History: Published in 1917, this novella is notable for its dual narrative structure. The ironic constructions following from the conflict between the 'young' protagonist (who is never named) and the 'old' drive much of the underlying points of the novella, namely the nature of wisdom, experience and maturity.
The novel has often been cited as a metaphor of the First World War, given its timing and references to a long struggle, the importance of camaraderie, etc. This viewpoint may also be reinforced by the knowledge that Conrad's son, Boris, was wounded in the First World War. Others however see the novel as having a strong supernatural influence, referring to various plotlines in the novella such as the 'ghost' of the previous captain potentially cursing the ship, and the madness of first mate Burns. Conrad himself however denied this link in his author's note, claiming that although critics had attempted to show this link, "The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is."
Plot: The story starts with a seaman giving up his position on a steamer because he is bored and wants to go home. He then gets offered the chance of his own captaincy and jumps at the chance. But the boat seems to be under the curse of the previous captain who went mad and tried to send the crew on a suicidal journey. The first mater Burns stood up and questioned the captain who died shortly afterwards. Stranded in calm seas with the crew becoming ill Burns is convinced that the old captain is against them until he comes on deck from his own sick bed and laughs in the face of the storm he believes has been sent to destroy them. The winds pick up and the boat limps into Singapore and then with a fresh crew the narrator and captain heads out to sea again.
Review: The Shadow-Line, in its simple plot and unmediated narrative, is a sharp formal departure from Conrad’s earlier, more celebrated work. In many ways, however, it is also a return: a return to the sea, that testing ground of the soul, and a return to the virtues that arise and flourish in this arena. Virginia Woolf claimed that Conrad’s late work was not suited to his particular genius, that it was too concerned with the domestic sphere: “There are no masts in drawing-rooms; the typhoon does not test the worth of politicians and business men.” The Shadow-Line surely complicates such a rigid division. In it, we can see once again what Woolf calls “the old nobilities and sonorities”; in it, we can see Conrad come home to the homelessness of the sea.
Opening Line: “Only the young have such moments.”
Closing Line: “He exclaimed, flushed up dusky red, gave my hand a hard wrench--and next moment, left alone in the cabin, I listened to him going up the com- panion stairs cautiously, step by step, in mortal fear of starting into sudden anger our common enemy it was his hard fate to carry consciously within his faithful breast.”
Quotes: “It was something big and alive. Not a dog – more like a sheep, rather. But there were no animals in the ship. How could an animal…It was an added and fantastic horror which I could not resist. The hair of my head stirred even as I picked myself up, awfully scared; not as a man is scared while his judgment, his reason still try to resist, but completely, boundlessly, and, as it were, innocently scared – like a little child.”
Rating: Not Good.