Page references in parentheses are to the 1928 Doubleday Malay Edition in which The Shadow-Line is bound with A Personal Record and features “Decorations by William Kemp Starrett” including a chart of Conrad’s voyages as endpapers. Oddly, this edition sometimes uses the hyphen in "shadow-line" and sometimes does not.
Conrad’s The Shadow Line is at once a coming of age story, an existential tale of the sea, and a ghost thriller. Far from being mutually exclusive, these descriptions parallel people’s perception of lived reality, constructing in their multi-leveled focus a simulacrum of the human consciousness. Though it might seem a mere artifice, a senseless tour de force, the polysemy of literature mirrors daily experience; indeed, even the most complex art is a reductive simplification. Rather than competing, the various registers of value systems sketch out the many simultaneous overlaid patterns of a human life.
On a simply realistic level the story recounts considerable elements of autobiography. The sea clearly tests people’s capacities in an unusually demanding environment where sudden death is always a threat. As a captain the narrator not only faces this challenge himself, but, in addition, must be responsible for the lives of others. When the drama thus generated is placed in an exotic locale, its appeal is further heightened. Conrad’s own life provided all of these elements. His concluding lines in the Author’s Note offers a heartfelt tribute to the men under his command in a tone convincingly sincere. The story’s subtitle “A Confession” reinforces the notion of a personal reminiscence.
Yet Conrad generalizes through the namelessness of the protagonist, through his ironic reflection on his own youth, leading sometimes to overt moralizing, and through the insistent coming-of-age theme. The dedication to his son Borys and his reference to World War I as “the supreme trial of a whole generation” provides a historical locus though without specific political content. The text explicates its own title saying “one perceives ahead a shadow-line warning one that the region of early youth must be left behind, too.”
The shipboard setting is a stage which well supports the rite of passage to adulthood since on board the terms of life are reduced to their simplest and most disturbing. The unnamed hero passes through a shadow which is at once his youth and the Oedipal threat of the deceased former captain. When Conrad objects in his Author’s Note that he lacked the imagination to feature the supernatural, he was simply insisting on the reality of metaphor. His insistence that “the world contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is,” surely assumes the inclusion of art among those fascinating wonders.
The plot is generated when the narrator, halfway round the world from his home, resigns his position without being able to explain just why. “I don’t know what I expected. Perhaps nothing else than that special intensity of experience which is the quintessence of youthful aspirations.” (83) His captain understands, as seamen are generally unstable (though in this only a special case of the instability of all humankind). (6)
The motive force of the narrative is the main character’s flight from meaninglessness. “that obscure feeling of life being but a waste of days, which, half unconsciously, had driven me out of a comfortable berth . . . to flee from the menace of emptiness.” (22-23) While yet lingering in the “twilight region between youth and maturity,” (26) he could simply take life as it came experiencing “the kicks and the halfpence” (3) without reflection. To him his first command, to prove so harrowing an experience, was a dream come true and his ship “an enchanted princess.” (40) At this point human pride swells within him, and he feels “that illusion of life and character that charms one in men’s finest handiwork radiated from her.” (49-50)
It is, however, only an illusion, and the maturing hero must pass the shadow-line to emerge with an enriched, if more somber vision, an enhanced gravitas that signifies open-eyed acceptance of the terms of life.
The rules by which one must abide are prescribed in part by loyalty to the group, one’s shipmates, one’s fellow-countrymen. Even the venal Harbour Master must acknowledge “the fellowship of seaman.” (33) Ransome’s unselfish personal loyalty in the face of his own vulnerability is proof of the mate’s early judgment of him as “the best seaman on the ship.” (68) The ship’s previous captain provides the contrary type: he had “wished all hands dead.” (70) Threatened by physical danger as well as by Angst, many resort to further prudential codes of conduct, among them what Giles refers to as “keeping white.” (14)
This loyalty to a group, be it professional or tribal or national, defines respectability, what the Victorians might have termed “manliness,” the character that exemplifies the adult. The antitype of such a team player is the deceased former captain whose malevolent spirit Mr. Burns thinks haunts the vessel. A man of sensitivity, a violinist (50) and a lover (58), as well as a leader, this man yet wished all hands dead (69), the very opposite of his responsibility to his crew. His fault was isolation, “He had made up his mind to cut adrift from everything.” (62) He “hated everybody and everything, but I think he was afraid to die” (94) Such a monster inspires even in the rationalist Conrad theories of diabolic intervention: “It appeared that even at sea a man could be the victim of evil spirits.” (69) We develop a vocabulary that signifies in the first place that we seek to name something we don’t understand.
By the time the narrator recoils from a suffering human body as, calling it a “Thing” (115), he is suffering from a Swiftian disgust with corporeality, the vulnerabilities of the body having become so monstrous as to be all-but-unfaceable. But he persists in spite of his overwhelming aversion, and he survives, and by the tales’ end, he is exchanging chipper chit-chat with the good Captain Giles. “There’s no rest for me,” he comments, “until she’s out in the Indian Sea and not much of it even then.” “Yes,” replies the captain pointedly, “that’s what it amounts to.” (132) Out of this restlessness arises both life and stories..
The realistic, the psychological, the historical, the magical, and the philosophical function in this story side by side, in harmony just as in one’s individual life, these strains and others are all present. To one critic one element may dominate dramatically, but the next may hear it differently. As in a grand symphonic orchestra, there are times when the string leads and times when they are silent, ceding to horns and winds, but all are woven together in the texture of our days, and all are together in first-rate fictions.