Style and Technique
Conrad relates the Count’s story through an anonymous first-person narrator. In having an episode in the life of a nameless aristocrat recounted by an equally nameless narrator, Conrad signals his intention to explore social and political forces and their symbols, rather than to create distinctive characters. The narrator speaks for Conrad himself, very much the civilized man, conscious of aristocratic virtues but also aware of the aristocracy’s wasting, ineffectual condition.
Although the narrator maintains a charitable detachment as the Count’s “pathetic tale” unfolds, he fills the story with ironic commentary and contrasts. By wandering back and forth through a darkened park, for example, the Count almost tempts the mugger, whom in fact he had passed several times and acknowledged once. Conrad adds another ironic touch by having the concert band play the aristocracy’s traditional harmonious music, reaching its blaring fortissimo as the mugger pushes his knife against the Count. Likewise, Conrad repeatedly stresses the darkness of “sunny” Naples, emphasizing its sinister dimensions. As Conrad well knew, many Italians once viewed Naples and southern Italy as a land of thieves and as a dark “Africa.” Again, both the narrator and the Count refer constantly to the dark young Neapolitans with bandit-like mustachios, deep, dark eyes, and curled lips, ensuring that readers are aware that the Count could scarcely have placed himself in a more dangerous environment.
By stopping short of overt and bloody violence, Conrad all the more skillfully establishes an ambiance of menace. Given the Count’s sensibilities, it is the threat of violence more than violence itself that intimidates him and sends him packing—in, as the narrator ironically records, a suicidal journey on Europe’s most luxurious train. Superb author that he was, Conrad was not above giving an ironic twist to the old Italian adage “Vedi Napoli, et poi mori!” (“See Naples and die!”). The Count, as the narrator tells us, would have regarded the phrase as excessively patriotic, but Conrad helps tie his story together by having the Count obey it.