The unnamed narrator is looking back on his youth, when a seaman in the Far East on a steam ship. He quits his position, feeling he needed something more, though he didn’t know what. Intent on returning to England, he is waylaid by the offer of his first command and jumps at the chance of becoming the captain of a sailing vessel. He goes to Bangkok to take command and immediately hits problems – his first mate Burns contracts a serious illness, and in the man’s lucid moments reveals that the previous captain lost his mind, cursing ship and crew before he died. Alarmingly, Burns believes he is possessed by the demon of the dead skipper. The young captain has no option but to set sail to meet his deadline but he is not at sea long before he learns that the majority of his crew have malaria. At about the same time, the wind drops and the ship is becalmed in the very waters where his predecessor was buried at sea. Only the young captain, the demented Burns and the cook, Ransome, who suffers from a dicky ticker, evade the onset of malaria. The youth’s mettle is sorely tested, but thanks to his innate humanity, gaining the respect and aid of his crew, he triumphs, appreciating that no man is able to stand alone.
At the outset, the story meanders, not going particularly anywhere. The young narrator is perceived as a competent seaman (highly thought of by his ex-Captain), but rudderless. ‘There was nothing original, nothing new, startling, informing to expect from the world: no opportunities to find out something about oneself, no wisdom to acquire, no fun to enjoy. Everything was stupid and overrated…’(p58) He is of sound character and mind, however, the youth observing, ‘… it flashed upon me that high professional reputation was not necessarily a guarantee of sound mind. It occurred to me then that I didn’t know in what soundness of mind exactly consisted, and what a delicate and, upon the whole, unimportant matter it was…’
As Conrad observed a long time before writing this book, ‘One always thinks oneself important at twenty. The fact is, however, that one only becomes useful when one realises the full extent of the insignificance of the individual in the arrangement of the universe.’(1892). He conveys this in the character of the narrator.
Of course the young captain gets his wish, and at the end of his two-week ordeal at sea he has gained wisdom and learned something about himself.
Conrad’s reminiscences about his time at sea inject realism into the story: ‘There is something touching about a ship coming in from sea and folding her white wings for a rest.’ (p64)
Deftly, he creates atmosphere: ‘The sparkle of the sea filled my eyes. It was gorgeous and barren, monotonous and without hope under the empty curve of the sky. The sails hung motionless and slack, the very folds of their sagging surfaces moved no more than carved granite… For a long, long time I faced an empty world, steeped in an infinity of silence, through which the sunshine poured and flowed for some mysterious purpose.’ (p113)
And when a storm approached: ‘The immobility of all things was perfect. If the air had turned black, the sea for all I knew might have turned solid. It was no good looking in any direction, watching for any sign, speculating upon the nearness of the moment. When the time came the blackness would overwhelm silently the bit of starlight falling upon the ship, and the end of all things would come without a sigh, stir, or murmur of any kind, and all our hearts would cease to beat, like run-down clocks.’ (p126)
The shadow-line of the title is a zone of transition between two states of being, youthfulness and maturity – the shadow-line that the young captain crosses.
This Penguin edition (1986) contains about 40 pages of introduction and notes (some of the latter mainly a glossary of nautical terms).
Note: One quotation from the book that could be applied to budding authors is:
‘All roads are long that lead to one’s heart’s desire.’ (p75) The moral is, persevere...