There are certain books that, if read at a certain time in one’s life are guaranteed to affect you profoundly. For me, what did the trick with The Shadow-Line, was its first few paragraphs, describing the restlessness of someone on the cusp of adulthood.
“This is the period of life in which such moments of which I have spoken are likely to come. What moments? Why, the moments of boredom, of weariness, of dissatisfaction. Rash moments… My action, rash as it was, had more the character of divorce – almost of desertion. For no reason on which a sensible person could put a finger I threw up my job – chucked my berth– left the ship of which the worst that could be said was that she was a steamship and, therefore, perhaps not entitled to that blind loyalty which…. However, it’s no use trying to put a gloss on what even at the time I myself half suspected to be a caprice.”
There. That was it. I was completely hooked.
The Shadow-Line is a tale of a young man becoming an adult. It was written in 1916, when Joseph Conrad’s son, Borys, was taking part in the Great War. The book is dedicated to “Borys and all others who like himself have crossed in early youth the shadow-line of their generation. With Love.”
But it is not simply the war that inspired Conrad’s story. The narrative of a young man becoming captain is based on Conrad’s own experience of his first command, for which, like his hero, he travelled from Singapore to Bangkok. In his letters, Conrad refers to The Shadow-Line as ‘my autobiography’.
As Jeremy Hawthorn points out in the Introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition of The Shadow-Line, there are a great many differences between Conrad’s experience and his novelistic depiction of it. However, the fact remains that it is a book that is remarkably close to its author’s heart.
The story is that of a young man who is nominated to become captain of a ship he has never seen before. He arrives in Bangkok only to discover from the first mate, Mr. Burns, that the previous captain went mad before his death and that some of the crew are already succumbing to malaria… There’s a hint of something threatening in the air, and many think that the mad captain cursed the ship and its crew before he died. The effect the narrator’s mental state has on shaping his perceptions of external surroundings makes for an extraordinary description of the fight between man’s struggle against adversity.
Conrad manages to balance the hints of the supernatural and the realistic. It is hard to resist the temptation of a symbolic reading of the story, interspersed as it is with allusions to Coleridge’s “The Ancient Mariner”.
But the symbolic potential is not restricted to the framework Coleridgeian allusions. For example, the only sympathetic soul on board is the ship’s cook, Mr. Ransome. He used to be a sailor but is now unable to perform any strenuous activity as he has a heart problem. The very last sentence of the novel encourages a metaphorical reading of Mr. Ransome’s dis-ease. He walks away “in mortal fear of starting into sudden anger our common enemy it was his hard fate to carry consciously within his faithful breast.”
“Our common enemy” refers both literally to the narrator’s attachment to Ransome (the weak heart is both Ransome’s enemy and the narrator’s), and to “our common enemy”, the common enemy of mankind, – our potential for weakness in times of pressing need.
For all of Conrad’s acknowledged pessimism, The Shadow-Line, however, is almost a manifesto for human struggle despite overwhelming odds, as evinced by perhaps one of the most famous quote from the book.
“And there’s another thing: a man should stand up to his bad luck, to his mistakes, to his conscience, and all that sort of thing. Why – what else would you have to fight against?” Captain Giles (Joseph Conrad The Shadow-Line)
Read it, if you are at all fond of Joseph Conrad.