“Youth” (sometimes expanded to “Youth: A Narrative”) is a semi-autobiographical short story by Joseph Conrad, written and first published in 1898. Five friends, all former sailors but now approaching middle age, are sat round a table sharing a bottle of claret as one of them, Marlow, relates the story of his first voyage as a second mate, twenty-two years earlier.
The ship, the Judea, is a decrepit old hulk that has been contracted to haul 600 tons of coal from Newcastle to Bangkok, a city Marlow is excited to see for the first time. The journey is expected to take about five months, but just getting from London to Newcastle takes over two weeks thanks to a gale, then they have to wait a month before their cargo is loaded, and the night before they are due to ship out, an incoming steamer collides with them, resulting in another three week repair job. When they finally get going, they run into a vicious winter gale a few hundred miles west of Lizard Point that strips the deck clean, forcing them to return to Falmouth in Cornwall for repairs. Such is the damage that it is six months before the Judea is seaworthy again.
As if that weren't enough, when they are off the western coast of Australia, the coal spontaneously combusts, and all efforts to put out the fire fail. They press on until the gases produced by the fire explode when they are just west of Java Head. A passing steamer offers to tow them to Anjer or Batavia, where the captain plans to scuttle the Judea to put out the fire and then re-surface her, but the speed of their voyage fans the flames into a full-blown conflagration, and the crew are forced to salvage what they can and abandon ship. They steer the lifeboats to a port in Java and are able to book passage on a steamer heading back to England. Throughout the story, Marlow recalls that as doomed as the voyage seemed to be every step of the way, in his youthful exuberance, he found it all an exhilarating adventure, and suggests to his friends that their younger days at sea were their happiest, before life had a chance to grind them down.
This story contains examples of:
- Abandon Ship: Eventually, the fire on the Judea gets so out of control that the crew are forced to give up the idea of towing her to port to extinguish the flames and, after rescuing what they can to appease the underwriters, they retreat to a safe distance in the lifeboats to watch her sink below the surface.
- Author Avatar: As in the other stories in which he appears, Marlow is a stand-in for Conrad himself; the story is a fictionalised account of Conrad's first voyage as second mate on the Palestine in 1883, and, like Conrad, Marlow is full of ambition and the idealism of youth in spite of the journey's many setbacks.
- The Captain: The crew of the Judea are led by Captain Beard (named for his real life counterpart), a veteran sailor in his 60s. Although he has lost his youthful optimism over the years, he is still a highly capable leader who keeps the ship going in spite of all the setbacks until it becomes obvious the fire will never be brought under control - and while he does not go down with her, he insists on staying to watch the Judea's final moments from a safe distance.
- I Need a Freaking Drink: Several times during the book, Marlow tells his friends, "Pass the bottle." These requests most often seem to come when he falls into bittersweet nostalgia, such as recalling that he never saw the captain's wife again after putting her on a train from Newcastle to London, or reflecting on what the Judea meant to his career as a sailor.
- Roman à Clef: Conrad based "Youth" on his own experience as a second mate on an ill-fated voyage carrying coal to Bangkok. Interestingly, the captain and first mate were named for their real life counterparts, but the ships were re-named; the Palestine became the Judea, while the ship that towed the stricken Palestine, the Somerset, was re-named the Sommerville.
- "Shaggy Dog" Story: Marlow spends the story recalling his enthusiasm at the idea of seeing Bangkok for the first time, but he never actually gets there; the Judea is slowed down by a gale, is held up in Newcastle after being hit by an incoming steamer, and spends endless months in Falmouth undergoing repairs after being caught in a storm. And when she finally reaches south-east Asia, the coal ignites, causing the ship to go down in flames off the Java coast.