Joseph Conrad Joseph Conrad World Literature Analysis

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Joseph Conrad World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Conrad is notable for three major contributions to English and world literature: his unique style, his addition of new settings and genres to serious writing, and his creation of the psychological story. Conrad’s style is remarkable, not least because he was already an adult by the time he had learned to speak and write English. In early works such as Almayer’s Folly, or An Outcast of the Islands, the descriptions of jungle or exotic landscapes are remarkable for their precision and detail. In the short story “The Lagoon,” the landscape itself becomes a character in the tale rather than merely a setting or background.

The early stories, as critics have noted, tend to be static and somewhat slow-moving, and Conrad’s style accounts for much of this, especially his extensive descriptions. These tendencies, however, were refined by Conrad as his career developed so that his language, still using numerous modifiers, was able to express action concisely and vividly. His mature style is capable of both description and action, so that a story such as “Youth” easily combines rousing action at sea with delicate, almost elegiac memories.

Conrad’s second contribution to modern literature was his introduction of new settings and types of novels, which extended the range of literature. Conrad used exotic locations, such as the Far East, the African jungle, or the Caribbean, which had traditionally been reserved for light romantic or escapist fiction, and made them the settings for serious literature. This device also allowed Conrad to develop his characteristic themes in appropriate settings, most notably the confrontation of conflicting moral and ethical codes.

Conrad also expanded literature by creating political fiction—or more specifically, what might be termed the spy novel. In works such as The Secret Agent (1907) and Under Western Eyes, Conrad literally established this particular genre of literature, creating the prototypical characters and situation that have remained constant through the work of such later authors as Graham Greene and John le Carré. Conrad’s novels of espionage and intrigue are always more than exciting adventures because they inevitably contain considerations of deep moral and ethical dilemmas, highlighted by the shadowy situation in which the characters are placed.

The emphasis on the interior lives of his characters, on their hidden motivations and desires, is undoubtedly Conrad’s most famous and lasting accomplishment. Working at a time when Sigmund Freud’s writings and other psychological theories were opening new aspects of human personality, Conrad in his stories and novels delved deeply into facets and features that earlier fiction had either neglected or treated briefly and often superficially.

Conrad’s single greatest achievement was his virtual creation of the psychological story, in which the interior lives of the characters achieve an immediacy and importance comparable to actual life. In stories such as “The Secret Sharer” or Heart of Darkness, the events are filtered through the perceptions and minds of characters who are changed by what they see and experience. The novel Lord Jim, one of Conrad’s most famous and impressive works, contains many vivid and exciting scenes, but its essential action is internal and takes place within the mind and soul of its title character.

Even when Conrad’s stories are spread across a vast canvas with a number of characters, as is the case with Nostromo, much, if not most, of the key action remains internal and psychological. In this fashion, Conrad’s works are not simply stories of adventure but contain full and fully believable human beings whose actions, however exciting or unusual, still spring from recognizable human impulses and causes.

Lord Jim

First published: 1900

Type of work: Novel

Having failed his own inner moral code in a moment of crisis, a man struggles to redeem himself.

Lord Jim , Conrad’s most famous work, is also his most...

(The entire section is 3,796 words.)