The Shadow Line was one of the last pieces of long prose that Joseph Conrad ever produced. At 30,000 words, it is a long piece, but as to whether it is actually a long short story or a short novel is up for debate. The general consensus is that, though the narrative is far less complex than that of the typical Conrad novel, its thematic issues are more complex than those that the typical short story can usually handle.
The Shadow Line was originally published in serial form in Metropolitan Magazine and English Review in 1916, before appearing in book form a year later. Like so much of Conrad’s fiction, the narrative was inspired by his own experiences at sea. By the time he wrote The Shadow Line, the specific instance recalled in the story was nearly three decades behind him. In the hands of Conrad’s fertile imagination, whatever factual account may have taken place has been turned into a test of a young captain’s mettle as he is besieged by a crew undone by a fever and a first mate who has gone mad from the delusion that the ship is haunted by the evil spirit of its former skipper.
Such a set-up has all the earmarks of a rousing tale of obsession and insanity, leading to the ambiguous considerations of the nature of good and evil that permeate the work of Conrad. While quite a bit of incident and meaning is packed into The Shadow Line, ultimately the ending is rather straightforward and serves to turn the often bizarre events into a simple coming of age story about the maturation of a young seaman into an experienced leader of men.