Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Conrad and the Great War at Sea

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Conrad and the Great War at Sea

Article excerpt

CONRAD'S IMAGINATIVE relation to the nautical dimension of the First World War remains one of the less thoroughly explored areas of criticism. After all, only one of his fictional works, "The Tale" (1917), explicitly addresses the Great War at sea, and scholarly interest in that story has justifiably emphasized the richness of its narrative complexities and ethical issues. Such attention as has been paid to the military circumstances allowing for the story's central conflict (neutral ships resupplying German submarines) tends to accept without question the narrator's portrayal of those circumstances. However, certain details of the narrator's portrayal do not entirely make sense. These inconsistencies, when examined in light of strategic and tactical developments in the war, demonstrate the extent to which the story's noted difficulties of interpretation have their genesis in the author's own camouflaging of historical truth. Similarly, there is more than meets the eye in the relation between The Shadow-Line (1916-17) and the Great War. Comparing the two narratives reveals how extensively Conrad's fiction engages the strategic and spatial problems of the war on sea and land, inviting us to reassess our understanding of its place in Conrad's fictional craft.

"The Tale"

"The Tale" has the odd characteristic of being set in an apparently impossible location, in an anomaly that has apparently escaped critical notice. The commanding officer is "steaming ... in sight of a rocky, dangerous coast." He notes that the "last reported submarined ships were sunk a long way to the westward" (65). His crew sights a floating object, believed to contain supplies for German submarines. The neutral ship presumably responsible for leaving the object is, in the commanding officer's surmise, no doubt "slipping away to the eastward" (66). A "wall of fog" then advances "from the southwest" (67). The ship enters a cove and discovers the Northman's ship "bound to an English port" (71). The Northman claims not to know where he is (73, 76), having become "turned around somehow" (73). His "last voyage" included Rotterdam (78). The commanding officer gives the Northman navigational instructions designed to test his protests: "Steer south-by-east-half-east for about four miles and then you will be clear to haul to the eastward for your port" (79). This course instead "would lead the Northman straight on a deadly ledge of rock" (80). The Northman's ship strikes the rock and sinks with all hands, proving to the commanding officer that he was lost, but leaving undetermined whether or not he had been resupplying U-boats.

These geographical indications do not assemble into a coherent whole, however, for it is not clear just where around the British Isles this story can possibly take place. The Northman's destination - due east - is an English port, there is open water to the south and west, and the land mass seems to be towards the north. Consequently, no coast along the North Sea fits. Nor do the western coast of Scotland; the north, east, or west coasts of Ireland; nor even anywhere around Iceland. The southern coast of Ireland is left as the best candidate: the coast runs roughly east to west, the land mass is to the north, and England lies to the east. Even there, however, the geographical particulars do not neatly accord with the details given in the story. A ship bound east for England must presumably have come from somewhere to the west, which in this case could mean North America, but the commanding officer initially identifies the Northman's vessel as "a coaster" (69). The Northman states that he was in Rotterdam on his "last voyage" (78), but it is not completely clear whether or not he has just sailed from there. If the Northman's ship were indeed bound from Rotterdam (or Scandinavia or anywhere else on the European Continent) to a western English port, then its presence along the southern Irish coast would make it obviously and suspiciously well off track. …

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