The Shadow Line

tutorial, commentary, study resources, plot, and web links

The Shadow Line: A Confession (1917) is one of a number of Conrad’s works which draw upon his own experiences as a seaman during his third visit to the far East in 1887-1888. He signed up as mate on the Vidar, which traded in the islands of Malaysia, but just like the young man in this story he signed off and was then given his first (and only) command of his own ship. He travelled from Singapore to Bangkok to take over as captain of the Otago, then took the ship to Sydney, calling in en route at Singapore to pick up medical supplies.

The fact that these elements are reflected in the story should not lead readers to suppose that the finished work is merely a biographical record. The relationship between biography and fiction is a complex issue, and it should be remembered that not only do writers transform personal experience to give it artistic shape and force, but there is no direct and simple relationship between a personal experience and its depiction in fictional form.

Joseph Conrad - portrait

Joseph Conrad – portrait

The Shadow Line – critical commentary

Narrative structure

The main elements of the narrative are arranged in a very simple pattern. The story begins in Singapore as the young captain secures his first command. He travels to Bangkok to join his ship, and sails back to where he came from, in Singapore. This structure echoes the main thematic development of the novella – his change from a state of youth and immaturity to that of an older and wiser man who has been hardened by the grim experiences of his journey.

Conrad is renowned for the complexity of his novels and stories – particularly the radically fractured time schemes of his narratives. But the structure and the sequence of events in The Shadow-Line are relatively straightforward. Events are related by a single first-person narrator, the young sea captain, and he delivers them in the same sequence that they occur, with no flashes forward or backward.

The only element of ‘back story’ is provided by the chief mate’s account of his conflict with the previous captain, and the only part of the text which is not either dialogue or first person narrative is two brief extracts from the young captain’s diary. In fact it’s difficult to understand why Conrad bothered including these two short passages, because they continue to recount events in the same sequence and in a similar manner.

Steam and Sail

At the start of the tale, the young sailor’s position as mate on the steam ship is comfortable and he is successful in it – carrying the approval of his captain (Kent). Yet he leaves the ship, for reasons he cannot explain. The experienced seamen with whom he discusses the issue put it down to his youthful impetuosity.

Yet when he takes up his command of the sailing ship he is in raptures with the ship itself which he thinks of as ‘she’ and himself as a lover. He also conceives of himself as the latest in a long honourable tradition of previous captains. (This is powerfully ironic in the light of the previous captain and his actions.)

But there are immediate problems connected with the type of vessel. The sailing ship requires a great number of men on deck, co-operating with each other to manage the sails and navigation. These are exactly what the captain does not have, because the crew are down with malaria. He is therefore forced to manage the ship himself, assisted by two crew who are both ill.

In the end he succeeds – so in one sense it is the older traditions of the sea and the earlier form of maritime technology which provide him with the gruelling experience that forms his character. He learns the value of co-operative working methods.

Youth and experience

At the start of the narrative, the young seaman is competent, but he displays the impetuosity and naivety of youth. He gives up his job without any good reason, and has no alternative career prospects. He fails to recognise that Captain Giles has recommended him to the Harbour Master, and his mood switches rapidly from despair to elation on learning of his new appointment. He also disregards the medical advice he is given, and sets sail without the services of a chief mate.

In his favour is the fact that his essential soundness is recognised by Captain Kent, his previous commander, the experienced Captain Giles, and the Harbour Master who gives him his position. He survives under the pressure of the ship’s misfortunes, and he has the good luck not to contract malaria like the rest of his crew.

Once back in Singapore, he realises that he has learned a severe lesson, he feels older (though only two or three weeks have passed) and at the end of the story he is intending to start out to complete his journey the very next day.

Novel, novella, story?

The narrative is one hundred pages – approximately 30,000 words – which means it could be considered a short novel or a long short story. But it has the classic characteristics of the novella. It is concerned essentially with a single experience in the life of one character, but the event it deals with is of a magnitude that makes it more than a passing episode. That is, it deals with a universal issue, not a particular event (no matter how revealing).

The captain’s experiences test his courage to the limit; he learns a very severe lesson; and he ultimately triumphs against adversity in a way which takes him from youth to manhood. These are large-scale issues, much bigger than the smaller (though revealing) incidents which would characterize the short story.

All the drama is concentrated into one topic and one location – the captain’s command and his problems on board the ship. Even his interactions with others are reduced essentially to just the saintly cook and the deranged chief mate. This sharpness of dramatic focus reinforces the especially compacted nature of the novella as a literary genre.

The title

Readers might be forgiven for thinking that the title refers to a shipping company – but Conrad uses the term ‘shadow-line’ two or three times throught the novella in a mataphoric sense.

time, too, goes on – till one perceives ahead a shadow-line warning one that the region of early youth, too, must be left behind

The line is therefore a zone of transition between two states of being – youthfulness and maturity – which is the pricipal issue of the novella as a whole. When the young captain’s morale is at its lowest point he communes with himself in a diary, reflecting on the difference between his current despair and the youthful enthusiasm with which he began his voyage fifteen days earlier:

It seems to me that all my life before that momentous day is infinitely remote, a fading memory of light-hearted youth, something on the other side of a shadow

The Shadow Line – study resources

The Shadow Line The Shadow-Line – Oxford World Classics – Amazon UK

The Shadow Line The Shadow-Line – Oxford World Classics – Amazon US

The Shadow Line The Shadow-Line – Kindle eBook (annotated)

The Shadow Line The Shadow-Line – Penguin Classics – Amazon UK

The Shadow Line The Shadow-Line – Penguin Classics – Amazon US

The Shadow Line The Shadow-Line – Wordsworth Classics – Amazon UK

The Shadow Line The Shadow-Line – Wordsworth Classics – Amazon US

The Shadow Line The Shadow Line – eBook versions at Project Gutenberg

Red button Joseph Conrad: A Biography – Amazon UK

Red button The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad – Amazon UK

Red button Routledge Guide to Joseph Conrad – Amazon UK

Red button Oxford Reader’s Companion to Conrad – Amazon UK

Red button Notes on Life and Letters – Amazon UK

Red button Joseph Conrad – biographical notes

The Shadow-Line – plot summary

A young, inexperienced, but competent seaman suddenly gives up his successful position as mate on a steamship. Whilst he is on shore in Singapore an older and experienced sea captain recommends him to the harbour master, as a result of which he is given command of a sailing ship whose captain has died at sea. He travels to Bangkok to take charge of the ship and feels that he is joining an illustrious brotherhood of distinguished former commanders. However, he learns from the chief mate that the previous captain was dissolute and neglected his duties, The chief mate was forced to take charge of the ship, and the captain cursed the ship and all its crew before dying.

Joseph Conrad The Shadow LineThe new young captain is delayed in Bangkok by a combination of official procedures and the chief mate’s illness. He seeks medical advice, but impatient to be underway with his new commission, he disregards the warnings and sets sail in unfavourable conditions. The journey progresses very slowly because of a lack of wind, and the ship becomes becalmed in the Gulf of Siam. Meanwhile all the crew are infected with malaria, and the chief mate appears to be dying. The mate believes that an evil influence from the previous captain is casting a jinx on the ship.

The young captain then suddenly discovers that the supplies of quinine he has been using to treat his crew have been stolen and sold by the previous captain, who has re-filled the bottles with useless stuff. The captain is supported in all his attempts to keep going by the ship’s cook, who has a bad heart.

The chief mate recovers slightly, but the ship makes no progress. The captain in despair decides to abandon the voyage and return to Singapore. En route the ship encounters a tropical thunderstorm, and the captain has to maintain the safety of the ship with the help of only two or three sick crew members. The chief mate goes through a phase of near madness in which he believes that they are battling against evil forces of the former captain, who he personally buried at sea in the same part of the Gulf.

Finally, the ship reaches Singapore, the crew are taken off to hospital, and the cook requests to be discharged from his duties. The captain recruits a replacement crew and is planning to resume his voyage the very next day, feeling older and wiser.


Principal characters
I the narrator, an unnamed young mariner
Hamilton a non-paying loafer and snob
Captain Giles an experienced retired navigator
Chief Steward custodian of the Officers’ Sailors’ Home
Captain Kent commander of the narrator’s previous ship
Captain Ellis harbour master in Singapore
R gay shipping master in harbour office
Burns chief mate
Doctor medical chief in Bangkok
Ransome the cook with a bad heart
Gambril a grizzled sailor
Frenchy sailor with a Mr Punch face

The Shadow Line – publication

The Shadow Line

first edition, J.M.Dent 1917

The Cambridge Companion to Joseph ConradThe Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad offers a series of essays by leading Conrad scholars aimed at both students and the general reader. There’s a chronology and overview of Conrad’s life, then chapters that explore significant issues in his major writings, and deal in depth with individual works. These are followed by discussions of the special nature of Conrad’s narrative techniques, his complex relationships with late-Victorian imperialism and with literary Modernism, and his influence on other writers and artists. Each essay provides guidance to further reading, and a concluding chapter surveys the body of Conrad criticism.

Critical studies

Red button Ted Billy, A Wilderness of Words: Closure and Disclosure in Conrad’s Short Fiction, Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1997.

Red button Gary Geddes, Conrad’s Later Novels, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1980.

Red button Stephen K. Land, Conrad and the Paradox of Plot, London: Macmillan Press, 1984.

Red button F.R.Leavis, ‘The Shadow-Line’, in Anna Karenina and Other Essays, London: Chatto and Windus, 1967.

Joseph Conrad - writing table

Joseph Conrad’s writing table

Further reading

Red button Amar Acheraiou Joseph Conrad and the Reader, London: Macmillan, 2009.

Red button Jacques Berthoud, Joseph Conrad: The Major Phase, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Red button Muriel Bradbrook, Joseph Conrad: Poland’s English Genius, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1941

Red button Harold Bloom (ed), Joseph Conrad (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views, New Yoprk: Chelsea House Publishers, 2010

Red button Hillel M. Daleski , Joseph Conrad: The Way of Dispossession, London: Faber, 1977

Red button Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan, Joseph Conrad and the Modern Temper, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Red button Aaron Fogel, Coercion to Speak: Conrad’s Poetics of Dialogue, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1985

Red button John Dozier Gordon, Joseph Conrad: The Making of a Novelist, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1940

Red button Albert J. Guerard, Conrad the Novelist, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1958

Red button Robert Hampson, Joseph Conrad: Betrayal and Identity, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992

Red button Jeremy Hawthorn, Joseph Conrad: Language and Fictional Self-Consciousness, London: Edward Arnold, 1979

Red button Jeremy Hawthorn, Joseph Conrad: Narrative Technique and Ideological Commitment, London: Edward Arnold, 1990

Red button Jeremy Hawthorn, Sexuality and the Erotic in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad, London: Continuum, 2007.

Red button Owen Knowles, The Oxford Reader’s Companion to Conrad, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990

Red button Jakob Lothe, Joseph Conrad: Voice, Sequence, History, Genre, Ohio State University Press, 2008

Red button Gustav Morf, The Polish Shades and Ghosts of Joseph Conrad, New York: Astra, 1976

Red button Ross Murfin, Conrad Revisited: Essays for the Eighties, Tuscaloosa, Ala: University of Alabama Press, 1985

Red button Jeffery Myers, Joseph Conrad: A Biography, Cooper Square Publishers, 2001.

Red button Zdzislaw Najder, Joseph Conrad: A Life, Camden House, 2007.

Red button George A. Panichas, Joseph Conrad: His Moral Vision, Mercer University Press, 2005.

Red button John G. Peters, The Cambridge Introduction to Joseph Conrad, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Red button James Phelan, Joseph Conrad: Voice, Sequence, History, Genre, Ohio State University Press, 2008.

Red button Edward Said, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 1966

Red button Allan H. Simmons, Joseph Conrad: (Critical Issues), London: Macmillan, 2006.

Red button J.H. Stape, The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996

Red button John Stape, The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad, Arrow Books, 2008.

Red button Peter Villiers, Joseph Conrad: Master Mariner, Seafarer Books, 2006.

Red button Ian Watt, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, London: Chatto and Windus, 1980

Red button Cedric Watts, Joseph Conrad: (Writers and their Work), London: Northcote House, 1994.

Other novels by Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad Under Western EyesUnder Western Eyes (1911) is the story of Razumov, a reluctant ‘revolutionary’. He is in fact a coward who is mistaken for a radical hero and cannot escape from the existential trap into which this puts him. This is Conrad’s searing critique of Russian ‘revolutionaries’ who put his own Polish family into exile and jeopardy. The ‘Western Eyes’ are those of an Englishman who reads and comments on Razumov’s journal – thereby creating another chance for Conrad to recount the events from a very complex perspective. Razumov achieves partial redemption as a result of his relationship with a good woman, but the ending, with faint echoes of Dostoyevski, is tragic for all concerned.
Joseph Conrad Buy the book from Amazon UK
Joseph Conrad Buy the book from Amazon US


Joseph Conrad ChanceChance is the first of Conrad’s novels to achieve a wide commercial success, and one of the few to have a happy ending. It tells the story of Flora de Barral, the abandoned daughter of a bankrupt tycoon, and her long struggle to find happiness and dignity. He takes his techniques of weaving complex narratives to a challenging level here. His narrator Marlow is piecing together the story from a mixture of personal experience and conversations with other characters in the novel. At times it is difficult to remember who is saying what to whom. This is a work for advanced Conrad fans only. Make sure you have read some of the earlier works first, before tackling this one.
Joseph Conrad Buy the book from Amazon UK
Joseph Conrad Buy the book from Amazon US

Joseph Conrad links

Joseph Conrad - tutorials Joseph Conrad at Mantex
Biography, tutorials, book reviews, study guides, videos, web links.

Red button Joseph Conrad – his greatest novels and novellas

Red button Joseph Conrad – a collection of web links

Joseph Conrad - eBooks Joseph Conrad at Project Gutenberg
A major collection of free eTexts in a variety of formats.

Joseph Conrad - further reading Joseph Conrad at Wikipedia
Biography, major works, literary career, style, politics, further reading, and web links.

Joseph Conrad - adaptations Joseph Conrad at the Internet Movie Database
Adaptations of his work for the cinema and television – in various languages.

Joseph Conrad - etexts Works by Joseph Conrad
HTML texts, digital scans, and eText versions.

Joseph Conrad - journal The Joseph Conrad Society (UK)
Conradian journal, reviews. and scholarly resources.

Joseph Conrad - concordance Hyper-Concordance of Conrad’s works
Locate a word or phrase – in context

© Roy Johnson 2012

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