Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The tragedy of Yanko Goorall probes the modernist theme of isolation and alienation. This idea also figures prominently in Joseph Conrad’s major works, such as the novels Lord Jim (1900), Heart of Darkness (1902), and The Secret Agent (1907). Yanko is an unwilling loner whose free and easy nature undergoes repeated assaults until even the only person who has offered him love abandons him at the moment of his greatest need. His first ordeal was physical confinement in crowded trains, the boxlike berths aboard a ship, and the dungeonlike lodge at New Barns.

Kennedy senses, however, that Yanko’s most painful ordeal is his verbal and psychological confinement. He notes that “an overwhelming loneliness seemed to fall from the leaden sky of that winter without sunshine. He could talk to no one, and had no hope of ever understanding anybody.” The story repeatedly contrasts Yanko’s nobility with the prejudice and insensibility of the townspeople, whose rejection intensifies his feelings of estrangement. Amy’s father, for example, opposed Yanko’s marriage partly because he heard him mutter to himself in his native language. Told by Kennedy that Yanko was dead, the father responded with indifference: “I don’t know that it isn’t for the best.”

Like much of Conrad’s writing, this story has autobiographical roots. As a Pole, Conrad knew isolation during his years at sea on British ships. He learned English in his twenties, but other problems contributed to his loneliness during his residence in England. In addition to his problems establishing himself as a writer, he had nagging financial worries and a growing emotional distance from his English wife. He personally had an experience similar to that of Yanko in 1896, when he suffered from a fever and rambled incoherently in Polish, frightening his young wife.