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Master And Commander: Opening thoughts on character

A.V. Club Staff and Donna Bowman

Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club's monthly book club. We're currently discussing this month's selection, Patrick O'Brian's  Master And Commander, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CST.

Donna Bowman: I have the honor this month of tapping Patrick O'Brian's seafaring adventure Master And Commander for our discussion. It's my second selection for Wrapped Up In Books; the first was our maiden voyage (as it were), Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. And if I had to identify some common thread between the two books, it's that both are more focused on creating indelible characters than on the details of what happens to them.


So let's begin this week by talking about our leading men: Jack Aubrey, newly elevated master and commander of the sloop Sophie, and Stephen Maturin, his philosophical companion and ship's doctor. As I reread Master And Commander (my first turn through the series was about a decade ago), I remembered why I tore through the next 19 volumes in such a rush. I find these characters enormously endearing. Jack's enthusiasm and heart-on-his-sleeve sensitivity is evident in the very first scene, in which Maturin irritably shushes him for beating time during a musical performance. Aubrey's concern about how others view him takes a serious turn in this book, as he frets over whether Lieutenant Dillon thinks him cowardly or greedy, but it's Aubrey's naive yet deeply felt emotion that moves me. Consider the scene in which he tells Maturin about inadvertently insulting all Irishmen in front of Dillon, a situation he tries to rectify with "a few well-turned flings against the Pope." And again, the conversation in which he explains his ambition to be made post-captain, not because of any inherent honor in the post, but because once made, "all you have to do is to remain alive to be an admiral in time… no damned merit about it, no selection." Jack believes that if he hurtles that fence, he will be free from caring about what others think, a misconception about his own character that always brings a smile to my face.

And Maturin, the naturalist who falls in with Aubrey and becomes the treasured mascot of the ship he knows so little about, has his own naivete. Certainly he tries to protect Jack from politics and too much excellent punch—from himself, in other words—but out of his element on board ship, it is all he can do to stay out of the way. The pair of them are a classic buddy setup: each with expertise where the other lacks it, each with a blind spot a mile wide for the flaws in his own character. Perhaps Maturin is a bit too crafty, a bit too aware of the pitfalls of human relationships, especially in an idealistic mode. If I had to criticize the characterization of either figure in the early going, I'd say that I prefer the Maturin who is overjoyed at seeing the hoopoe to the one keeping secrets about Irish revolutionaries.  A minor point, however, and one that in my opinion is rectified as the series continues.

But I speak about this men as someone who has loved them for a long time, and who fell in love (especially with dear Jack) all over again during this pass through their introduction to the world. What figure did they cut for the rest of you? And what did you make of their relationship?

Leonard Pierce:  First of all, Donna, thanks for picking this book.  As will become clear as we move through this week's discussions, it wasn't entirely my cup of tea (though I liked it a lot overall), but it's a perfect example of why I've enjoyed doing Wrapped Up In Books so much:  this is a book I would never, ever have come to on my own, and so all the little bits of enjoyment I got out of it would have been lost.


Since I'm all about concept and character in books, and not so much about plot, I was naturally drawn to the relationship between Aubrey and Maturin as the strongest element of Master And Commander.  While I tried not to let myself be too influenced by outside research before finishing the book, the nature of their friendship was cited almost everywhere I looked as one of the strong points of the series, and it seems likely that it couldn't survive without such a strong relationship at the center.  I found myself pleased early on with how naturally they fell into lockstep; what initially struck me as a clumsy false start seems in retrospect the clever authorial deployment of an incident that lifelong friends or old married couples tell as the story of how they first got off on the wrong foot.  The relationship between them has those glossy, warm elements of 19th-century novels of men at war, or even of myth, but with a modern enough sensibility that it doesn't seem phony.

Something I'm sure we'll discuss later, when we talk about Master And Commander as the first of a series, is how fully fleshed out O'Brian made their histories this early on, but I was generally pleased at how he teased out just enough information about their pasts to keep me interested, and to fuel their affinity for one another.  As the story progressed, I found myself drawn more to some of the minor characters, and to the interesting way O'Brian brings class elements into their use, but Aubrey was a charming, effective leading man almost from the start, with his infectious, almost childlike enthusiasm for the life of the sea and his quirky elements, like his nonexistent grasp of languages.  Maturin provided the yang without darkening things too much, and while I feel like we didn't get entirely enough of why these two men were so drawn to one another, well, that's why it's a series, after all.


One of the failures of serial novels is making their heroes either too heroic to be interesting or too flawed to be sympathetic, and Master And Commander nicely sidesteps both pitfalls.  Not being a huge fan of seafaring adventure is my problem, not the book's, but while the blame lies with me, the credit should go to O'Brian for creating a duo who made me want more of them, even in a medium I didn't immediately enjoy.

Keith Phipps: I want to also thank Donna for choosing this, for some of the same reasons Leonard mentions above. I've had vague notions of maybe reading O'Brian's books for years. I enjoyed Peter Weir's film adaptation—Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World—and longtime Onion writer John Krewson always speaks highly of them. (I remember John being especially thrilled when O'Brian sent him a letter of appreciation following John's review of one of the series' later novels.) That said, I don't know if I would have gotten around to reading it, since there always seems to be some other book crying out a little more urgently to be read. I enjoyed this one quite a bit, and I suspect I'll be reading more in the series down the line, if not immediately.


Donna rightly began this chat by discussing character. I'll join the chorus in agreeing that O'Brian's command of the characters gives the book its thrust. Even when I got lost in the descriptions of riggings and masts and sails—and I did, often, though I recognize they're essential—I always wanted to see how things worked out for Jack and Stephen. A man of outsized enthusiasms with an underdeveloped but always active capacity for self-reflection, Jack won me over instantly. He's a man who finds it easier to love, and to hate, than to think about why he feels the way he does. (Then ends up a little tortured when he does think about it.) He gets swept up in the music, even if he's never on the beat. I get the feeling O'Brian knew every inch of the man as he wrote that first scene.

As to Leonard's point about wanting to know why these men are so drawn to each other, that didn't really bother me. I think theirs is a friendship founded on instantly recognizing in their opposite something they lack. While James Dillon's fate was not what I expected after what looked like a lot of setup for a grand confrontation, by the time I got to the end of the novel, his death made sense. Stephen's story is about someone's initiation into life on the sea. I was grateful for his inexperience and his need to have everything explained to him, since I needed that too. Dillon, in retrospect, served less as an antagonist for Jack than the part of Stephen resisting his new career, a seagoing life under the command of a man whose all-too-evident flaws don't make him anything less than a great captain.


Ellen Wernecke: I don’t know if I ever would have gotten around to reading Master And Commander without the intervention of Wrapped Up In Books, but like Keith and Leonard, I’m glad to have done it. I assumed from the breadth of the series (glancing over it at the bookstore in search of another author in the Os and Ps) that it would be action-driven, with character taking a back seat, and was pleasantly surprised to find that this was not the case.

The friendship between Aubrey and Maturin is a fascinating thing to watch develop, especially from such an unlikely start. But it sounds as though we’re all on the same page so far as liking Captain Jack more, or at least grasping his appeal more quickly. What I thought was particularly well done about O’Brian’s characterization of Aubrey is that he doesn’t come off as a heroic figure with one tidy, minor character flaw that will only come to play in a crucial moment. At times, he’s all flaws. I bristled as he ordered the floggings for drunkenness so soon after Maturin had to drag him away from a dinner party because he was soused and loud. And he’s conscious of his own hypocrisy in ordering all the crew’s women off the ship when he had been guilty of the same offense as a midshipman. Oh yeah, and the fact that he changes the Sophie’s route to visit his married lover.


He’s larger than life while still recognizably being life, and I think one of the crucial elements to his friendship with Maturin is that the doctor, being fairly reserved, is fascinated by his brashness. Even on a boat as small as the Sophie, there’s room for a lot of secrets, and from what little we learn about Maturin’s prior career, he’s been playing his cards pretty close to the vest for years. What little he’s able to share with Aubrey has a sharp significance.

I would anticipate further into the series that we would learn more about the environment that made Maturin the man, because we get such a thorough grounding in the environment that shaped Aubrey. I’ll hold some of this discussion for a later post, but the currents of discipline and promotion that direct the lives of career naval officers intrigued me to a degree I hadn’t expected. Aubrey’s brashness makes him a great captain so long as he can rein it in, an art some of his fellows learned sooner (hence their being promoted above him), but order on board would break down if everyone tried to follow his example. And we’re introduced to so many minor characters here that it’s clear O’Brian is saving some of them to develop later, but I didn’t mind that.


Zack Handlen: Well, that was fun, wasn't it?

I'll get to this more when we talk about the language and style of the book, but one thing I immensely enjoyed here is O'Brian's immediate and thorough grasp of his world. It took me a few pages to get hooked, admittedly; if I'd been reading this on my own, I doubt I would've put it aside at any point, but I definitely read faster the further I found myself in the story. But that sense of place is intoxicating, and it helped me feel affection toward the characters even when I wasn't sure who a lot of them were. The others have talked about Aubrey, Maturin, and Dillon, all of whom are expertly drawn, but for the life of me, I can't remember much of the rest of Sophie's crew. There was a fellow named Mallon, right? I think he liked poetry, and then there was the boy Ellis, who died, and Babbington. (I'm trying to do this from memory, even though the novel is close at hand.) Much like the constant flood of sailing lore and terminology, there were plenty of characters here that I didn't really understand so much as vaguely appreciate. And in a way, I'd say that's in Master And Commander's favor, because it always feels like, with those bits of plot and interaction we do see, we're missing so many other things.


As for the two leading men, and the doomed Dillon? I thought Aubrey and Maturin's meet-cute was effective, and I think it introduced both characters nicely: Aubrey as a man who lets passion sometimes override sense, and Maturin as a man with a deep investment in precision. I've been covering old-school Star Trek for The A.V. Club for about a year now, and Aubrey and Maturn's friendship reminded me a good deal of the friendship between Kirk and Spock, two people who, in one way, shouldn't want anything to do with each other, but also make perfect sense as a pair. I was expecting more squabbling and tension between them, and I appreciated that O'Brian generally kept things low-key. The biggest conflict in the book was between Dillon and Aubrey, and even that was an argument that largely played out on the sidelines. A strong feeling of matter-of-factness runs through the novel, and I liked how straightforward even the most complicated relationships were. This is a world full of people I'd like to get to know better.

Tasha Robinson: I don't disagree with anything said here; I enjoyed this book a good deal—far more than I was expecting to, based on the description of all the sailing detail—and the best part of it by far was the lead characters, and the interplay between them. And yet, presented with such an unstinting outpouring of praise, I feel a perverse need to buck the trend a little and play devil's advocate. Am I the only person who was bothered by the way Aubrey and Maturin come into conflict at the opening of the book, then treat each other like bosom buddies next time they see each other? Granted, that abrupt turnabout says a great deal of crucial and interesting things about both of them: about the depth of Aubrey's ebullience when he's up, and the quickness of his wrath when he's down, and about Maturin's tendency to reflect what courtesy or discourtesy he's offered, and go along with the prevailing winds, because his true interests don't really lie with social constructs. It also says something about the gentlemanly society they're both inhabiting, where a small offense may be grounds for a duel, but there really isn't much excuse for answering politeness with rudeness, regardless of how you feel about someone.


So it wasn't like I hated this turnabout; I can see the justification for it. But I also wish it had been handled a little more smoothly, with some overt or internal acknowledgement from one or the other of their previous conflict. I enjoy dynamic characters more than static characters generally, but I like to see the dynamic changes happen in some meaningful way, and I was bothered by the abruptness of this one.

And throughout the book, I periodically had the same feeling of wanting to know even more about these characters than I learned from their actions. The few occasions when we get to see Maturin's diary, where he shares what he really feels about Aubrey, were some of my favorite parts of the book, because again, they provided insight into both men—a chance to see what Aubrey looks from the outside, and a peek past Maturin's reserve and equanimity to what's really going on inside him. I did enjoy getting to know these characters a great deal, but perhaps it's a sign of their general appeal that I wound up wanting to know a lot more about them. Master And Commander often seemed pretty abrupt to me, as it jumped from the dining room to the deck and back again, and often—particularly where characters like Mary Harte were concerned—I really would have liked more insight into how our protagonists interacted with others, and what they were really thinking and feeling. But maybe that isn't entirely appropriate to what the book is trying to do. Perhaps we'll get into that a bit more tomorrow, when we discuss the book's setting and genre, and what it set out to do.


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