Some four decades after my farewell to arms, I still have a couple of books from the Naval Academy years. Among them is a compilation of works by Joseph Conrad, containing its rather extended short story, “Youth.” I pulled the paperback out recently – a Doubleday/Anchor publication from a half-century ago, selling for $0.95. Yes, that’s right – ninety-five cents. I know, I know, it dates me. Its cover is a tiny bit frayed, but the pages and binding are as good as back in the day.
So I decided to re-read the story (the book also contains Heart Of Darkness and The End Of The Tether, and I may soon re-read them as well). My curiosity in opening this near-forgotten book was two-fold:
• Why was the publication selected as part of the literary indoctrination of Naval Academy plebes (freshmen)?
• How had Conrad structured this story, which I remembered had something to do with the sea?
Every writer strives for some sort of signature device that will identify him/her and draw and keep an audience. Conrad’s was the invention of Marlow, his narrator, who came of age in “Youth” and who grew in sophistication in subsequent pieces of writing.
The story begins with an unnamed narrator introducing Marlow and a group of men who “know something or everything about the sea,” gathered about a mahogany table and drinking from a bottle of claret. From this introduction on, the story is Marlow’s to tell.
This sort of structure, by the way, is called a frame story – one that’s essentially a story within the initial one. This initial story more often than not sets the scene for the story’s main body.
Marlow’s account begins with him entering an old bucket-of-bolts merchant ship, the Judea, as its second mate. Marlow’s a young sailor, but one with experience; however, this is his first voyage as a ship’s second mate. The captain is an experienced sea hand, but has never been “around the capes,” and his ship is bound for Bangkok.
Here I’ll leave voyage details to the reader, but it’s Marlow’s good fortune to weather storms and other trials the Judea was put though. The journey to the other side of the world proves to Marlow that he’s both a capable sailor and an ingenious handler of near-catastrophes.
Too – and here’s a surprise, for me – the story is a real page-turner. Conrad is knowledgeable enough about the sea to depict ship, sea, and crew in a realistic manner, and a skillful enough writer to keep the action rising page after page.
So. What of the title? Marlow’s epiphany is two-fold:
• He tells the tale long after the voyage, at a time when he realizes adventure is not an entity unto itself, but a process of learning, of growing as an adult.
• He realizes during his telling, as the claret is passed, that youth is rather blind, but that its raw energy has provided his growth and success as a sailor and as a person.
These points make the story of value to “Ye Olde Boat School’s” lowest-of-the-low: every plebe surely comes to understand through this reading that growth comes from a four-square confrontation with adversity. This is the crucible within which character is born and leadership (something I believe can’t be taught) is learned. And it’s Marlow’s – and the Navy’s – promise to every lowly plebe that the sea will present challenges and instill an existentially unique form of leadership in those who sail it.