Master and Commander (novel)

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Geoff Hunt cover art

Master and Commander is the first book of the Aubrey-Maturin series. It introduces Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin and the early development of their friendship from an inauspicious start. In this first book Patrick O'Brian displays what became his characteristic use of authentic early 19th century speech patterns and words. He also introduces historical accounts of naval actions and appropriates them for his fiction, either by placing his characters at real events or making his characters the protagonists in fictionalised versions. Another important characteristic introduced by O'Brian is his use of humour to enliven the narrative and add realism to his characters.


Publication history

O'Brian was asked to write Master and Commander by an American publisher to provide a replacement for the highly successful Horatio Hornblower books by C.S. Forester following Forester's death.

The book was first published in 1969 by Lippincott in the United States and in 1970 by Collins in the rest of the world. Collins kept the book in print, but the series did not catch on in the United States and Lippincott let the the book go out of print. It was republished by W.W. Norton in 1990 when later books of the series became popular in the USA. The cover painting by Geoff Hunt illustrates a general scene from the book.

Plot introduction

For more details about the plot, which will contain spoilers, see Summary for Master and Commander

Starting in 1800, the book describes the meeting and growing friendship of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin in their roles as a newly appointed Master and Commander and penniless doctor turned surgeon against a background of naval operations in the Mediterranean Sea.

Historical context

In 1800, when the book opens, Britain is at war with revolutionary France and its ally Spain. Napoleon Bonaparte had recently made himself First Consul, making him the most powerful person in France. The Spanish King, Charles V, had allied himself with France against Britain in 1796.

The Royal Navy has resumed naval operations in the Mediterranean following Lord Nelson's 1798 victory at the Battle of the Nile. They now control most of the Mediterranean and are supplied with food from the states of the Barbary Coast of North Africa. Port Mahon, on Minorca, is a major port, having served as a Royal Navy base there years before.

The voyages and exploits of Jack Aubrey and the Sophie are closely modelled on the actual adventures of Lord Cochrane in his sloop, HMS Speedy.

Major characters in Master and Commander

Ships of Master and Commander

  • HMS Sophie, 14 gun sloop, Jack Aubrey's first command
  • Cacafuego, Spanish 36 gun xebec frigate

Major themes

O'Brian introduces the unlikely friendship of two very different characters. The way their mutual affection and understanding evolves is subtly described in both the various incidents in the book and the relating of the internal musings of both Aubrey and Maturin.

Another important theme is that of Duty and Honour. Although it would seem likely that Aubrey and Dillon would be more compatible as friends, these concepts interfere with the building of a easy relationship and lead to conflict.

O'Brian also emphasises the loneliness of command aboard a 19th century man of war. Aubrey is isolated from the rest of the crew and sometimes does not always realise the undercurrents of opinion among the crew and his officers.


O'Brian's extensive reading of literature and naval writings of the late 18th and early 19th century allowed him to create a realistic pastiche of the language and phraseology of early 19th century. He combines this apparently contemporary language and usages with a sense of humour unusual in the naval fiction genre by using words whose meaning has changed over the years.

O'Brian also tends to allow the reader to make their own connections rather than spell out plot developments in detail. This has caused a number of differing interpretations to grow up about some incidents depending on the reader's point of view.

Film adaptation

Despite its title, the film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World has no significant content from Master and Commander.


At 412 pages (Norton Paperback) Master and Commander is the second longest novel in the Aubrey-Maturin series


Books in the Aubrey-Maturin Series by Patrick O'Brian

Master and Commander | Post Captain | HMS Surprise | The Mauritius Command | Desolation Island | The Fortune of War | The Surgeon's Mate | The Ionian Mission | Treason's Harbour | The Far Side of the World | The Reverse of the Medal | The Letter of  Marque | The Thirteen-Gun Salute | The Nutmeg of Consolation | Clarissa Oakes/The Truelove | The Wine-Dark Sea | The Commodore | The Yellow Admiral | The Hundred Days | Blue at the Mizzen | 21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey

Other books by Patrick O'Brian
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