Home » A Year With Short Novels, criticism, Fiction

A Year with Short Novels: Awash with Conrad

By (May 1, 2010) One Comment

Heart of Darkness


The Shadow Line

By Joseph Conrad
Available at Project Gutenberg

This article is part of a series which delves into a different short novel each month, revisiting classics and considering neglected masterpieces. To read the series introduction, “The Sweetness of Short Novels,” click here. To suggest a short novel for inclusion in the series, write to ingridnorton[at]live.com.

On deck with Joseph Conrad. At sea, one passes regions of “broken land, of faint airs, and dead water.” Up a murky river, treacherous channels drift by primeval folds of vegetation. The silence of the terrain carries no peace but rather, “the stillness of an implacable force.” Here, the remarks of taciturn sailors hide existential fright and fury. The course of a voyage—to say nothing of a man’s sanity—may be undone by a sudden change in weather. A ship, even a “battered, twisted, ruined, tin-pot steamboat,” arouses stronger loyalty in its captain’s breast than his bonds to those on shore. Geography is marked by the trade routes and blood trails of colonial empires.

Conrad’s descriptions are lyrical and visceral all at once: the poetry knocks one back while the dredge of salt water dulls the skin. His writing remains astonishing a century on because of the vivid landscapes his words leave in their wake. But not merely the settings he renders: Conrad’s gift is to chart a treacherous moral landscape indissoluble from the shores and swells his vessels travel.

So in The Shadow Line, the self-willed perseverance a young captain calls on is inseparable from the wild expanses of the Malay Archipelago. In Heart of Darkness, a struggle with ambition and carnality unbounded merges with a journey down a treacherous river.

Both short novels provide example of Conrad’s art at its highest pitch of intensity. Written two decades apart, the works bear some vital resemblances. In each story, a young captain plunges into an experience unaware of the effect it will have on him, and the tale is narrated by an older self, still haunted by the events.

In the lesser-known The Shadow Line, the aged narrator looks back on a crisis that marked the dawn of his maturity while in Conrad’s canonical Heart of Darkness, Charlie Marlow narrates his troubled conscience to a party of retired fellow sailors. Both take place in a vanished world of casual racism, imperial trading companies, and intricate maritime navigation. The set-up of each story is long: the captains only depart for their respective journeys more than half-way through the tales. Conrad earns his delays through masterful pacing. What lurks on the next page is unforeseeable — yet inevitable.

But where The Shadow Line is self-contained and suspenseful, Heart of Darkness is ambiguous and morally problematic — and the more haunting work because of it. Set together, the two masterful short novels set off striking contrasts.


The shadow line of the novel’s title is the gray region between youth and maturity. Running up on the end of early youth, the restless narrator (never named) leaves behind a perfectly good position as first mate to a captain who esteems him. “For no reason on which a sensible person could put a finger I threw up my job—chucked my berth,” he confesses. When the bemused elder Captain Giles, renowned as the finest navigator on the archipelago, asks why he left, the young narrator gets angry, touchily replying that he intends to go home to England, though it is clear he has no plan or prospects.

The seasoned Giles tacitly steers the aimless young man toward the empty command of a ship whose captain recently died. The protagonist finds himself rushing to take the job, embracing but barely prepared for the challenges of piloting his own vessel. The strength of the novel’s telling resides in subtleties of tone. When the older narrator recounts the travails of his youth — he waxes on about growing up and how “all mankind had streamed that way” — the cadence is contiguous but different enough from that of the younger protagonist to provide sufficient distance between two stages of the same self.

Giles, who’s written off as dull and perplexing, sees the young man off. As the two stand on the dock, preparing to part, the narrator confidently assures Giles (and himself) that he won’t encounter any problems piloting the archipelago. The only part of the route he is unfamiliar with is his starting point, the Gulf of Siam. He mentions this to Giles.

“The gulf . . . Ay! A funny piece of water—that,” said Captain Giles.

Funny, in this connection, was a vague word. The whole thing sounded like an opinion uttered by a cautious person mindful of actions for slander.

I didn’t inquire as to the nature of that funniness. There was really no time. But at the very last he volunteered a warning.

“Whatever you do keep to the east side of it. The west side is dangerous at this time of the year. Don’t let anything tempt you over. You’ll find nothing but trouble there.”

He thanks Giles for his advice and the two wish each other good-night. Though the narrator claims to be unperturbed, Conrad deftly shows that he is subconsciously aware of the chasm between his green excitement and Giles’ resigned experience:

[Captain Giles’] movements were always deliberate, but his back had receded some distance along the deserted quay before I collected myself enough to follow his example….

Only my movements were not deliberate. I hurried down to the steps, and leaped into the launch. Before I had fairly landed in her sternsheets the slim little craft darted away from the jetty with a sudden swirl of her propeller and the hard, rapid puffing of the exhaust in her vaguely gleaming brass funnel amidships.

The narrator’s rushed good-bye as he jumps on board suggests his headlong course, that there is no real preparation for character-defining experiences. The swagger of his claims seem weak in front of the trials ahead. Our narrator knows he has crossed the threshold of a great responsibility, but remains unsure of what lies on the other side. His bravado belies untested inner qualities.

The test, of course, arrives. Conrad lines up elements of disaster. At port, an outbreak of cholera spreads among the crew but the moment it abates, our young and eager captain decides to undertake the voyage. No sooner than the ship is far from any city and waylaid by fickle winds than the disease flares up again. Mr. Burns, his stricken first mate, gives in to deranged ravings about the narrator’s deceased predecessor, who cursed ship and crew before his death. His body was dumped in the latitudes which now trap the vessel.

However, the gravest threat comes not from supernatural forces, but from petty human selfishness: the ship’s depleted supply of medicine, which the ruthless former captain sold in the slums of a port before he died. Upon discovering the resealed bottles, emptied of quinine, the young captain falls prey to dark self-doubt. “The intense loneliness of the sea acted like poison on my brain. When I turned my eyes to the ship, I had a morbid vision of her as a floating grave. Who hasn’t heard of ships found floating, haphazard, with their crews all dead?” he reflects. As his crew’s strength atrophies daily, he presides sleeplessly on deck, nerves frayed by his own guilt.

The climax of the story arrives with a drop in air pressure. A storm overtakes the atmosphere’s deadening tranquility: “The impenetrable blackness beset the ship so close that it seemed that by thrusting one’s hand over the side one could touch some unearthly substance.”

As Conrad’s narrator steers his troubled craft through the gathering storm, he crosses the shadow line into adulthood, his responsibility changing him invisibly but permanently, as a storm reshapes a tidal landscape long after the wind has quieted and the rain waters disappeared.

* * *

The darkening storm the narrator pilots personifies the story’s “shadow line” and shows how, at his best, Conrad’s writing goes beyond metaphor. The internal world merges completely with outward events, creating a searingly real and indivisible whole. Heart of Darkness is the novel where he does this most completely — and notoriously.

The work opens as five men, all former sailing companions, launch down the Thames at dusk. Marlow, the only one who still “follows the sea,” stares out into the brooding gloom, horizon “more sombre every minute” as the sun sinks in the sky. He launches into a monologue about the Thames’ dark past as a through-way for conquerors. Then pauses and says “in a hesitating voice, ‘I suppose you fellows remember I did once turn fresh-water sailor for a bit.'” The story which follows unfolds on a river in the tropics (unnamed but certainly the Congo) as he journeys down to take command of a steamer.

As in The Shadow Line, the captain who preceded him died. A dispute over some hens caused the formerly even-tempered Dane to mercilessly beat the chief of a village. But this disagreement ended badly for him. “[W]hen an opportunity offered at last to meet my predecessor,” Marlow recalls, “the grass growing through his ribs was tall enough to hide his bones…. And the village was deserted.”

Unlike The Shadow Line, which makes scant reference to the colonial world it inhabits except to note that the narrator takes control of a ship with an “all white” crew, the heavy atmosphere of Heart of Darkness arises from the moral taint of colonialism. In the stultifying, overgrown world of the tropics, a French warship points its guns into the dark forest of obscure threats, “firing into a continent” while “the men in that lonely ship” drop dead of fever each day. At shore in colonial outpost. Marlow passes a chain-gang of Africans with iron collars around their necks, men so thin that “the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope.” His colleagues pronounce the word “ivory” like a greedy incantation — “You would think they were praying to it.”

Marlow spends three months on these shores repairing the battered steamboat that will carry him upriver. The thrust of the narrative focuses on his mission to retrieve Kurtz, an English ivory agent renowned for his zest for “civilizing” natives and collecting ivory. Managers at the trading company tell Marlow of Kurtz’s utter brilliance, though the way they talk about him reveals a certain unease, that Kurtz might somehow be beyond their control. The crux of the story comes when Marlow at last meets Kurtz and finds him to be exceptional — in intelligence, primality, and ruthlessness. Kurtz, who uses murderous methods to scare up ivory from the natives and who hides “in the magnificent folds of eloquence the barren darkness of his heart.” Their meeting, far up the river and deep in the jungle, will nearly pull Marlow apart.

Throughout the story, Marlow struggles with moral uncertainty: uncertainty of the violence around him, uncertainty of the darkness in the forest bordering the river, and most disturbingly, uncertainty of his own role amid it all.

The novel gathers its hallucinatory power by enfolding Marlow in this ambiguity. A sailor’s territory is sea, not land, and so the banks of a river menace by their unchanging but unnavigable proximity. “The current ran smooth and swift, but a dumb immobility sat on the banks. The living trees, lashed together by the creepers and every living bush of the undergrowth might have been changed into stone, even to the slenderest twig, to the lightest lead. It was not sleep—it seemed unnatural, like a state of trance.”

The jungle is a primeval place to him; it carries with it a sense of humankind’s primitive antecedants. Settlements centuries old seem ready to be swallowed up by the immense flora. Marlow refers to the colonial managers derisively, but civilization only seems absurd to Marlow. The enveloping, potent power of the natural world terrifies him. Emaciated Africans, chained together, unsettle him less than those he glimpses from his ship, singing and leaping in the forest in some kind of ritual. Disturbed by the thought of his “remote kinship” with the their “wild and passionate uproar,” Marlow segues into a meditation on human nature:

Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend. And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valour, rage—who can tell?—but truth—truth stripped of its cloak of time.

In “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” Nigerian intellectual and novelist Chinua Achebe famously criticized Heart of Darkness for reinforcing the racist dichotomy between a refined Europe of noble ideals and an ugly, unbridled Africa. “Africa is to Europe as the picture is to Dorian Gray,” Achebe writes, “a carrier onto whom the master unloads his physical and moral deformities so that he may go forward, erect and immaculate.”

Heart of Darkness is indeed shot through with racism — and misogyny. Marlow has some African crewman. He describes the sight of a “savage” tending to a modern boiler to be “as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind legs.” The gaunt, black skeleton of a man he offers a biscuit to at camp seems young “but you know with them it’s hard to tell.”

As for women, Marlow exalts the only girl in the story who speaks more than a few lines of dialogue for her complete ignorance of human nature. Women “live in a world of their own,” Marlow notes, “and there has never been anything like it, and never can be…if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.” Elsewhere he explains, “We must help [women] to stay in that beautiful world of their own lest ours get worse.”

To dismiss such bigotry as ironic is to make unnecessary allowances. The depictions of Africans and women in the novel both have deep and effective metaphoric use. The darkness of mankind’s potential for unspeakable brutality and unfettered achievement is brought into contrast by the weak pallor of female ignorance. The strength of the novel’s portrayal of uncontrollable forces which lurk in the heart inheres in Marlow’s fears about the dark people around him and dark forest they live in. Achebe rightly diagnoses Marlow’s short-sightedness, describing Conrad as twisting an entire continent of people into a symbol for animalism.

Can a work of art which rests on unsound ethical foundations still be considered great?

Achebe answers no. I say, yes.

* * *

Both Marlow and the narrator of The Shadow Line invoke certain internal qualities to counter the dark doubts they encounter. In The Shadow Line, rationality and a steady hand vanquish fear and superstition. Marlow, meanwhile, finds himself faulting Kurtz for lacking “restraint.”

But what sort of “restraint”? Marlow doesn’t seem to know. He alternates between holding the savage ignorance of Africans in contempt and being repulsed by the way the Europeans treat them. Is the deficit of restraint most devastating in the “screeching” Africans or the white colonists who plunder their land? Kurtz terrifies Marlow because he combines callous bloodlust with eloquent intelligence (“all the past as well as all the future”). While the voyage in The Shadow Line makes the protagonist an older and wiser man, Marlow never fully emerges from the ambiguity he encounters.

Great works of art are multi-faceted, never simplistic. What makes Heart of Darkness a striking novel is precisely these uncomfortable, unresolved interstices of morality. As evidence of the novel’s racism, Achebe quotes a passage where Marlow’s characterizes the talk of nearby Africans as “a violent babble of uncouth sounds.”

But Conrad’s purpose here is not to denigrate African language. The uproar of the Africans onshore disturbs Marlow not because he doesn’t understand their rituals. He doesn’t try to. They disturb because he doesn’t understand his own reaction to them. The narrative unease and brilliant, unsettling artistry of Heart of Darkness come from this inability to understand. Marlow tries to explain his experience in the Congo to his friends:

“….And I heard—[Kurtz]—it—this voice—all of them were so little more than voices—and the memory of that time lingers around me, impalpable, like a dying vibration of one immense jabber, silly, atrocious, sordid, savage, or simply mean, without any kind of sense. Voices, voices—even the girl herself—now——”

He was silent for a long time.

Evil confronted in the shadowy flow of a tropical river; maturity found among huge, clear sweeps of sea. The singular vividness of both Heart of Darkness and The Shadow Line confirm them as the works of a brilliant writer. But the novels go on, reverberating in memory, precisely because Conrad is not fully in control of the forces he unleashes.

Ingrid Norton has written for publications including Dissent, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Soundcheck Magazine.