Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.