The text for The Shadow-Line can be found at Project Gutenberg.
Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow-Line is a reminiscence of the narrator obtaining his first command in addition to his first voyage as captain. The young sailor meets all kinds of challenges and crises, overcoming them mostly with help he doesn’t recognize, and advances over the shadowy line from youth to adulthood. There are many lines and echoes from Hamlet (madness, delay) and The Tempest (dreaming, watching youth grow and mature) as well as the tone and imagery from Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but the manner of presenting it and the underlying themes are all Conrad. The narration is much less impressionistic than the previous Conrad works I’ve covered.
Conrad does a very good job of depicting the frustration and lack of responsibility of the young sailor. He quits his job as third mate on a steamship but is unable to say why or what he will do. While waiting at a sailors’ house for a passage home to England, he receives a summons to the Harbor Master. This extended section shows the young sailor’s immaturity, misinterpreting actions as slights to his person as well as ignoring the unfolding intrigue around him to undermine his commission. Even after accepting his commission (and realizing his calling is the sea), the young sailor is ill prepared to take command. He rushes the ship to sea before it or its sailors are ready and makes many misinterpretations while on the ship. The first voyage is beset by crises: a becalmed sea, the feverish crew, his unstable first mate, and the previous (treacherous) captain.
The outlook of the young sailor mirrors that of youth. As third mate, he felt he was wasting his time: “The past eighteen months [on the steamship], so full of new and varied experience, appeared a dreary, prosaic waste of days. I felt—how shall I express it?—that there was no truth to be got out of them.” He can’t see the groundwork being laid for the ability to captain a ship. He is totally oblivious to the machinations of the Chief Steward to obtain the ship’s command for a deadbeat tenant, even as Captain Giles tries to lead him to awareness (stressing that little should escape the attention of a captain). The young sailor found the conversation with Giles inane, “absurd and dreary.” “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, even as Captain Giles was.” Once he is all but forced by Giles to go get his command, the young sailor views the unfolding of events as “that day of miracles” even though the true miracles were getting him to realize what was happening and to take action.
Only after possessing the command does he realize this is what he was meant to do: “I discovered how much of a seaman I was, in heart, in mind, and, as it were, physically.” But his impatience shows through once again: “But I won’t feel really at peace till I have that ship of mine out in the Indian Ocean.” To this point, the young man has been contemptuous to his elders: Kent (his previous captain), Giles, and Ellis (the Harbor Master). He is in such a hurry to get to sea that he ironically decides to rely on the kindness of the harbor doctor instead of completing his tasks to insure the ship’s medicine cabinet is adequately stocked. And we are shown that age is not always an indicator of wisdom or maturity with a portrait of the previous ship’s captain. In addition, the previous captain’s description of wanting to “cut adrift from everything” shows what the young sailor’s life might have led to with his aimless drifting. The characters of the deadbeat Hamilton and the drunken tenant at the sailors’ house provides a clear example of where drifting could have led him. The young sailor even begins to piece together how maturity is obtained: “People have a great opinion of the advantages of experience. But in this connection experience means always something disagreeable as opposed to the charm and innocence of illusions.” As most children impatiently and wistfully envision adulthood, the young sailor views the sea as “pure, safe, and friendly,” not valuing the necessary preparation or the possible calamities that can ensue.
Once in the Gulf of Siam, the new captain wasn’t sure what to expect other than “that special intensity of existence which is the quintessence of youthful aspirations.” Instead, he “discovered that life could hold terrible moments.” His guilt at being ill prepared drives him to expiate his mistakes and shoulder the responsibly tp bring the crew home safely. Many of the themes I’ve mentioned in Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim are present in this Conrad work: isolation vs. the collective (hero vs. antihero), the interplay between responsibility and fate, interactions of youth and father figures, surface vs. reality, civilization and duty vs. what their absence, and the presence of a double or partner to the main character.
As to the doppelganger theme, the young sailor’s double or partner is Ransome, the ship’s steward and cook. Ransome is a competent sailor but must avoid physical strain due to a weak heart. Yet it is Ransome’s constant presence and physical courage that buoys the captain, helping him through his darker moments. It also highlights how the crew members band together, despite illness and limitations, to stay true to the captain and the ship. The Shadow-Line highlights masculinity, in the sense of what it means to be a mature man. The weight of responsibility can seem overbearing, stressing the limitations of being human. As Giles says in his last visit with the young sailor, “A man has got to learn everything—and that's what so many of them youngsters don't understand.”
The relationship of Captain Giles to the young sailor resonated with me, resembling the role of fatherhood. The patience and assistance Giles demonstrated was beyond the call of duty for him, an almost wasted generosity toward the youth. Regardless of how much preparation is provided, a young man still has to stand on his on, make his own mistakes in moving toward that shadowy line of maturity.