Conrad in the Nineteenth Century Analysis

Ian Watt

Conrad in the Nineteenth Century

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Another critical study of Joseph Conrad? To justify an extensive two-volume examination of that seminal writer’s work in relation to his life and times would appear to require, at the least, a new critical approach or the substantial contribution of new information. Ian Watt’s Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, the first volume of a projected work that will later include Conrad’s twentieth century achievements, fully reassesses his subject, but provides neither a special interpretative strategy nor discoveries from independent research that would require a major reinterpretation of the author. Nevertheless, Watt’s book is the most thorough, sensible, and persuasive study available, and it is likely to serve for many years as the standard scholarly work on Conrad, against which later studies will have to be measured.

Although Watt has no special thesis to argue—that is to say he offers no “key” to open all of Conrad’s mysterious caskets—he examines from almost every possible vantage, the often contradictory theories and strategies that other critics have brought to bear upon their subject. His purposes, modestly advanced, are to provide historical, critical, and exegetic prospectives that will show Conrad not only as a writer of his own time, but also as one whose major fiction has continued to engage the modern imagination. By emphasizing historical impulses that affected Conrad, Watt shows that the writer was “not anomalously immune” from the same social and cultural environment, both in England and on the Continent, that had impact upon Conrad’s important contemporaries—most notably Henry James. In treating Conrad’s Polish background, Watt pays close attention to the rich intellectual and cultural heritage that the aristocratic young émigré would always carry with him, as though it were the soil of his native land. Watt shows how Conrad, an exile from Poland by necessity and an Englishman by choice, was uniquely a European writer, one not limited by parochial concerns either to the land of his birth or to that of his great literary achievements. Because he was the product of two cultures, his vision of the world was both Eastern and Western European. From his Polish and Russian experiences, Conrad would always distrust the frailty of human aspirations; but from his Western orientation, his experiences primarily in France and England, he acquired a longing for an ideal society, one in which the solidarity of men of good will would resist, as nearly as possible, the moral and psychological anarchy that threatened civilized bulwarks everywhere.

Not a critical biography in the usual sense, Conrad presents only enough of the biographical information that a reader needs to place the author directly in relation to his work. Watt regards Conrad neither as a forerunner of the modern exile-hero, assured in his moral inviolability, nor as a timorous, neurotic, self-inflated poseur. Watt’s Conrad is a very convincing person, quite the product of his troubled upbringing, the hazards of his young manhood, the tribulations of his years mastering the English language as an artist. On a psychological level, Watt sees Conrad as scarred from the suffering of his youth, suspicious of happiness, eager for the appreciation of worthy critics but uncomfortable with ordinary people, capable of both kindness and loyalty. No doubt in the second volume, Watt will show Conrad’s increasing testiness resulting from his many physical problems. The picture he presents so far, however, is that of a highly intelligent, disciplined, self-critical man, in his emotions split between the two strains of his inheritance: from his father’s side a restless idealism and from his mother’s (through his uncle’s guardianship) a more practical, conscientious, and resilient temperament. Although Watt never attempts a full portrait of Conrad, his skillful sketch—within the scope of the whole volume—is thoroughly consistent with one’s impression of the author from the evidence of his writings, and serves to correct either sentimental or hostile interpretations of his character.

In addition to providing a brief but incisive account of Conrad’s life up to the twentieth century, Watt fills in the intellectual background of his times. For example, in treating Almayer’s Folly, the critic examines in considerable detail the literary models that Conrad would have known; he not only describes the kinds of books that appealed to the general public in the 1890’s, but also shows how Conrad would have approached his audience, suggests his designs, his effectiveness and limitations. In treating Heart of Darkness, Watt reviews the prevailing late-Victorian attitudes toward colonialism, provides a succinct history of the...

(The entire section is 1953 words.)