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Discussion Guide

Master and Commander

By Patrick O'Brian

Ardent, gregarious British naval officer Jack Aubrey is elated to be given his first appointment as commander: the fourteen-gun ship HMS Sophie. Meanwhile―after a heated first encounter that nearly comes to a duel―Aubrey and a brilliant but down-on-his-luck physician, Stephen Maturin, strike up an unlikely rapport. On a whim, Aubrey invites Maturin to join his crew as the Sophie’s surgeon. And so begins the legendary friendship that anchors this beloved saga set against the thrilling backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars.

 

As the Sophie is sent to accompany a small convoy of merchant ships in the Mediterranean, Maturin struggles to find his sea legs as Aubrey sets about proving his mettle as a commander and preparing his crew for battle. They’re soon put to the test against a mighty Spanish frigate and a squadron of four French warships, but through bloody battle and the thrill and terror of victory and defeat – as well as an ill-advised love-affair of Aubrey’s – the pair’s friendship remains at the story’s heart. 

 

Through every ensuing adventure on which Aubrey and Maturin embark, from the witty parley of their lovers and enemies to the roar of broadsides as great ships close in battle around them, Patrick O’Brian “provides endlessly varying shocks and surprises―comic, grim, farcical and tragic.… [A] whole, solidly living world for the imagination to inhabit” (A. S. Byatt).


This discussion guide and recommended reading was share and sponsored in partnership with W.W. Norton.

Discussion Questions

Use these discussion questions to guide your next book club meeting.

The writer and historian Richard Snow called the relationship between Aubrey and Maturin the “greatest friendship of modern literature.” Yet it’s a friendship initially born of animosity. One moment the two men are ready to kill one other to protect their honor, the next moment they’ve agreed to set sail together. Is this sudden turn believable? Why or why not?

Initially, Master and Commander was not well received in the US. Some publishers thought the book was “full of jargon.” But it’s O’Brian’s meticulous and vivid rendering of the seafaring life that eventually drew new and large audiences to the book. Give some examples of O’Brian’s masterful descriptions and elaborate on their effectiveness.

What is the historical backdrop for the book? How would Aubrey’s and Maturin’s friendship be different if the story was set in modern times?

“I love these books.… [They offer] the same sense of lived experience as Hilary Mantel.… They will sweep you away and return you delighted, increased and stunned. If the phrase ‘Napoleonic war fiction’ fills you with anticipation, then you don’t need me to convince you to read [Patrick] O’Brian. But for the rest of you.… [P]lease, just trust me.” ―Nicola Griffith, NPR

 

“A few books work their way… onto [bestseller] lists by genuine, lasting excellence―witness The Lord of the Rings, or Patrick O’Brian’s sea stories.”―Ursula K. Le Guin

 

“O’Brian’s eloquent admirers include not merely distinguished critics and reviewers but… thousands upon thousands of fervent readers who thank the gods for him.… [H]is work accomplishes nobly the three grand purposes of art: to entertain, to edify, and to awe.” ―Stephen Becker, Paris Review

 

“For escapist reading, I especially like the sea novels of Patrick O’Brian.”―Bill Bryson

 

“[Patrick O’Brian has] the power of bringing near to the reader… savagery and tenderness, beauty and mystery and boldness and dignity.”―Eudora Welty