CONRAD’S “THE END OF THE TETHER”

by Patrick McGrath

Bertrand Russell said this of his friend Joseph Conrad: “He thought of civilized 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.” But just who are “the unwary,” in Conrad’s view? This quote of Russell’s 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.” (153) His physique matches his stout-hearted and morally robust character: he is “substantial and dignified,” (167) 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 forehead.” (169) 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 which failed, and was left with only “a pretty little barque” (155) 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 two hundred pounds 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.” (172) 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.” (192) 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.” (193)

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 on him. Then for the second time Captain Whalley’s luck turns bad.

One of the many joys of Conrad’s work is the deft grace with which he splices together the narrative and moral strands of his stories: as they advance, they deepen, and no texture in fiction is richer in this regard. In “The End of the Tether” the character of the steamer’s owner, who is also her engineer, is central to Conrad’s moral proposition. Massy is insecure, suspicious, bitter and grasping. Captain Whalley “did not like his spells of fawning loquacity and bursts of resentfulness. In the end-—a poor devil. He would not have liked to stand in his shoes. Men were not evil, after all.” In this assumption the captain will be shown to be naïve. But what makes Massy so significant in terms of the deeper discourse of the story is the fact that he is not only evil but lucky.

Luck is Conrad’s theme here, luck and its lack of any discernible relationship to the moral character of its possessor. Reflecting on his son-in-law in Australia, and his “punctuality in failure,” Captain Whalley thinks: “The fellow was so perpetually being jammed on a lee shore that to charge it all to his reckless navigation would be manifestly unfair... It was bad luck. His own had been simply marvellous, but he had seen in his life too many good men-—seamen and others-—go under with the sheer weight of bad luck not to recognize the fatal signs.” (159) Good men go under, they sink to the depths, but Massy wins the second prize in the Manila lottery and with the money buys the Sofala, intent on showing the world that “’... nobody on earth could put him out of his engine-room now.’” (184)

Strangely enough, Conrad himself had some bad luck with the second part of the story. He wrote to Ford Madox Ford, then called Hueffer, in June 1902: “Last night the lamp exploded here and before I could run back into the room the whole round table was in a blaze-—Books, cigarettes, MS. alas! The whole second part of “End of the Tether” ready to go to Edinburgh. The whole!”

As for Captain Whalley, his own bad luck, long hinted at by Conrad, is eventually revealed. He is going blind. And this is the exquisite torture to which this good man is condemned, that in order to do his work so as to support his daughter he must command a vessel at sea while unfit for the responsibility. Events beyond his control have conspired to steal from him his most treasured possession, his integrity.

The second part of the story, rapidly rewritten by Conrad under the intense pressure of a looming deadline, works out the implications of the captain’s predicament. There is a shift of narrative focus onto a number of secondary characters, and at some length the stage is prepared for the final act of the captain’s life. The story is unbalanced by this overlong development, involving shipboard politics and mercenary scheming, which result in a gross manifestation of the human evil about which the captain has previously expressed scepticism. There is pathos at the very end, when the captain’s daughter learns of his death, and it provides an echo of the moving scene close to the beginning of the story, when the captain’s wife dies aboard his ship, and the captain must read the service over her without displaying emotion. His first mate, Swinburne, feels no such compunction.

“When [Captain Whalley] raised his eyes he could see old Swinburne facing him with his cap pressed to his breast, and his rugged, weather-beaten, impassive face streaming with drops of water like a lump of chipped red granite in a shower.” (157)

This is an instance of the “morally tolerable human life” to which Bertrand Russell refers; and although it will be many years from that sad burial at sea before Captain Whalley encounters the ill-luck that an indifferent cosmos holds in store for him, when it does happen he rapidly sinks to the depths, his virtue, his integrity, his decency and his honour of no use other than to help him die well.

Joseph Conrad, Youth/Heart of Darkness/The End of the Tether, Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, London 1995

Conrad’s letter to Hueffer quoted in Jocelyn Baines, Joseph Conrad, A Critical Biography, Penguin Biographies, Harmondsworth 1960, p.336

Bertrand Russell, Portraits from Memory, Allen and Unwin, London 1956, p.82