Conrad's "The End of the Tether"

By McGrath, Patrick | The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.), Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

Conrad's "The End of the Tether"


McGrath, Patrick, The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)


BERTRAND RUSSELL SAID this of his friend Joseph Conrad: "He thought of civilised and morally tolerable human life as a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths" (1956: 82). But just who are "the unwary," in Conrad's view? This quotation from Russell turns up in a book by the psychiatrist Anthony Storr, who speaks of doing therapy with schizophrenics and other psychotics as just such a walk on barely cooled lava, and for this reason to be avoided. There is a choice being made by the psychiatrist here, but for many of Conrad's people who sink into fiery depths, or watery depths, or the depths of despair, being "unwary" is pretty much the same thing as being alive; and vulnerable, therefore, as much to bad luck as to bad choices.

Captain Whalley of "The End of the Tether" is a man who suffers two particularly bad bits of luck, which in combination create an agonizing predicament for him. He is not remotely to blame for any of this bad luck, and is in fact an exemplary human being, "honourably known to a generation of shipowners and merchants in all the ports from Bombay clear over to where the East merges into the West upon the coast of the two Americas" (167-68). His physique matches his stouthearted and morally robust character: he is "substantial and dignified," (184) a strong, hale, broad-shouldered man even at sixty-five, and with a face which "emerged, massively quiet, out of the downward flow of silvery hair, with the striking delicacy of its clear complexion and the powerful width of the forehead" (187). Conrad refers more than once to the captain's white beard, and an intriguing subliminal echo is sounded, of white Whalley and white whale, but here all resemblance between this sea story and Melville's ends.

As befits the tale of a merchant mariner, money plays a decisive role in fixing the captain's destiny. Some years before the story begins, he lost his fortune in a bank that failed, and was left with only "a pretty little barque" (170) of 500 tons, which he then had to put to work transporting freight in the Eastern Seas. He bore in addition a grave responsibility: a daughter in Australia with a husband himself plagued by bad luck, and as a result unable to support her. Conrad takes pains early in the story to establish the strength of the bond uniting father and daughter. When she writes asking him for £200 so she can set up a boarding-house in Melbourne, it is only by selling his barque that Captain Whalley can meet the request. He does so without hesitation.

It is out of necessity, then, that the captain, now a sailor without a ship, is forced to take employment as commander of a coastal steamer called the Sofala. Nor is it only financial need that drives him to it: "Captain Whalley reflected that if a ship without a man was like a body without a soul, a sailor without a ship was of not much more account in this world than an aimless log adrift upon the sea" (191). It is not a happy decision. A laid-up steamer, he reflects was "a dead thing and no mistake . . . with her fires out, without the warm whiffs from below meeting you on her decks; without the hiss of steam, the clangs of iron in her breast - [she] lies there as cold and still and pulseless as a corpse" (214). That night he paces his room, "and all the time a shadow marched with him, slanting on his left hand - which in the East is a presage of evil" (215).

This then is his situation when we first meet Captain Whalley: not yet at the end of his tether, but not where he had anticipated being at the close of a long and distinguished career at sea. Instead of enjoying a secure retirement he finds himself making the same monotonous trading voyage every month on an old coastal steamer with a deeply unpleasant crew. But it is his duty to his daughter to keep working, and for her he does it gladly. She depends upon him. Then for the second time Captain Whalley's luck turns bad. …

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