July 22, 2008


Youth is a short story by Joseph Conrad, the subject is not difficult to guess. Captain Charles Marlow, a frequent character in Conrad's stories, makes his first appearance in Youth telling the story of his journey to Bangkok as a young seaman in the 1890s. For most critics the most important thing about the short story is that Marlow, the narrator of the Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, makes his first appearance in the story. But actually this is a more significant piece of work than those critics would have you believe. Youth is a simpler piece of work and so often neglected but it has the merits of being both exciting and interesting, and mixing in a flavour of the difference between human generations as well as the flavour of life at sea.

The story is about the voyage of the vessel Judea from England to Bangkok. Its a comically bad voyage- the Judea is an old vessel which seems to break and splutter at the merest indication of hard weather or hard times. They fail to leave England, they fail to get to Bangkok with the vessel intact and the cargo provided for. The captain, Beard and his first mate, are both good seamen who reasons of luck have never in their long careers commanded before- Marlow describes himself as a stripling between two grandfathers. The point though is that their bad luck continues: through no fault of their own they end up on a vessel which is less than sea worthy and which creaks rather than sails. Of course the ironic touch is that for the young Marlow this is an incredible voyage- to the 'East'- it is romantic and character forming. Marlow is tested throughout by wind, wave and the crew and passes the tests with flying colours- he grows before our eyes. The book is also subtlely a celebration of the British merchant marine at the end of the nineteenth century- far more than any other Conrad I have read it argues for those hardy seamen from Liverpool- having said that it is an old man's nostalgic reminiscence of his prime- and we must always read this as Marlow's attitudes not Conrad's- Marlow recalls his crew as an embodiment of British pluck: does Conrad?

I suppose that is what is most interesting about the story- because it is ultimately a reflection on youth as it looks from old age- in that sense it has a lot in common with Ikiru where the hero beleives it is a girl's youth and not her zest which keeps her passionate. So too in this story the romance and the crew's character are portraits from age. They are dramatisations of memory- a memory no doubt scarred by many less exciting and less comical episodes- some of which Conrad was to introduce us to later on in his fiction. Marlow makes his entrance onto the stage therefore of British literature not as an embodiment of slashbuckling youth, but as an embodiment of fond old age- swigging from a bottle (we are constantly reminded of the bottle being passed round as he tells his story) whilst telling his friends of high deeds and comical mishap. In that sense the unlucky captain is both comical and tragic: he is comical because nothing he can do will ever assuage his failure, but he is tragic because no less than Marlow he is the representative of old men who have lost their opportunities, made their choices and sit around the fire at night telling stories of their own youth.


Dave Cole said...

Couple of thoughts.

Is Marlow an avatar for Conrad?

Conrad does a lot to describe the reality and the quotidian of a sea voyage around the turn of the century. Do you think that there is a comparison to be made with the descriptions of New England whalers made by Herman Melville?

Gracchi said...

I think Marlow's relationship is complicated to Conrad- in this tale I think there is a bit of that going on though- Conrad did experience this kind of voyage himself. But he is also a literary creation- and you have to remember that whilst Conrad is using his own history, he is using it to create a new character.

Unfortunately and to my shame I haven't read Moby Dick so I don't know! The thing I was thinking of personally was that there is a direct line from this kind of story to Patrick O'Brien- though of course Conrad's picture is different because whereas O'Brien is recreating a world that has vanished, Conrad is describing a world that exists or existed for him.