Joseph Conrad Short Fiction Analysis
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, 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 reader does not fully understand what has happened until Marlow’s explanations reveal the extent and significance of the action.
Heart of Darkness gains immensely through Conrad’s use of symbolism, because much of the meaning of the story is too terrifying and bleak to be expressed in plain prose; the inhumanity and savagery of the European exploiters, Kurtz in particular, are expressed more powerfully through a symbolic, rather than overt, presentation. Throughout the narrative, clusters of images occur at significant points to underscore the meaning of events as Marlow comes to understand them. Opposites are frequent: Brightness is contrasted with gloom, the lush growth of the jungle is juxtaposed to the sterility of the white traders, and the luxuriant, even alarming life of the wild is always connected with death and decomposition. Running throughout the story are images and metaphors of madness, especially the insanity caused by isolation. The dominant symbol for the entire work is found in its title and final words: All creation is a vast “heart of darkness.” Since its publication, Heart of Darkness has been recognized as a masterpiece of English literature, and readers have responded to the work on several different levels. An attack on imperialism, a parable of moral and ethical growth and decline, a psychological study—Heart of Darkness is all these things and something more.
With the writing of “Typhoon,” Conrad suspended his customary moral and psychological complexities to present a fairly straightforward sea story. The Nan-Shan, a vessel filled with Chinese coolies returning home from Malaysia, runs headlong into a ferocious typhoon. As the crew struggles above decks to save the ship, an equally dangerous furor erupts below, as the sea’s violent motions scatter the passengers’ baggage, mixing their hard-earned silver coins in total confusion. The Chinese begin a desperate combat among themselves, each man intent upon regaining his own money. Captain MacWhirr and his first mate, Jukes, must battle these two storms, either of which could wreck the ship.
Captain MacWhirr and Jukes are total opposites. MacWhirr is a stolid, perhaps stupid man, so devoid of imagination that he experiences little self-doubt and few terrors. Even the looming typhoon does not frighten him, since he has never experienced such a storm and cannot comprehend its dangers. Jukes, on the other hand, is a more typical Conradian character, sensitive, anxious to prove worthy of his own inner moral code, and acutely conscious of the dangers that the sea can pose. As with so many other figures in Conrad’s fictions, Jukes seems to believe in a sense that these dangers are somehow meant for him personally, as a trial of his own character. MacWhirr suffers from no such beliefs, since they are beyond his comprehension.
With the onset of the typhoon, the seeming limitations of Captain MacWhirr become strengths, while Jukes’s supposedly higher qualities might, if left unchecked, paralyze him at the critical moment. Ironically, MacWhirr is Jukes’s salvation. Since the Captain lacks the imagination to realize that he should be afraid, he is therefore not afraid and continues in his plodding but effective fashion. Jukes, in order to live up to his moral code, has no choice but to follow, acting more bravely and coolly than his inner doubts might otherwise allow. Together, the two men lead the crew in heroic efforts that save the Nan-Shan.
The only complexity that Conrad employs in “Typhoon” is in his narrative structure. The story shifts from third person to passages of letters from Captain MacWhirr, Jukes, and the ship’s engineer to their families. This second layer is overlain by a third, in which the letters are read, sometimes with commentary, by the families in England. Through this method, Conrad allows the major characters to present the story as they experience and perceive it and adds a further contrast between the men who actually endure the storm and those who only read about it, and so cannot fully grasp its strength and danger.
“The Duel,” sometimes titled “The Duellists,” is the story of two officers in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army, who wage their own private war for sixteen years, while about them all Europe is plunged into a larger, much more deadly combat. Conrad was an avid student of the Napoleonic period, and he based his story on an actual rivalry. More than the story of two men, “The Duel” is Conrad’s reflections upon the Napoleonic age.
The two progatonists are Feraud from Gascony in southern France—a region noted for its hot-blooded, impetuous natives—and D’Hubert, a Picard, with the reserved nature characteristic of that northern region. Through an accidental incident, the two become engaged in an affair of honor that can be settled only by a duel. Once begun, the duel is protracted to farcical lengths, extending from Paris to Moscow, from the time of Napoleon’s greatest triumphs to his final defeat at Waterloo. Finally, D’Hubert falls in love and marries, finding life more worthwhile than this questionable affair of honor. In the final encounter, he emerges victorious and spares Feraud’s life on the promise that the combat will now, finally, end.
The tale is briskly and even comically rendered, with Conrad’s typical ironies in this case turned positive. The darker aspects of his vision are reserved for his wider view of the Napoleonic age: What might be seen as humorous when only two men are involved becomes tragic almost beyond comprehension when entire nations are the duelists. Feraud and D’Hubert fight only each other in their affair, while Napoleon engaged all the countries of Europe. At the end of that wider struggle, Conrad implies, there was no happy resolution, only the desolation that follows the exhausted silence of the battlefield. This bleaker vision, however, is not allowed to overwhelm the essentially humorous basis of the story.
The title of the work may contain a clue to one of its themes, the typical Conrad subject of the “double,” the other person who is so like the hero yet somehow different. During the interminable encounters, D’Hubert comes to believe that he is linked, in some mysterious and unbreakable fashion, to Feraud. They are “secret sharers,” in one sense literally so, because they cannot reveal that their duel began over a trivial misunderstanding and was prolonged out of fear of embarrassment. They are also “secret sharers” in a wider sense, because their lives have fullest meaning only when joined together. In this way, the “duellists” are indeed “dual,” and their relationship is not only one of combat but also, in fact, one of union.
“Gaspar Ruiz” was based upon actual events in the Chilean revolution against Spain of the 1830’s. The title character, an immensely strong but rather simpleminded peasant, joins the army of the rebels. Captured during battle, he is forced to join the Loyalist army and is then once again made a prisoner, this time by his former comrades. Condemned as a traitor, Gaspar Ruiz escapes and is sheltered by a Loyalist family whose daughter, Erminia, he later marries. A series of misadventures leads Gaspar to become a general in the Loyalist army, although his political sense is almost nonexistent and he wishes, as much as he can comprehend the matter, to be a Chilean patriot. When Erminia and her daughter are captured by the rebels and held in a mountain fort, Gaspar has a cannon strapped to his huge back so it can batter open the gate and free them. The desperate tactic works, but Gaspar is mortally wounded, and Erminia kills herself, dying with her husband.
The story is told in typical Conrad fashion—that is, long after the events have occurred and by two different narrators. One of them is General Santierra, who, as a lieutenant in the rebel army, knew Gaspar Ruiz and is now the guardian of Gaspar’s grown daughter. The second narrator, who opens the story in the third person but who is revealed, at the close, to be a guest of General Santierra, answers questions that Santierra raises. This narrator explains that revolutions are a distillation of human experience and that they bring some human beings to fame who otherwise would be resigned to oblivion. In revolutions, genuine social ideals, such as freedom or equality, may be passionately held in the abstract but are ferociously violated in actuality, just as Gaspar Ruiz, a true if bewildered patriot, was condemned and made a traitor by circumstances and false accusations. In a sense, the unnamed guest is reinforcing a constant Conrad theme, the difference between reality and illusion.
Probably Conrad’s most famous short story, “The Secret Sharer” is a deceptively simple tale that carries such deep, perhaps unfathomable moral and psychological undertones that since its publication readers and critics have remained puzzled and fascinated by its elusive, evocative power. In the story, a young captain, new to his first command, is startled to discover a naked man swimming by his ship’s side. Once aboard, the swimmer, named Leggatt, confesses that he is fleeing from his own ship, the Sephora, because he murdered a fellow sailor. The act was justified, as the young captain quickly realizes, for the Sephora was in danger of foundering during a violent storm, and the murdered man, by failing to obey Leggatt’s orders, had placed the ship and its crew in immediate danger. Now, however, Leggatt is a hunted man. The captain hides Leggatt in his own cabin, keeping him safely out of sight until he can sail his ship close enough to an island to allow Leggatt to escape.
By pledging and then keeping his word to the mysterious Leggatt, the young captain upholds his own moral code, even though it runs counter to conventional law and morality. In doing so, he proves that he is capable of living up to that “ideal conception of one’s personality every man sets up for himself secretly.” The fact that morality is established and maintained secretly—in this case, literally so—is a Conradian irony and a central paradox of this tale. Adding to the reader’s bewilderment is the fact that the young captain’s “ideal conception” is nowhere presented explicitly. The reader is able to see the captain’s code in action and perhaps assess its consequences but must deduce from these tantalizing clues what must constitute the standards that the young officer so earnestly desires to uphold.
The captain’s code is indeed a puzzling one, for not only does it require him to be faithful to a murderer, but also it causes him to risk his own ship. To give Leggatt the best possible chance to swim to safety, the captain steers dangerously close to shore, risking running aground or perhaps breaking up on the shoals. Naturally, he cannot tell his crew why he orders this difficult, dangerous maneuver, so another secret is layered upon those already present. When the captain is successful in his plan, for the first time he feels a sense of unity and closeness with his vessel, a mystical—and again, secret—bond.
The meanings of “The Secret Sharer” are hidden in its deceptively straightforward narrative. The work is full of ambiguity and possible double meanings, all presented in brisk, even prosaic fashion. Even the title is multiple: Since Leggatt is unknown to anyone but the captain, his presence is indeed a secret, but he and the young commander also share common secrets, both Leggatt’s presence and the “ideal conception of one’s personality,” which seems to be their joint moral code. Since these meanings are complementary, rather than contradictory, they add to the resonance of the story.
Other touches add to the story’s depth. The young captain and Leggatt are so similar that they seem to be doubles, and Conrad obviously intends this identification to be as much moral as physical. Both men feel themselves to be outcasts, Leggatt actually so, because of his crime; the captain, psychologically, because of his newness to the ship and its crew. In one sense, Leggatt can be seen as an alter ego of the narrator, perhaps even a projection of his darker, maybe criminal, side. It may even be possible, as some critics have suggested, that Leggatt does not actually exist but is only a figment of the young captain’s imagination.
Such an unusual, even implausible interpretation indicates the perplexity that “The Secret Sharer” elicits in readers and underscores why this story, so famous in itself, is also emblematic of all Conrad’s fiction. Under the guise of a simple sea tale, he has gathered the themes that constantly flowed through his works: the ideal sense of self that must be tested and proved under difficult situations; the conflict between loyalty and betrayal, reality and illusion; and, above all, the innate need for human beings to preserve, even in trying circumstances and against conventional pressures, a moral code whose only reward is a secret that may, perhaps, never be shared.