Review | The Shadow Line by Joseph Conrad

I really am a sucker for coming of age stories.



In this fictionalized autobiography, Conrad expands on his first experience  as captain of a ship. Young and hopeful, the young captain accepts the promotion, unaware to the trials that lay ahead.

The last captain died on the ship, was hastily buried, and the command position a hasty decision. With a first mate gone half mad, malaria taking in the entire crew, a lack of medicine and no wind to get the ship moving, the young captain will face the shadow line that divides youth and maturity.


I really do love this plot. It perfectly lines up with that stage of life where responsibility forces people to grow. As the trials pile up for the young captain, the desperation does as well. You really start to pity him as it continues on.

There are parts, however, where its hard to guess if Conrad it making stuff up. Historical records show that his first command was actually this terrible, but it really is hard to believe that this all actually happened.


There are only three characters to talk about: the narrator (who’s basically Conrad), the first mate (Mr. Burns), and the steward (Ransome).

Ransome’s first because he’s easy to talk about. The only other person not sick on the ship, Ramsome is the young Captain’s only help on board. He’s kind and considerate, and you sort of get the feeling he’s a little too softhearted to be on ship.

Mr. Burns, on the other hand, is going insane from illness, is brash, blunt and firm. The two are foils to each other, showing the captain that in order for successful command, a person has to balance compassion and reliance on their crew with the strength and fortitude to lead them forward.

The young captain is essentially a stand in for anyone who is at this point in their lives. He’s proud, he’s reckless, he’s insecure…but more importantly, he grows.


Conrad’s writing is deceptively simple. On the face of it, the story is a mere adventure tale. But as you continue to unravel the book and its possible meanings, you begin to realize how clever Conrad is.

He has two narrators: on the young captain, the other is the older man reflecting back. The young man is often confident, the old man revealing the insecurities he tried to hide as the voyage gets worse and worse. The balance of these two seems key to me.


The Shadow Line is very much about that fine and almost blurry line between innocence and adulthood.

Because of this, a lot of critics see it as a war story, written for the men who returned from the war broken and changed. Conrad dedicates the story to his son, who served in WWI.

But restricting the story to a war story is, I think, doing it a disservice. I related strongly to the novella, merely because anyone who’s approached that shadow line between innocence and maturity can relate to this story.

Final Verdict

A novella about what it truly means to grow older, in the face of duty, The Shadow Line is a must read for fans of coming of age. I especially recommend it to graduating students.

Recommendation: Buy.  If you have ever felt insecure about crossing that shadow line, then you should pick up this book.


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