This late novella, originally written in 1915, reworks themes from Joseph Conrad’s earlier writing, while also acting as an ambiguous response to World War I. (Conrad’s son, Borys, enlisted and became a second lieutenant while Conrad worked on the text.) Nevertheless, the genesis for the story dates as far back as 1899, when Conrad had in mind a story titled “First Command,” a possible follow-up to “Youth: A narrative” (1898). The Shadow-Line shares with its predecessor the theme of innocence versus wisdom but differs from Conrad’s earlier work through the conspicuous presence of evil and death. Unlike of Heart of Darkness (1899), with its mysteries, The Shadow-Line is altogether more explicit, a directness that some critics have taken for a lack of sophistication.
In retrospect, this criticism appears to be overly harsh. The text is not simply a rehashing of old ideas; instead, its exploration of masculinity accords with the sexual interest of Conrad’s later novels, such as Victory (1915) and The Rescue (1920). Furthermore, while the story draws on Conrad’s own experiences as commander of the Otago in 1888, the text not only edits this material but also transforms it through repeated allusion to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Conrad was not averse to this form of intertextuality: The journey described in Heart of Darkness plays self-consciously on Dante’s descent into the Inferno.
The intertextual design of The Shadow-Line has three effects. First, Conrad avoids a straightforward, autobiographical account. Instead, by drawing on Coleridge’s epic poem, Conrad heightens his own material. The readers’ attention is drawn to the way the story is narrated and, in being made aware of Conrad’s literary conceit, readers are also invited to question what they are being told. In this respect, the text shares the same degree of rational skepticism as the narratives of “Youth,” “Karain: A Memory,” and “The Secret Sharer.” This additional effect transforms what might have been a seafaring yarn into a quest for knowledge.
Conrad’s third achievement is to reinforce the theme of possession. While the metaphor of the shadow-line refers, in one sense, to the separation of youth from maturity, in another sense it refers to the proximity of life to death. The young sea captain is haunted by various kinds of specter. On the one hand, he is inspired by the fatherly Captain Giles (“a man should stand up to his bad luck, to his mistakes, to his conscience, and all that sort of thing”) while fearing his own failure (“And here is proof positive, I am shirking it, I am no good”). On the other hand, the narrator is curious about his predecessor, who died at sea, but not before he went insane. The narrator’s curiosity is stoked by his first mate, Mr. Burns, who is convinced that the dead captain has cursed the ship. Burns, an intermittently comical and sinister figure, is another kind of phantom, teasing the narrator with suggestions of devilry and enchantments. His role is balanced, though, by the steward, Ransome, on whom the narrator comes to rely. Just as the narrator is shadowed by these different figures, each representing an aspect of his psyche (his fears and desires, hope and despair), so Conrad’s narrative is itself haunted by Coleridge’s poem. Not only are the events broadly similar to those the Ancient Mariner experiences (the curse, the becalmed sea, the sick and dying crew), but the injunction upon tale-telling is also reminiscent. Whereas Coleridge’s sailor is compelled to recite his story, so Conrad’s text is subtitled “A Confession.” Whether Conrad’s narrator has truly crossed “the other side of a shadow” into a state of self-fulfillment or whether he remains trapped within the “great mirror of my despair” (the opening epigram from the poet Charles Baudelaire) is left unresolved.
Erdinast-Vulcan, Daphna. Joseph Conrad and the Modern Temper. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.
Lothe, Jakob. Conrad’s Narrative Method. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.
Schwarz, Daniel R. Conrad: The Later Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1982.