EESE 9/1998

Joseph Conrad's "The End of the Tether": 
An Old Man's (Rite of) Passage *)

Holger Nüstedt (Göttingen)

While it may be a not so very surprising attempt to demonstrate that Joseph Conrad, in order to throw into relief the development of the mostly youthful protagonists of his sea stories, leans rather heavily on the idea of initiation, it must at first sight appear paradox to claim something similar for a man as old as Captain Whalley in "The End of the Tether". For initiation, in simplified terms, is understood to be a phenomenon that exclusively marks the transition of young people from childhood to adulthood in so-called 'primitive' societies and may therefore seem a plausible enough mataphor for a number of changes experienced by young persons in literature, but would appear out of place in connection with a hero in his late sixties. Yet that is really only correct if the combination of 'initiation' with the development of a literary character is automatically understood to be a thematic one, as has been the case with most critics in the past. If initiation, on the other hand, is taken to be the entire complex of meaningful dramatizations, symbols, and myths it really is if, in other words, it is taken to be the anthropological concept as a whole rather than the superficial phenomenology of events so termed, then it may offer itself as a ready enough critical tool for the analysis of something more than just a thematic strain, which would result in the detection of yet another story of initiation at best. In the same manner, it can be a versatile artistic device in the hands of an author familiar with its details. In this latter case, the concept provides, above all, a set of structural and mythico-symbolical parallels with which to create a more poignant picture of various forms of human transitions amounting to a similarly far-reaching and radical existential alteration as does a young person's actual initiation without, however, necessarily being the same.

As this article proposes to show, "The End of the Tether" is a case in point. In this story, Conrad portrays an old man's existential crisis and transformation and to do so, as in all of his sea stories, he makes use of the anthropological concept of initiation as outlined above. For the purpose of this demonstration, a quick glance at the concept itself is unavoidable, though it can only be very briefly sketched out here. 1


In his seminal book Les Rites de passageArnold van Gennep2 has demonstrated that the phenomenon of initiation belongs to the larger group of rites of passage, by means of which various occasions in the course of human existence are marked in scriptless societies such as birth, initiation, engagement, marriage, pregnancy, and death, to mention only the most important ones. All these ritual scenarios have a tripartite basic structure, its elements being séparation (separation), marge (transition), and agrégation (incorporation), and all of them invariably entail an alteration of the social status of the individuals concerned by them, but it is initiation alone that brings about a concomitant existential transmutation of considerable proportions. The function of the above elements or phases may be described as follows:

What is termed "exercises of severance" here, in connection with initiation is more commonly known as the so-called ordeals, which comprise various forms of bodily mutilation destined, among other things, to leave the candidate with some unalterable marks indicative of his (or her) new status and often supported in this function by the adoption of a new name, a ritual change of clothes, and the use of a new language in the third phase. The purpose of all this is a full assertion of the initiate as a distinct adult individual as opposed to the rather nondescript child he or she has been before.

During the more or less extended middle phase the candidate is isolated away from the rest of the tribe, only accompanied by an initiation helper or mentor, who right from the start guides the novice through all of the rituals and determines their exact time and course as a sort of master of ceremonies, who supplies the novice with food during isolation and whose specific task in this phase is the impartation of "the mores of adult life",4 the "transmission of the tribal lore with its instructions about proper behavior, both through formalized teaching and through various ritual activities"5 as well as an introduction to the tribe's religious traditions, a revelation of the beliefs, myths, and taboos of the adults. 6 Because of the candidate's ostensible disappearance, this phase usually symbolizes death preceding his rebirth as a different being, which is thought to take place in the third phase.

Like the manifold rites, which show a surprising correspondence throughout the world in totally unrelated societies, the myths accompanying them "make use of a symbolic inventory of initiation which can be found in the mythology of almost every known culture".7 This inventory consists mainly of four universal motifs: (1) regressus ad uterum, (2) descensus ad inferos, (3) the being swallowed by a monster and the night-sea journey, and (4) the paradoxical passage. While the regressus ad uterum illustrates the initiation process as a return to the womb of the great chthonic mother and a subsequent new birth, the descensus ad inferos represents it as a descent into the underworld and a victorious and purged return from there. Victorious, because various agencies of the underworld will attempt to hinder the hero from his return just as much as they try to deny him access at the beginning; and while access may be gained by successfully passing a 'threshold adventure', the return is often supported by magic help from other, friendly instances. As the underworld is both hell and the realm of the dead, the descent into it means the initiate's taking upon himself the trials meant for the dead; as it likewise is the stronghold of knowledge and wisdom, the descent, especially in classical hero myths, is often undertaken to win "the ultimate boon", "the elixir"8 that restores the world. Both previous motifs may also be rediscovered in the third, in which the hero is either swallowed by a monster often a giant fish or whale or deliberately throws himself into its throat. The corresponding myths combine the idea of the hero's sojourn in the belly of the monster, from where he must re-emerge by himself, with that of the monster's west - east movement following the nightly course of the sun, thus making his progress a night-sea journey. Finally, the paradoxical passage, most conspicuously symbolized in the clashing rocks of Jason's voyage in the Argo, represents the idea of overcoming a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. In that way, the notion is illustrated that whoever is to gain passage into another form of being has to achieve what is normally impossible in daily life.

In sum, initiation may be said to be a process of human transformation and development taking place in three steps or stages and effective on three levels: on a psychological level it is a process of individuation, on an interpersonal level a process of socialization, and on a religious level a process of revelation. 9 Its result is an existential alteration so fundamental and radical as to suggest a symbolic visualization in terms of the death of the former, and the rebirth of a renewed human being.


On first encountering Captain Henry Whalley, the central character of "The End of the Tether", the reader finds him in an unmistakable situation of isolation. Whalley, the once successful and daring sailing ship's captain ("Dare-devil Harry Whalley", 167), 10 who has discovered a new passage and given his name to a previously unknown island, seems alone to have been left over from a time in which spirit of enterprise and personal initiative were the most important guarantors of professional success at sea. At age 67, he has survived most of his contemporaries and, above all, "the conditions that had gone to the making of his name" (176). And he might turn his back on the affairs of an era that knows nothing of his former merits and the respect for his person resulting from them, if he had not lost almost his entire fortune in a bank crash. As things are, however, he is forced to continue his activities and appears like a relic11 whose friends and benefactors, just like his wife, have long been dead, whose programmatically-named daughter Ivy12 lives far away in Australia and now, forced by an unhappy stroke of fate, clings to him primarily by means of letters asking for his help. Thus the old sailing ship's captain is as much separated from the people with any meaning to him as from the changed environment of merchant shipping, which is more and more dominated by steamers with a "time-table of appointed routes like a confounded service of tramways" (176).

At the same time, the opening scene of the story opens the reader's eyes to the symbolic frame of the three-phase underground journey in which Conrad allusively envelops his direct events. This frame compresses Whalley's longer development in the Sofala's last voyage a development which is also subdivided into three distinct phases, extends over fairly exactly three years, and is presented in its entirety only by means of a number of selective flashbacks. Elements of this frame are the way up the river darkened by the overgrowing jungle, the arrival late in the evening and the stopover at the leg's end as well as the opposite passage back to the open sea and also the serang's decisive support for Whalley in the initial crossing of the mud bar outside the mouth of the river, which may be understood as assistance in the passing of an almost literal threshold adventure and which, therefore, also provides an early hint at the activity of helper figures in this narrative.

Other characters with a similar role as that of the serang are the harbor-master Eliott, who unknowingly saves Whalley by telling him about the shipowner-engineer Massy and his difficulties in finding a captain for his steamer; Mr. Van Wyk, who will still have to be considered more closely; and finally Massy himself. In his case this function appears to be most perplexing, for at a glance he is mainly a failure and a gambler at that, albeit one favored by fortune more than once. Nevertheless his significance for Whalley is tantamount to that of a mentor in real rites not as an instructor and an immediate helper, but the more effectively as a kind of master of ceremonies who exerts a decisive influence on the course of events and finally also as the one who, again unintentionally, helps Whalley to have a guiding insight.

At the end of his steamer's leg into the jungle of Borneo Whalley meets another isolato in the person of Mr. Van Wyk. This young Dutchman, who has retired from his former surroundings because of a disappointment in love and has acquired wealth and the respect of the natives as a tobacco planter in the loneliness of the jungle, thus forms a parallel to Whalley's situation, though one which is not fully elaborated but only indicated. 13 Above all, however, two analogies appear on an anthropological and a mythological plane, which assign a helper status to him, too. On the one hand he invites Whalley to dinner in his house on the latter's arrival, thus giving him food in the middle phase of his journey just like the mentors in real scenarios; 14 on the other hand he averts the greatest danger which might hinder Whalley from returning from his underground journey by vaguely promising the first officer Sterne to make him captain of the Sofala on her next round trip if he will keep silent until then. For the mate has discovered Whalley's secret he is gradually losing his eyesight and in his eager ambition is only waiting for an opportunity to push Whalley out of his office, if possible even before leaving Van Wyk's jetty. Furthermore, Van Wyk's role is confirmed by the fact that Captain Whalley himself chooses him as a kind of confessor to whom he entrusts his hidden misfortune. It is true, though, that the relative positions of both men and their relationship with each other forbid an immediately advising and helping activity of the planter to result from this fact; rather, the latter has to limit himself to paving Whalley's way behind his back by preventing Sterne's intrigue, of which the old captain has no suspicion as yet.

Together with this inventory for an initiation-like change as becoming visible in the story, a status resembling that of a novice can be discerned in the old captain though it must seem paradox at first sight. Yet Whalley has made a completely new beginning in an age not his own and now commands a steamer for the first time in his life. Furthermore he is never described as an actually old man but rather as someone firmly planted in the midst of life ("He was at home in life", 171) or, allusively, even at its beginning he himself playfully calls his fifty years at sea "a pretty thorough apprenticeship" (167, italics added). And also physically Whalley does not appear really old: "No single betraying fold or line of care disfigured the reposeful modelling of his face" (187), his glance is even "like a boy's" (187), and his frame conveys an impression of strength and vitality. 15 All in all, he thus seems to be exempt from the natural chronology of life: "Time after, indeed, marking him for its own had given him up to his usefulness" (298). This condition is also reflected by Whalley's own feelings about life: "[he] met, as it were incidentally, the thought of death. He pushed it aside with dislike and contempt. He almost laughed at it; and in the unquenchable vitality of his age only thought with a kind of exultation how little he needed to keep body and soul together" (214). 16

The three stages in Captain Whalley's development, which have been mentioned above, are spread irregularly over the time of his command of the Sofala and become shorter in gradual succession. The first, beginning with the conclusion of the contract, seems to be the longest although it is not possible to determine its exact duration from the text. It causes Whalley's final separation from his former societal ties and his definition of a new and absolute goal. The second stage is characterized by the captain's progressing blindness and can thus be identified as a parallel to the middle section of many anthropological scenarios, which symbolizes initiatory death. The final stage comprises no more than the few moments, on the way from Van Wyk's jetty to Pangu Bay, between the serang's increasing insecurity about the overdue sight of land and the Sofala's stranding, which includes Whalley's final transition.

New Beginning

The reason why Whalley himself intensely feels his own isolation is mainly to be seen in the necessity for him to return from a half-begun retirement, in which his continued merchant voyages in his own barque Fair Maid only served as a pastime, 17 back to serious work for a living. This return, then, also marks the beginning of his separation from his former life in a manner perceptible for himself. 18 Another call for help from his daughter, whose husband has failed in business first and then has been confined to a wheelchair for good, finally even forces Whalley to sell the Fair Maid. That is the only way in which he can meet Ivy's request with part of the proceeds. The larger part he invests in a partnership with the engineer Massy, whose steamer Sofala he commands from now on. Thus he wants to earn his living and at the same time preserve the small remainder of his fortune, a mere five hundred pounds, and if necessary secure it for Ivy in full.

The disposal of the barque is a distinct turning-point after which the captain is finally and radically separated from his former life:

This separation completes the picture of the man isolated for the purpose of an existential transformation that has already become discernible and consequently forms the real beginning of the captain's development as noticeable in the story. As with Marlow in "Youth", it comprises the spheres of individuation, socialization and revelation, which, however, take a partly inverted turn in Whalley's case.

Through his partnership with Massy, Whalley's detachment is further enhanced as he has to work in a steamship he little likes and as his seeming arrogance as a ship's commander sets him apart not only in the eyes of the engineer harassed by inferiority complexes. In truth, however, his behavior results from two causes which emphasize his isolation. On the one hand, he continues to observe a professional code determined by meticulous correctness and conscientiousness, which has become obsolete and conveys to the people around him an impression of presumptuous pedantry; on the other hand, he concentrates the greater part of his energies on an attempt to circumvent the consequences of a reverse of fortune that struck him shortly before the beginning of the story's events and leads to his refusal to prolong the expiring partnership contract with Massy as intended. The discovery of his diminishing eyesight and the additional, in some respects total separation from the world surrounding him which is preparing through it at the same time jeopardize his life plan, revised on entering into commitment with Massy in an absolute trust in his unbroken vitality and now aimed primarily at self-realization as a father standing up for his child at any time. And they also mean giving up his own moral values, strictly adhered to during his entire lifetime. For Whalley has to conceal his affliction since otherwise Massy would be entitled to keep his share for another year after the expiration of the contract too long to survive without income and to entrust himself to Ivy's care in time, who could not keep him without a financial contribution of his own. Therefore he tries to continue commanding the Sofala, relying on the eyes of the Malay boatswain whom he has brought on board with him. In so doing, however, he irresponsibly imperils the ship and her crew, as is proved by the hair's breadth crossing of the bar outside the Batu Beru River. And since perfection in his professional skills, correctness, and absolute integrity have so far been among Whalley's most outstanding characteristics, 19 what becomes visible behind his desperate deception is also the continuing disappearance of his former personality, which has begun as early as his resumption of serious work with the Fair Maid.

To begin with, the transformation of the old captain shows only superficially in his abandonment of life-long habits. He denies himself good cigars, for which he has a soft spot, 20 and no longer drinks any wine21 so as to use as little money for himself as possible and to be able to go on relieving his daughter. Not later than the sale of his own ship meant to be his "last command" (170), however, we see the beginning of the direct disintegration of his former self; 22 it continues with the conclusion of the contract with Massy23 and escalates into the total loss of his own past and of his life's achievement. 24

At the same time Whalley in this phase redefines his purpose in life by now understanding himself as a father living and working exclusively for Ivy's support: "As it happens, my life is necessary; it isn't my own, it isn't God knows" (292), he declares to Mr. Van Wyk during one of their meetings. 25


When his eyesight begins to fade, the old captain enters into a new stage corresponding to the middle phase of many initiation rituals. The darkness which increasingly surrounds him and the intensified isolation which it entails, in ritual contexts often symbolize initiatory death or the embryonic state as a preliminary stage of a renewed existence.26 Because of the slow progress of the blindness, it is the second variant which here offers itself as an obvious parallel, with which Whalley's perception of his own state as a "living grave" (328) is in perfect keeping. Just as much, the fact that Whalley can see less and less may be understood as a reminiscence of anthropological prohibitions to see, which occur quite often and also become effective in the middle phase. 27 Finally, Whalley's handicap is also remotely in parallel with initiatory wounds: even before discovering the truth, Massy observes a change in Whalley, who appears weakened to him, "as though he had received a secret wound" (272). And doubtlessly blindness represents, just like those real injuries or their ensuing scarves, an unalterable bodily mark.

At the same time, blindness as a very salient symbol also stands for intensified mental seeing, and that is also true for Captain Whalley: "You begin to see a lot of things when you are going blind" (300), he says to Van Wyk during his confession, and the narrator in another passage makes a similar comment: "In the steadily darkening universe a sinister clearness fell upon his ideas" (324). Thus, also the ground for new insights has been prepared for the man who has meanwhile been characterized several times as resembling a neophyte.

In this phase the constant waning of his former personality goes hand in hand with a changing view of life and of men in the old captain, which is exclusively caused by his diminishing strength of vision and leaves him isolated, not only physically as before, but more and more spiritually so, too. At the beginning he has a "large, tolerating certitude" (289) both regarding human nature28 and the state of the world as caused by men. 29 And Van Wyk's reflection makes it clear that this is not an unfounded, naive optimism: "With all his trust in mankind he was no fool; the serenity of his temper at the end of so many years, since it could not obviously have been appeased by success, wore an air of profound wisdom" (290). But Whalley's composed certitude is more and more hollowed out by his progressing blindness ("this visitation", 301) and his accompanying fear of discovery until it finally turns into its opposite: "In the illuminating moments of suffering he saw life, men, things, the whole earth with all her burden of created nature, as he had never seen them before" (324). It is true that this is not a very precise description of his new point of view, but faced with his formerly optimistic perspective, his attitude must necessarily have adopted a negative quality. 30 In addition, Whalley's apprehensive insecurity results in a situation where, "as if in a nightmare of humiliation, every featureless man seemed an enemy" (303). Paradoxically, only the Sofala is excepted from this fear, the formerly disliked steamship31 that now becomes his "last friend": "he was not afraid of her; he knew every inch of her deck; [...]" (303).

This observation, therefore, proves that it is not only Whalley's attitude towards men that has changed, an aspect which may in a way be attributed to the sphere of an inverted individuation, but that an inverted socialization has equally taken place, by which the captain has been completely secluded from the human society around him. It is true that this process arises more or less inevitably from Whalley's visitation, that he does not turn away from society on the grounds of an act of will prompted by critical refusal; yet at the same time there are also hints of social rejection, at least with regard to his immediate microcosm. For one thing there is Sterne's attempt to oust him from office, which, if successful, would amount to a direct de-socialization; and for another there is the hateful attitude of the owner of the Sofala. Massy feels wrongfully taken advantage of by his captain who is not willing to renew the expiring contract and much less willing to invest in the ship that badly needs new boilers an additional part of the fortune Massy supposes to be his. When the engineer leaves the captain's cabin after his penultimate attempt to persuade Whalley, therefore, "he enveloped in the same hatred the ship with the worn-out boilers and the man with the dimmed eyes. [...] The old fraud! He longed to kick him out" (321). But Massy is crafty enough to keep that waiting, though he, too, has found out Whalley's secret some time ago. And this confirms his function as the one who ultimately decides on the captain's path.

Whalley's attitude towards life likewise changes in the course of this phase. It turns from his former positive hope for a long life useful to his daughter to a definitive death wish: "I was ready for her sake to live forever. I half believed I would. I've been praying for death since" (301-02).

Finally, Whalley's religious attitude undergoes a far-reaching change in this phase. The man who formerly, in a simple devoutness, believed firmly in the benevolent guidance of his fate by a kindly God32 begins increasingly to realize but cannot accept that this God seems to turn against him. On becoming aware of his gradually progressing blindness he first feels as if God had abandoned him33, so that his prayers, formerly a matter of course to him, 34 seem to lose their meaning: "He lived on without any help, human or divine. The very prayers stuck in his throat. What was there to pray for?" (302). This feeling is intensified by the fact that even his hope for deliverance from his troubles, for "a manner of going out of which he need not be ashamed" (291) is not fulfilled: "death seemed as far as ever" (303), although "he had prayed for death till the prayers had stuck in his throat" (324-25). At last this impression clarifies into a certainty of divine punishment, against which he rebels35 because he feels it to be incompatible with his loving care for his daughter, which, in his understanding, is ordained by the same God ("I suppose the blessed know the secret of God's dealings with His created children. [...] I don't. I know only the child He has given me", 304) and because it appears unjust to him in spite of his beginning insight into some misguided behavior on his own part: "The punishment was too great for a little presumption, for a little pride" (324).

Ultima ratio

The once more accelerated final part in the transformation Whalley undergoes before the reader's eye is limited to the time after the Sofala has regained the open sea. As far as the symbolic frame of the underground journey is concerned, it may be significant that Whalley brings nothing back with him no 'elixir' that could renew the world and no certitude of personal salvation either , so that the outlines of a failure of his journey begin to appear. Nevertheless the ship reaches the open sea unharmed; Whalley, with the help of his serang, first overcomes a number of obstacles which are put in his way in the shape of rocks hardly awash but which he knows just as well as his assistant before he ultimately fails because of another one which Massy sets up by deliberately deflecting the ship's compass. In this way the latter expects an 'unproblematic' running aground which would put him in possession of the insurance money and rid him of his permanent worries about the ship; and he would no longer have to show any consideration for a partner, whose blindness he has also discovered, it is true, but which he has not as yet employed to blackmail him because he has for some time been toying with the idea of using it to have Whalley appear quasi automatically responsible for a premeditated shipwreck.

In falsifying the Sofala's course by means of his jacket hung up near the compass with iron parts in its pockets, Massy confirms his role as a 'mentor' who ultimately determines the course of events on Whalley's way. While, through him, the steamer gets caught in reef-infested waters, an imminent conclusion of events seems to be indicated by the fact that the still unsuspecting Whalley's thoughts wander back to the past after dwelling for a while on the ship's name. 36 He remembers his daughter's childhood, the hopes he and his wife had for her, and begins to long for her love in other words, in his heart of hearts to hope urgently for a successful sustaining of his deception until the end of his present voyage, which would bring him to her together with the money invested in the Sofala and would thus also mean self-realization as a father.

Simultaneously, the serang is more and more alarmed at not being able to make the overdue landfall. And when he finally asks the captain, "Tuan, do you see anything of the land?" (328), he pushes him headlong into his final crisis:

What is remarkable here is Captain Whalley's fear-stricken insecurity as a reflection of certain forms of ritual frightening found in many anthropological scenarios as a preliminary to the initiation proper and meant to cause insecurity concerning the oncoming events. The same effect has already become visible in the captain before: "Sometimes he was seized with a sudden vertigo and an overwhelming terror [...]" (324); its repetition in the present situation clearly points to an increasingly critical development of events. Furthermore, the crisis-like quality of the situation is given prominence by the fact that Whalley is irresolute for the first time and that, again for the first time in the story, he thinks of giving up: Yet the thought of Ivy makes him stick to his "falsehood" (324) yet another time as if in a last desperate effort ("No, he must not give himself away after having gone so far for her sake", 329) a "falsehood" into which he had initially drifted rather unwittingly because of his increasing blindness, downright unable and unwilling to believe in such a stroke of fate. 37 But when his groping hands touch Massy's iron-laden jacket and cause it to fall to the ground in his attempt to bend far forward and read the compass himself, he gives up once and for all: "Captain Whalley fell on his knees, with groping hands extended in a frank gesture of blindness" (329). With this gesture and his subsequent rush to stop the engines he makes plainly visible for everybody in his vicinity what he has so far kept secret: "He ran himself hands forward, a blind man" (329). All the same, he is at least spared the humiliation of this disclosure, for the ship simultaneously hits a reef at full speed.

The impact, reiterated because of the ship's speed and her unstopped engines, devastates the superstructures and leaves Captain Whalley, bleeding and with torn clothes, in a heap of debris:

Thus, his outward appearance shows the typical signs reminiscent of initiatory wounds and a ritual change of clothes, which point to a transformation of a corresponding nature. The same effect is achieved by the cloud of steam resembling a white fog (a symbol of transition) that shrouds the Sofala's deck and, consequently, the captain: "the ship had gone clear of the reef and lay still, with a heavy cloud of steam issuing from the broken deck-pipes, and vanishing in wispy shapes into the night" (330); however, the fleetingness of this 'fog' indicates that the event symbolized by it cannot be fully equated with what it usually stands for, thus pointing to a special form of transformation or passage which does not happen for the rest of life in the generally accepted meaning, but will immediately dissolve into nothing without leaving any traces.

After these events, Whalley's thoughts for the moment appear surprisingly clear and his previous insecurity seems to have yielded completely. He instantly knows where the steamer is at that moment ("Amongst the reefs to the eastward", 331) and seems to have a clear-cut idea of what he wants to do his order to the first officer shows that he does not intend to save himself: "Boats, Sterne. Even one will save you all in this calm" (331, italics added). This somewhat premature hint the insight occasioning his plan only comes to Whalley some time later certainly makes him appear sure of his intentions again and therefore must have prompted Conrad to insert it here, but it is inconsistent with his following behavior towards Massy. For when the latter, losing his head, implores him to keep his manipulation of the compass to himself, the captain is initially filled with feelings of revenge ("Mr. Massy, you shall get five years for this", 331) which, however, he will only be able to realize if he saves himself, too. It is only when the shipowner, in the following argument, confronts him with his own subsequent exposure and points out that he will achieve nothing in this way, the insurance money and consequently his own investment intended for Ivy getting lost forever, that Whalley gets a clear picture of what will ultimately determine his actions:

Whalley is further encouraged in his decision born from this insight ("I shall stay on board", 332) by a final religious perception. While as yet he has never stopped hoping his impression as to his growing blindness might be wrong or that he could protect himself from the consequences by denying its existence, 38 he now becomes aware with an irrefutable and revelation-like clearness that "God had not listened to his prayers" (333).

In realizing his decision he puts the iron parts Massy had used to deflect the compass into his own pockets and lets himself be pulled down by the sinking steamer Whalley, then, finally turns away from a society and a divine order of the world by which he finds himself abandoned and cornered since they apparently would not let him achieve his life's aim. And as he can perceive no other way out, he chooses what from his point of view is the last possible and at the same time the most radical form of abandonment that can be imagined, suicide. But it is only by appearance that he thus draws an absolutely unavoidable conclusion; on closer inspection, his thoughts reveal that in the choice of his course he is exclusively following a personal moral code that allows of no alternative: "it was unseemly that a Whalley who had gone so far to carry a point should continue to live. He must pay the price" (333) 'the price' is self-imposed, not one which the world with which he is at variance exacts from him. Therefore, his step remains a deliberate and willed abandonment, for it is only 'a Whalley' who is not suited for this world.


At the same time, however, the price paid by Whalley may also be objectively seen as such since his action likewise amounts to a sacrificial death. 39 Thus, a structural shift of the story's events becomes evident as compared with the pattern underlying it. For, other than in actual anthropological surroundings, where the passage into another form of existence is the final step after a completed transformation, Captain Whalley's final passage is at the same time still part of his development because it unexpectedly makes possible his self-realization: Only because he does not adhere to his initial idea of revenge and therefore cannot be exposed in his own reprehensible behavior, can the court examining the accident attribute it to an unusual set of the current and exonerate the captain from any fault. In consequence, not only is his reputation kept intact, but the insurance becomes payable, too, ensuring that his share invested in the Sofala falls to his daughter40 as he had always wanted it to do.

Moreover, Whalley's sacrificial death parallels the idea contained in many initiation myths of the necessity of self-destruction as a precondition for entrance into another, purified form of existence. What is only symbolically imagined there, however, in a way takes place in reality in his case. He literally destroys himself by going down with the steamer, and the form of his death with its inherent symbolism of a supreme baptism at the same time evinces a kind of rebirth. So he, too, experiences the most radical change of his existence that can be imagined and will thereafter if only in people's memories endure 'purged' by the court's judgement. The tarnish of deception thus has forever been kept away from his name, and Massy will never be able to confide to anybody Whalley's secret discovered by him unless he wants to do what is unthinkable in a man of his disposition, risk his own share of the insurance money even after collecting it.


*) The author wishes to thank his publisher, Peter Lang GmbH, for kind permission to reprint material contained in the work cited in note 1.


1 For a more detailed description and a discussion of all of Conrad's sea stories in the light of this theory, v. Holger Nüstedt, Joseph Conrads Seegeschichten: Variationen des anthropologischen Initiationskonzepts, European University Studies, XIV: Anglo-Saxon Language and Literature, 342 (Frankfurt/M. et al., 1998).

2 Les Rites de passage: Etude systématique des rites (Paris, 1909; repr. New York et al., 1969).

3 Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series, 17 (Princeton, NJ, 1972; 3rd pr. 1973), p. 10.

4 S. G. F. Brandon, s.v. "Ritual in Religion" in: Philip P. Wiener, ed., Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas, 4 vols. + Index (New York, 1973-1974), vol. 4, p. 105-A. Cf. René Guénon, Aperçus sur l'initiation (Paris, 21953), p. 110.

5 S. N. Eisenstadt, "Archetypal Patterns of Youth", Daedalus 91 (1962): 28-46, pp. 31-32.

6 Cf. Peter Freese, Die Initiationsreise: Studien zum jugendlichen Helden im modernen amerikanischen Roman, Kieler Beiträge zur Anglistik und Amerikanistik, 9 (Neumünster, 1971), p. 116, and Alphonse Obelitala, L'Initiation en Afrique Noire et en Grèce: Confrontation de quelques rites de passage (Brazzaville + Heidelberg, 1982), p. 90.

7 Peter Freese, "Introduction" in: id., The American Short Story I: Initiation Interpretations and Suggestions for Teaching, Texts for English and American Studies, 16 (Paderborn, 1986), pp. 11-88, here p. 18.

8 Cf. Campbell, op.cit., pp. 172-92, 245 sq.

9 Cf. Freese, Die Initiationsreise, pp. 155-56.

10 Page references in parentheses throughout this article are to 'Youth', 'Heart of Darkness', 'The End of the Tether': Three Stories, The Collected Edition of the Works of Joseph Conrad (London, 1946-1955).

11 While considering the chances for a new beginning in his profession Whalley himself becomes aware that "he had been his own employer too long. The only credential he could produce was the testimony of his whole life. [...] But vaguely he felt that the unique document would be looked upon as an archaic curiosity of the Eastern waters, a screed traced in obsolete words in a half-forgotten language" (186). Also the tobacco planter Van Wyk, on their first encounter, somewhat exaggeratedly experiences him as "an amazing survival from the prehistoric times of the world" (287).

12 "He had named her Ivy because of the sound of the word, and obscurely fascinated by a vague association of ideas. She had twined herself tightly round his heart, and he intended her to cling close to her father as a tower of strength" (174).

13 This observation is of interest because here, Conrad for the first time seems to be cautiously trying out a technique that he later applies extensively in "The Secret Sharer", namely the literal, because 'laterally inverted' mirroring of the central character's development in another figure. Here, this mirroring is indicated by the fact that at the end of the story Van Wyk, in contrast to Whalley, returns to the society he has left.

14 And certainly it is not without a secondary meaning if the narrator reports in this very context: "Mr. Van Wyk all through the dinner was conscious of a sense of isolation that invades sometimes the closeness of human intercourse" (297, italics added).

15 "With age he had put on flesh a little, had increased his girth like an old tree presenting no symptoms of decay; and even the opulent, lustrous ripple of white hairs upon his chest seemed an attribute of unquenchable vitality and vigour" (187).

16 Whalley's lawyer retrospectively describes him in the same manner: "The old fellow looked as though he had come into the world full grown and with that long beard. I could never, somehow, imagine him either younger or older [...] There was a sense of physical power about that man, too. And perhaps that was the secret of that something peculiar in his person which struck everybody who came in contact with him. He looked indestructible by any ordinary means that put an end to the rest of us. [...] It was as though he were certain of having plenty of time for everything. Yes, there was something indestructible about him; and the way he talked sometimes you might have thought he believed it himself" (336-37).

17 "[...] a very pretty little barque, Fair Maid, which he had bought to occupy his leisure of a retired sailor 'to play with,' as he expressed it himself" (170).

18 "This necessity opened his eyes to the fundamental changes of the world" (176).

19 "He had never lost a ship or consented to a shady transaction; [...]" (168).

20 "Meantime he had given up good cigars, and even in the matter of inferior cheroots limited himself to six a day" (177).

21 On the occasion of a dinner at Van Wyk's house he once allows himself to be persuaded to have a glass and declares: "Don't think I'm afraid of it, my good sir, [...] There was a very good reason why I should give it up" (292).

22 Marialuisa Bignami, "Joseph Conrad, the Malay Archipelago, and the Decadent Hero", RES 38 (1987): 199-210, already sees Whalley immediately after his loss of the Fair Maid as definitely "deprived both of his sole support and of his very identity" (p. 206).

23 "He seemed already to have lost something of himself; to have given up to a hungry spectre something of his truth and dignity in order to live" (213).

24 When, immediately before the end of the Sofala, Massy has in vain asked him once more to renew the contract, Whalley realizes: "He had nothing of his own even his own past of honour, of truth, of just pride, was gone. All his spotless life had fallen into the abyss" (319).

25 He already has this thought in his mind when he sets out to offer his partnership to Massy: "his life was necessary" (213), and he later repeats it to Van Wyk a second time: "my life my work, is necessary, not for myself alone. [...] I have an only child a daughter. [...] She has a hard struggle" (293).

26 Cf. Mircea Eliade, Das Mysterium der Wiedergeburt: Initiationsriten, ihre kulturelle und religiöse Bedeutung, trad. Emilie Hoffmann (Zürich + Stuttgart, 1961), p. 40.

27 Ibid.

28 "Men were not evil, after all. [...] No. On the whole, men were not bad they were only silly or unhappy" (215); "Captain Whalley believed a disposition for good existed in every man, even if the world were not a very happy place as a whole. In the wisdom of men he had not so much confidence" (289); "They might be silly, wrongheaded, unhappy; but naturally evil no. There was at bottom a complete harmlessness at least. . ." (289).

29 "The world had progressed since that time [i.e. 1847] [...] in knowledge, in truth, in decency, in justice, in order in honesty, too, since men harmed each other mostly from ignorance. It was, Captain Whalley concluded, more pleasant to live in" (288).

30 That is also indicated by the oxymoron in the sentence preceding the above quotation: "In the steadily darkening universe a sinister clearness fell upon his ideas" (324).

31 "B-r-r-r-r. What a disagreeable impression that empty, dark, echoing steamer had made upon him. . . . A laid-up steamer was a dead thing and no mistake; a sailing-ship somehow seems always ready to spring into life with the breath of the incorruptible heaven; but a steamer, thought Captain Whalley, 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 lies there as cold and still and pulseless as a corpse" (214).

32 In a conversation with Mr. Van Wyk Whalley expresses his hope for a long life useful to his daughter, and the former observes: "Captain Whalley was gazing fixedly with a rapt expression, as though he had seen his Creator's favourable decree written in mysterious characters on the wall" (291-92). This supports his impression that "generally [Whalley's] mind seemed steeped in the serenity of boundless trust in a higher power" (293). And at the beginning of their last meeting the young Dutchman once more notices the captain's unbroken robustness, "in which his simple faith would see a proof of Divine mercy" (298).

33 In his farewell letter to his daughter, deposited with his lawyer as a precaution, he writes: "God seems to have forgotten me" (338).

34 "All the days of his life he had prayed, for daily bread, and not to be led into temptation, in a childlike humility of spirit" (325).

35 "Not even the sign of God's anger could make me forget her" (301); "The hand of God was upon him, but it could not tear him away from his child" (303).

36 The narrator simply mentions this without informing the reader about what precisely goes through the captain's mind with regard to the ship's name, so that one may wonder about the purpose of this hint. Its vagueness seems to have prompted François Lombard to make a basically abstruse suggestion for the interpretation of the name Sofala actually a seaport in Mozambique , but which may nevertheless gain a certain justification in view of the impending end: "[...] Sofala (Sofa Allah?: God's will be done?) (If you take 'so' from English, 'fa' from Italian or Latin? Allah speaking for itself . . . But this is only the product of my wild imagination)" v. "Metaphysical Metamorphoses in Joseph Conrad's The End of the Tether", ECon 7 (1981): 191-208, p. 194.

37 "He had drifted into it from paternal love, from incredulity, from boundless trust in divine justice meted out to men's feelings on this earth. [...] perhaps the affliction was only temporary" (324).

38 "Surely God would not rob his child of his power to help, and cast him naked into a night without end. He had caught at every hope; and when the evidence of his misfortune was stronger than hope, he tried not to believe the manifest thing" (324).

39 Conrad emphasizes this idea by means of the remark: "The idea of suicide was revolting to the vigour of his manhood" (324) and by once more explicitly pointing out the willpower his resolution costs the captain: "In that old heart, in that vigorous body, there was, that nothing should be wanting, a horror of death that apparently could not be overcome by the horror of blindness" (333).

40 Conrad does not explicitly mention this, but he makes it clear by having Ivy read her father's farewell letter at the end of the story without a contradictory narrator's comment: "I am trying hard to save for you all the money that is left; I have only kept it to serve you better. It is yours. It shall not be lost; it shall not be touched. There's five hundred pounds" (338).