Joseph Conrad World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3796

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.

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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 extensive examination of a persistent theme: the conflict between an individual’s inner moral code and his or her outward actions. Throughout Conrad’s short stories and novels, his characters are often afraid, even obsessed, with the concern of how their personal standards will bear up under the stress of events. This situation is explicit in Lord Jim. As a young boy learning the sailor’s craft, Jim is certain he will meet the test of moral courage, but later, while serving as a first mate on the Patna, an old, unseaworthy steamer carrying Moslem pilgrims across the Indian Ocean, he fails the test. The Patna strikes an unknown object in the night and seems ready to sink. The crew, including Jim, abandons the ship and its passengers. When the drifting Patna is discovered and the events are revealed, Jim becomes an outcast, both literally and morally.

These events occur quickly, and the bulk of the novel consists of Jim’s personal and moral redemption. For a while, he drifts from port to port, leaving when his identity is discovered. Finally, he abandons the world of Europeans altogether and heads upriver to a small Malay village. Even there, however, he finds he cannot escape the demands of his sensitive moral feelings and must prove to himself that he is not a coward.

Jim’s early efforts win praise, especially when he rids the countryside of the notorious bandit, Sherif Ali. Yet this is not enough for Jim, who intuitively senses that his honor has not been restored nor his moral balance satisfied. That occurs only at the end of the novel, after Jim has inadvertently caused the death of a Malay friend, the son of a powerful local chief. Knowing that it will mean his own death, Jim accepts his responsibility without hesitation or fear, and his action redeems the long years of exile caused by his moment of fear and indecision on the Patna.

Such a relatively simple tale might seem more suitable for a short story than a full-length novel, and when Lord Jim was first published, many critics complained that it was too long. Such is not the case, however, for the power and impact of Lord Jim lie not in narrative actions but in psychological nuances and meanings.

Once again, Conrad uses Marlow as both a character and a narrator. Marlow, who went through his own testing experiences in the short story “Youth” and was more severely tested in Heart of Darkness, comes to know Jim by accident and then follows his career as if by fate. It is Marlow, for example, who obtains Jim’s positions after the Patna incident, and it is Marlow who visits Jim in the small Malay village of Patusan, which is the setting for the second part of the novel. Throughout the story, Marlow is concerned, even obsessed, with Jim’s actions and thoughts.

The presentation of these actions is not straightforward; Conrad’s narrative seldom is, especially when he is concerned with revelation of character. Marlow is less interested in what Jim does than what those actions reveal of the inner man. Much of the novel concerns Marlow’s speculations on Jim’s actions, and often Marlow seems to be the central character of the book.

In the end, however, the actions of the mysterious Jim command the reader’s attention. Significantly, Conrad allows his title character no last name, letting him be known by his Malay title of Tuan Jim, or Lord Jim. This title is given sincerely by the Patusan villagers, but Jim and the reader both understand the implicit irony of the title, an irony that can be resolved only by Jim’s final, deliberate actions.

Nostromo

First published: 1904

Type of work: Novel

Caught in the moral ambiguities of a South American revolution, an essentially good man finds his innocence corrupted.

Nostromo is Conrad’s most expansive and ambitious political novel, a story that examines how both societies and individuals are adversely affected by the process of government in its most brutal form. The book combines several of Conrad’s recurring themes, most notably the harmful effects of imperialism, the baleful influence of wealth, and the evil results of individuals acting without the restraints of inner moral codes.

The story is set in the Occidental Province of Costaguana, a nation in Central America. Isolated behind an almost impassable mountain range and situated on a broad but windless bay, the Golfo Placido, Sulaco, the capital city of the province, has for centuries remained outside of events. Sulaco’s only importance comes from the riches of its nearby silver mine, known as the Gould Concession because it is operated by an English family of that name. The Goulds, who have lived in Costaguana for three generations, are permitted to work the mine so long as they pay sufficient bribes to whatever government happens to control Costaguana. Charles Gould, who has brought the mine to its greatest productivity, has grown tired of this endless extortion and resolves to throw his great wealth behind a revolution that will finally bring a responsible government to power in Costaguana.

The novel also follows the career of its title character, an Italian immigrant who is the leader of the stevedores and other dockworkers in Sulaco harbor and whose real name is Gian’ Battista Fidenza. Fidenza has been given the nickname “Nostromo,” meaning “one of ours,” by the Englishmen who operate Costaguana’s shipping line and is valued by his English masters for his ability to discipline his fellow workers. He is also a brave and resourceful individual, and when the Gould-inspired government seems about to collapse following another revolution, Nostromo is ordered to transport a shipment of silver to safety outside Costaguana. After his small craft is nearly wrecked by a passing ship during the dangerous night crossing, Nostromo hides the treasure on a deserted island in the Golfo Placido. When he learns that Gould and the others believe the silver lost, Nostromo resolves to keep it for himself. Nostromo’s realization of the loss of his integrity weighs heavily on him, and although his death at the novel’s end comes from a tragic mistake, Conrad makes it clear that the real cause is Nostromo’s sense of overwhelming guilt.

As is typical of Conrad, these events are not related in strict chronological sequence or through simple narrative. Instead, the novel moves forward and backward in time, arranged more by themes than events. Following a natural metaphor suggested by the silver mine, Conrad pursues each vein of his story until it seems exhausted, then turns to another. Only gradually, as the narrative strands are connected, does a total picture of events and characters emerge. Because nothing is simple in Costaguana, Conrad implies, its history must also be told in an oblique fashion.

Conrad uses several different narrators. Much of Nostromo is told by a third-person narrator who seems to have visited the place and perhaps even participated in some of the actions. Two of the most important accounts of the novel’s central events, the defeat and resurgence of the Gould-backed revolution, are told indirectly. The first is presented in a letter written by one of the revolutionaries, Decoud, to his sister. The second is retold years after the events by another character, the Englishman, Captain Mitchell. Ironically, neither man understands fully what he has related; only the reader can place their stories into perspective.

Such irony, an essential trait of Conrad, runs strongly through Nostromo. Not only do the characters engage in actions whose importance and results they cannot comprehend, their very names signal a gulf between perception and reality. Most notable, of course, is the title character himself. Nostromo, as he is called by his supposed masters, is anything but “one of ours,” and his real name, Fidenza, or “Faithful,” becomes a cruel joke when he steals the silver he has been entrusted to preserve.

For Conrad, irony was inevitable in a political situation because politics is the exploitation of the split between the real and the perceived. In such a fashion, Charles Gould defends his silver mine and his backing of yet another revolution for Costaguana because they will bring “law, good faith, order, security.” As he tells his wife:That’s how your money-making is justified here in the face of lawlessness and disorder. It is justified because the security which it demands must be shared with an oppressed people. A better justice will come afterwards. That’s your ray of hope.

“Afterwards,” Conrad implies in Nostromo, never comes. There will always be one more revolution, one more justification for money-making above justice itself. In Conrad’s most ironic novel, nothing is more bitterly ironic than Charles Gould’s “ray of hope.”

Heart of Darkness

First published: 1899, serial; 1902, book

Type of work: Novel

On a voyage up the Congo River, a man confronts the savagery and inner darkness that is part of all human nature.

Heart of Darkness was based upon Conrad’s own experiences in the Congo as first mate on the riverboat Roi des Belges in 1890, during which he was overwhelmed by intense moral revulsion at the degradation and exploitation of the natives by the ruthless European traders. Conrad noted that, in turn, the savage jungle quickly eliminated the slight beneficial effects that civilization gave to the white plunderers. His observations and reactions to this situation were transmuted into one of his most powerful works.

The character of Marlow, introduced in the short story “Youth,” reappears as the narrator and central character of Heart of Darkness. The center of Heart of Darkness is a trip by Marlow up the Congo River in search of a mysterious Mister Kurtz. The events that take place during this river voyage constitute both a literal and a symbolic journey by Marlow into that “immense heart of darkness” that is both the African jungle and the human soul.

The events of the story are relatively simple. Marlow finds himself, as sailors often do, without a position, a situation Conrad knew well. Against his better judgment, Marlow contracts to serve as a riverboat captain for a Belgian company that exports ivory from the Congo. Exactly as happened to Conrad, however, Marlow’s boat is wrecked before he arrives, and he is assigned to serve as a mate on a company steamboat sailing upriver. Marlow goes willingly because he wishes to meet the famous Mister Kurtz, a man who has become renowned equally as a trader of ivory and as a champion of civilization.

Marlow learns, however, that Kurtz is more than an ivory trader, and that the man’s vision of civilization and progress has been changed by contact with the African wilderness. When Marlow arrives at Kurtz’s station, he finds that Kurtz has reverted to savagery and is alternately feared or worshiped by the terrified natives whom he oppresses. Kurtz’s station is ringed with posts decorated with human skulls, and unspeakable rites are celebrated there in honor of the man-god Kurtz. Marlow loads the sick, delirious Kurtz on the boat and hurries back down the river, narrowly escaping an ambush by the terrified and outraged natives. Kurtz dies on the journey.

Marlow takes Kurtz’s belongings, including his precious journal, back to Kurtz’s fiancé in Europe. Having carefully removed the increasingly frenzied and desperate passages that occur toward the end of the diary, Marlow lies to the woman, claiming that Kurtz died as he had wished and as she herself would have wanted, as an apostle for civilization and Christianity. Still, Marlow must recognize the truth that he has witnessed.

The impact of Heart of Darkness comes from the nearly devastating effects Marlow experiences in the Congo. As the story unfolds, the world in which Marlow finds himself grows both more corrupted and more corrupting, so that nothing is left untouched or untainted. Marlow’s adventures become stranger, and the characters he meets grow increasingly odd, starting with the greedy traders whom Marlow ironically describes as “pilgrims,” through an eccentric Russian who wanders in dress clothes through the jungle, to Kurtz himself, that figure of ultimate madness. Only the native Africans, whether the cruelly abused workers who slave for the trading company or the savages who serve Kurtz out of fear and superstition, retain some of their original dignity. To Marlow, however, they are initially beyond his comprehension. Heart of Darkness shows the reader the world through Marlow’s eyes, and it is a strange and terrifying place where the normal order of civilized life is both inverted and perverted.

In Heart of Darkness, Conrad presents his narrative in a carefully distanced fashion; little is told directly. The story begins with Marlow and four friends aboard a small boat on the Thames River, talking about their experiences. One of the listeners, who is never named, is the actual narrator of the story he has heard from Marlow; while readers may believe they are listening directly to Marlow, actually they hear his story secondhand. Within this narrative framework, the tale shuttles back and forth as Marlow recounts part of his story, then comments upon it. At times, Marlow makes additional reflections upon his own observations. It is only by retelling the events that Marlow comes to understand them, a gradual revelation that is shared by the reader.

Heart of Darkness makes substantial use of symbolism. Conrad used symbolism—the literary device that uses the images of a work to underscore and emphasize its themes and meanings—in many of his works, especially in his descriptions of the landscape, which grows denser and darker as Marlow’s journey progresses. The technique is essential for Heart of Darkness; the underlying meanings of the story are too terrifying and bleak to be expressed openly. Conrad also uses imagery throughout his story to underscore the meaning of events as Marlow comes to understand them. Opposites are frequent, so that brightness is contrasted with gloom; the lush growth of the jungle is juxtaposed with 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. In particular, the decline of Kurtz is a powerfully symbolic expression of the weaknesses of supposedly civilized Europeans. The dominant symbol for the entire work is found in its title and final words: All human nature is a vast “heart of darkness.”

“The Secret Sharer”

First published: 1912 (collected in ’Twixt Land and Sea, Tales, 1912)

Type of work: Short story

A young ship’s captain hides a murderer in his own cabin to maintain his own inner moral code.

“The Secret Sharer” is Conrad’s most famous short story and one that has long puzzled readers and critics. The story’s central character is a young captain, whose name the reader never learns and who has just assumed his first command. The man is nervous, wondering if he will be able to fulfill the obligations of his new position and, more importantly, his own ideals. As he paces the empty deck of his ship during the night, he is startled to discover a naked man swimming by his ship’s side. Once aboard, the swimmer, Leggatt, confesses that he is fleeing from his own ship, the Sephora, because he murdered a fellow sailor. As the young captain and Leggatt talk, it appears that the act was justified because the Sephora was in danger during a violent storm and Leggatt had to strike the man down in order to save the ship. Because the letter of the law makes no provision for this particular situation, however, Leggatt is condemned as a criminal and will be punished, perhaps executed, if captured. That places the young captain in a moral dilemma: Should he hide Leggatt or turn him over to the authorities? Almost without hesitation, the captain puts Leggatt in his own cabin, where the fugitive remains hidden until the captain sails his new ship dangerously close to land, allowing Leggatt the chance to swim for safety and escape.

The young captain upholds his own moral code by pledging and keeping his word to the mysterious murderer Leggatt, even though his code stands in opposition to conventional law and morality. By taking this action, which some might see as willful, even perverse, the young captain demonstrates to himself that he is capable of fulfilling that “ideal conception of one’s personality every man sets up for himself secretly.” This ideal conception is not presented explicitly in the story. Rather, readers see the captain’s code in action and perhaps assess its consequences but must decide for themselves what the young captain considers his standards and why he must uphold them even in the face of danger and disgrace.

Creating and living by a morality that must be a secret, in this case literally so, is an instance of irony by Conrad and a central paradox of “The Secret Sharer.” The captain’s code requires him to protect a murderer and to risk his own ship and crew. He faces this danger when he steers dangerously close to shore, risking shipwreck. Since the captain cannot tell his crew the true reason for his baffling action, another secret is present in the story. When the captain succeeds, however, he feels a secret bond between himself and his ship.

“The Secret Sharer” hides these mysteries in the mask of a straightforward narrative, and all of its ambiguity and double meanings are presented in a simple fashion. Even the title is multiple: Since only the captain knows about Leggatt, Leggatt’s presence is indeed a secret. On another level, however, the murderer and the young commander also share common secrets—Leggatt’s presence on board the ship and the “ideal conception of one’s personality” that seems to be their joint moral code.

Doubling, in the physical and moral sense, is found throughout “The Secret Sharer.” The young captain and Leggatt are so similar that they seem to be twins, an identification that Conrad clearly intends the reader to take in more than one sense. 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. Leggatt can be regarded as the alter ego of the captain, perhaps a reflection of the darker, even criminal, aspects of the captain’s personality. Some readers have argued that Leggatt does not even exist but is only a figment of the young captain’s imagination.

“The Secret Sharer” is one of the most complex and multilayered short stories in literature. Without resorting to technical devices such as using several narrators or switching back and forth in time, Conrad tells a story that presents the reader with a mystery that cannot be resolved even as it cannot be ignored.

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