Themes and Meanings
As in so many of Joseph Conrad’s works, meaning is at once contained in and amplified by the setting. In “The Tale,” the setting of the sea in fog takes on metaphorical and symbolic significance. The crux of the story is the commanding officer’s attempt and ultimate failure to find certitude. Has the Northman violated his neutrality by supplying the enemy? The commanding officer is unable to verify his suspicions. The Northman seems to be telling the truth—he is, indeed, at sea, unable to find his way out of the fog. The commanding officer is also fog-bound, unable to see, to distinguish truth from falsity. A philosophical dilemma faces the commanding officer, a dilemma pertinent to all humankind: How can one know the truth in a world in which the truth is obscured by the fog of human fallibility?
The commanding officer is at war not only with the enemy submarine or the mysterious cargo ship but also with himself, with his frailty as a creature fog-bound by intellectual limitations. Although in command of his ship, he is full of doubts and prejudices, capable even of mean-spiritedness. When he sends the Northman to destruction on the rocks, he is guilty of a cleverness verging on the diabolic. The truth as he learns it is that the Northman really was lost, but the commanding officer realizes that he will never know whether he committed murder or exacted justice.
The commanding officer discovers that his actions and motives are shrouded in fog, that the controlling agency of his endeavors is ignorance. Such fog, such ignorance, pervades not just the sea but the room in which he tells the tale. The twilight setting makes his companion only a disembodied voice. He cannot see her clearly but can only respond to her questions. The relationship thus implicit between them is as uncertain as the darkening room. When the commanding officer turns away from her at the conclusion of his tale, he signifies his despair. The enormous lie that he perceived as part of the faithlessness of war has now become for him part of the faithlessness of human conduct, even in acts of compassion and love.