Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Samburan (sahm-BEWR-ahn). Also known as Round Island, one of the thousands of small islands in the Malaysian archipelago, on which Baron Axel Heyst establishes the center of his Tropical Belt Coal Company. At its height, his company has offices in London and Amsterdam. After the death of Heyst’s partner, the only person remaining in Heyst’s house is his Chinese servant, Wang. On the side of the island opposite the house is a native village.
Although Heyst finds island life fascinating, he is generally disenchanted with it, even though he rarely feels lonely. He often sits in the main room of his house, under a picture of his father—a misanthrope and famous writer—and reflects.
Into this deserted wilderness Heyst brings Alma (whom he renames Lena), a women he has rescued from an obsessive-compulsive hotel owner at the nearest civilized island, three days journey by boat. In his sitting room, Heyst assures Lena that nothing can break in on them there.
Schomberg’s Hotel. Hotel in Sourabaya owned by Wilhelm Schomberg, who is obsessed with controlling Lena, one of the eighteen women in his hotel concert hall. Desperate to escape the hotel, Lena persuades Heyst to take her with him after a concert.
Other residents of the hotel include two very suspicious characters, Mr. Jones and Martin Ricardo, who gamble in the hotel’s shabby gaming room. These...
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Critics have debated over whether Victory is too schematized or allegorical in its conception. Although the story is credible as realism, if one accepts the reality of the villains, it has also been attacked as lacking sufficient realism. Without reviewing the different arguments here, it may be noted that Conrad employs a narrative of surface realism which contains obviously symbolic overtones.
In its moderate realism, the novel is reminiscent of Conrad's earlier Malayan stories, but the use of names and situations that contain a literary resonance is obvious. Axel, for instance (according to Robert Hampson's "Introduction" to the Penguin edition), Heyst's first name, appears to have been taken from the hero of the fin de siecle symbolist drama Axel by Villiers de Isle Adam, a work of late French romantic aestheticism that Conrad was acquainted with. Other characters in the narrative have been given symbolic significance as well, with Heyst being compared to the brooding Hamlet or the reclusive Prospero in Shakespeare, Lena being seen as analogous to Shakespeare's Miranda; and the villains being compared to Satanic figures.
Perhaps the concern for allegory and symbolism has been pushed too far. More interesting from a technical point of view is Conrad's use of differing points of view, as his narrative focus gives the reader a privileged glimpse of the minds of many characters—now Heyst's thoughts, then Lena's, and...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Much of the interest in the novel concerns the philosophical attitudes of Axel Heyst and his desire to withdraw from human involvement. Readers might analyze Heyst's feelings about human life, and the extent to which his attitudes are dependent on the philosophical attitudes of his father.
Another area for opening discussion could be the status of Lena, who is about to be made a victim of Schomberg or some other man of means early in the novel, before she is rescued by Heyst. Later Lena again becomes a possession to be battled over because of Ricardo's lust for her. Another question regarding Lena is her complex relationship with Heyst. Is Heyst in love with her at first? What are the terms on which he expects her to live with him on Samburan? Whey does Heyst not act more decisively in response to Lena's affection?
Yet another area of discussion might concern Lena's self-image and her desire to sacrifice herself for Heyst. In the light of contemporary feminist attitudes, what might readers think of Lena's self-sacrificial intentions?
1. What leads Heyst to the island of Samburan as a retreat from the world? What influence does Heyst's father play in Heyst's life and philosophic outlook?
2. How did Heyst feel about his father? Do Heyst's feelings for his father's memory contradict the philosophy that Heyst learned form his father? Why or why not?
3. What leads Heyst to befriend Morrison? To what degree, if...
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Although at one time Victory was less highly regarded than some of Joseph Conrad's more famous novels, its stature as a work of art has increased over the years, as many readers have come to identify in some ways with the detachment and alienation of the central character, Axel Heyst. Despite complaints from some critics about Conrad's use of melodrama and some lapses from realism, the novel continues to exercise a certain fascination for many readers.
A major social concern of the novel is the nature of Heyst's attempt to live a life of detachment and philosophical isolation, somewhat like the tragic count in Conrad's short story "Il Conde" (1907; see separate entry). Is it possible to live such a life of solitude, apart from the sufferings of humanity? And if it is possible to do so, is such a choice morally defensible? What makes Heyst attractive to readers is in fact his sympathy and kindness toward Morrison and Lena, the two decent people whom he befriends.
Another significant social concern of the novel is the apparent ease by which destructive and parasitical people such as Mr. Jones and Ricardo move around the world. Although they are confidence men, swindlers, thieves, and have committed murders, they use their mobility, their arts, and the bribery of authorities to live an itinerant but fairly prosperous existence in the less developed areas of the world. As menaces to decent social life, this pair are even more potent symbols...
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As has been noted, many literary precedents besides sea fiction and French realism have been suggested for Victory. Among works which may have contributed to the novel's symbolism are Shakespeare's Hamlet (1601) and The Tempest (1612), the biblical story of Adam and Eve in Eden, and John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667; the epigraph on Conrad's original tide was a quotation from Comus, Milton's youthful masque about a young woman's temptation). Lena's name for herself, "Alma," is Latin for "the soul," and Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene (1590-1596) devotes a lengthy allegorical passage to describing the "House of Alma." However, it seems unlikely that Conrad was directly influenced by Spenser. In fact, the symbolic meaning of "alma" would not have been difficult for Conrad to discover.
These sources, suggested by various scholars, are cited by Robert Hampson in his "Introduction" and "Notes" to the Penguin edition (1989) of Victory. Even less plausible than the influence of Spenser is the suggestion of the influence of Greek legends about Troy. As Hampson notes, Lena has been compared to Helen of Troy (whose full name was Helena, and who was "kidnapped" by an attractive prince from an unattractive husband). However, the New Testament is the source of allusions and quotations for Conrad in the story. More than once Conrad himself presses parallels between Lena and Mary Magdalen in the Christian gospels:...
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Although the novel comes late in Conrad's career, Victory shows many affinities with the earlier Malaysian novels, including Almayer's Folly (1895), An Outcast of the Islands (1896), and the brilliant and complex Lord Jim. Heyst's dream of a life of solitude on Samburan is reminiscent of Almayer's quixotic dream in Conrad's first published novel. At times, too, the romanticism of some of the description seems to recall early Malaysian stories like "The Lagoon" (1898).
The character of Schomberg appears in other Conrad stories, notably in a minor role in Lord Jim. Schomberg is also the proprietor of a small hotel in Bangkok in the story "Falk" (1903), but the malicious innkeeper has been given a much larger role in Victory. Also related to the novel are two short stories Conrad wrote during the time of the composition of Victory, "The Planter of Malata" written late in 1913, and "Because of the Dollars" (composed in 1913-1914). Both stories, which interrupted work on the novel, deal with situations similar to Victory, but demonstrate less art and subtlety. In "Because of the Dollars," the woman character is a more experienced and worldly version of Lena called "Laughing Anne." Neither short story has been regarded as having a comparable literary stature as the novel Victory. "Because of the Dollars," however, gained some popularity, and has enjoyed a kind of twilight secondary existence as a...
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Rather surprisingly, Victory was almost immediately viewed as worthy material for a stage adaptation. Although Conrad gave some thought to collaborating with the proposed adaptor, MacDonald Hastings, he eventually decided against it, being occupied with other projects. Although Conrad did not consider Hastings's early efforts especially faithful to his work, he consented to the adaptation mainly for commercial reasons. Conrad later showed renewed interest in Hastings's stage adaptation and made suggestions for revision. He also took an interest in the casting, but it was not until 1919 that the play was performed with Sir Henry Irving in the cast. Surprisingly, the play was a moderate commercial success, but apparently Conrad's failing health prevented him from seeing a performance. There was also a silent film version in 1919 with Wallace Beery and Lon Chaney, Sr.; this film is known today only to film historians and archivists, but since it was two hours in length, it apparently dealt with much of Conrad's original plot.
In 1920, Conrad adapted one of Victory's companion stories, "Because of the Dollars," into a forty-five-minute play, The Laughing Anne, but could not place it with a theater. However, the story, under the title of Laughing Anne, was eventually turned into a forgettable English motion picture with Margaret Lockwood in 1953. This technicolor film was predictably marketed as a Far Eastern adventure epic, but...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Gillon, Adam. The Eternal Solitary: A Study of Joseph Conrad. New York: Bookman Associates, 1960. Explores the key role that isolation played in Conrad’s life and work. Presents Victory as a melodrama that effectively discusses, in symbolic terms, the nature of solitude and its consequences.
Johnson, Bruce. Conrad’s Models of Mind. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971. Explores Conrad’s continual readjustment of his fictions to fit changing philosophical models of human behavior and motivation. Discusses the way Victory reassesses the individual’s need for human solidarity and community.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Joseph Conrad: A Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991. A highly readable critical biography. Discusses Victory as Conrad’s most misunderstood, underrated, and controversial novel, its theme being the failure of love in an idyllic setting.
Moser, Thomas. “Conrad’s ‘Later Affirmation.’” In Conrad: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Marvin Mudrick. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966. Explores the role chance plays in later novels, particularly Victory, and how it makes the novels’ apparent affirmations more evasive.
Sherry, Norman, ed. Conrad: The Critical Heritage....
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