Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6211
Three themes are dominant among Joseph Conrad’s sea tales, considered by most critics as his best work. The first of these themes is an unremitting sense of loyalty and duty to the ship; this quality is exemplified by Conrad’s seamen who are successful in practicing their craft. In The Mirror of the Sea, Conrad summarizes this necessity for keeping faith, as he also does through Singleton, the exemplar of the faithful seaman in The Nigger of the Narcissus, in observing, “Ships are all right. It’s the men in them.” The note of fidelity is struck again in A Personal Record, when Conrad says of his years at sea, “I do not know whether I have been a good seaman, but I know I have been a very faithful one.” Conversely, it is the men who break faith—Jim is the prime example—who fail and who are doomed to be set apart.
A second major theme in the sea tales, noted by virtually all of Conrad’s critics, is the therapeutic value of work. To Conrad, the ancient adage “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” was not a cliché but a valid principle. The two most damning words in Conrad’s lexicon are “undisciplined” and “lazy,” and, again, it is the men whose hands and minds are without meaningful employment who get into difficulties, who fail, and who suffer the Conradian penalty for failure, alienation and isolation. Kurtz, in Heart of Darkness, is Conrad’s chief exemplar here, but Jim’s failure, too, partially results from the fact that he has very little to do in the way of work during the crucial passage aboard the Patna.
Finally, a sense of tradition, of one’s place in the long continuum of men who have gone to sea, is a recurring theme in Conrad’s sea tales. Marlow expresses this sense of tradition best when he speaks of the faithful seamen who band together and are bonded together in what he calls “the fellowship of the craft.” The Jims, on the other hand, the captains who display cowardice, the seamen who panic under stress, all those who bring disgrace on the men who have kept faith and do keep faith, are dismissed from the fellowship and are set apart, isolated and alienated. Conrad, then, played a central role in setting the stage for the alienated, solitary figures and, ultimately, the rebels-at-arms who people the pages of the modern novel.
Heart of Darkness
In Heart of Darkness, the first of Conrad’s recognized masterpieces and one of the greatest novellas in the English language, a number of familiar Conradian themes and techniques coalesce: the author’s detestation of autocratic regimes and their special manifestation, colonialism; the characteristic Conradian alien figure, isolated and apart; the therapeutic value of work; and the use of multiple points of view and of strikingly unconventional symbols.
Charlie Marlow, the ostensible narrator of the story, finds himself (as Conrad did on occasion during his sea career) without a ship and with few prospects. As a last resort, he signs on to command a river steamboat for a Belgian trading company, then seeking ivory in the Congo. In a curious way, Marlow’s venture into the Congo represents a wish fulfillment, since, Marlow recalls, as a child he had placed his finger on a map of Africa and said, “Someday, I will go there,” “there” being the Congo. (This is “autobiography as fiction” again in that Conrad himself had once expressed such a desire and in exactly the terms Marlow employs.)
The mature Marlow, however, has few illusions about what he is undertaking. He characterizes his “command” as “a two-penny-half-penny river-steamboat with a penny whistle attached,” and he is quite aware that he will be working for a company whose chief concern is turning a profit, and a large one at that. Moreover, the Company’s success will come only at the expense of the innocent and helpless natives who have the misfortune of living in an area that has immense possibilities as a colony.
Marlow, like Conrad, abhors the concept of one people dominating another unless, as he says, the colonizing power is faithful to the “idea” that provides the sole rationale for colonialism—that is, the “idea” of actually bringing the benefits of civilization to the colonized. He believes that only in the British Crown Colonies is the “idea” being adhered to, and he has grave reservations about what he will find in the Congo. Despite these reservations, Marlow is hardly prepared for what awaits him.
Marlow finds in the Congo disorder bordering on lunacy, waste, intrigue, inefficiency, and the cruelest kind of exploitation. The “pilgrims of progress,” as Marlow calls them, go about their aimless and pointless tasks while the steamboat he is to command sits idle in the river with a hole in its bottom. Mountains are leveled to no purpose, while equipment and supplies rust or rot in the African sun or never reach their destination. As long as the ivory flows from the heart of darkness, however, no one is overly concerned. Marlow is appalled by the hypocrisy of the situation. An entire continent is being ruthlessly ravaged and pillaged in the name of progress, when, in fact, the real motivation is sheer greed. Nor is there the slightest concern for the plight of the natives in the Company’s employ. Marlow sees once proud and strong tribesmen, divorced from their natural surroundings and from all that is familiar to them, sickened and weakened, sitting passively in the shade waiting to die.
Herein is Marlow/Conrad’s chief objection to colonialism. By taking people from their normal mode of life and thrusting upon them a culture that they neither want nor understand, colonialism places people in isolation and makes them aliens in their own land. The cannibals who serve as woodcutters for Marlow’s steamboat have lost their muscle tone and belong back in the jungle practicing the peculiar rites that, however revolting by other standards, are natural for them. The native fireman on the steamboat—“an improved specimen,” Marlow calls him—watches the water gauge on the boiler, lest the god inside become angry. He sits, his teeth filed, his head shaved in strange patterns, a voodoo charm tied to his arm, a piece of polished bone inserted through his lower lip. He represents the perfect victim of the white man’s progress, and “he ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank.”
The evil that colonialism has wrought is not, however, confined to the natives. The whites who seek adventure or fortune in the Congo are equally uprooted from all that is natural for them, equally isolated and alienated. The doctor who gives Marlow a perfunctory examination in the Company’s headquarters in Brussels asks apologetically for permission to measure Marlow’s head while, at the same time, noting that the significant changes will occur “inside.” To some degree or other, such changes have come to the whites whom Marlow encounters in Africa. The ship on which Marlow sails to the Congo passes a French gunboat firing aimlessly into the jungle as an object lesson to the natives. The accountant at the Central Station makes perfectly correct entries in his impeccable ledgers while just outside his window, in the grove of death, the mass of displaced natives is dying of fever and malnutrition. The Company’s brick maker makes no bricks because there has been no straw for more than a year, but he remains placid and unconcerned.
Marlow’s summation of what he has seen in the Congo is acerbic, withering in its emotional intensity, but it is also an accurate statement of Conrad’s feelings toward this, the cruelest exercise of autocratic power. Marlow says, “It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scaleand with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.” The voice is Charlie Marlow’s, but the sentiments are Joseph Conrad’s.
One man alone among the Company’s disreputable, if not depraved, white traders appears to be an exception, a man who is faithful to the “idea” and is bringing progress and betterment to the natives in exchange for the ivory he gathers. Kurtz is by far the Company’s most productive trader, and his future in Brussels seems assured. At the same time, Kurtz is both hated and feared by all the Europeans in the Company’s employ. He is hated because of the unconventional (an ironic adjective) methods he has adopted, and he is feared because these methods are apparently working.
With the introduction of Kurtz into the tale, Conrad works by indirection. Neither Marlow nor the reader is allowed to see Kurtz immediately. Rather, one is exposed to Kurtz through many different viewpoints, and, in an effort to allow the reader to see Kurtz from all perspectives, Conrad brings forth other narrators to take over the story briefly: the accountant, the brick maker, the manager of the Central Station, the Russian. Penultimately, Marlow himself serves as narrator, and ultimately, Kurtz’s fiancé, the Intended. In addition to the many shifting points of view that Conrad employs, it should be noted that the story, from beginning to end, is told by a dual narrator. Charlie Marlow speaks, but Marlow’s unnamed crony, the fifth member of the group gathered on the fantail of the Nellie, is the actual narrator of the story, retelling the tale as he has heard it from Marlow. In some sense, then, it is difficult to say whether Heart of Darkness is Kurtz’s story or Marlow’s story or the anonymous narrator’s story, since Marlow’s tale has obviously had a significant impact on the silent listener.
Marlow is fascinated by Kurtz and what his informants tell him of Kurtz, and throughout the long journey upriver to the Inner Station, he is obsessed with meeting this remarkable man, but he is destined for a shocking disappointment. Kurtz is perhaps the extreme example among all the isolated and alienated figures to be found in Conrad’s works. Philosophically and spiritually alienated from the “pilgrims of progress,” he is also physically isolated. He is the only white man at the Inner Station, and, given the steamboat debacle, nothing has been heard from or of him for months. He has been alone too long, and the jungle has found him out. He is, in Marlow’s words, “a hollow man” with great plans and hopes but totally lacking in the inner resources vital for survival in an alien environment. As a result, he has regressed completely to the primitive state; he has become a god to the natives, who worship him in the course of “unspeakable rites.” He has taken a native woman as a consort, and the Russian trader who tried to befriend him has been relegated to fool and jester in Kurtz’s jungle court. Kurtz exercises absolute power of life and death over the natives, and he punishes his enemies by placing their severed heads on poles about his hut as ornaments. The doctor in Brussels, Marlow recalls, was fearful of what physical and spiritual isolation might do to people’s minds, and on Kurtz, the effect has been devastating. Kurtz is mentally unbalanced, but even worse, as Marlow says, “His soul was mad.”
Marlow has confessed that he, too, has heard the appeal of “the fascination of the abomination,” the strange sounds and voices emanating from the banks of the river as the steamboat makes its way to Kurtz. Meaningless and unintelligible as the sounds and voices are, they are also somehow familiar to Marlow and strike deep at some primordial instinct within him. Yet, while Kurtz is destroyed, Marlow survives, “luckily, luckily,” as he observes. The difference between the two men is restraint, a recurrent term in the novel: With restraint, a man can survive in isolation. The cannibals on the steamboat have it, and Marlow is at a loss to explain the phenomenon. The manager at the Central Station also has it, largely the result of his unfailing good health, which permits him to serve, virtually unscathed, term after term in the darkness. The accountant has restraint by virtue of concentrating on his correct entries in his meticulous ledgers and, at the same time, by forfeiting his humanity and closing his mind to the chaos around him.
Chiefly, however, restraint (in Conrad’s worldview) is a function of work, and Conrad’s major statement of the redeeming nature of work comes in Heart of Darkness. Marlow confesses that, like most human beings, he does not like work per se. He does, however, respond to “what is in the work,” and he recognizes its salutary effect, “the chance to find yourself.” Indeed, the fact that Marlow has work to do in the Congo is his salvation. The steamboat must be salvaged; it must be raised from the bottom of the river. No supplies are available, and the boiler is in disrepair. Marlow needs rivets and sheeting to patch the gaping hole in the boat. The task seems hopeless, but Marlow attacks it enthusiastically, almost joyously, because his preoccupation with rescuing his “two-penny, half-penny” command effectively shields him from “the fascination of the abomination.” Later, during the trip upriver to the Inner Station, it is again the work of piloting the vulnerable steamboat around and through the myriad rocks and snags of the convoluted river and the intense concentration required for the work that shut Marlow’s eyes and, more important, his mind to the dangers to psyche and spirit surrounding him. Marlow does not leave the Congo completely untouched; he has paid a price, both physically and mentally, for venturing into the darkness, but he does escape with his life and his sanity. As he later recognizes, he owes his escape to the steamboat, his “influential friend,” as he calls it, and to the work it provided.
Symbols abound in Heart of Darkness, many of them conventional: the interplay of light and darkness throughout the novel, for example, carrying essentially the traditional symbolic meanings of the two terms, or the rusting and decaying equipment Marlow comes across at the Central Station, symbolizing the callous inefficiency of the Company’s management. More striking, however, is Conrad’s use of thoroughly unconventional symbols; dissimilar images are yoked together in a startling fashion, unique in Conrad’s time. Kurtz’s totally bald head, for example, is compared to a ball of ivory, and the comparison moves beyond metaphor to the realm of symbol, adumbrating the manner in which the lust for and preoccupation with ivory have turned flesh-and-blood human beings into cold, lifeless ivory figures. There are also the shrunken heads fixed as ornaments on the fence posts surrounding Kurtz’s hut. These are Kurtz’s “rebels,” and, notably, all but one are facing inward, so that, even in death, they are compelled to worship their god. The one facing outward, however, is irretrievably damned and without hope of salvation.
Similar in many ways to Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim is considered by many critics to be not only Conrad’s greatest sea tale but also his greatest novel. Lord Jim is not a sea tale, however, in the purest sense, since most of the action of the novel takes place on land. Lord Jim is one of Conrad’s psychological studies; Jim’s mind and his motivations are searched and probed in meticulous detail in an effort to “see Jim clearly.” In making this effort, Conrad employs two characteristic techniques: shifting, multiple points of view and the extensive use of flashbacks.
Thenarrative begins conventionally with an unnamed third-person narrator who brings the reader to the point of Marlow’s first encounter with Jim at the Board of Inquiry investigating the strange case of the pilgrim ship Patna. At this point, Marlow takes over the tale, recounting his meeting with Jim. Marlow’s account, however, is filtered through the consciousness of the anonymous narrator, much as is the case in Heart of Darkness. The manipulation of the narrative voices in Lord Jim is much more complex, however, since Jim speaks through Marlow and Marlow through the ultimate narrator.
Again, as in Heart of Darkness, other narrators enter the scene briefly, and Marlow gives way to a series of speakers, each of whom is qualified to tell the reader something more about Jim. Montague Brierly, captain of the crack ship Ossa, is troubled by Jim’s failure to meet the demands of “the fellowship of the craft” and is also troubled by his doubts about his own ability to meet those demands. The French lieutenant who boarded the abandoned Patna and brought it safely to port is a bit more sympathetic toward Jim’s moment of cowardice but is also more rigid in his condemnation of Jim’s loss of honor. At the opposite end of the scale, Chester, the preposterous seaman-at-large, dismisses Jim’s canceled mate’s certificate as nothing more than “a bit of ass’s skin” and solicits Marlow’s aid in involving Jim in Chester’s lunatic scheme of extracting guano from an island that is totally inaccessible. In Chester’s view, Jim is the right man for the job, since he is now good for nothing else. Through Chester as interim narrator, Marlow recognizes how desperate Jim’s plight is and how equally desperate Jim is for his help.
Marlow does help by putting Jim in touch with Mr. Denver, the owner of a rice mill, and Jim thrives for a time, becoming, in essence, a surrogate son to his employer. The specter of the Patna affair overtakes Jim, however, in the form of the fated ship’s second engineer, who comes to work at the rice mill. Through Denver, through Egström, who employs Jim briefly as a water clerk, and, finally, through the seedy Schomberg, proprietor of an equally seedy hotel in Bangkok, Marlow learns of Jim’s gradual decline and his erratic flight from the Patna or, as Marlow puts it, his flight “from himself.”
In an attempt to help Jim, Marlow turns to Stein, an extraordinary trader and shrewd judge of both butterflies and people. Stein’s eminently “practical” solution is to send Jim to Patusan, virtually the ends of the earth, where the Patna has never been heard of and from where Jim need run no more. Marlow’s visit to Patusan and to Jim is relayed, as is the bulk of the novel, through the unnamed listener among Marlow’s small circle of friends gathered over their evening cigars, to whom Marlow has been addressing his tale. In the final chapters, Conrad’s tour de force of narrative technique takes yet another twist. The disaster in Patusan is recounted through the medium of a lengthy letter that Marlow writes to the ultimate narrator, the narration thus coming full circle from third-person narrator, to Marlow, to a series of intermediate narrators, and finally returning to the speaking voice that began the tale.
Adding to the difficulties that Conrad’s dizzying shift of narrators presents for the reader is his frequent use of time shifts in the narrative. Jim’s long colloquy with Marlow in Marlow’s room at the Malabar House, for example, takes the reader back in time to the events aboard the Patna, which occurred several months earlier. While observing the seemingly bored Brierly in the courtroom at the Board of Inquiry, Marlow abruptly moves ahead in time to Brierly’s suicide, which follows a week after the end of the trial, and then ahead again some two years for the mate’s detailed account of Brierly’s methodical leap over the side of the Ossa. Marlow’s letter, which Conrad employs to bring the novel to its close, represents yet another flashback. Examples of this movement back and forth in time in the novel could be multiplied.
Conrad’s complex manipulation of his narrators and of the disjointed time sequence of the events of the novel have a single purpose: to give the reader a complete view of a psychologically complex figure. It is an effort, as Marlow insists several times, to “see Jim clearly.” Yet, for all Conrad’s (and Marlow’s) efforts, Jim remains an enigma. Marlow, in fact, confesses at the end of his letter that Jim continues to be “inscrutable.”
Two particular problems have plagued critics in coming to grips with Jim. Stein, on whom Marlow relies for enlightenment, pronounces Jim “a romantic,” which Stein says is “very badand very good too.” In attempting to resolve the problem of how a romantic may cope with reality, Stein uses the metaphor of a man falling into the sea (the overtones of Jim’s leap from the Patna are obvious here). Stein continues, “The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up.” The trouble here is that Stein does not make clear whether it is Jim’s dream of heroes and heroics that is the “destructive element” or whether it is the practical and mundane world in which he must endeavor to carry out this dream that is destructive. Does Jim immerse himself in the dream yet keep his head above “water” in the world of reality, or immerse himself in the world of reality and yet keep the dream alive directly above the surface? The critical controversy that Stein’s cryptic advice has provoked continues.
Critics are also divided on the meaning of the end of the novel. When Jim presents himself to the old nakhoda, Doramin, and suffers the pistol shot that ends his life, is this the act of a man who has finally accepted that he is capable of failure and who “has mastered his destiny,” or is it merely the desperate act of a man who has simply run out of options? The distinction may seem fine, since, in any case, Jim’s gesture is a positive act, but it governs the reader’s final judgment on whether Marlow is correct in accepting Jim as “one of us.”
If Jim is not “one of us,” he is clearly one of “them,” them being the familiar Conradian figures, the isolated and alienated solitaries, and he is so both spiritually and physically. In abandoning the Patna, Jim has violated a cardinal principle of the seaman’s code, placing his own safety above that of the pilgrims who have entrusted themselves to him. As Brierly puts it, “We are trusted,” and he is unforgiving of Jim’s dereliction, as is Marlow, although Marlow is willing to admit mitigating circumstances. To the seamen whom Jim encounters, who raise the specter of the Patna, Jim is a pariah who has broken the bond of “the fellowship of the craft.” Jim himself is quite conscious of his alienation. When he sails aboard Marlow’s ship from Bangkok, he takes no interest in the passage as a seaman would, but instead, in Marlow’s words, skulks below deck, “as though he had become a stowaway.”
Jim is also isolated physically. In a moving passage, Marlow speaks with great feeling of the seaman’s ties with and affection for his native land, for home. Jim, however, can never go home; he has, in effect, no home, and his destiny lies everywhere and anywhere but in the village in Essex where he came into being.
On Patusan, Jim’s physical isolation is complete. Except for the unspeakable Cornelius, he is the only white man for hundreds of miles. With the Patna safely behind him, as he supposes, Jim thrives in isolation, bringing order and security to the troubled land, and is called by the natives “Tuan Jim,” “which is to say, Lord Jim.” The years of unparalleled success take their toll. Jim is convinced that “nothing can touch me,” and his egotism proves fatal when Gentleman Brown finds him out. Jim spends his last hours isolated, and he dies alone.
In addition to the alienated hero, another familiar Conradian motif may be observed in Lord Jim: Conrad’s continuing insistence on the redeeming nature of work. Earlier in the novel, the unnamed narrator makes an attempt to sum up Jim, and it comes in the form of Jim’s failure to accept or to appreciate the nature of the demands of life at sea. The narrator says that “the only reward [one may expect in the seafaring life] is in the perfect love of the work. This reward eluded him.” Notably, throughout the novel, Jim is most vulnerable when he is without work. During his long stay in the hospital at Singapore, he is infected by the malaise of the seamen ashore who have been in the East too long and who have given up all thought of returning to the more demanding Home Service. Under this debilitating influence, Jim takes the fateful step of signing aboard the Patna. The ship’s passage is deceptively uneventful and undemanding, and Jim has so little to do as mate that his “faculty of swift and forestalling vision,” as Marlow calls it, is given free reign. Thus, in the emergency, Jim sees with his imagination rather than with his eyes. In like fashion, after the initial heroics on Patusan, the demands on Jim are minimal. In the absence of anything practical for Jim to do, except carry out his role as Tuan Jim, he is again vulnerable. Gentleman Brown is enabled, as a result, to catch Jim off guard, to find the “weak spot,” “the place of decay,” and Jim’s idyllic but precarious world comes crashing down.
Conrad the Symbolist may also be observed in Lord Jim. Again, as in Heart of Darkness, some of the symbols are conventional. Jim’s retreat from the Patna, for example, is always eastward toward the rising sun, and Jim has bright blue eyes—the eyes, one assumes, of the romantic that darken in moments of stress—and wears immaculate white attire during his climactic confrontation with Gentleman Brown across the creek in Patusan.
As in Heart of Darkness, however, some of the symbols in Lord Jim are thoroughly original. In pronouncing Jim a “romantic,” Stein is, in part, also pronouncing judgment on himself. Stein’s romanticism, however, is mixed with a strong alloy of the practical, and he is prepared, as Jim is not, to act or to react immediately when action is called for, as is evident when he is ambushed and defends himself with skill and daring. Thus, Stein the romantic collects butterflies, while Stein the practical man collects beetles. The ring that Doramin gives his old “war-comrade” Stein as a talisman of the bond between white and native ultimately assumes symbolic import. Stein, in turn, gives the ring to Jim as his entrée to Patusan, and Jim wears it proudly during his brief days of glory. In the midst of the Gentleman Brown affair, Jim sends the ring to Doramin’s son, Dain Waris, as a token of the white man’s faith. In the closing scene of the novel, the ring, taken from the finger of the dead Dain Waris and placed in Doramin’s lap, falls to the ground at Jim’s feet. Jim glances down at it, and, as he raises his head, Doramin shoots Jim. The ring, then, paradoxically, is both a symbol of faith and of a breach of faith.
Victory, one of Conrad’s later novels, was published in 1915. As such, it represents in one sense a Conrad who had mastered the techniques of the genre he had made his own, the novel, and in another sense a Conrad in decline as a creative artist. The early experimentation in narrative technique—the multiplicity of narrators and the complex, and sometimes confusing, manipulation of chronology—is behind Conrad. Victory is a linear narrative told by a single, first-person speaking voice without interruption of the forward chronological thrust of the tale. For the noncritical reader, this straightforward handling of his material on Conrad’s part was a boon and may very well account for the fact that not until Chance, in 1913, and Victory, two years later, did Conrad enjoy genuine popular success.
At the same time, Conrad made forward strides in narrative technique and in command of the language in the fifteen years between Lord Jim and Victory. These steps took him past clarity to simplicity. Victory is, perhaps, too straightforward a tale, freed of occasional confusion and of the varied and variable speaking voices but also lacking the richness and the range contributed by those same voices. Confined as Conrad is to one point of view, the extensive searching and probing of his characters, seen in Kurtz and Jim, are denied him. Axel Heyst is an interesting character, but he is only that. He is not, like Kurtz and Jim, a provocative, puzzling, and ultimately enigmatic figure.
The other characters in the novel are similarly unimpressive. Heyst finds the heroine, Alma, or Lena, a thoroughly intriguing young woman, but the reader is at a loss to understand the fascination, even the appeal, she seems to have for Heyst. Other than the commitment Heyst has made to Lena in rescuing her from the odious Schomberg, the tie between the two is tenuous. Many critics have noted that Conrad’s women are generally lifeless, and it is true that, with the possible exception of Doña Rita in The Arrow of Gold (and here Conrad may have been writing from direct emotional involvement), women generally remained mysteries to him. As his greatest work attests, he was essentially a man’s writer.
The three other principal characters in Victory are male, yet they, too, are wooden and artificial. Much has been made of “plain Mr. Jones,” Ricardo, and Pedro’s representing Conrad’s most searching study of evil. In this construct, Jones stands for intellectual evil, Ricardo for moral (or amoral) evil, and Pedro for the evil of force. On the whole, however, they emerge as a singularly unimpressive trio of thugs. The lanky, emaciated Jones, called the “spectre,” is indeed a ghostlike figure whose presence is observed but scarcely felt. Ricardo, with his bluster and swagger, is almost a comic character, and some of his lines are worthy of a nineteenth century melodrama. Pedro’s chief function in the novel appears to be his availability to be bashed on the head and suffer multiple contusions. Compared to Gentleman Brown, “the show ruffian of the Australian coast” in Lord Jim, they are theatrical, and while they may do harm, the evil they represent pales beside that ascribed by Conrad to Brown, “akin to madness, derived from intense egoism, inflamed by resistance, tearing the soul to pieces and giving factitious vigor to the body.”
Victory is a talky novel, with long passages devoted to inconclusive conversations between Heyst and Lena. It is relevant here to contrast the lengthy exchange between Jim and Marlow in the Malabar House and the “getting to know one another” colloquies in which Heyst and Lena engage. In the former, every line is relevant and every word tells; in the latter, the emotional fencing between the two ultimately becomes tedious.
Gone, indeed, in Victory are the overblown passages of the earlier works, which can make even the most devout Conradian wince. Gone too, however, are the great passages, the moments of magic in which by the sheer power of words, Conrad moves, stirs, and thrills the reader. On the whole, the style in Victory, like the format of the novel itself, is straightforward; the prose is clear, but the interludes of splendor are sadly missing, and missed.
Whatever differences are to be found in the later works in Conrad’s technical handling of the narrative and in his style, one constant remains. Heyst—like Kurtz, Jim, and so many of the figures who fill Conrad’s pages—is an alien, isolated and apart, both spiritually and physically. He does differ somewhat from his counterparts, however, in that he stands alone by choice. Heyst, following the dying precept of his gifted but idealistic father—“Look-on—make no sound”—proposes to spend his life aloof and divorced from humankind; in this way, he believes, nothing can ever touch him. In general, except for his brief involvement with the unfortunate Morrison, Heyst manages to maintain his role of the amused and detached skeptic, living, as Conrad puts it, an “unattached, floating existence.” He accommodates himself to all people but makes no commitments to anyone. Thus, chameleonlike, he is known under many guises; he is called, for example, “Enchanted Heyst” because of his expressed enchantment with the East and, on other occasions by would-be interpreters, “Hard Facts Heyst,” “the Utopist,” “the Baron,” “the Spider,” and “the Enemy.” A final sobriquet, “the Hermit,” is attached to Heyst when, with the collapse of the Tropical Belt Coal Company, he chooses to remain alone on the deserted island of Samburan. Heyst’s physical isolation is now of a piece with his spiritual isolation.
The encounter with Lena changes this attitude. With his commitment to Lena, Heyst is no longer the detached observer of the world, and with the flight to Samburan, his wanderings come to an end. Paradoxically, this commitment brings about both his spiritual salvation and his physical destruction. It is a redeemed Heyst, freed at last from the other enchantment of his life (the living presence of his dead father), who, at Lena’s death, is able to assert, “Woe to the man whose heart has not learned while young to hope, to love—and to put its trust in life!” Thus, Heyst differs from Conrad’s other alien spirits in that he “masters his destiny,” as Jim could not and Kurtz, perhaps, would not.
In still another way, Heyst “masters his destiny” as Jim and Kurtz do not. Kurtz dies the victim of his own excesses and of the debilitating effect of the jungle; Jim places his life in the hands of Doramin. Heyst, however, governs his own fate and chooses to die with Lena, immolating himself in the purgative fire that he sets to destroy all traces of their brief idyll on Samburan, a fire that, ironically, blazes over the ruins of a defunct coal company.
Other echoes of the earlier Conrad may be seen in Victory. For example, albeit to a lesser degree than in Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, The Arrow of Gold, and Almayer’s Folly, Victory is another instance of Conrad’s writing “autobiography as fiction.” In the Author’s Note to the novel, Conrad speaks of a real-life Heyst whom he remembers with affection but also with a sense of mystery. So too, Mr. Jones, Ricardo, and Pedro come from Conrad’s store of memories, although he encountered each individually and not as the trio they compose in the book. The character of Lena is drawn from a brief encounter in a café in the south of France with a group of entertainers and with one girl in the company who particularly caught Conrad’s eye. The settings of Victory, exotic names such as Malacca, Timor, and Sourabaya, were, of course, as familiar to the seagoing Conrad as the streets of London, and there is no reason to doubt that somewhere in the tropics, the fictional Samburan has its counterpart.
Finally, in Victory, Conrad the Symbolist may again be seen. Noticeably, however, in this later novel, just as Conrad’s narrative technique and his style have become simplified and his ability to create vivid characters has declined, the symbols employed lack the freshness and the depth of those of the earlier novels. Conrad makes much of the portrait of the elder Heyst that dominates the sparse living room on Samburan, just as the subject of the portrait has dominated Heyst’s existence. In fact, Conrad makes too much of the portrait as a symbol, calling attention to it again and again until the reader can virtually predict that each time Heyst enters the room, the portrait will be brought to his and to the reader’s attention. As a symbol, then, the portrait is overdone, overt, and obvious. Similarly, the darkening storm that threatens Samburan as the events of the novel reach their climax is a bit heavy-handed and hardly worthy of Conrad at his best.
Even so, there is a brief moment of the true Conrad shortly before the climactic violence that brings about both Heyst’s redemption and destruction. Conrad writes: “The thunder growled distantly with angry modulations of its tremendous voice, while the world outside shuddered incessantly around the dead stillness of the room where the framed profile of Heyst’s father looked severely into space.” Here the two symbols coalesce in a telling and effective manner. Regrettably, telling and effective instances such as this are rare in Victory. Conrad’s work as a whole, however, with its stylistic and narrative innovations, testifies to the quality of his contribution to twentieth century literature.
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