I would say that this is just another story about a sea journey, but then again it was written by Joseph Conrad, and despite the three stories that I have read being about ships and journeys, I simply cannot describe it using the words 'just another'. The book in which this story was originally published was called 'Youth and other tales' and contained (in this order) Youth, Heart of Darkness, and The End of the Tether. The book I read also contained these three stories, however it was called 'Heart of Darkness and other stories' and had Heart of Darkness coming first, followed by Youth.
The reason that I raise that is because these three stories deal with characters at different stages of their life: Youth obviously has the protagonist as a young man; Heart of Darkness has the protagonist as middle aged; while the protagonist in The End of the Tether is in his twilight years. I have already written reviews on Youth and Heart of Darkness, so I will be mostly focusing on The End of the Tether (which is not surprising considering this is a review of this story).
The End of the Tether is about an old ship's captain who has since retired on his savings but a banking crisis has left him penniless. It is not so much that he doesn't have any money any more (though that still is a bit of a problem), but rather than he wanted to pass some money down to his daughter so that she might not live in want. In fact there is a whole story about his daughter, but then again this particular book is incredibly complex with the various threads weaving through it.
Anyway, Captain Whalley (as he is called) decides that he will scrape together his last remaining 500 pounds and return to the sea – in part because he has grown tired of living on the land and yearns to return to the deck of a ship, and in part because he wishes to provide a decent amount of money to his daughter before he dies. Unfortunately he has been away from the sea for too long and many of his contacts have since left the business to be replaced by a much younger crowd. However he does manage to buy into a ship, the <i>Sofala</i> which, like Whalley, is on its last legs. To add to the complications, the first mate – the person with whom Whalley is going into partnership with, is a problem gambler and needs Whalley has he had just blown the last of his money in the casinos of Manilla.
The first thing that really struck me about this story is how deeply flawed the characters happened to be. For instance, Masey is a problem gambler – not the type that sits in front of pokie machines for hours on end, but rather the one that sits in smoke filled rooms playing poker. Mind you, it makes me wonder sometimes what a problem gambler really is: is it somebody that always loses, and in doing so lands up in so much debt that the mob want to hunt them down as an example; or is it somebody who simply cannot help but gamble, despite the fact that they always seem to come out on top? For some reason though I suspect that the second type doesn't really exist and is only a creation of Hollywood. Okay, there is a saying that 'The House always wins', though that is not necessarily the case either (as the businessman James Packer discovered when he invested his father's fortune in a casino in Macau, only to discover that nobody was going there).
Anyway, Masey's gambling addiction is evident throughout the book in how he is always trying to get more money out of Whalley. He even attempts to set him up to try and get him off of the ship so that he can then sell it and return to Manilla and the gambling dens that he frequents so often (though when people talk about Manilla I generally don't think of a place full of gambling dens, though since I have never been to Manilla I cannot say for sure).
Whalley is the other deeply flawed character, no so much because of any particular vice that he has (in fact is quite an honourable person, and is also a highly decorated ship's captain) but rather the situation in which he has landed. He is a captain of an old ship with a first mate that is doing his best to get rid of him, and his sight is failing dramatically. He does manage to keep this a secret through the use of a confidant, but you can see through the story that the only reason that he is pushing on is due to his love for his daughter. Even then his daughter has gone and married a man whom he does not believe is suitable for her and has also taken a job as a governess of a boarding house. In a way I guess that is the struggle that all parents go through – they have great dreams for their children and are shattered when that dream comes to naught.
This is a beautiful, and in a way heart wrenching, story of a man nearing the end of his life; with his golden days long behind him. I guess in a way it is an allegory of life in that as we grow old life becomes ever more difficult as our body begins to break down. In a sense each of the stories in this book can be seen as allegories – with Youth about the eagerness of the young and the hurdles that they must overcome as they go out into the world, and Heart of Darkness about the time when we come to see the nastiness of life. Once again Joseph Conrad has drafted a marvellous piece of literature that highlights his ability so much more since not only did he come from the working class, but that English was also his second language. In fact, a quick look over his biography suggests that he never even attended university.