Style and Technique
Conrad combined a genius for realistic detail with an ability to embellish experience with human emotion. Though in some stories, such as Heart of Darkness (1902), he produced an almost too-melodramatic overlay of suggestive implications, he never seriously misrepresented the scenes he described, which he knew from personal experience. “Youth” is quite free of “purple passages,” without obscuring either the grim reality of the voyage or the absurdly romantic glow in which the young mate experienced it.
Conrad’s sentence style itself suggests the exhausting, mind-deadening experience of undergoing a relentless storm and the continual, repetitive struggle to stay alive. The experience is evoked by a series of short phrases presented in parallel structure—“It blew day after day: it blew with spite, without interval, without mercy, without rest”—or by rhythms that mirror the endless, mindless tedium of pumping water from the leaking hull.
The framing of the story as a true sea yarn told to a group of drinking companions lends a convenient distance to the adventure, so that it carries a conscious irony inappropriate to the narrator’s youthful self. In one sense, “Youth” is a kind of trial run for the framing technique, which became more important in Heart of Darkness, in which Marlowe sits cross-legged like a Buddha in a boat on the Thames with a similar group of former seamen. In “Youth,” Marlowe has not yet attained that implication of inscrutable wisdom as the man initiated into the mysteries of evil at the heart of human beings. He speaks here not at all of the evils of humans, but of the hardness of their lot and the courage with which ordinary people may face the threat of death. More than that, he marvels at the fact that such a life can seem like fun.
Aside from the use of a frame narrative, Conrad does not engage in any particularly complex literary techniques. The frame narrative establishes Marlow's rhetorical situation as an experienced raconteur, telling a tale for other middle-aged men, listeners who are both successful and former mariners. One result of this device is to limit and define the level of diction which Conrad uses. Another result is to allow Conrad to vary his tone from a colloquial, informal, and even exclamatory rhetoric ("Youth! Ah youth!") to a more formal narrative style. More frequently than in other stories where he is a narrator, Marlow takes occasion to voice his emotions, often ruefully.
However, there is a more subtle result of this narrative technique, a consequence which may go unnoticed. Conrad's narrative method allows him to give a double perspective on the events of the story: His readers are given both the reactions of the youthful Marlow who is involved in the action and the reflections of the mature Marlow who views the action from the perspective of mature middle age. This use of a double perspective adds depth and a sense of urbane and mature irony.
Ideas for Group Discussions
Today's readers may not be very familiar with the English "merchant service" or with the cargo vessels of the 1880s. A good approach for discussion would be to research both the ships of the era, and the geography of the story. Although the Judea's early misfortunes are told quickly, they assume a knowledge of the English coast from Newcastle-on-Tyne to Falmouth. Similarly, the concluding sequence of the story may become more vivid if the position of the Judea in relation to the Dutch East Indies were studied. It is also of ironic significance that the ship never reaches Bangkok, a destination that takes on a romantic aura for the young Marlow.
Some added interest in the story might develop from a study of Conrad's biography, especially the voyage which served as a model for the voyage of the Judea. Readers may also benefit from noting the importance of Marlow as a narrator in other Conrad tales.
1. If we know that Conrad drew on his own experience for the plot of "Youth," how does that affect our understanding of the story? Should...
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