  5. "Filmsite Movie Review: The Caine Mutiny". Filmsite. Tim Dirks. Retrieved March 30, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (Chinese Version)".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links