- Providence, Anti-Providence, and the Experience of Time in The Shadow-Line
The style and organization of The Shadow-Line, deceptively conventional, have often drawn critical attention to the ethical dilemmas posed by the protagonist’s first command, and questions of aesthetic epistemology have not seemed particularly relevant: unlike other key works by Conrad, The Shadow-Line does not seem bent on defamiliarizing readers from established narrative patterns. Since the novella’s publication in book form in 1917, however, criticism has devoted a great deal of interest to its ambivalent use of the supernatural, and the focus on theme has implied a more or less explicit focus on genre and narrative perspective. In Cedric Watts’s influential view, for example, a “covert plot” of the novella is a supernatural one, encapsulated in a broader secular plot that suggests how the curse of the captain exists only in a stress-induced misperception (90–99). Watts’s interpretation offers crucial insight into Conrad’s treatment of the supernatural in the novella, demonstrating how The Shadow-Line makes use of the ambivalence of the fantastic to throw into relief the limits of individual perception. At the same time, it suggests that the supernatural plot is also designed to satisfy a residual need for the religious because the novella contains a rich Christian symbolism.
Further attention to the use of the supernatural in The Shadow-Line can reveal, however, an even subtler awareness of its conventions. The novella does far more than appropriate, and slightly re-inflect, the devices of nineteenth-century ghost stories. Conrad’s tale of development, moral testing, and ontological doubt adumbrates a reflection on the constraints and power of the aesthetic. It evokes a far-ranging intertextual horizon, thus drawing attention to representations of the supernatural in previous genres and their ethical meanings. The beginnings of this reflection can be found in an essay Conrad wrote more than ten years before The Shadow-Line, “Henry James: An Appreciation” (1905), [End Page 17] which sets forth lasting principles of his approach to narrative. In this short but vibrant praise of James’s fiction, Conrad treats it as a crucial step in the supersession of outworn formal devices such as the comic endings and the artificial denouements that made many Victorian novels pleasant to read:
Why the reading public which, as a body, has never laid upon a story-teller the command to be an artist, should demand from him this sham of Divine Omnipotence, is utterly incomprehensible. But so it is; and these solutions are legitimate inasmuch as they satisfy the desire for finality, for which our hearts yearn with a longing greater than the longing for the loaves and fishes of this earth. Perhaps the only true desire of mankind, coming thus to light in its hours of leisure, is to be set at rest. One is never set at rest by Mr. Henry James’s novels. His books end as an episode in life ends. You remain with the sense of the life still going on; and even the subtle presence of the dead is felt in that silence that comes upon the artist-creation when the last word has been read. It is eminently satisfying, but it is not final. Mr. Henry James, great artist and faithful historian, never attempts the impossible.(18–19)
Conrad rightly claims that for a long time novelistic plots functioned as simulacra of an absent or waning Providence, with the narrator internalizing the prerogatives of God as a “sham of Divine Omnipotence” catered to the public’s “desire for finality”—this being a key word, as we will see, to understanding The Shadow-Line. Conversely, Conrad values James’s endings because they do not “set” readers “at rest,” resisting closure and implying that a novel’s ending is not a reassuring fiction of metaphysical order. Conrad’s critique targets novelistic plots that had been current in England since at least Henry Fielding, whose providential narrators in Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, though self-consciously fictional, set the tone for subsequent novels. This assessment, which conceives of fiction as a tool to raise questions and thus make readers “restless,” is consonant...