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The Mark of Maturity in Conrad’s Shadow Line

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A succession of men had sat in that chair. I became aware of that thought suddenly, vividly, …as if a sort of composite soul, the soul of command, had whispered suddenly to mine of long days at sea and of anxious moments. “You, too!” it seemed to say, “you, too, shall taste of that peace and that unrest in a searching intimacy with your own self…” Deep within the tarnished ormolu frame…I saw my own face propped between my hands. And I stared back at myself with the perfect detachment of distance, rather with curiosity than with any other feeling, except of some sympathy for this latest representative of what…was 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 on life. p. 52-53

The narrator here, just aboard his first command, understands fully the magnitude of his position as captain. He is not merely a man responsible for the safe passage of a ship through the Eastern seas; he is the embodiment of a tradition, a representative of a long line of like men whose sole purpose was to uphold that tradition. It is only through self-reflection, a major theme of this work, that the narrator can unabashedly take his place in the dynasty. Here, the narrator quite literally reflects, in the glass of an ornate mirror. But his true self-reflection, his searching intimacy with himself is achieved through a more appropriate mirror, the sea. This continuous action alludes to the quotation from Baudelaire which begins the story: “Dautres fois, calme plat, grand miroir de mon dsespoir.”

It is here also, at the beginning of the story, where we are introduced to a second, albeit related, theme of the work, that of the passage from youth to maturity. Our narrator first introduces himself in an unflattering matter, admitting that, in an act of caprice, he had deserted a perfectly acceptable ship. He is an aimless youth, or rather, he is aimless because of his youth. As he says, “The green sickness of late youth descended on me and carried me off.” (5) The reason, never clearly specified, for his resignation, stems from his perception of a shadow-line in the near distance, reminding him that his youth is waning. He does not know what, exactly, he is seeking but he knows that he has yet to find it. Indeed, he regards his months aboard his late ship as a dreary, prosaic waste of days. The narrator is seeking the state of maturity that can be attained only through tribulation and reflection; and by his own great fortune and the direction of a mature but initially under appreciated elder, he is afforded the opportunity to engage in such reflection as the captain of an ill-fated vessel.

It is necessary to note the new captain’s naivete when he begins his command. He firmly believes the sea to be the only remedy for all [his] troubles. (71) On the surface, the captain’s supposition could not be further from the truth. The launching of the ship sees the onset of a fever for which the sea is no remedy. Even the prescribed antidote, quinine, in its short supply cannot alleviate the trouble. The passage is painfully slow and emotionally trying for the narrator. He holds himself entirely to blame for the shortage of quinine and, in his capacity as captain, considers himself responsible for the welfare of the ship and her crew as a whole. Though the sea cannot be held responsible for the state of the crew or the shortage of medicine, it is entirely unforgiving. The sea awakens the narrator to the reality he confront his own dilemmas, his mistakes, his bad luck, and his wavering conscience. The sea, then, in isolating the captain with his sense of guilt and duty does serve as an indirect remedy, if not for all his problems, at least for his youthful immaturity. Because the captain must bear the burden of authority himself, he is forced to grow and mature through reflection on his condition and the steps he must take to improve it. Again, the epigraph from Baudelaire maintains its importance here. The sea is the mirror of his despair and in conquering it he conquers that misery. It is in this manner that the sea truly is the remedy for his troubles.

The narrator who emerges from an excruciatingly prolonged passage is completely different from the one who capriciously opts to resign his post as mate on his previous ship. This difference can be detected in his conversation with Captain Giles, the same under-appreciated elder who had encouraged him to take his first command. The young captain cannot express his emotions after the ordeal other than to say that he feels old and, indeed, the older captain agrees, acknowledging that the narrator appears older. More important, though, is his remark that a man should stand up to his bad luck, to his mistakes, to his conscience, and all that sort of thing. (132) Though the narrator does not respond, he must realize that that is exactly what he has done over the past twenty-one days. It is this triumph over tribulation that earns the young captain his place among the great dynasty of past commanders. Though his literal journey is not yet complete, he has at least crossed the shadow-line.

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