Joseph Conrad: The Sense of Self

Joseph Conrad's stories The Secret Sharer, Heart of Darkness, and The Shadow Line share a number of themes. All three stories deal with a process of maturing that involves the loss of youthful illusions, a process usually precipitated by an actual "trial" that challenges the protagonist's professional skills as well as his assumptions about his identity and sanity. In successfully dealing with the crisis, the protagonist reconstructs his identity and develops moral ideas rooted in acknowledgement of his own and others' human weaknesses and thus of men's necessary interdependence.

Each story is related from the point-of-view of one narrator: Marlow in Heart of Darkness and an unnamed captain in his first command in both The Secret Sharer and The Shadow Line. All exhibit a naive or idealized view of the world. Marlow chooses to go to the Congo because, since a boy, that part of Africa had always "charmed him." When the narrator of The Shadow Line unexpectedly wins the command of a ship as a replacement for a newly deceased captain, he looks forward to going "out to sea. The sea-which was pure, safe and friendly" (96). Likewise, the narrator of The Secret Sharer prematurely delights in "the great security of the sea" (23).

All three narrators are also solitary figures. The two new captains are isolated by virtue of their position; they cannot become intimate with their men without the risk of losing their respect, and Marlow is culturally isolated in the African jungle.

Each narrator encounters an actual physical trial. The new captain in The Shadow Line finds, when at sea and with a crew afflicted by tropical fevers, that the "mad" former captain has disposed of the store of life-saving quinine. The situation is aggravated by the fact that they are unable to find a wind to propel them, languishing for days on a stagnant sea. As Marlow makes his way up the "River," he is delayed, suffers losses, and finds the experience of the jungle more overwhelming than he anticipated. In contrast, the captain's trial in The Secret Sharerseems to be only that of becoming comfortable with his new command, thus an internal trial, but he then "takes on" the trial of hiding Leggatt, introducing the distressing possibility of discovery.

Yet it is the psychological crisis that each narrator goes through in response to his difficulties that Conrad is most concerned with and he uses the device of "doubling" in all three stories to bring out the psychological complexities of the narrators' struggles. The Secret Sharer's captain "identifies" with Leggatt, while Marlow "admires" Kurtz, and The Shadow Line's captain "relies on" Ransome, the able sailor with a weak heart. A second level of doubling occurs in the latter story when the pairing of the captain and Ransome are opposed to the pair of the unstable former captain and the second mate, Burns, whom the former captain has almost driven insane. Yet, both Leggatt and Kurtz are portrayed as able, even gifted men who have gone too far. Further, the double characters are associated with insanity. Kurtz has sunk into madness. Not yet mad, Leggatt, like Kurtz, cannot control his anger, and Burns and his former captain are mentally unstable.

These contrasting doubles all "pull" on the narrators; the narrators are either attracted by certain positive qualities or repelled by their double's lack of "moral restraint" or both. Yet it is through their relations with their "doubles" that the narrators learn about themselves. Stress and relating to their doubles cause all three narrators to question their own sanity and thus become familiar with their own limits. All three stories play on the imagery of darkness to represent this process; at the height of stress the darkness is most intense. The criminality of Leggatt, the brutality of Kurtz, and the self-centeredness of the former captain in The Shadow Line serve to underscore the dangers of giving into one's passions; their stories are a lesson in what not to do when one is under stress. At the same time, by being temporarily seduced by, then by examining and separating out the mistakes of their doubles, the narrators draw new conclusions and incorporate new knowledge not only about themselves but about the responsibilities and realities of their chosen roles. Marlow announces that he "remained loyal to Kurtz to the last" (149), and the captain of The Shadow Line admits survival would not have been possible without his dedicated crew who are "worthy of [his] undying regard" (120). An inkling of these signs of a maturity that acknowledges men's interdependence can also be found in the unnamed captain's last gesture toward Leggatt in his gift of the white hat. This expression of compassion for Leggatt's "mere flesh" saves the ship and indicates he has emerged from his self-absorbed isolation to begin to learn to lead his men.

© 1996 Shirley Galloway

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