“Youth: A Narrative” marks an important development in the literary career of Joseph Conrad. It is the first story in which Conrad draws on his own experience and the first to feature Marlow, the narrator also of Heart of Darkness (1899) and the novels Lord Jim (1900) and Chance (1913). Marlow serves two functions in the story. First, he acts as a persona that allows Conrad to distance himself from the autobiographical element of the text and to give it a shape and a design. Second, Marlow’s conversational tone permits Conrad the flexibility to move from the intimacy of a personal account to the intensity of lyric poetry. “Youth” therefore builds on Conrad’s success in “Karain: A Memory” (1897) to relate metaphysical insights (“the romance of illusions,” as the frame narrator refers to them here) to the actuality of physical experience.
In his story, Marlow recounts his first voyage to the East, a perilous sea crossing in which he unexpectedly assumes his first command. His listeners (and drinking companions) include a businessman, an accountant, a lawyer, and the anonymous frame narrator, all of whom had begun “life in the merchant service.” Marlow recalls how he joined the crew of the Judea, bound for Bangkok, under the first-time captaincy of the aging Beard and the first mate, Mahon. Disaster dogs them from the start. Tossed by a gale, they take more than a fortnight to get from London to the Tyne, only to be damaged by a more severe gale and forced into dry dock at Falmouth. Beard refuses to be deterred, and the patched vessel sets sail once more. Near the coast of Western Australia, they discover that the cargo has caught fire. Plowing on, the sailors fight the fire, but the ship explodes. Manning the lifeboats and salvaging as much of the ship they can, the crew head for the coast of Java. Marlow seizes the opportunity not only to command one of the boats but also to lead the others to their destination.
Marlow’s tale fictionalizes Conrad’s own adventures as second mate of the merchant navy ship the Palestine, which left Newcastle for Bangkok in November 1881. Following terrible misfortune, the ship finally arrived the following March at the port of Muntok on Bangka Island off the coast of Java. Though the Judea closely resembles the Palestine, Conrad makes one major change. Instead of the Palestine’s international crew, the Judea’s is all British. This alteration may have been made to accommodate the patriotic values of Blackwood’s Magazine, in which “Youth” was first published. Alternatively, it can be read as an ironic commentary on Britain itself, the Judea acting as both a microcosm of British society and an allegory of impending imperial decline.
As do the teasing titles of other short stories by Conrad, the subtitle “A Narrative” also affects the ways the story can be read. First, the subtitle draws the reader’s attention to the fact of its narration. In one sense, “Youth” is about storytelling, including the disparity between the acts of telling stories and how they come to be written down (the frame narrator is not even sure how Marlow’s name should be spelled). In another sense, by highlighting the story’s narration, Conrad raises doubts about the reliability of storytelling and especially Marlow’s role. The story successfully sustains the dual perspective of the younger Marlow’s boundless enthusiasm and the older Marlow’s greater skepticism by ensuring the reader’s recognition of both their characters. Nonetheless, while Marlow affectionately mocks his younger self and registers his greater maturity through his insights into the brevity and illusion of youth, the reader is also invited to question the maturity of his older self. The ending in particular, when Marlow invokes his “regret” of youth’s passing, suggests that he is still drawn to the glamor of romance. This questioning of Marlow’s self-presentation is also aided by the use of the frame narrator, who introduces and closes the story and creates a distance between Marlow and the reader.
In this second sense, in which the reader practically overhears Marlow’s conversation with his listeners, the notion of narrative is relevant to an understanding of the story. By recounting his misadventures on board the Judea, Marlow can be said to be turning his youth into a narrative—lending it a shape and a significance that it otherwise lacks. Marlow is repeatedly concerned about the mindless destructiveness of time’s passing: “youth, strength, genius, thoughts, achievements, simple hearts—all dies. . . . No matter.” Instead, he seeks to extract from his youth an event “that seem[s] ordered for the illustration of life, that might stand for a symbol of existence.” In other words, he seeks a moment that is not solely the empty and meaningless passage of time, but one through which a purpose may be revealed and an order and a structure may be lent to Marlow’s life story. The reader’s gradual awareness that Marlow is not only retelling an occasion from his youth but also judging and evaluating its content so that it can be molded into a narrative invites a further questioning of his reliability. A last and most unsettling reading of the story’s full title is that youth is itself a narrative, a fiction without any meaning beyond the sea stories that Marlow has read as a boy, the romantic appeal of Byron’s poetry (that Marlow buys with his first three-months’ pay), or the experiences of the soldier-protagonist in Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (which Marlow reads while the captain’s wife mends his clothes). Such a reading would, in effect, support the older Marlow’s insight into the futile human struggle for meaning “surrounded by an impenetrable night.”
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