58 pages • 1 hour readPatrick O'Brian
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Master and Commander is a historical novel by the English writer Patrick O’Brian. It was first published in 1969, although it is set in 1800. O’Brian’s work is meticulously researched, drawing upon documents from the time period such as naval logs, official letters, and memories of sailors who fought in the Napoleonic Wars. Many of the naval battles described in the novel are based on real events, particularly Lord Thomas Cochrane’s victory over the superior Spanish frigate El Gamo. Master and Commander is the first novel in a 20-book series that follows the nautical adventures of Jack Aubrey, an ambitious young captain in the British Navy, and his friend, the Irish Catalan physician Stephen Maturin. This novel follows Aubrey’s first appointment as the captain of a ship, the Sophie, his meeting and burgeoning friendship with Maturin, and his capture of the Spanish xebec, Cacafuego. Several books in the series were adapted into the film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World in 2003. The film does not follow the events of any particular book, but rather uses various events and characters from O’Brian’s work to craft an original plot.
This guide refers to the edition published in 1990 by W. W. Norton & Company.
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Content Warning: The source text contains racist, misogynistic, and anti-gay language.
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Master and Commander begins in the year 1800 in Port Mahon, Minorca, an island in the Mediterranean. The British Empire is fighting a war with France and its ally, Spain. Jack Aubrey, an officer in the British Navy, is between positions on ships and is running out of money to pay off his debts. While watching a musical concert, he meets the Irish Catalan physician Dr. Stephen Maturin. The two are initially antagonistic, with Maturin criticizing Aubrey for tapping his hand to the music on the wrong beats. However, when Aubrey finds out that night that he has been appointed as the master and commander, essentially the acting captain, of the HMS Sophie, his mood instantly changes. The next day, he finds Maturin and realizes that they are both music lovers. The two strike up an unlikely friendship, and Aubrey invites the destitute Maturin to join his crew as the ship’s surgeon.
The Sophie sets off on a voyage across the Mediterranean, protecting a merchant convoy. Aubrey learns about the capabilities of his ship and the men on his crew and tries to prepare them for naval combat. Maturin learns about the culture and jargon of sailors while enjoying the chance to study the birds and sea creatures they encounter. Tension develops between Aubrey and his lieutenant, James Dillon. Maturin recognizes Dillon from their past membership in the Society of United Irishmen, a group that advocated for equal representation of Presbyterians and Catholics in the Irish parliament and instigated a failed republican rebellion in 1798. Maturin realizes that Dillon’s conflicting loyalty to his Irish Catholic heritage makes him resent Aubrey.
After he successfully escorts the merchant convoy, Admiral Lord Keith gives Aubrey permission to take the Sophie on a mission to capture enemy merchant ships as prizes. Every ship that they are able to take over and send back to a British port will be ransomed and sold, bringing Aubrey and his crew both fame and profit. Dillon faces a moral crisis when the Sophie is ordered to capture an American ship with Irish rebels hiding aboard. He lets the Irish rebels go, but feels that his honor is lost when one of the rebels threatens him with extortion. Maturin attempts to deescalate Dillon’s growing animosity toward Aubrey, but fears that a confrontation is inevitable once they return to shore.
The Sophie encounters a larger and far superior Spanish ship, the Cacafuego, off of the coast of Barcelona. Aubrey’s crew is able to successfully capture the ship, but Dillon is killed in the battle. This unlikely victory ought to provide Aubrey with the promotion to post-captain that he desires, as well as a large amount of prize money for the crew. However, because Aubrey has been having an affair with Molly Harte, her vengeful husband Captain Harte refuses to reward them for their achievement.
As the Sophie escorts another merchant convoy across the Mediterranean, they are captured by a group of French warships. Aubrey and the crew are taken as prisoners to Gibraltar, where they witness the Battle of Algeciras between the French and British from the shore. The British are victorious, but Aubrey must face a court-martial because he lost his ship. However, the trial finds him not guilty of any wrongdoing and he is reinstated as an officer of the British Navy.