Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Nevil Shute's Characters: Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things

Fred Erisman
Department of English - Box 297270
Texas Christian University
Fort Worth, Texas 76129

I. Introduction

A. For more than forty years, Nevil Shute's readers have scratched their heads over what seems to be the author's dramatic change of heart in the early 1950s.

B. In Vinland the Good (1946), written in the waning months of World War II, Shute gives to one of his characters what many (and I include myself) consider his artistic credo:

"People in history [are] not a different race from you and me. Your history books deal mostly with the great people, the Kings and Princes and the Ministers of State. They're just the froth upon the surface . . . they don't mean much. History is made by plain and simple people like ourselves, doing the best we can with each job as it comes along").

Here is a ringing affirmation of the democratic spirit, and one that resonates for readers even today.

C. Yet, a scant seven years later, in In the Wet (1953), Shute has another character (a political economist with whom we're intended to sympathize) speak out for just the opposite position:

"The common man has held the voting power, and the common man has voted consistently to increase his own standard of living, regardless of the long term interests of his children, regardless of the long term interests of his country . . . . No despot, no autocratic monarch in his pride and greed has injured England so much as the common man".

This is a harsh indictment, indeed, one sparked in great part by Shute's reaction to England under a Labour government, and one that, taken by itself, poses troublesome issues for the casual reader.

D. Taken in context, however, the two comments prove to be less a contradiction than a complement, for they reflect Shute's life-long ruminations on the nature and necessities of a democratic society.

1. The key lies in Shute's language: one character speaks of the "plain and simple" people, whereas the other speaks of the "common" people.

2. This distinction speaks volumes, for it distinguishes those persons for whom Shute has admiration from those he disdains, and it makes clear exactly what he has in mind to convey to his readers.

E. Throughout his works, Shute offers a straightforward and utterly consistent vision of how human society, given the opportunity, ought to operate.

1. The characteristics he gives his "plain and simple" people are clear for all to see, yet the simplicity of his views mustn't be taken for naivete.

2. He offers an energetic and largely positive view of human potential, yet not a troublefree one. He fully recognizes that some persons will abuse their opportunities, and some will fail in their endeavors; some will have opportunities, and others will not.

3. Nonetheless, he offers a model of the world in which those who recognize their possibilities and their limitations, seize upon their possibilities, and accept the realities that life in all its complexity brings will ultimately prevail -- a progressive and forward-looking society in which each person, man or woman, rises to the highest level of which he or she is capable and willingly accepts the limitations as well as the benefits of the human condition.

II. Character Traits -- What, exactly, are the qualities that Shute identifies as distinguishing the "plain and simple" people from the "common" people?

A. The Common -- for, although Shute rarely spells out in so many words what he means by this,it nonetheless becomes clear.

1. He is, as Kindling (1938) makes obvious, well aware that external circumstances will at times work against humanity; the shipwrights of Sharples are skilled and conscientious workers, but there is no call for their trade.

2. He returns to this theme in 1940, when he has the out-of-work pilot, Donald Ross, the flier, remark to Alix Lockwood that "I fly aeroplanes and seaplanes for a living. That's what I do. At present I'm out of a job". He, like the shipwrights, is idle through no fault of his own.

a. Yet Shute separates Ross's unemployment from the failings of the "common" persons.

b. And the attributes of the "common" persons become clear when Ross observes that accidents occur because "men are foolish, and reckless, and negligent, and lazy".

3. Shute extends his definition in The Far Country (1952), when Carl Zlinter experiences the surliness of a sluttish waitress, who is "bitterly hostile to all immigrants, especially the European ones who worked too hard and were guilty of the social crime of saving money".

a. Shute unquestionably wants us to identify with the industry and the success of Jane and Jack Dorman.

b. But he is also careful to separate the Dormans as fully from the elite minority of the large nation-owners as he separates them from the lazy and improvident common folk.

4. And he refines his definition the following year, in In the Wet, as he details the requirements for Australia's multiple vote.

a. There is a universal vote that everyone receives, but subsequent votes have to be earned -- by education, by earning a living outside Australia, by having a successful marriage and family life, by attaining a specified level of income, or by being a member of the clergy. The Seventh Vote, of course, is reserved for the Queen to bestow, as recognition of a particular, unusual achievement.

b. All of these, taken together, let us develop a picture of the kind of individual Shute believes to be an asset.

B. The Plain and Simple People -- who, for Shute, are the foundations of any functioning, successful society, and who share a cluster of specific traits. These are:

1. Competence -- The individual knows how to do something, does what the job requires, and goes on, when occasion arises, to extend the competence to other realms.

a. Their competence comes at various levels. It may be complex and professional; Noel Strachan and John Sidney Howard are solicitors; Henry Warren is a banker; Theodore Honey is an aeronautical scientist. Or it may be modest; Jackie Turner is a salesman, Peter Marshall (in civilian life) an insurance clerk, and Jean Paget and Jennifer Morton typists.

1. Nonetheless, Shute makes clear that these people approach their work, whatever it may be, with respect and determination, and those qualities carry over into other realms of their lives.

a. When Jean Paget first speaks to Noel Strachan in "a pleasant voice, the voice of a well-trained secretary," we have a hint of things to come.

b. We get the same sense when Shute tells us that Joe Petersen, captain of the Flying Cloud, is "a tall, bronzed, efficient-looking man".

2. These are people who know their jobs, and do them well; the initial responses we have to them are only confirmed by later events.

a. Jean Paget is a case in point. Her formal education has ended at age seventeen, with a six months' course in a commercial college to prepare her for secretarial work.

b. Circumstances, however, take her back to Malaya, and circumstances put her in the group of women whose de facto leader she becomes.

c. And it comes as no surprise, therefore, when a civil servant speaks of her as a person who "wasn't anybody notable," but was still "a very fine type".

d. What's more, they are determined to do that job well; the work is its own satisfaction. Connie Shak Lin says that "All I ever wanted to be was an absolutely first-class ground engineer", and Sol Hirzhorn, while acknowledging the wealth that the lumber industry has brought him, muses that "I never wanted to travel or go horse-racing or anything -- just build the house and live in it, 'n go on working".

e. They are, in short, persons who have subjected themselves to the discipline necessary to learn a vocation well.

1. That discipline, along with the skills they bring to their job, whatever its magnitude, stands them in good stead in all aspects of their lives.

2. This is a view echoed by Michael Crichton in Jurassic Park (1990), thirty years after Shute's death, as he contrasts the discipline associated with most endeavors with the ease of making scientific applications.

3. In Crichton's view, the persons who've paid their dues in learning their craft, whatever it may be, tend to use it responsibly -- be they martial arts masters, corporate CEOs, or skilled tradesmen. The karate master doesn't make a practice of killing people any more than the CEO makes a practice of ruining them, even though both have the power (i.e., knowledge, or skill) to do so.

4. But if that skill comes too easily (as it may in science), it may be used irresponsibly and/or destructively.

2. Responsibility -- The individual understands that his or her work carries obligations, and willingly accepts whatever they may bring.

a. Donald Ross spells this out to Alix Lockwood as he bristles at her suggestion that air crashes may be inevitable:

"All seaplanes don't have accidents. Mine don't. And mine aren't going to. Accidents don't just happen of themselves . . . .

Accidents happen because men are foolish, and reckless, and negligent, and lazy. Sometimes, because there isn't enough money for what they want to do. One crash in a hundred may have been because God willed it so. Not more than that . . . .

Sir David has seen that we've got enough money for this trip. If God has set his mind on it, we shall have a crash. Apart from that, my job here is to see we don't, and we're not going to".

b. Connie Shak Lin reinforces this position when he tells his disciples as they overhaul an aero engine, "We are men of understanding and of education, on whom is laid responsibility that men may travel in these aeroplanes as safely as if they were sitting by the well in the cool of the evening".

c. And Keith Stewart echoes the determination with characteristic directness when he tells his solicitor, "There's just one thing sticking out like a sore thumb, and that's that I'm the trustee".

d. In Nevil Shute's world, responsibility, like competence, spills over to other realms as well. Keith Stewart, as we all know, puts his own work aside to recover the diamonds so vital to his niece's future. But others do just as much: confronted with his impending death, Jackie Turner sets out to do good as he understands it, while Jean Paget, presented with a legacy, determines initially to dig a well and subsequently to revitalize a town.

e. These are persons who come to recognize that life requires a degree of selflessness, that satisfaction will not necessarily come from money or status. It's too much to say that they are all driven by a higher motivation, but certainly they act in ways that are larger than selfishness.

3. Integrity -- for Nevil Shute's individuals operate in a way that is candid, honest, and reflective of self-knowledge. Their actions, though they do not intend them to do so, make that message clear to everyone who takes the time to heed them.

a. For Shute, the work a person does is less important than that he or she does it with a sense of who one is and what one's role in the world is, for that makes the work an extension of the person.

b. The three novels beginning with No Highway (1948) offer his a conveniently extended working-out of this belief.

1. In No Highway, film star Monica Teasdale grows to understand "that little insignificant men like Mr Honey were the brains behind the world . . . [and] the perception brought out everything that was still good in her".

2. In A Town Like Alice, the same civil servant who calls Jean Paget "a fine type" goes on to observe that she "ought to have got a decoration of some sort".

3. Gujar Singh, in Round the Bend (1951), links Connie Shak Lin with Tom Cutter as men whose integrity gives them a power greater than their apparent station: "Perhaps . . . he is just an ordinary man like you and me, who has the power to make men see the advantage of turning to God. As you have power to make men see the advantage of sending new tracks for a bulldozer by air".

c. It remains, however, for Trustee from the Toolroom to make the point most explicitly.

1. Julie Perlberg, the impressively competent assistant to Sol Hirzhorn, has her alarms set off by the aggressive tactics of Ferris Hydraulics; they had, Shute remarks, "indulged in too much salesmanship, and made Julie suspicious" (275). Here Shute, despite his own business experience, clearly equates "salesmanship" with deceit and deception -- i.e., an implicit dishonesty.

2. She, in turn, takes a penetrating look at Keith Stewart, and her verdict is positive: "She had decided in her own mind that he was honest; that was where she stopped. Whether he was competent was a matter for her grandfather to decide".

d. For Shute, honesty goes hand-in-hand with competence; the one is worthless without the other, but when the two occur together, that person is a person to be reckoned with, whatever his or her outward status may be.

III. And a Conclusion -- in which I assert yet again that Shute's emphases on competence,responsibility, and integrity are complementary rather than contradictory.

A. The American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing in his 1841 essay, "Self-Reliance," remarks that "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds".

1. The keyword in this remark is "foolish," for Emerson goes on to assert that one should "speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow brings in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to-day".

2. This is precisely what Shute does, as he views the changing world and responds to it as a person whose own views grow out of a deeply and sincerely held sense of the fitness of things.

B. Emerson justifies this position by holding that "No man can violate his nature . . . . There will be an agreement in whatever variety of actions, so they be each honest and natural in their hour". That is, if a person is genuine in his or her responses to life, the seeming inconsistencies will work themselves out and we, on the outside, will see the larger, consistent picture.

C. Such is the case with Nevil Shute. Yes: he at one point puts the "plain and simple" person on a pedestal and at another blisters the "common" person. But he is only being honest in the way that Emerson would have us all to be.

D. In his work, as in his characters, he practices what he preaches. Like Emerson before him, he argues that "imitation is suicide; that [one] must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till".

E. He offers, in short, a vision of the world in which individuals are far from perfect: they have very real human desires and very real human failings.

1. These are characters, like Jackie Turner and like you and me, who have "known sin and trouble and it has not made [them] bitter; [they have] known sorrow and it has not made [them] sad".

2. Instead, they take their knowledge of these desires and failings in stride, in a determination to make of themselves what they can.

3. As they do, they very often surprise themselves, and us, with what they accomplish.

4. And in that surprise is the validation of Emerson's -- and Shute's -- contention.

a. The American philosopher and the British novelist offer us a vision of the world that is founded upon the very best that the democratic ideal has to offer.

b. When ordinary people operate with determination and competence and candor and honesty and principle, they can and will do extraordinary things. It is a conviction that cannot be uttered too many times.