I Willie Keith
The Caine Mutiny is a tale of life during wartime. Much of the action takes place aboard the USS Caine, a destroyer minesweeper operating in the Pacific during World War II. The novel takes its title from an event during which the Caine's captain is relieved of his duty by the executive officer, a potentially mutinous act. The work explores the complexities, oddities, inequities, and human toll that life during wartime must necessarily produce.
1 Through the Looking Glass
The first section of the novel introduces Willis Seward Keith, otherwise known as Willie. Willie is a 1941 graduate of Princeton with a focus in literature. He comes from a well-to-do family in Manhasset, New York and is a rather jovial man.
The novel opens with Willie's arrival at midshipmen school on the campus of Columbia University in December 1942. Though he wanted to travel to the school by himself, he is driven there by his mother. He is slightly embarrassed as his mother kisses him before he exits the car.
Moments after Willie enters Furnald Hall, Mrs. Keith remembers that she has forgotten to give him his spending money. She attempts to enter the building but is rebuffed by a Navy official. She tries to signal Willie, but when she can't get his attention, she ends up giving the money to the official, who is shocked that she wants to give her son one hundred dollars.
Once inside, Willie undergoes a battery of physical tests, one of which reveals that he may suffer from lordosis, a problem with the curvature of the spine. One of the examiners suggests that Willie belongs in the Army, a prospect Willie fears, but a superior examiner recommends that another doctor at the Naval Yard recheck Willie. Willie is issued his seaman's clothes and a large stack of books. He then goes to his dorm room, where he meets his roommates: Edwin Keggs, a former high school math teacher from Akron, Ohio, and Roland Keefer, son of a West Virginia politician. Keefer tells the other two of his outrageous going-away party, then lies down on his cot and falls asleep. In the meantime, Keggs tells Willie how the bottom third of the program are considered washouts and are transferred to the Army. The section ends with Willie feeling content yet somehow confined.
2 May Wynn
This section opens by describing how following his graduation from college, Willie works as a pianist in a cocktail lounge in a New York hotel, playing original music. On December 7, 1941, he accepts a higher paying job at a different nightclub. After his interview for the new job, Willie sees the headlines relating the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He isn't certain where Pearl Harbor is, but he feels that America will probably be drawn into the war. In any case, he isn't particularly concerned since he has a rather high draft number. That evening Willie discusses with his parents the possibility of enlisting in the Navy. His mother speaks against it, and his father, Dr. Keith, defers to his wife's judgment. As a result, Willie spends the next five months playing piano at Club Tahiti.
Willie has had several typical romances with women of his own social status, as well as women of a lower class. However, he falls greatly for May Wynn, whom he first meets during talent auditions at the nightclub. Willie is captivated by May, and following her audition, he takes her to an Italian restaurant, where he learns that she is also Italian. His reaction to discovering her ethnicity is complex: he is both relieved and disappointed. He believes that he can have fun with her, but he also admits to himself that the relationship could never become serious because he would never marry an Italian. Willie jokingly asks May to marry him and she refuses, asserting that his mother would never permit it, in part because her family are relatively recent immigrants. They discuss books, but it's apparent that she isn't very read in literature. She does, however, hold her own ground, claiming that she had to work very hard as a youth and never had time for such pursuits. Willie offers to take her home in a cab, but she insists on taking the subway. Working through the night, Willie rewrites the lyrics to the song May performed at her audition.
During the next several weeks, their relationship deepens. Willie takes May to several art museums, for walks in the park, and to various restaurants. He also writes her poetry. During this period Willie receives his draft notice and after obtaining his physical he is accepted into midshipmen school, to begin the following December. Willie's call to duty upsets his mother, who decides to help by taking him on a short trip to Mexico and a summer in Rhode Island. In the meantime, May continues to sing in various nightclubs in other cities. They continue their relationship, with Willie proud that he has been able to maintain a fun relationship without becoming more deeply entangled. He surmises that the relationship will last until he embarks on his tour of duty.
3 Midshipman Keith
Willie travels to the Brooklyn Naval Yard for his second medical checkup. He is nervous and his pulse rate is high, so he takes a sedative to calm himself. The doctor is due in surgery soon and sends Willie into an examination room, telling him that he will be with him shortly. When the doctor fails to return, Willie falls asleep and doesn't awaken for eight hours. When he finally leaves the room, the nurse is shocked. As the doctor examines him, Willie stresses that he really wants to be in the Navy. The doctor remarks that the Navy has certain standards but in the end signs his approval. Willie believes that he was approved only because the doctor had left him in the exam room earlier.
Willie returns to Columbia and gives his medical approval, with some satisfaction, to the pharmacist's mate. When he returns to his room, Keggs and Keefer are trying to master the disassembly and reassembly of the rifles they have been issued. Keefer, more proficient than the others, attempts to teach the process to Willie, but as Willie works with his rifle, the mainspring breaks free, flies out the tenth-story window, and lodges in a rain gutter. Afraid of heights, Willie is reluctant to climb out onto the roof to retrieve the spring, but he attempts it nonetheless. When he can't reach the spring on his own, Keggs helps him by standing outside on the roof and grasping Willie's hand. Unfortunately, while the pair are on the roof, an ensign making his rounds spies them and enters their room. When the ensign shouts, Willie and Keggs nearly fall off the roof. The ensign reprimands them and notes that he'll be keeping an eye on them.
The trio study hard, and Keefer is made a battalion commander. Willie happens to do well on a particular exam and becomes the recognized expert on ammunition. He is praised for his work, and because of the praise he attempts to master the study materials. Willie discovers that some of the material isn't rational, but he learns that it must be learned word-for-word anyway.
All three of the men pass their courses and become midshipmen. Willie spends his first free time with May. They have a meal together, and Willie says that he should spend some time with his family, but that he'll rejoin May later.
4 Midshipman Keith in Trouble
Willie returns home to an elaborate homecoming party hosted by his mother. Following dinner, his father pulls him aside for a private conversation in the library. Upon his arrival Willie noticed that his father was limping, but when Willie inquires about the injury his father dismisses it. Dr. Keith asks Willie how he is really doing, and suggests that he has somehow changed. Willie reveals that he has met a girl. His father asks if she's a respectable woman and if Willie intends to marry her. Willie remarks that in her own way she is a fine woman, but marriage isn't a possibility. A vision of May's lower-class parents meeting his disturbs him. Willie asks his father if something else is troubling him, but his father reassures Willie that it's nothing that can't wait and the pair return to the party. Around four o'clock Willie makes a hasty exit, with his mother vowing to visit him soon.
Willie is late meeting May, and is somewhat perturbed that she is there with her Jewish agent. Willie is somewhat rude to the agent, and as a result the agent doesn't stay long, though he insists on paying for the couple's dinner. After the agent departs, May and Willie have a mild argument over his treatment of her agent. May turns the argument to their relationship, but Willie avoids a fight by suggesting that they have a drink at the Tahiti Club. At the club they are nearly mobbed by all of their old acquaintances and the argument is diffused. Keefer appears, in a drunken state, with a woman, and Willie reminds him that there are consequences for returning late to their dorm. The club emcee introduces May and Willie as two gifted entertainers and, with the help of the crowd, persuades the pair to perform. May offers a moving song, but after they have returned to their seats she tells Willie that she is now ready to fight. She insists that she doesn't want to se him again, and when Willie questions her, she asks if he will marry her. She then notes that she understands that she isn't of his pedigree but she doesn't want to end up like other women she has seen, who are used and discarded.
The couple take a taxi back to the midshipmen school and on the way passionately kiss each other again and again. May mentions that her agent believes that Willie actually loves her, but Willie balks at the comment. When they arrive at the dorm, Willie tells the driver to continue driving around but to have him back by midnight. May suggests that perhaps she would be more acceptable to him if she entered college, claiming that she did well in high school and believes that she could succeed. Willie remarks that it probably wouldn't make any difference to his mother, and when May asks if it would make a difference to him, his refusal to reply provides his answer. The taxi returns to the school, with only several minutes left until Willie's midnight curfew, but again, Willie has trouble leaving May. He comments that they shouldn't worry about the issue but should live for today. May lays plain the reality of her situation and comments that she doesn't blame him for responding this way. She stresses that she was a fool for having gotten into the relationship to begin with. May opens her heart to him, but when she notices that Willie's attention is focused on his watch, she lashes out that she never wants to see him again. Willie exclaims that he loves her, but she tells him to drop dead and pushes him from the cab.
When Willie enters the school, he is immediately confronted by one of the ensigns, who berates him for his late arrival and notes that it will cost him twenty demerits-with fifty being grounds for expulsion. Willie has the sense to quietly accept his punishment.
5 Orders for Midshipman Keith
The following day the midshipmen prepare for a review parade in front of the commandant. Willie is given five additional demerits for a minor infraction, bringing his total to twenty-five. As the men perform for the admiral, Willie's mind is occupied by thoughts of May and of becoming an outstanding Navy man. As his group marches past the crowd, Willie sees May, who shouts that he's won. Willie becomes confused, follows the wrong marching order, and finds himself separated from his group. He joins another group and eventually finds himself back at a different residence hall. As he tries to slip out of the hall, he is questioned. He asks for the officer's mercy and is permitted to leave.
On his return to Furnald Hall, Willie is spotted by an ensign from his dorm, who seems to delight in having caught Willie committing an offense. The ensign escorts Willie back to the hall and presents him to another ensign, who takes Willie to Commander Merton and advises him to tell Merton the truth. Willie offers his story to the commander, who mentions Willie's superb performance on one of the exams and suggests that the Navy can't really afford to lose someone like him. As a result, the commander gives Willie twenty-eight demerits and confines him to the grounds until graduation, in three months.
That evening Willie's father visits him at the dorm. Willie tells his father of his troubles, and his father comments that his mother has been working with an influential relative to get Willie a commission in the Army. Willie rejects the idea, stressing that he would just as soon finish what he started. Willie questions his father about his health, but his father dismisses the issue. As his father leaves, Willie thinks that he should have talked more with his father.
As graduation approaches, Willie has visits from May and from his mother. May has enrolled in college, though she tells Willie she is doing it more for herself than for him. Mrs. Keith tries to convince Willie to accept the Army commission but eventually gives up. Willie diligently applies himself to his studies and is able to maintain a relatively high position among his peers. When the group is asked to select three potential positions for active service, Keefer selects staff duty only, and Keggs selects mine disposal, submarines, and local defense. Willie, thinking of which position would keep him closest to May and trying to decipher the method the Navy would use to make the appointments, selects staff, large ships, and submarines. The day before graduation, orders arrive for Keefer and Keggs, but Willie's appear to be held up. Keefer receives his request for staff duty. Keggs can't open his envelope, fearful that he might actually be sent to mine disposal, so Keefer opens it for him. Keefer is assigned to a minesweeper, and his heart sinks. Moments later Willie's orders arrive, and he too is assigned to a minesweeper, the USS Caine.
The initial impression of Willie is that he is a rather soft, pampered intellectual. His medical condition, his lordosis, is symbolic of the lack of spine or "backbone" he possesses. Willie's relationship with May reveals several things about his character. First, though he is not outwardly racist, he is somewhat of an elitist. Second, in terms of his personal relationships he is still an adolescent. Willie's fluke performance on the exam, which gains him respect and popularity, suggests that much of what is valued in the military is the result of luck. Willie's bumbling approach to midshipmen's school and his playboy-like treatment of May reflect his adolescent mindset. Though he is a man training to be a naval officer, he is still very sophomoric in many ways. Mrs. Keith's offer to get Willie a commission in the Army is symbolic of the complete care and sheltering she has always afforded her son. Willie's rejection of the offer is his first step in breaking the tight mother/son bond.