Revisiting the Classics: “The End of the Tether” by Joseph Conrad

Jackson Toby

NAS has invited readers to submit reflections on older books. This open-ended series of postings aims to show that contemporary books are not the only books that can profit contemporary readers. Guidelines for essay submissions appear here.

I consider “The End of the Tether” the best novella Joseph Conrad wrote, although it is now nearly forgotten. 

Why is it so wonderful?  Mainly because the characters ring true.  Although the men are all seafarers, the two villains are despicable in ways recognizable to landlubbers.  There are three heroes.  The main hero of the story is Captain Whalley, who came out of retirement to command a wretched steamer, many steps down from the clipper ships he used to command when he was young and his wife was still alive.  He took this command because he had lost his life savings in a bank failure that he had nothing to do with and this was the only way he could help his only child, a daughter who is facing very hard times.  The other heroes are a rich British expatriate who admires Captain Whalley and provides hospitality when the Captain stops at his port and a Malay Serang [assistant] whose devotion to Captain Whalley nearly makes it possible for the Captain to deal with the onset of his blindness. 

Why should a 19th-century novella about an elderly ship captain whose life is obviously not headed toward a happy ending hold interest for modern readers, especially college students?  Because despite the contemporary preoccupation with carnal love – sexual attraction and its depictions in films, plays, songs, novels, and plays, almost everyone understands that higher forms of love exist.  College students lucky enough to come from families where parents sacrifice their own pleasures in order to launch their children into the world know about sacrificial love because they have experienced it.   So “The End of the Tether,” an epic tale of sacrificial parental love, is one they can relate to despite the nautical background.  Furthermore, because Joseph Conrad is a master storyteller, “The End of the Tether” can move us to tears.  I keep a box of tissues handy when I read it.

Jackson TobyJackson Toby, a long-time member of NAS, is professor of sociology emeritus at Rutgers University where he was director of the Institute for Criminological Research.  His most recent book is Lowering Higher Education in America. He writes, “If anyone finds my recommendation sufficiently enticing to want to read the novella itself, I have it in my computer files and can send it to you as an attached file.”  He may be reached at [email protected].

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domains

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