Friday, 26 March 1999

C.S. Forester: The Ship (1943)

Edition: Penguin, 1970

Forester's wartime novel is fairly unashamedly a piece of propaganda, designed to make British readers proud of the efforts of the Navy. He spent some time sailing with the Navy in the Mediterranean, and this novel is based on what he saw.

What he has written is an account of a battle, each chapter heading being a phrase taken from the Captain's report sent to the Admiralty afterward. The novel is unusual among naval stories for the attention that it pays to the ordinary rank and file, including the commissary side (vitally important, of course, in a real war, but not very glamorous). Few stories make it out of the wardroom, let alone into the kitchen. Each person is allowed the chance to be a hero in his own way (the crew is men only at this date), from the captain to the most unreliable Ordinary Seaman.

The fact that each character (except, of course, the Italian officers on the ships that attack them) is allowed to be a hero is the reason that this book is propaganda not literature. It is intended to make those at home proud of the Navy, and to get them to work hard to further the war effort. This is why the action described is a crucial victory; this is why each man is a vital cog in a smoothly running machine. In 1943, it is necessary to have some realism in a description of a battle; Forester does not write about an action won by the heroism of one man, nor does he ignore the possibility of death, disfigurement and disability; he even allows feelings of cowardice (though these must be overcome). The book must have, for many readers, achieved its purpose, which was to encourage everyone who read it that their effort was important to the successful conclusion of the war.

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