The Shadow-Line

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by Anthony Domestico


In a 1924 TLS tribute upon the death of Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf wrote, “He must be lost indeed to the meaning of words who does not hear in that rather stiff and sombre music, with its reserve, its pride, its vast and implacable integrity, how it is better to be good than bad, how loyalty is good and honesty and courage…”[1]   Woolf believed that it was Conrad’s celebration of these sailorly virtues – stoical pride in one’s work, a connection to a deep and lasting tradition, action rather than cogitation – that would ensure the writer’s legacy.  Beyond his techniques of narrative mediation, beyond his modernist probing of epistemological uncertainty, we are left, Woolf claims, with maritime yarns that celebrate “fidelity, compassion, honour, service,” what Conrad himself describes in Some Reminisces as “a few very simple ideas.”[2]  Conrad the moralist and seaman trumps Conrad the modernist and explorer of the dark chasms of psychology.

If Woolf is correct in identifying Conrad’s importance in his dramas of simple but heroic virtues and vices, his crystalline rather than his labyrinthine narratives, then his 1917 The Shadow-Line would seem a key late addition to his corpus.  In as bald a statement of Woolf’s thesis as possible, the narrator of The Shadow-Line at one point describes “the sea [as] the only world that counted, and the ships the test of manliness, of temperament, of courage and fidelity – and of love.”[3]   Conrad returns to the sea after diverging into other, landlocked spheres in The Secret Agent(1907) and Under Western Eyes(1911), and he frames his thematic return in stark, powerful terms.  The Shadow-Line opens with a description of the universal transition from callow boyhood to hardened adulthood: “One knows well enough that all mankind has streamed that way.  It is the charm of universal experience from which one expects an uncommon or personal sensation – a bit of one’s own…One goes on.  And the time, too, goes on – till one perceives ahead a shadow-line warning one that the region of early youth, too, must be left behind” (3).

This is symptomatic of a generalizing impulse that runs throughout the narrative.  The young captain sees his voyage and his world in archetypal fashion, describing in his journal the “stars, sun, sea, light, darkness, space, great waters; the formidable Work of the Seven Days, into which mankind seems to have blundered unbidden” (80), seeing in his journey “that special intensity of existence which is the quintessence of youthful aspirations” (69).  The work’s clear echoes of Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” – a ship stalls in the ocean due to some vague sin, prompting feelings of “guilt” (99) and “shame” (97) on the captain’s part – also seem to hint towards a universal sense of guilt, an original, unnamed and unnamable sin that must be atoned for.  Like Coleridge’s great poem, like Conrad’s earlier work, The Shadow-Line has the feel of a nightmarish parable that cannot quite be deciphered.  The “few very simple ideas” of the novel – youth and experience, sin and expiation – occasionally seem to lock into a coherent, universal pattern, only to slide back into indeterminacy.

If the themes of The Shadow-Line seem chiseled down, even parabolic in nature, then the structure of The Shadow-Line similarly appears simplified in relation to Conrad’s major, earlier works.  The plot takes a circular route: the young captain begins in the “Eastern port” (4) of Singapore and ends in the same place.  The captain’s first voyage is defined negatively by what doesn’t happen: the ship remains immobile in a calm sea through a good portion of the tale; the captain does not bring the quinine that he believes will save his men from illness.

Formally, The Shadow-Line departs from the formal devices both of Conrad’s earlier work and of modernist writing in general.  Unlike in Lord Jim, for instance, there is no gap between sujet and fabula; there are no real analepses or prolepses, as the narrative plods forward (sometimes at an achingly slow pace) without digression.  Marlow, that framing figure who foregrounds issues of mediation and narrative indecipherability, has no place in this directly told tale.  The Shadow-Line is the presentation of the captain himself, even containing selected pages from his diary.  As for the prose style, Conrad seemed constitutionally incapable of writing short, declarative sentences: his sentences accumulate clauses, trade in abstract nouns, revel in circling around their subjects.  In The Shadow-Line, though, the abstrusities are at a relative minimum; by Conrad’s standards, the writing is clear and concise.

Jeremy Hawthorn suggests that The Shadow-Line betrays a “general modernist suspicion” of “neat plots (in life and art),” that, as the novella closes with the captain about to embark on other journeys, there is “a characteristically modernist deferral of unambiguous closure.”[4]   Hawthorn is right to point out that the novella’s separate plots and voyages are never straightforward: “they wind around, stop before they should, continue when the reader expects them to end, intersect with other travellers heading in a different direction, and generally exhibit that untidiness that is associated with life rather than art.”[5]

The novel does end with the prospect of new journeys opening up into the future, as Hawthorn indicates, but it also ends with a final portrait of the undying, simple virtues of seamen.  After asking his faithful mate Ransome to shake hands, the captain describes their parting:


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 companion stairs cautiously, step by step, in mortal fear of starting into sudden anger our common enemy [his weak heart] it was his hard fate to carry consciously within his faithful breast” (109). 


Danger still lurks in the background; Ransome’s diseased heart is only a literal manifestation of the hazards that reside in all human breasts.  Yet despite this abiding peril, Ransome’s virtues – his “faithful” nature, his “cautiously” plodding determination, his acceptance of his hard fate – form a bulwark, no matter how tenuous, against the annihilating forces that lie behind the everyday in Conrad’s fiction.  Earlier, the narrator describes his captaincy as a part of a “dynasty, continuous not in blood, indeed, but in its experience, in its training, in its conception of duty, and in the blessed simplicity of its traditional point of view” (44).  The novella’s ending, rather than exhibiting a modernist predilection for complexity, openness, and ambiguity, actually asserts the continuance of this blessed simplicity; in this way, it can be read as a conservative affirmation of tradition rather than a modernist destabilizing of any such norms.

A final and interesting stylistic departure from Conrad’s earlier, more celebrated works lies in his use of what Ian Watt famously called “delayed decoding.”   Delayed decoding, Watt writes, is the process by which the reader is put “in the position of being an immediate witness of each step in the process whereby the semantic gap between the sensations aroused in the individual by an object or event, and their actual cause of meaning, was slowly closed in his consciousness.”[6]   The most famous instance of delayed decoding occurs in Heart of Darkness, where Marlow describes a man’s reaction to being bombarded from the coast: “Something big appeared in the air before the shutter,” and “the man stepped back swiftly,” as “the end of what appeared a long cane clattered round and knocked over a little camp-stool.  It looked as though after wrenching that thing from somebody ashore he had lost his balance in the effort.”[7]   It is only later in this same passage that we realize that the “cane” is actually “the shaft of spear,” that the man has not wrenched something precious from somebody else but has been pierced in the “side just below the ribs.”  We inhabit the same epistemological gap that Marlow does: we become estranged from the represented reality of the text, caught up in the complex transition from perception to interpretation.

The most exemplary example of delayed decoding in The Shadow-Lineoccurs when, after the heavens turn into a sheet of rain and wind, the captain stumbles over something on the deck:


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 (95).


He continues: “I could see It – that Thing!  The darkness, of which so much had just turned into water, had thinned down a little.  There It was!  But I did not hit upon the notion of Mr. Burns issuing out of the companion on all fours till he attempted to stand up, and even then the idea of a bear crossed my mind first.”

There is an opposite trajectory in this example of delayed decoding from the spear incident in Heart of Darkness.  Here, the captain perceives something as nightmarish, bestial, non-human, and only with extended exposure understands that the object is familiar and non-threatening; in Heart of Darkness, Marlow sees a horrid happening first as mundane, even beautiful, before realizing with stark terror the violence of the event.  This broad differentiation holds true for the larger structure of the two novellas.  In The Shadow-Line, a general demystification occurs: natural causes replace supernatural ones, as sober maturity grows out of superstitious, guilt-ridden adolescence.  In Heart of Darkness, on the other hand, we see how the normal becomes the abnormal, how corruption turns Kurtz, that paragon of European civilization and imperialism, into a monstrous demigod.

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.”[8]   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.

  1. Virginia Woolf, “Joseph Conrad,” in The Essays of Virginia Woolf: Volume Four, 1925-1929, ed. Andrew McNeillie (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1994), p. 228.
  2. Joseph Conrad, “A Familiar Preface,” in Some Reminisences (London: Eveleigh Nash, 1912), 26.
  3. Joseph Conrad, The Shadow-Line: A Confession (New York: Oxford Unversity Press, 2002), 34. All future citations will be page numbers in the text of the wiki.
  4. Jeremy Hawthorn, “Introduction,” in The Shadow-Line (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), xxx, xxix.
  5. Hawthorn, xxix-xxx.
  6. Ian Watt, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 270.
  7. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and Other Tales (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 150.
  8. Woolf, “Joseph Conrad,” 232.



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