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Monday, August 04, 2014

Mr. Midshipman Easy (1836) by Frederick Marryat: Mini-Lecture - Learning Object

Welcome to a mini-lecture learning object on one of the first sea novels, or "nautical tales," Mr. Midshipman Easy (1836) by Captain Frederick Marryat.  The full text is available at Internet Archive. An audio recording is available via Librivox. To access the interactive learning object, please click the Learning Object Link.

learning object by susan smith nash, ph.d.: mr. midshipman easy
Click the graphic to go to the learning object for Mr. Midshipman Easy, an early novel-length nautical tale  by Captain Frederick Marryat.

Mr. Midshipman Easy (1836) by Captain Frederick Marryat
Mini-Lecture by Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.

About the Author:  Frederick Marryat (1792-1848)

Frederick Marryat joined the British Royal Navy as a midshipman at the age of 14, which seems astonishingly young from a 21st century perspective. The son of a very wealthy “merchant prince,” Marryat had more or less completed an education at an English public school, with a grounding in Greek and Roman classics, mathematics, history, and geography, which put him ahead of many of his time. 

Distinguishing himself as a naval officer, and rising to the rank of Captain, Marryat served in a unique time

Like William Dampier, who was the captain of a vessel in the Royal British Navy a century before, Marryat was interested in science and in writing memoirs, many of which became very influential. Dampier inspired Defoe (Robinson Crusoe) and Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels). Marryat is known as the inventor of the “sea story,” and there are echoes of Mr. Midshipman Easy in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

Mr. Midshipman Easy (1836)
This is a very entertaining tale, part picaresque novel, part travel adventure. In tracing the life of Jack Easy, the indulged son of a very wealthy trader-turned-philosophe, and a mild-mannered, apocalyptic leaning mother, the number of adventures experienced at sea by a young midshipman, all before age 15, creates a narrative that contains echoes of Gargantua and Pantagruel (Rabelais), Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), and Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe).

Picaresque Novel: Mr. Midshipman Easy is easily as picaresque as Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) and Voltaire’s Candide (1762) in the sense that it traces the adventures of a young man who must live by his wits and who filters all his experiences through eyes and perspectives muddied by naivete and/or hopelessly idealistic philosophies.

Candide is poisoned by being immersed by Pangloss who adheres to Leibniz’s philosophy of optimism. Jack Easy is similarly blinded by his father, Nicodemus Easy, who, as a self-described philosopher, is a fervent admirer of the French philosophes whose idea of equality and the rights of man lead him to criticize society.

Jack’s father gives a very generous loan to a captain who desires to outfit a privateer, and thus repay the loan with interest and profit based on “prizes” captured in the legalized piracy practiced by nations which could not afford to outfit a navy, and thus incentivized private ships to attack ships of enemy states and disable them (and the countries’ economies) by seizing the ships and their cargo.

The captain (Captain Wilson) is grateful and thus has a paternal regard for the young midshipman, and so Jack’s echoes of his father’s views are comical in context (rather than tragic and/or mutinous as they would probably appear in reality). Jack enjoys a charmed life, and his frequent disquisitions on his philosophy are comical, and also critique the views of the philosophes and revolutionaries.

Criticism of Corruption in the Catholic Church:  Very much like Candide and Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, Mr. Midshipman Easy contains extremely biting criticism of the Catholic Church, in particular the role of priests and confessors, who practice deception, poisoning, thievery, and all other sorts of misdeeds to obtain wealth, property, and control. Jack encounters scheming, deceitful priests in Sicily, Malta, and in Spain, which are illustrated in encounters that are humorous as well as insightful. While it is also other things, the novel is a satire of society, particularly in its view of religion (the Catholic Church), and certain forms of government and the unpinning philosophies.

Problematizing the “Noble Savage” and Stereotypes of Africans: Travel memoirs were filled with the idea of the “noble savage,” dating back to Bartolome de las Casas Historia de las Incas (1561) and then employed by Montaigne in his essay, “On Cannibals” (1580) and John Dryden during the Restoration (1670s) in The Conquest of Granada. The “noble savage” is viewed as the “other” and the psychological gulf between an indigenous person (whether native American or African) was considered to be almost insuperable – either whether viewed as overly innocent or the embodiment of evil.

Marryat’s character, “Mesty” (short for Mephistopheles Faustus) is an African who was a king in his own tribe, then captured and transported on a slave ship to America, where he was a slave. He escaped, then fled to New York, where he found that attitudes toward blacks were not healthy, even though slavery was outlawed. So, he joined a ship and set for England. He finds employment on the Aurora as a servant. Mesty is the real hero of Mr. Midshipman Easy, and his complex, paradoxical, wise views and actions ground narrative, while at times providing moments of broad comedy as English snobbery, religious hypocrisy, and human nature are exposed.

Life as a Privateer: Quintessence of the Quest for Meaningful Human Employment
The job of the privateer to attack, loot, and plunder is viewed as a form of game and is almost grotesquely sentimentalized, if one is seeking historical verisimilitude. The question remains: in this novel, is being a privateer the quintessence of the quest for meaningful human employment, or, a critique of colonialism? In Mr. Midshipman Easy, dogged adherence to historical fact is not the purpose of this tale, which is more of a romance / adventure. Even the most grotesque elements (the mutinous crew eaten by ground sharks) are comical rather than ghastly or horrific.

Summary: A Sea Tale?
Mr. Midshipman Easy (1836) is a very entertaining tale, part picaresque novel, part travel adventure.

The novel traces the live of young Jack Easy, the indulged son of a very wealthy trader-turned-philosophe and a mild-mannered, cowed-by-the-apocalypse mother.

By incorporating a number of adventures experienced at sea by a young midshipman, all before age 15, Marryat creates a narrative that contains echoes of Gargantua and Pantagruel (Rabelais), Gulliver’s Travels (Jonathan Swift) and Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe).

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