Often listed among famous novellas in chronological order are Aphra Behn's (1688) Oroonoko, Charles Dickens's (1843) A Christmas Carol, Robert Louis Stevenson's (1886) Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Kate Chopin's (1899) The Awakening, Anton Chekhov's (1900) In the ravine, Joseph Conrad's (1902) Heart of darkness, Thomas Mann's (1913) Death in Venice, Franz Kafka's (1915) Metamorphosis, Ernest Hemingway's (1952) The old man and the sea, George Orwell's (1945) Animal Farm, Muriel Spark's (1962) The prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
As to theme, we can state it easily in Kate Chopin's The awakening: What would it be for a woman to realize she is not cut out to be a wife and mother? The theme in Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is: What would it be if we were each divided into a socially responsible part and a socially irresponsible part? In Joseph Conrad's Heart of darkness, the theme is: Are civilized manners and behaviour merely a thin veneer?
Conrad did much to develop the novella. Although not as well known as Heart of darkness, even better in many respects is The shadow line. Its psychological theme is: What is it to cross the line from youthful confidence and self-absorption to adulthood? I have added a mini-review in our archive of Psychologically Significant Fiction, which you can access by clicking here, and a longer review in our Book Reviews archive, which you can access by clicking here.
Joseph Conrad's The shadow line is an exploration of that moment of the development of character when one knows one is no longer just alive for oneself, no longer just one of the crowd, but must take responsibility for other people. It is a line one crosses when one enters a serious relationship and starts living with someone, when one has one's first child, when at one's work one is put in charge of others. The psychological poignancy of the transition is that one often has no idea what the implications will be, because there are aspects for which one's youth has not prepared one. This is a transition that can enable one to grow, or that can damage one. The shadow line, based on Conrad's own youth, seen from a somewhat ironical perspective of his maturity, is about a young ship's officer who achieves his first command: a sailing ship that becomes becalmed, and in which almost all the crew become so sick with a fever that has been taken on board at a tropical port that it becomes impossible to work the ship. Was the young man too hasty wanting to put to sea? Why did he not inspect the medical supplies properly? Will the ship be wrecked? Will he and those for whom he is responsible be able to reach port safely?
Joseph Conrad (1917). The shadow line. London: Penguin (current edition 1986).
Frank O'Connor (1963). The lonely voice. New York: World Publishing Co (reprinted 2004, Melville House).