A shining example of Conrad’s later literary ability, “The Shadow-Line” is his autobiographical novella of a young man in his first command as a sea captain. A series of crises prove incredibly difficult for his new authority, for the sea is curiously becalmed and the crew is weakened by feverish malaria. When the first mate’s fear convinces many that the ship is haunted and cursed by the malevolent spirit of the previous captain, the young man must cope with their superstition as well as the conspicuous absence of much-needed medicine. A suspenseful sea story of a young man in a defining moment of his life, when the indistinct line separating an inexperienced boy from a mature man becomes perfectly clear, “The Shadow-Line” brims with intense existence, straining responsibility, and threatened principles in a probing study of masculinity.
Only the young have such moments. I don’t mean the very young. No. The very young have, properly speaking, no moments. It is the privilege of early youth to live in advance of its days in all the beautiful continuity of hope which knows no pauses and no introspection.
One closes behind one the little gate of mere boyishness—and enters an enchanted garden. Its very shades glow with promise. Every turn of the path has its seduction. And it isn’t because it is an undiscovered country. One knows well enough that all mankind had streamed that way. It is the charm of universal experience from which one expects an uncommon or personal sensation—a bit of one’s own.
One goes on recognizing the landmarks of the predecessors, excited, amused, taking the hard luck and the good luck together—the kicks and the half–pence, as the saying is—the picturesque common lot that holds so many possibilities for the deserving or perhaps for the lucky. Yes. One goes on. And the time, too, goes on—till one perceives ahead a shadow–line warning one that the region of early youth, too, must be left behind.