Often perplexed, always resilient, Hornblower struggles through, learning his trade in a world of danger and duty. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, by C.S. Forester, chronicles the early career of one Horatio Hornblower as he cuts his teeth in the Royal Navy. A modern protagonist, Hornblower suffers from a number of imperfections, among them physical gawkiness, introvertedness, and a strong tendency toward self-criticism, that would likely undermine the progress of his career, were it not for certain mitigating, and ultimately triumphant qualities. These qualities—primarily a kind of impetuous fortitude, born as much from a humorous desire not to fail miserably as from a desire to do his duty, and an agile intelligence that always kicks into high gear just in time—are the germinal virtues by whose agency Hornblower overcomes the combined forces of his lack of experience, and of those calamities that always seem to find him.
To paraphrase Hornblower, life in the Royal Navy consists of a series of crises, marked by brief periods of respite. The book’s episodic structure allows Forester to develop his character in a believable, but piecemeal fashion, from one who initially seems awkward and bookish, to the beginnings of the dependable officer seen in later Hornblower novels. Though Hornblower often lacks the professional experience or physical strength to overcome these crises in a straightforward manner, he manages finally to do it by some combination of guts and think-on-your-feet wit, earning the respect of at least some of his superior officers.
The crises themselves are among the novel’s best features, giving many of the book’s episodes the feel of whodunits. Each chapter stands alone as if it were a short story. In most cases, after taking proper care to set the scene, Forester casually lays down some detail, some small incongruity, which the reader soon comes to recognize as the portent of a big problem. Half the fun is in trying to figure out just what is about to go wrong. The other half is in trying to discover some way out of the disaster once it comes to fruition, especially before Midshipman Hornblower does. His solutions are always believable, and usually unexpected. Hornblower matures as he ekes out victory, or, at least, survival, in circumstances as varied as they are strange.
Those circumstances, and that variety constitute another of the book’s major attractions. The whole panoply of British naval culture is on display here, from the daily miseries of midshipmen who dream of commision, to the camaraderie and personalities of the higher officers, to their smoldering professional resentments. One chapter contrasts the culture of the Royal Navy, with the no-nonsense grit of the British infantry. Another sets the (relative) cleanliness and propriety of Europe against rough elements in the Gulf of Oran, and of what one character refers to as the “stinks of true believers.” The Spanish and French are also portrayed as at least somewhat barbarous in comparison with the British, and it must be admitted that the examples cited—galley slavery and guillotines—are rather grim.
Grimness, and doing one’s duty in the midst of it, emerges as one of the novel’s major themes. Hornblower is honorable, but he’s not perfect, and several of his actions, decisions, and viewpoints are questionable. There’s also a very subtle flavor of growing skepticism that lingers in the background, notably in the chapters Noah’s Ark and The Man Who Saw God. In Hornblower’s time, much more than in ours, the stamp of Christianity on culture is still strong enough to motivate a man to spare his opponent’s life, to keep to his word, or to rescue his prisoners from an awful, burning death. Still, one detects that on a cultural and political level, True Religion has ceased to be the really unifying ideal of Europe, and that Decency, Doing One’s Duty, and the Nation have begun taken its place. Born on July 4, 1776, Hornblower is a man of the new age. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that Hornblower’s last great struggle is a moral one, and that his adversary is named as the Enemy himself.
Mr. Midshipman Hornblower is not a didactic novel. Its protagonist is imperfect, though he’s still in possession of some real virtues. In most cases, his good qualities account for his victories, and rarely if ever are his vices normalized, with two possible exceptions (see discussion questions below). Sooner or later, everyone finds himself in a position of low rank, untried, and untested, with the prospect of working his way up in a world whose rules he does not fully understand. Both youths and adult readers will find plenty in Horatio Hornblower to admire, and much that can be imitated. C.S. Forester has not given us a character who perfectly embodies an ideal, but one who is a work in progress. Hornblower is a fascinating character, set in a fascinating time, and his story is well worth the read.
Things to discuss…
- Compare the Marquis de Pouzauges’ treatment of the conquered revolutionary leaders in Frogs and Lobsters with Hornblower’s treatment at Spanish hands in Hornblower, the Duchess, and the Devil. Is one situation more just than the other? Why or why not?
- Consider Hornblower’s solution to the problem of Simpson in Hornblower and the Even Chance. What does it tell us about Hornblower’s personal qualities? Is Hornblower’s solution morally acceptable? What are some possible problems with it?
- What do you make of the “violent hostility”, the “lust of fighting”, and the “lust for blood” that “negated [Hornblower’s] higher faculties” in Chapter 7? Assuming that battle is sometimes necessary, and further assuming that these emotions are, to some degree, spontaneous in war, should we therefore conclude that they constitute no obstacle to virtue? Is any mental attitude permissible in war as long as the cause is just? Does the saying “Those who live by the sword will die by sword” apply to men in a war (assuming the cause is just), or is does it only apply to simple murder and to unjust wars?
- At the end of Chapter 3, Hornblower tells Pellew a lie, but it seems largely motivated by humility. May we ever tell a direct falsehood for a good reason? If you answer yes, how can that be squared with the moral maxim “No one may do evil that good may come of it”? If no, can you think of a way Hornblower could have answered or redirected Pellew’s question so as to achieve the same outcome, but without uttering a direct falsehood?