“A foretaste of annihilation”

Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow Line is an odd novella.  A ghost story, a beautifully symmetrical tale, a strange little fable, or a metaphor for the First World War (as Wikipedia seems to say)?

A young man is given command of  his first ship.  He finds that the previous commander of the ship had gone mad and died.  The ghost of the previous commander seems to haunt the ship.  The symmetries are between science (represented by the doctor) and faith (in curses); the young (the narrator) and the old (many figures in the story); the oily steward at shore and the heroic steward at sea; steam vs sail and so on.  The story is beautifully constructed and like all of Conrad’s writing balances extraordinary language with a shapely plot.

I won’t write about it a great deal, but the most striking facet of the story is the focus on command.  Here is where Conrad writes “command is a strong magic” and here is where he points to how dignity is vested in command.  As soon as he is given his ship, here is how he feels: “My new dignity sat yet so lightly on me that I was not aware that it was I, the Captain, the object of this last graciousness.  It seemed as if all of a sudden a pair of wings had grown on my shoulders. I merely skimmed along the polished floors.”

And the affects of command – the emphasis on masculinity:

A sudden passion of anxious impatience rushed through my veins, gave me such a sense of the intensity of existence as I have never felt before or since. I discovered how much of a seaman I was, in heart, in mind, and, as it were, physically—a man exclusively of sea and ships; the sea the only world that counted, and the ships, the test of manliness, of temperament, of courage and fidelity—and of love.