Described as "unhappy and lonely", Hornblower's chief characteristics are not so much his courage and skilled seamanship as his intense reserve, introspection and self-doubt. Despite numerous personal feats of extraordinary skill and cunning, he belittles his achievements by numerous rationalizations, remembering only his fears. He consistently ignores or is unaware of the admiration with which he is held by his fellow sailors.
He regards himself as cowardly, dishonest, and, at times, disloyal—never crediting his ability to persevere, think rapidly, organize, or cut to the nub of a matter. His sense of duty, hard work, and drive to succeed make these imagined negative characteristics undetectable by everyone but him, and being introspective, he obsesses over petty failures to reinforce his poor self image. His introverted nature continually isolates him from the people around him, including his closest friend, William Bush
, and his wives never fully understand him. He is guarded with nearly everyone and reticent to the point of giving offense, unless the matter is the business of discharging his duty as a King's officer, in which case he is clear, decisive, and almost loquacious.
He suffers from chronic seasickness
, especially at the start of his voyages. As a midshipman, he was once sick at the sheltered harbor at Spithead
, the embarrassing rumour of which follows him throughout his career. A voracious reader, he can discourse on both contemporary and classical literature. His skill at mathematics makes him both an adept navigator
and an extremely talented whist
player. He uses his ability at whist to supplement his income during periods of inactivity in the naval service.
He is tone-deaf
and finds music an incomprehensible irritant (in a scene in Hotspur
he is unable to tell the British national anthem
). He is philosophically opposed to flogging
and capital punishment
, in many cases when called for by the Articles of War
, yet as Captain and Lieutenant had to call men to account knowing that such harshness would be the result. Hornblower possesses a hyper-developed sense of duty
, yet on occasion he is able to set it aside for his more humane concerns, to the extent that, in Hornblower and the Hotspur,
he contrives an escape for his personal steward who would otherwise have been hanged for striking a superior officer.