The Shadow-Line and Two Other Tales: Typhoon, the Secret Sharer Review

The Shadow-Line and Two Other Tales: Typhoon, the Secret Sharer
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The Shadow-Line and Two Other Tales: Typhoon, the Secret Sharer ReviewThis great collection has two of Joseph Conrad's excellent short novels (The Shadow-Line, Typhoon) and "The Secret Sharer," one of his best short stories. This is not only convenient but a great value, making the book a great buy for anyone who can track it down.
Often called Joseph Conrad's last notable work, The Shadow-Line is not in his top tier but is a strong tale that fans will enjoy. Though it has many of his more famous and better works' obvious trappings, not least the Far East/ship setting, it is far more accessible; shorter, more tightly written, and less symbolic, it has a linear narrative and (for Conrad) very straight-forward prose. This may disappoint those who value his profound philosophical dramatization and narrative experimentation, but those who like him mainly for stirring adventure and basic human nature insight - especially if they think other elements hold him back - will like this especially
Most Conrad works can be appreciated on a very simple level as rousing sea adventures, this more than others. It lacks other novels' high pitch storm scenes, but its stark depiction of a ship in extreme condition is in many ways more affecting and certainly more relatable to most. We get a vivid idea of what it was like to be at sea in a true crisis. Like many Conrad stories, it is highly autobiographical, as one might have surmised from the wealth of realistic detail. Written in first-person from the captain's perspective, it vibrantly shows the great stress of overseeing a dire situation. Conrad is known for piercing psychological penetration, and though The Shadow-Line does not take the concept as abstractly far as other works, it is highly noteworthy in showing a representative mind - young, capable, and ambitious but inexperienced - under stress. Not least importantly, we get an unrelenting expression of self-doubt, hence the "A Confession" subtitle.
As this suggests, the book is to a large degree a bildungsroman and may easily be seen as a companion to Conrad's "Youth," another entry in the genre with further similar elements. Many will identify with the narrator's malaise, doubts, and lack of direction, not least because they come from an unknown source. At least as many will understand his elation at getting his first command. He quickly becomes a sympathetic character; we truly feel with and for him, at least as much because he is in so many ways an Everyman as because of his first-person narration. Fortunately, far fewer will be able to directly relate to his severely trying experiences, but the youth-to-adulthood passage that it symbolizes has universal significance. Like "Youth," this laments the loss of illusions and ideals that are sadly inherent to aging, but in contrast to it, the advantages - such as they are - are also shown. The narrator loses much but gains a strong self understanding, not least just how far he can be pushed and how he can perform in such conditions. More importantly, he learns hard and bitter truths that only experience can teach and that he will later need to call on often.
The narrator is not the only memorable character; this indeed has some of Conrad's most colorful and memorable, much to its advantage: the eccentric, deranged Mr. Burns; the calm, faithful Ransome; the deceptively intelligent Captain Giles; the quirky and lordly Captain Ellis; the comically hapless hotel steward; the contemptibly incompetent Hamilton; and not least, the startlingly malicious first captain who mercifully appears only in short flashbacks. If Conrad holds back in other areas - or if perhaps his talent had diminished -, he is at least as good as ever here.
Despite the obvious lack of prior works' deep symbolism, some have seen the novel as a World War I allegory. There is significant biographical justification; the book was written during WWI, Conrad saying it was the only subject he could turn to, and his son, whom he says he thought of when writing, fought in the war. One can also make a good textual case; the story after all champions camaraderie as well as perseverance amid great danger including the machinations of a malevolent enemy springing from unknown malice. Perhaps above all, it holds out for a (relatively) satisfying end despite all, which would seem uncharacteristically optimistic but may well make sense in the context of Conrad's son. There is likely something in all this, but it has probably been pushed too far by those understandably if somewhat perversely determined to find strong symbolism because prior works had it. Some have also seen supernatural elements, but it seems obvious that they were meant to be taken as insanity portents; Conrad lacked belief in such things, and his Preface denounced the interpretation. None of this really matters in the end, because The Shadow-Line is strong regardless of whether it exists and would not be among his best work if it did; anyone interested in Conrad should read it in any case.
Though not Joseph Conrad's most ambitious or important work, Typhoon is a strong short novel that fans will enjoy. It can also be appreciated on a very basic level as an exciting adventure. As the title suggests, the majority of the action describes a typhoon's monumental effects, specifically how it impacts a ship. The extended scene portraying it is one of the best of its kind. We get a powerful impression of nature's astounding force and just how insignificant humanity and its creations can be in the face of it.
Engrossing as this is, it is of course really just fodder for Conrad's larger themes, the most immediate being the vast amount of things beyond humanity's control; for all our arrogance, there are many situations where we can do little or no more than sit back - or, in this case, hold on - and hope for the best. Typhoon is also in part a bildungsroman, though a somewhat unconventional one. The middle-aged Captain Macwhirr is ostensibly the protagonist, but the young Chief Mate Jukes takes center stage here. He enters the voyage with a considerable ego and pokes much fun at the literal-minded Macwhirr but comes to see that, for all his eccentricities, the latter's simple practicality, level-headedness, and strict determination are not without worth. Hapless as Macwhirr may be in numerous ways, he succeeds where many - perhaps most - ostensibly more intelligent people would fail. Jukes comes to see his value even if he cannot bring himself to give all deserved credit. The same is true of other characters to a lesser degree. Macwhirr himself also learns something in the course of the tale; though experienced and in many ways competent, he had never sailed through harsh weather and is tested in a way he never thought he would be. His near-surreal stubbornness means he perhaps did not learn nearly as much as he should have, but he made it through after all. Conrad leaves it open whether this is due to subtle strength or pure luck; it is certainly debatable whether Macwhirr is capable and even heroic in his own way or simply a fool. In any case, he and other characters find that, as he repeatedly says, you can't learn everything from books; Conrad leaves no doubt that there is often no substitute for experience.
The setting and some of the action are very similar to several other Conrad works, but Typhoon also has its own strengths and is in some ways unusual. For example, characterization is very strong - not in the sense of being rounded, Macwhirr in particular being almost a Dickensian caricature, but in being simply memorable. The characters may be archetypes but are very entertaining - and many readers will see people they know in them. Typhoon is also quite humorous, which is surprising in an author whose humor is nearly always black in the rare cases where it exists at all. Macwhirr is of course the butt of much comic fodder, but there is a light-heartedness to many descriptions outside the central scene. Some, such as those in the sailors' households, have satirical bite, which will please those who miss Conrad's cynicism, but those who normally find him too dark may well be pleasantly surprised overall.
This is certainly not Conrad's strongest story; the frustratingly abrupt way in which the storm's second half is passed over even seems to suggest he grew bored with the work and rushed toward the end. I personally think further storm descriptions would have simply been too much, and he perhaps thought so too, but there certainly should have been a less jerky transition. Some will also dislike the indirect narration toward the end, but I found it a successful, if not overly ambitious, experiment from an author renowned for constantly pushing narrative's proverbial envelope. More fundamentally, Typhoon lacks the astonishing psychological depth and dense philosophical dramatization that were always Conrad's top strengths. The latter is here to a certain extent but far less so than elsewhere, automatically putting the book below his best, though some of the other elements partly atone.
"The Secret Sharer" is one of Conrad's final works of major short fiction and one of his best. It finds him returning to the sea after a long absence and has much of the suspense and adventurous spirit of his early works. Indeed, it may well be his most suspenseful and conventionally entertaining work of all; its influence on later writers is easy to see. This is so much so that it can be enjoyed by nearly anyone on this surface level, but as always with Conrad, there is deep symbolic value. "The Secret" again dramatizes outsider status, though more subtly and ambiguously than "Amy." It also deals with other important themes, including the clash of rules and personal morality, authority vs. individualism, etc. The story ends the collection on a very high note and will, along with the rest, lead readers to seek more Conrad.
All told, anyone who has not read these stories would do well to pick them up here.The Shadow-Line and Two Other Tales: Typhoon, the Secret Sharer Overview

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