The Chance to Find Yourself

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Joseph Conrad in a photo taken in 1904

I was stumbling about the internet the other day when I came across a quote from Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness (published in 1902).  Conrad’s main character in his story, Charles Marlow, is a down-on-his-luck Englishman who finds himself working as a river boat captain in Africa.  Upon Marlow’s first arrival in Africa, he finds his steamboat broken down and spends the next three months repairing it before heading upriver on a treacherous journey.

It is believed that the story is based on Conrad’s real life experience, when he served as the captain of a dilapidated steamboat on the Congo River in 1889.

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The actual river boat that Conrad captained on the Congo, photo from 1889

Conrad writes about his steamboat,

“She was nothing so solid in make, and rather less pretty in shape, but I had expended enough hard work on her to make me love her. No influential friend would have served me better. She had given me a chance to come out a bit—to find out what I could do. No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work,—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know.”


I have to admit that I’ve never read Heart of Darkness in it’s entirety, only excerpts such as this one, but this quote struck me as holding quite a bit of truth.  In fact, it struck a chord that reverberated for a while as I thought about how the human condition has remained relatively unchanged, even after the more than one hundred years since Heart of Darkness was published.  I laughed at the similarities between Conrad’s story and my own story, and his affectionate and critical descriptions of the boat’s qualities.

In Conrad’s story, Marlow spent three months working on his ship before steaming up the Congo.  When we bought our fishing boat last year Zed spent four months repairing her before setting off through the Gulf of Mexico, the Panama Canal, and the Pacific Coast.

Our boat, the Robin Blue, under construction

I’m going to take a chance and make a claim here, that probably most boat owners (and quite a few deckhands as well) can relate to this quote.  The work itself is horrible, but it pushes a person to their limits, and then past those limits, to a point that the person didn’t previously realize they were capable of reaching.  This is what is so unique about commercial fishing – there is something about being on the water that challenges a person and strips them down to their human core.  The ocean is cruel, uncaring, and unsympathetic to your pains, and can kill you in an instant if given the chance.  Yet somehow the stress, and the long days of work with little sleep, and the closeness to death, manage to make a person feel more alive.

My husband Zed, cleaning out the boat’s fuel tank on a scorching hot day

Of course, none of this is coming from personal experience – I’m a landlubber- my opinion on the matter comes from the observation of my hard working husband and our community of commercial fishing friends.  Commercial fishermen are the hardest working bunch of people I know.

I would be interested to hear from some commercial fishermen and boat captains on this topic… does this quote strike a chord in other people as well?

8 thoughts on “The Chance to Find Yourself

  1. I, too, am a landlubber, however, I see my son, Jaymz, in the quote. Even though I am a landlubber, I have never lived more than 20 minutes from salt water (Alger). I feel living near salt water is symbiotic and if I ever moved away from it I would shrivel up and die.

    • I know what you mean Cherie, I need to live close to water too. I grew up here in Whatcom County, and when I went away to college in the Midwest I felt so trapped. Living 1500 miles from an ocean was a strange feeling that I don’t care to experience again. Now I can walk down to the beach from my house in Bellingham, and I love it!
      Thanks for your comment,

  2. When I read this quote it reminded me of your blog:

    “Commercial fishing is much more than numbers of dollars, numbers of men, numbers of fish. Anyone who strolls down to the docks recognizes that. The average visitor quite likely wouldn’t know a craoker from a cod or a sea robin from a sea bass, but that in no way impairs the enjoyment of the docks. On those wharves there is all the romance that so many hope to find near the sea, because fishing is about as close as a man can get these days to earning his livelihood as his forefathers did through countless centuries.”

    From The New Jersey Shore, written by John T. Cunningham and published by Rutgers University Press in 1957.

    • Yes! This perfectly captures my feelings on fishing and the ocean. There is something very primal about catching your living on the ocean… Fishing is one of the last remaining occupations left over from our days of hunting and gathering, and it has remained relatively unchanged over the last 40,000 years. I love walking through the harbor and watching people preparing to go fishing, there is so much hope and anticipation in the air. Thanks so much for this quote, I might have to use it in a post someday!

  3. Robin, you have a touch of the poet! Someday you will write a book, I’m certain.
    I’m now a landlubber by choice, having spent much of my younger years in commercial fishing and bringing old (I might say ancient!) boats back to life. You’ve caught it, and so has Joseph Conrad. The medium changes (wood, steel; sail, steam, internal combustion) but the essence remains.

    • Paul,
      Thank you for your kind words, I really appreciate it. Someday I would love to write a book, someday… It seems like there is never enough time to do all the things I need to do, let alone the things I want to do. But I’m sure that will change someday.

  4. Robin. It’s so interesting to me that you would choose to write a post about Joseph Conrad, the same time a random stranger at a bar just recently mentioned to me that I should be reading his work. Perhaps it’s a sign. Now I most definitely need to make a trip to the library. Any recommendations for which novel to start with?

    I love the quote you chose. It’s not always the work we do, but what it evokes within us…

    • I would start with Heart of Darkness, just because it is one of his better known novels. Some people might argue that in it Conrad plays up negative stereotypes of Africans as being barbaric and animalistic, but overall it seems to be a great novel that is referenced fairly often.

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