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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This is one of the most autobiographical of Joseph Conrad’s sea stories, chronicling his own first voyage to the East and his first position as an officer. Conrad went to sea at the age of seventeen, but in 1881 he shipped in a freighter called the Palestine, for which the Judea is a pseudonym. The story probably reflects quite accurately the heartbreaking frustrations and failures, from the captain’s standpoint, that often plagued such overaged seagoing vessels. It also expresses the rare power of the romantic young man’s ability to convert an extremely painful, tedious, and dangerous experience into a glamorous test of his strength, courage, and ability. What must have been the most dismal failure to the old skipper on his first and probably only chance to be a captain was for the youthful mate a resounding success.

Even in the most dreadful and tedious circumstances, as when they are pumping frantically to stay afloat, the protagonist is enjoying even the misery of it all:And there was somewhere in me the thought: By Jove! this is the deuce of an adventure—something you read about; and it is my first voyage as second mate—and I am only twenty—and here I am lasting it out as well as any of these men, and keeping my chaps up to the mark. I was pleased. I would not have given up the experience for worlds. I had moments of exultation. Whenever the old dismantled craft pitched heavily with her counter high in the air, she seemed to me to throw up, like an appeal, like a defiance, like a cry to the clouds without mercy, the words written on her stern: “Judea, London. Do or Die.”

If the story is a paean to the optimism and exhilaration of youth in the face of hardship, it is also a more muted tribute to the perseverance and honor of age when the daily battle with the sea is no longer a romantic game. The spry old skipper is treated with humor and respect, a considerate and valiant little man in the face of inevitable defeat. He insists on remaining on the burning ship until the last minute and conscientiously, though foolishly, tries to save as much as he can for his employers:The old man warned us in his gentle and inflexible way that it was part of our duty to save for the underwriters as much as we could of the ship’s gear. Accordingly we went to work aft, while she blazed forward to give us plenty of light. We lugged out a lot of rubbish. What didn’t we save? An old barometer fixed with an absurd quantity of screws nearly cost me my life: a sudden rush of smoke came on me, and I just got away in time. There were various stores, bolts of canvas, coils of rope; the poop looked like a marine bazaar, and the boats were lumbered to the gunwales. One would have thought the old man wanted to take as much as he could of his first command with him. He was very, very quiet, but off his balance evidently. Would you believe it? He wanted to take a length of old stream-cable and a kedge-anchor with him in the long-boat. We said, “Ay, ay, sir,” deferentially, and on the quiet let the things slip overboard.

“Youth,” like other sea stories by Conrad, suggests that basic analogy between a voyage and the whole of human life. It may be perceived differently by the participants, but it induces in them, at least in times of danger, a rare comradeship emanating from a shared fate.


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The main theme of Conrad's story is the initiation experience of Marlow on his first voyage to the "Eastern waters." Since the story does not offer any complex psychological portraits (aside from the youthful Marlow), it does not develop the complexity of theme associated with many of Conrad's other works. Nevertheless, Marlow's determination to establish himself on the voyage, and the courage and tenacity he displays are attested to by his battle against the adversities of the ship.

A related theme is the growth of Marlow's independence and maturing self-confidence. At first, he seems determined to stick to the voyage through stubbornness and an affection...

(The entire section is 1,092 words.)