A Short Analysis of Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow-Line
A reading of a late work by Joseph Conrad
Joseph Conrad’s 1916 novella The Shadow-Line is much more conventional, at least ostensibly or superficially, than some of his most celebrated earlier fiction, such as Nostromo (1904) or Under Western Eyes (1911), even though it was written later than both of those novels. In many ways it signals a return to Conrad’s earlier writing, from the 1890s, and in particular such stories as ‘Youth’ (1898). Unlike his most famous work, Heart of Darkness (1899), there is no frame-narrative device employed in The Shadow-Line; instead the narrator tells the story in the first person, direct to us, the reader (cf. Marlow in Heart of Darkness, who tells the story orally to a group of men on the boat with him in the Thames). Unlike Under Western Eyes, we are not encouraged to view the protagonist from a detached perspective, through the lens (or under the eyes) of another person; Razumov’s ‘confession’ may come to us, in his diary, mediated through the English narrator, but the narrator’s confession in The Shadow-Line (its full title is The Shadow-Line: A Confession) comes to us direct. Conrad also draws very closely on his own life experiences for the story of The Shadow-Line (he had served in the British Navy and taken command of a ship in the Gulf of Siam, like the novella’s narrator), unlike Nostromo, for which he had to rely heavily on written accounts of colonial life in South America. These features are important for any analysis of the style and structure of The Shadow-Line, in some ways an underappreciated work in Conrad’s oeuvre.
And yet, despite its seeming conventionality, The Shadow-Line presents many of Conrad’s typical features, techniques and tropes which serve to undermine the idea that fiction, storytelling, objectivity, and linearity – all of the things he had questioned and undermined in his earlier novels – are straightforward and unproblematic. Start with the title, which is typically Conradian: it is a signifier which refuses to refer to one clear, identifiable signified. Conrad enjoyed doing this with his titles: what is the ‘heart of darkness’ that provides the title of his novella of that name? Is it a geographical place (‘darkest Africa’, as it was known to late Victorians), a moral concept (the evil of the novel’s villain Kurtz, or perhaps mankind in general), or the essence of impenetrability and obscurity (‘darkness’ as in lack of interpretive clarity)? Arguably it is all and none of these at once.
In 1915, the year before the publication of The Shadow-Line, Conrad published a longer novel called Victory, which sports a similarly vague and polyvalent title (which, in fact, teeters on the edge of irony, since any idea that the hero, Axel Heyst, achieves any kind of moral or literal victory is questioned by the events of the novel). In The Shadow-Line, we have a term with literal, nautical connotations, but it can also refer to sundials (and the line which marks the time of day), as well as to more abstract ideas which the novella touches upon (the ‘line’ between youth and maturity, which is central to the novel: but, as Conrad implies, the watershed between youth and maturity is not marked by a neat rite of passage but rather by a slower and more subtle experience or series of experiences; it can also refer to the ‘shadow-line’ between the natural and the supernatural). To ask what Conrad meant the title to refer to is ultimately to be lured into playing the very game he wants us to play: to try to extract one, monolithic meaning from the novella at the expense of the deliberate ambiguities his fiction presents us.
There are also other ways in which this novel is typically Conradian, despite its apparent conventionality compared with his other novels. The first section moves slowly, meaning – as with Heart of Darkness – that any idea we might entertain that we’re reading a fast-paced, action-packed run-of-the-mill adventure story set at sea is ultimately to be proved wrong. Conrad is using the naval and exotic setting as a canvas on which to paint bigger things: youth, experience, maturity, expectation, disappointment, hubris, and so on. Conrad is setting his own pace in order to let these wider themes emerge more freely and naturally, rather than confining himself to the expectations of the adventure fiction market. This may explain why he didn’t really achieve any commercial success until his novel Chance – which was only published two years before The Shadow-Line. (Conrad had been a writer for twenty years by this time!)
It is also worth examining closely the other traditions in which this novel is working. It is an allusive novel as well as an elusive one: that is, Conrad alludes to earlier texts in order to invite his readers to compare and contrast what he is doing with what the previous text had done. The most important text in this regard is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a long narrative poem which first appeared in the 1798 collection Lyrical Ballads, which Coleridge co-wrote with his fellow Romantic poet Wordsworth. In Coleridge’s poem, the crew of a ship shoot an albatross and this act brings bad luck to the crew. This suggestion that a supernatural curse is brought down upon people at sea by the act of killing a bird is something which is treated more obliquely in Conrad’s novella. The original advertisement for The Shadow-Line read: ‘This is a Far-Eastern story of a haunted ship, and might be fitly described as the prose counterpart of The Ancient Mariner, though it owes nothing except a hint of atmosphere to that immortal poem’.
But is the ‘atmosphere’ of Coleridge’s poem all that Conrad takes from it? The themes of guilt and punishment are central to both Coleridge’s poem and Conrad’s novel. The ‘curse’ which very literally falls upon the ship in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner becomes the sequence of unfavourable events which befall the ship’s crew in The Shadow-Line, but rather than presenting any neat chain of cause-and-effect (man kills albatross, curse falls on ship, ship’s crew start to die), Conrad’s novella instead explores the same idea from a more naturalistic angle. There is no one action to bring down one curse upon the narrator’s ship in The Shadow-Line, but there are hints of the supernatural (albeit just that: hints), and there are numerous problems to beset the crew of the narrator’s ship (disease, the discovery that the quinine on the ship has been sold off, the thunderstorm). But these are seen as either unavoidable facts of naval life (malaria was a common disease among sailors travelling to places such as the Far East), or as the result of bad management by the former captain (who sold the quinine which would have treated the crew’s malaria and refilled the medicine bottles with a useless substitute) or by the narrator himself (his immaturity which leads him to reject the initial suggestion of having a first mate on board with him).
Another suggestive inter-text is Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which Conrad alludes to at several points (this is when a well annotated edition of the novella comes in especially useful: we recommend The Shadow-Line A Confession n/e (Oxford World’s Classics)). Shakespeare’s play is all about a ghost and the moral and ontological questions the appearance of this supernatural being into the natural world poses for the play’s title character. But the appearance of the ghost in Hamlet also raises questions regarding the sanity of the title character: Hamlet resolves to pretend to be mad while he investigates the claims made by the ghost of his father, but whether he is merely pretending, or whether the whole experience ends up sending him mad, is a moot point. Suggestions of madness and the supernatural are present in Conrad’s novel, making Hamlet an important thematic inter-text for the novella. Hamlet is not the only Shakespeare play which the novel’s narrator quotes or alludes to, but it is by some considerable way the play he refers to the most.
However, in some ways we might see The Shadow-Line as a box of texts, as a textual collage made up of numerous narratives, bits of text, and literary allusions: the direct and more oblique references to Hamlet and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (we can add to this list The Tempest and various books of the Old and New Testament), the reference to fairy tales, the warning letter from the doctor, the letter to the Chief Steward, the letter of recommendation the narrator writes for Ransome, to say nothing of the metaphorical reference to the ‘page of a book [which] had been turned over disclosing a word which made plain all that had gone before’. Perhaps even more so than Conrad’s previous fiction, The Shadow-Line seems preoccupied with texts, stories, narratives, writing, reading, communication, and interpretation.
But unlike, say, Under Western Eyes or Heart of Darkness (which features a book found in the middle of the jungle which appears to have notes written in ‘cipher’; this later turns out not to be some secret code, but marginalia written in Russian), these textual communiqués which litter The Shadow-Line are not always designed merely to be misconstrued; often they convey their message plainly enough. The novella seems more concerned, not with misinterpretation per se, but with how we act on the knowledge we gain through letters and other forms of communication. The narrator’s comparison between himself and a character in a fairy tale is designed to warn us that, although neither of them is ever astonished by anything, that is where the similarities are likely to end: real life at sea is not like something out of the Arabian Nights. Similarly, the narrator fails to act upon the doctor’s letter warning him about the dangers of taking a sick man onto his ship as first mate: instead, the narrator pins his faith on the restorative powers of the quinine which he (mistakenly) thinks is aboard the ship.
The Shadow-Line is often overlooked in our haste to get to Joseph Conrad’s other classics, such as Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, and Nostromo. But it’s a mature work of fiction by a writer who knew well both life at sea and the shakiness of fictional conventions which he so deftly questions, challenges, and reinvents.