Throughout his career, Joseph Conrad returned to a constellation of central themes that were expressed through the actions of his characters and, more important, through those characters’ reactions to events around them. These themes can best be considered when they are grouped into two generally opposing categories. A sense of personal, moral heroism and honor is contrasted to betrayal and guilt. Typically, a Conradian character will discover, in the crucible of a dangerous situation, that he does or does not live up to the inner standards he has hoped to maintain. This realization may not come immediately, and often the true meanings of a character’s actions are revealed only long afterward, through a retelling of his story.
The second grouping contrasts illusion with reality. Illusion is often a belief in “progress” or some grand political scheme. It is unmasked by reality, which, in Conrad, inevitably assumes the form and tone of pessimistic irony. Through the device of a narrator recounting the story, the truth gradually emerges, revealing the tragic difference between what characters believe themselves and the world to be, and what they actually are.
“An Outpost of Progress”
The division between these two groupings is present even in Conrad’s early story “An Outpost of Progress.” Like many of his fictions, it is set in the tropics, specifically a desolate ivory trading station in the isolated reaches of the Congo. Two hapless Europeans, Kayerts and Carlier, arrive at the station, filled with dreams of riches and slogans of civilization. They quickly disintegrate, their original illusions giving way to true madness. Kayerts shoots his companion, then hangs himself from a cross in the station’s unkempt graveyard. The outpost of progress has been overrun by the forces of savagery.
The story is fiercely ironic. Kayerts and Carlier are caricatures, the first fat, the second thin, both incredibly stupid. “Incapable of independent thought,” as Conrad describes them, they are lost without society to dictate their thoughts and actions. Although they loudly repeat the hollow slogans of progress, the two white men are obviously greatly inferior to their native helper, who watches their decay with dark satisfaction. Using simple, unsympathetic characters and a violent, even melodramatic plot, Conrad presents his themes in the starkest possible fashion.
In the story “The Lagoon,” written at almost the same time as “An Outpost of Progress,” Conrad handles the conflict between betrayal and guilt, on the one hand, and guilt versus honor and heroism, on the other, with more subtlety. An unnamed white man spends the night in the house of Arsat, a young Malay, who is tending his dying wife. During the long tropical night, Arsat tells his friend the story of how he and his brother had fled with the woman from their local chief. The three had been pursued and, at the moment of their escape, Arsat’s brother had fallen behind and cried out for help. Arsat had not responded, however, fleeing instead to safety with his lover. Now, when she is dead, he speaks of returning for revenge.
In a moment of crisis Arsat made a decision, and for years he has suffered the moral consequences of that action. Although Conrad refrains from judging his character, Arsat clearly believes that he has failed; his only hope is to perform some heroic action, such as seeking vengeance, that will restore his earlier sense of himself as an honorable, loyal person and brother. Implicit in the story, however, is the sense that Arsat cannot undo the past and that his hopes are only illusions. This sense is reinforced powerfully by Conrad’s extensive descriptions of the Malaysian jungle, which seems to overwhelm the characters, rendering them incapable of action while mocking their vain hopes.
“Youth,” Conrad’s first indisputable masterpiece among his shorter fictions, introduces his famous narrator Marlow. In the story, Marlow, forty-two when he tells his tale, recounts events that happened twenty years before when he sailed on the Judea, laden with a cargo of coal for Bangkok. An ill-fated ship, the Judea is beset by an endless, almost comical series of calamities that climaxes when the coal catches fire and explodes, leaving the crew to reach land in open boats. The events are drawn largely from Conrad’s own experiences as mate on the Palestine in 1881.
The contrasts between heroism and cowardice, between reality and illusion run throughout the story, but Conrad blends them in a fashion that reveals that the distinctions between them are not as simple as might be supposed. As Marlow recognizes, his earlier self was full of the illusions of youth, yet it was those very illusions that sustained him and allowed him to achieve the standards by which he wished to live and act. In that sense, illusion made heroism possible. Such a situation is obviously ironic, and throughout his story Marlow comments frequently on the tangled relationship between romanticism and practicality, illusion and reality. Unlike other Conrad tales, however, “Youth” does not treat this division with pessimism but with optimism, no doubt because it is a story of youth and because Marlow, for whatever reason, did uphold his personal standards of integrity and moral courage.
Heart of Darkness
Heart of Darkness, perhaps Conrad’s most famous work, is a novella based on his experience as mate on the riverboat Roi des Belges in the Congo during 1890. In this story, Conrad once again uses Marlow as his main character and narrator, and the events are a literal and symbolic journey by Marlow into that “immense heart of darkness” that is both the African jungle and the human soul. A powerful, searing work, Heart of Darkness is one of the first masterpieces of symbolism in English literature and Conrad’s most acutely penetrating psychological study.
The story itself is relatively simple. Marlow signs on with a Belgian company that exports ivory from the Congo; employed as a mate on the company’s steamboat, he sails upriver to meet the renowned Kurtz, a trader who has become legendary for the success of his efforts and the force of his character. Marlow has heard, however, that Kurtz is more than an ivory trader and that he has evolved into a powerful force of civilization and progress. When Marlow arrives at Kurtz’s station, he finds instead that the man has reverted to savagery, becoming a dreaded, almost supernatural figure to the natives. The site is ringed with posts decorated with human skulls, and Kurtz’s presence casts an evil presence over the African jungle. Marlow carries the sick, delirious Kurtz back down the river, but the man dies during the journey as the riverboat narrowly escapes an ambush by the terrified and outraged natives.
The impact of Heart of Darkness comes from the nearly devastating effects of what Marlow sees and experiences. A naïve young man in the earlier “Youth,” Marlow is still relatively innocent at the start of Heart of Darkness. By the end of the story, that innocence has been forever shattered, a loss shared by the attentive reader. The world of the story grows increasingly corrupted and corrupting. The adventures Marlow undergoes become stranger, and the characters whom he meets are increasingly odd, starting with the greedy traders whom Marlow ironically describes as “pilgrims,” to an eccentric Russian who wanders in dress clothes through the jungle, to Kurtz himself, that figure of ultimate madness. The native Africans, whether cruelly abused workers, actually slaves, of the trading company or savages in awe of Kurtz, retain a sort of primeval dignity, but they, too, are beyond Marlow’s experience and initial comprehension. The Congo of Heart of Darkness is a strange and terrifying world, a place where the normal order of civilized life has become not only inverted but also perverted.
To render this complex and disturbing moral vision, Conrad uses an intricate framing structure for his narrative. The story opens with Marlow and four friends talking about their experiences. One of the listeners, who is never named, in turn conveys to the reader the story told by Marlow. This story-within-a-story shuttles back and forth, as Marlow recounts part of his tale, then comments upon it, and then often makes an additional reflection upon his own observations. In a sense, by retelling the events, Marlow comes to understand them, a process that is shared by the reader. Instead of interrupting the flow of the story, Marlow’s remarks become an essential part of the plot, and often the...
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