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Joseph Conrad 1857–-1924

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(Born Jozef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski) Polish-born English novelist, short story writer, essayist, dramatist, and autobiographer.

The following entry provides criticism on Conrad's works from 1986 through 2002. See also The Secret Sharer Criticism.

Considered one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century, Conrad is also esteemed as a preeminent writer of short fiction. Two works in particular, the novella Heart of Darkness (1902) and the short story “The Secret Sharer,” have been proclaimed as the works of a consummate literary artist and an entertaining storyteller. In these and other stories Conrad employed an introspective narrator to focus attention on the teller as well as the tale. Like many of his novels, Conrad's short fiction deals with several recurring themes: the ambiguity of good and evil, the corruption of moral ideals, and the human propensity of self-deception.

Biographical Information

Conrad was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski on December 3, 1857, in Berdiczew, Russia, a city that is now located in Poland. He was exiled with his parents to northern Russia in 1863, following his parents' participation in the Polish independence movement. After the deaths of his parents in 1868, Conrad lived in the homes of relatives, where he was often ill and received sporadic schooling. At sixteen, Conrad pursued a career as a seaman, sailing to Martinique and the West Indies. Although he knew very little English at the time, he joined the British merchant marines in 1878. During his ten years of service, he became a naturalized British citizen, traveled to Africa, Australia, India, and the Orient, rose to the rank of captain, and mastered the English language. Poor health, however, forced Conrad to retire from the merchant marines. In 1894 he began a career as a writer, basing much of his work on his experience as a seaman. He wrote much of his first novel, Almayer's Folly (1895), while he was still in the service. Conrad struggled for the rest of his life to earn a living as a writer. In addition to his financial difficulties, he found writing in English to be a slow and agonizing ordeal, and many critics have noted the effects upon his work of such lifelong conditions as neurasthenia and fear of inadequacy. Conrad suffered a heart attack and died in his home in Kent, England, in 1924.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Critics generally divide Conrad's literary career into two periods: works written before or during 1912 and those written after 1912. Works of the first period include Conrad's widely acclaimed stories of the sea, most prominently “Youth,” “Typhoon,” “The End of the Tether,” “The Secret Sharer,” as well as the novella Heart of Darkness. Stories of the second period are less highly regarded and are typified by such romantic melodramas as “Because of the Dollars,” “The Planter of Malata,” “The Tale,” and “The Warrior's Soul.” Typical of the early works, Heart of Darkness is based in part on Conrad's personal experiences. The novella tells the story of Marlow—who also appears in Lord Jim (1900) and “Youth”—and his journey up the Congo River to relieve Kurtz, the most successful trader in ivory working for the Belgian government. Prior to meeting Kurtz, Marlow admires the trader and is excited at the prospect of their encounter. When Marlow finally meets him, he is repulsed by Kurtz's barbarism, subjugation of African peoples, and thirst for power. Upon Kurtz's death, Marlow realizes that the heart of darkness—the human potential for evil and savagery—lies within him as well.

Whereas in Heart of Darkness Conrad focused on Marlow's intensified awareness of evil in human nature through his identification with Kurtz, Conrad used the idea of a “double” in “The Secret Sharer” to portray the protagonist's growth toward self-knowledge. “The Secret Sharer” is the account of a young captain who harbors a criminal on his ship while at sea. The captain aids in the escape of Leggatt, a man wanted for murder, because he believes him to be his ideal self, his “secret sharer of life.” Some critics have contended, however, that Leggatt is far from any human ideal. Instead, they argue, he displays cowardice, murderous instincts, and irrationality and represents the evil in the captain and in humankind. Conrad's ambiguous portrayal of characters has inspired extensive critical debate and stems from his goal as a writer to present the complexities of events and individuals without pretense of explanation.

While popular with readers of the time, Conrad's works written after 1912—including the novels Chance (1913), Victory (1915), and The Shadow-Line (1917) and the short story collections Tales of Hearsay (1925) and The Sisters (1928)—are considered inferior to his earlier writings. In such stories as “Because of the Dollars,” “The Planter of Malata,” and “The Warrior's Soul,” Conrad abandoned complex narratives and characterizations and focused instead on romance, violence, and sentiment. “The Planter of Malata,” for example, tells the story of Geoffrey Renouard, a young man in love with Felicia Moorsam, who is engaged to another man. Wanting to keep Felicia close to him, Geoffrey deceives her into sailing away to the remote island of Malata. When Felicia learns of Geoffrey's duplicity, she scorns him, and a brokenhearted Geoffrey kills himself.

Critical Reception

Most critics affirm that the superiority of Conrad's earlier stories can be attributed to their basis in his own life, particularly his experiences at sea and his private struggle with questions of morality, loyalty, and human fallibility. Some have commented that toward the end of his career, Conrad was more concerned with selling books than in creating works of literature. Moreover, critics contend that in his later works, Conrad's examination of the ambiguity of good and evil is generally considered too stylized and heavy-handed. His most highly regarded works, however, are acknowledged as masterpieces of English literature and continue to generate significant critical commentary. Critics regard him as a profound influence on several prominent twentieth-century writers, and many of his works have been adapted for the theater and film.

Principal Works

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Tales of Unrest 1898

Typhoon 1902

*Youth: A Narrative, and Two Other Stories 1902

Typhoon, and Other Stories 1903

A Set of Six 1908

‘Twixt Land and Sea 1912

Within the Tides 1915

Tales of Hearsay 1925

The Sisters 1928

The Complete Short Stories of Joseph Conrad 1933

Almayer's Folly (novel) 1895

An Outcast of the Islands (novel) 1896

The Children of the Sea (novel) 1897; also published as The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” 1898

Lord Jim (novel) 1900

The Inheritors [with Ford Madox Ford] (novel) 1901

Romance [with Ford Madox Ford] (novel) 1903

Nostromo (novel) 1904

One Day More (drama) 1904

The Mirror of the Sea (autobiography) 1906

The Secret Agent (novel) 1907

Some Reminiscences (autobiography) 1908; also published as A Personal Record, 1912

Under Western Eyes (novel) 1911

Chance (novel) 1913

Victory (novel) 1915

The Arrow of Gold (novel) 1917

The Shadow-Line (novel) 1917

The Rescue (novel) 1920

Notes on Life and Letters (essays) 1921

Notes on My Books (essays) 1921

The Rover (novel) 1923

The Nature of a Crime [with Ford Madox Ford] (novel) 1924

Suspense (novel) 1925

Last Essays (essays) 1926

Conrad to a Friend: 150 Selected Letters from Joseph Conrad to Richard Curle (letters) 1928; also published as Joseph Conrad to Richard Curle, 1928

The Collected Edition of the Works of Joseph Conrad. 21 vols. (novels, short stories, essays, and memoirs) 1946-55

Congo Diary, and Other Uncollected Pieces (diary and short stories) 1978

The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad. 4 vols. (letters) 1983-1990

*This work contains the novella Heart of Darkness, which was published separately in 1942.

†This work contains “The Secret Sharer.”

Juliet McLauchlan (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: McLauchlan, Juliet. “Conrad's Heart of Emptiness: ‘The Planter of Malata.’” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies XVIII, no. 3 (1986): 180-92.

[In the following essay, McLauchlan urges a reassessment of “The Planter of Malata,” perceiving the story to be more complex and successful than critics believe.]

Conrad himself called “The Planter of Malata” “a nearly successful attempt at doing a very difficult thing which I would have liked to have made as perfect as lay in my power.”1 I wish to urge a re-assessment of this story, starting with an attempt to see just what sort of “very difficult thing” is involved, then considering how “successful” the story may be.

It is at once evident that the story embodies several of the most characteristic and interesting of those Conradian preoccupations which are apparent throughout his major fiction: the central figure is a solitary, a man of action and of some achievement; his story ends with a suicide as inevitable (though for different reasons) as is Decoud's or Heyst's; the theme is the dangerous, ultimately destructive, power of illusion. Such analysis is basic, but tells us nothing of the value of the story, which may still be inferior, novelettish, even worthless. In fact, both thematically and artistically, “The Planter of Malata” is finer and more interesting than has so far been allowed; because those familiar Conradian preoccupations take form here in a tale which unfolds through characteristic and masterly control of points of view and through a tight pattern of imagery which is used throughout to establish character and situation in a striking and appropriately non-naturalistic manner.

Some critics have been mistaken, I believe, in their views precisely because they have not understood the thematic basis of the story, nor have they seen how Conrad's narrative techniques work. For instance, one critic maintains that Conrad fails to communicate through classical allusions, or other methods, “the force of Felicia's presence.”2 But it would be a ruinous mistake if any such force were communicated to the reader. In the Author's Note Conrad refers to the “given psychological situation”3 around which the story is built; this “given psychological situation” centres upon Geoffrey Renouard's totally illusory view of Felicia Moorsom. The reader's first view of her is carefully controlled so that it clearly is Renouard's view. Conrad achieves this by shifting continually between the bare “facts” (10) which Renouard is reporting to the Editor with outward, painfully enforced composure and his simultaneous recollection (and reliving) of the turmoil into which he has been thrown by his encounter with her. He recalls her as she came to him through the twilight, with a light from a window falling across her figure: her movements suggested to him the regal or goddess-like, her head “crowned” with the “magnificently red” hair which he had noted at dinner, now “incandescent,” “chiselled,” yet “fluid, with the daring suggestion of a helmet of burnished copper and the flowing lines of molten metal” (9-10). The deliberate extravagance of this description is a warning that we are not to believe in it for a moment. Should we be in doubt: her approach woke up in his brain “the image of love's infinite grace, the sense of the inexhaustible joy that lives in beauty” (my italics). Here is the birth of the illusion. This goddess will never be more than an obsessive image of Renouard's own creation. The name, Felicia, with its slightly artificial, pretentious sound, suggests both the imagined bliss and its illusory quality.

The “force of Felicia's presence” is, then, illusory and must always seem so to the reader. In “The Planter of Malata,” Conrad shows illusion as the totally illusory; then the totally illusory is shown to be totally destructive. It is near-delusion, self-induced. Looking forward to seeing Felicia for the second time, Renouard feels a “sort of apprehension … And strangely enough it resembled the state of mind of a man who fears disenchantment more than sortilege” (30). The word sortilege, meaning an act of witchcraft or sorcery, is uncommon in English. Its Latin derivation links it directly with the reading of fate; and Renouard feels that Felicia is “fate itself” (48). Conrad probably had in mind the use of the word in French where it is defined by maléfice, and thus associated with a deliberately harmful or evil spell. No such spell is being worked upon the planter; Felicia is consistently passive, consciously exerting no influence upon him whatever. Renouard wills his enchantment more than he ever wills his release from it. The French verb renouer means “to knot again,” “to tie again,” and, by extension “to resume relationship.” Adding the -ard ending, Conrad names his hero appropriately as one who, in reluctantly resuming some relationship with mankind, keeps knotting himself into a hopeless and destructive spell rather than struggling effectively to disentangle himself from it.

Conrad's great success in the story is, precisely, his consistent presentation of the illusion as an enchantment which exists only for the victim of it. He does this primarily through descriptions of Felicia which operate always to suggest the hallucinatory, the unreal.4 Renouard first recalls her in terms (“ivory and precious metals”) which suggest a statue brought to life, a richly wrought image (10). Later, “Posed on the seat … She appeared to him luminous in her clear dress, a figure without a shape, a face without features, till he got quite near her, sat down, and they had exchanged a few insignificant words.” Then, “Gradually she came out, like a magic painting of charm, fascination, and desire, glowing mysteriously on the dark background” (46-47). From such hazy material Renouard makes and remakes his illusion. Formlessness and featurelessness both suggest a being without real identity, to whom ideal form is given only by Renouard himself.

Attempts by Shelley and Keats to present illusory beauty provide very illuminating contrasts, showing in different ways what Conrad is not doing. Despite some degree of Shelleyan effusion in both “Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude” and “Epipsychidion,” most readers are likely to feel at least something of the palpability of the two completely imaginary feminine figures, something of the spell of their warmth and beauty, and something of a pang when the illusion fades. Here are a few lines from “Alastor:”

He saw by the warm light of their own life
Her glowing limbs beneath the sinuous veil
Of woven wind, her outspread arms now bare,
Her Dark locks floating in the breath of night

and from “Epipsychidion:”

Warm fragrance seems to fall from her light dress
And her loose hair; and when some heavy tress
The air of her own speed has disentwined
The sweetness seems to satiate the faint wind.

The reader's response to “Lamia” is different. Keats seems to be trying to present the enchantment of a beauty which is not simply illusory and worthless, but basically evil. Yet the destruction of Lamia's illusory beauty is likely to seem cruel; if so, it is less because Lamia's own beauty touches the reader (as I think it does not), less because we pity Lycius who cannot live without his illusion, than because we come to believe in the whole illusory world as a world of beauty lived in by two lovers. What happens is that Keats himself is drawn into the enchantment. There is not only visual loveliness in the “silver lamp … Reflected mild as a star in water,” splendour in the “veined marble” and the banqueting hall, but delicacy and some tenderness:

… side by side
They were enthroned, in the eventide,
Upon a couch, near to a curtaining
Whose airy texture, from a golden string,
Floated into the room, and let appear
Unveil'd the summer heaven, blue and clear
Betwixt two marble shafts:—there they reposed
Where use had made it sweet, with eyelids closed,
Saving a tythe which love still open kept,
That they might see each other while they almost slept

Keats may hasten to add that this is a “purple-lined palace of sweet sin”, but the damage is done! Both Shelley and Keats (Shelley deliberately and Keats through the ambivalence of his own feelings) communicate a sense of beauty quite deliberately absent in the “writhing flames” of Felicia's hair or all her “sparkle” and “radiance” (35). Conrad remains outside the spell and carefully prevents it from passing beyond Renouard to the reader, for the very good reason that it is and must remain an “image” originating within himself, felt only by himself, and (in something like Jungian terms) a “projection” upon a superficially “brilliant” but very trivial human being.

Indeed it is through growing awareness of this triviality that the reader is consistently armed against the spell. Renouard's growing obsession is closely paralleled from the very beginning and right through the story by the reader's growing knowledge of Felicia. After we have entered right into the turmoil of Renouard's feelings, the Editor's rather knowing, casual “Striking girl—eh?” (12) offers a possible corrective. Perhaps this is all she is. The possibility is strengthened almost at once with some sketching-in of her world, the world of “Fashion and Finance” (17). Even her philosopher-father is”the fashionable philosopher of the age”—damning enough, but the Editor, who is usually right in such matters, guesses he “has made philosophy pay” (16). The journalist also surmises that Felicia has been “playing the London hostess to tip-top people ever since she put her hair up” (15). If, a bit later, we seem to receive some confirmation of the extraordinary quality of Felicia's charm from the fact that “Willie positively spluttered trying to describe her” (21), the corrective comes at once in the Editor's comment that Willie has “seen none but boarding-house society”! The reader's picture of Felicia is being carefully formed, and it is not Renouard's. We are continually kept aware of the contrast. Renouard's puzzled speculations about Felicia's consistently impassive manner (34) are closely followed by her father's opinions about her motives for continuing the search for her lost lover. Professor Moorsom's reflections upon his daughter are, to the reader, revealing: “And the worst is that I am not even sure how far this sentimental pilgrimage is genuine” (40). He speaks of the “mere smother and forth … the brilliant froth” of the life in which Felicia has had her triumphs, and of which he calls her the”creature”, concluding that “everything is possible except sincerity. …” (41). This worries Renouard but comes too late to free him from his obsession. Very soon Felicia's aunt, who reminds Renouard of a “wax flower under glass” (44) describes the life which they have all envisaged for Felicia. Here, only the reader takes in what she says, although it is intended for Renouard, who, at that moment is caught between watching Felicia “with all the power of his soul” and noting scornfully that Professor Moorsom is “discoursing subtly … on the Impermanency of the Measureable.” The Professor's voice covers the aunt's whisper so Renouard, who is in any case inattentive, hardly hears what she says. A characteristically complex and interesting response is here evoked in the reader, who simultaneously notes with amusement this direct confirmation of the sort of philosopher Moorsom is, realises that Felicia is indeed “eminently fitted” for the brilliant social life among her “hosts of distinguished friends” (a right and telling phrase), and observes Renouard's failure to take in the aunt's unconsciously revealing comments. And there is more: not only is our picture of Felicia almost complete, but it exists at this moment side by side with our picture of her as Renouard is seeing her, her very impassivity, “her grace as if frozen”, adding for him to the charm of her beauty, which he sees as usual in terms of extreme contrasts—red, black, copper, dazzling white tinged with color. The whole “scene” has made it pathetically plain that Renouard now is only a “miserable mortal envelope emptied of everything but hopeless passion” (44). Disclosure of Felicia's triviality reaches its climax after Renouard's desperate outpouring of his passion; in the scene near the rock it is Felicia herself who reveals herself. “Creature” as she is of her world of froth and fraud, she now shows that she has her own delusion of being goddess-like. Her motivation has been her “dream” of “the shaping of a man's destiny” (76), to make of her lover, in effect, her creature, by establishing him, through her power, in a social position which no one can question. This is all that lies behind her desire to make “reparation”, all that there is to her claim to “stand for truth” (75). It is because of this that Felicia is made to say so little throughout the story and to reveal so little when she does speak—there is almost nothing there.

Here I should like to refer to another view of “The Planter of Malata” which seems to me to be mistaken, one which sees the story as paralleling closely the situation in Victory, and sees both (together with the “embrace” of Flora and Captain Anthony in Chance) as evidence of a marked tendency in the later Conrad to show a necessary link between love and death.5 I do not agree that the embrace in Chance (despite the deathlike stillness noted by Powell) is linked with death. The couple live together happily for years, and the fact that they have no children is not reinforced by other evidence to suggest that we are meant to see this marriage as metaphorically sterile.6 We know from the portrayal of the Gould marriage in Nostromo what Conrad can do with this subject when he wishes. It is relevant to make this point here because it seems a basic error to maintain that Chance, Victory, and “The Planter of Malata” all illustrate the same trend in Conrad's writing, whereas each shows him attempting and achieving something unique. Not the least of “The Planter's” interest lies in its relationship in terms of imagery and themes to some of Conrad's other works, notably Victory. Conrad dropped for a time the writing of that novel and wrote this story.7 Study of both seems to show that in the middle of trying to portray a given complex relationship, there came to his mind another which is remarkable for its contrasts rather than its similarities.

Although Geoffrey Renouard believes in the “truth” of his love for Felicia, and although “The Planter” has been classified as an unconvincing love story, it is pre-eminently not a love story: it is about ultra-romantic delusion on one side and nothing on the other beyond the most superficial and ephemeral attraction. There is equal lack of understanding on both sides. Conrad rightly challenged the critic who had accused him of “false-realism” in not giving the story a happy ending. This, he said, was “quite wrong. I should like to ask him what he imagines the, so to speak lifelong embrace of Felicia Moorsom and Geoffrey Renouard would have been like? Would it have been credible? No!” Another comment provides a further key here. Conrad was replying to a second criticism which he took more seriously than the first. This was that “in the scene near the rock, which from the point of view of psychology is crucial, neither … find [sic] the right thing to say to each other … I didn't feel quite satisfied with that scene either … I have come to the conclusion that I have made those people a little too explicit in their emotion and thus have destroyed to a certain extent the characteristic illusory glamour of their personalities”8 (italics added). Characteristic illusory glamour of both personalities, that is.

So, Conrad is showing nothing so ordinary as the destruction of a fine and worthy man by obsessive passion for a worthless femme fatale. Felicia is worthless, but there is not much value attached to Renouard. At his first appearance he seems to be the sort of character Conrad might present for our approval—solitary, reserved, but nevertheless a man of determined action and of some success. The “fine, bronzed face” (3) does not suggest (as it does later) a statue, but an open-air existence, as do “lean” and “active.” We soon begin to feel, however, that there is something deliberately vague in the presentation of his achievements, and there is some suggestion of abnormal insensitivity in the recurring references to his ruthlessness. Although all the characters admire his accomplishments and treat him in a friendly manner, he remains remote and scornful behind a polite exterior. It is the Editor's simple conviction that Renouard's solitary life acts as a “poison” (5) causing an unhealthy mental state, abnormal detachment, and “callousness of sentiment” (26). Conrad is showing something much more complex: Renouard is a man who has been driven towards a solitary life by something within his nature. After leaving home at nineteen he has seen none of his “large tribe” for “many years,” and feels towards them a “profound and remorseful affection” (26). Apart from this, he shows no affection for any one, all his friendships being as superficial as his “outward intimacy” with the journalist (55). He has never felt any need for “other company than his own” (55), and we have his own word for it that in the course of his work he sees no one “consciously” (5). Back in the “great colonial city” (30)9 he finds the faces around him “so awfully expressive” (4). A key to this comes in his reason for not needing other company than his own, “for there was in him something of the sensitiveness of a dreamer who is easily jarred”(55, my italics). Renouard's solitude, then, seems to have involved a life of such dreamlike abstraction from others that he experiences almost a physical shock when forced into awareness of the variety of emotions which he sees in those “expressive faces.” The effect upon him of other people's personalities is “forcible but not clear” (4); that is, they impinge upon his own very strongly but so jarringly that he cannot form a clear impression of what they are. This, I think, accounts for his vulnerability. He is a solitary by nature, whose willing “isolation” (he has really cut himself off) has further weakened any capacity for relationships. We have seen above that even Felicia is not clear to him; the power of illusion is needed to give her form. Renouard declares early in the story: “Everybody knows I am not a society man” (7). He means”society” in the most narrow and trivial sense, but the irony in the statement resonates throughout the tale as it becomes plain how unfitted Renouard has become for meaningful contacts with his fellows. I would not claim that there is tragedy in the figure of Renouard, but there is deep irony and some pathos when such a man, who has turned his back on the good and the bad in human society, becomes destructively entangled with a woman who represents all that is most shallow and worthless in it.

It is characteristic of the highly non-naturalistic and impressionistic presentation of the tale, that the two principal characters, and others at times, are often described in terms of fixed poses (involving one figure or more), a blank unseeing gaze, cold rigidity. The presentation of Renouard is especially interesting; we are subtly made aware of what he has been and what he becomes under Felicia's spell, the chief interest lying in the fact that outwardly he is very much the same. He has always been impassive, expressing little because he has felt little. Under the strain of his obsession, his outward impassivity becomes more marked, but now it is something which must be painfully imposed. Conrad uses precisely his external rigidity of countenance, body, and eyes to emphasize the inner turmoil which it hides. Mounting turmoil itself enforces ever more rigid control. Hence, the cliché-phrases like “stony eyes” and “sealed lips” take on fresh force in the story. As the Editor tells the story of the search for Felicia's lover, Renouard is able to hide behind a pose of nonchalance, a pose of negligence, a pose of boredom (17-22). Such poses are inadequate in Felicia's presence. Coming to see her for the second time, he has felt his characteristic “self-possession” “shaken,” and as she approaches he “shudders to the roots of his hair;” we watch his painful attempts at control which he regains “by fixing his eyes obstinately on the ground, which gave him an air of reflective sadness” (30). As he leaves her, “he looked up and would have liked to say something, but found himself voiceless, with his lips suddenly sealed.” The very strength of his passion enforces this outward silence and rigidity. At the same moment Felicia's eyes are “vaguely staring beyond him,” with the faintest possible smile,” which he realizes “was not for him” (31). His sealed lips and her blank eyes both suggest statues, but with Felicia there is no emotion to enforce tight external control. Inside this trivial creature of a trivial society there is nothing but her curious illusion, her own obsessional vision of herself as goddess-like in the particular power she is determined to exercise. At this stage the reader does not know quite what lies behind the smile but will be unlikely to take it as Renouard characteristically does, as “the reflection of some deep and inscrutable thought” (31). A particularly effective aspect of Conrad's technique is illustrated by a small comment which at the same time takes us inside Renouard to feel the shattering effect of his obsession, and pictures the sort of external pose in which he tends to become fixed: “(he could not be always staring at the ground)” (35). Renouard's external impassivity is often matched by Felicia's: “nothing significant” comes into their futile attempts at conversation, but it is in her very immobility that he finds her “ravishing,” in her “quietness, in her grave attitudes” (a recurring word for Felicia and for the whole Moorsom group), “the unfailing brilliance of her femininity” (35). So, in silence, and “with secret clenched teeth”, he sits near her and”as before, when grappling with other forces of nature, he could find in himself all sorts of courage except the courage to run away” (36). This is a key to Renouard's plight. The statue metaphor must be extended: it is not only that Renouard's efforts at control freeze him, as it were, into immobility and silence, but that the obsession freezes will, reason, courage—the man of action is held in helpless inactivity. A few words again convey the painful intensity of his struggle and the growing impotence of the will to act: trying to break away he “made up his mind some twenty times” (43). Later, he rushes aboard his schooner, to “save” his “will, his purpose,” to escape; but “he could not do it” (54).

When the professor has told Renouard that something must soon be done, and that “you are capable of calm judgment” (38), Renouard characteristically takes refuge in immobility and “appeared to meditate profoundly:” “his face … the eyes lost in the depths of the setting … and such a profile as may be seen amongst the bronzes of classical museums … and … recalled vaguely a Minerva's head.” To compare a man with a goddess, may at first seem totally inappropriate, but statues of Minerva or Pallas do not show her as a very feminine goddess. She is a figure of great strength and represents ultimate wisdom. To link Renouard's appearance and nature with an artistic representation of a mythological being, is to emphasize how “illusory” indeed is his glamour. To Moorsom and others he may have the appearance of strength and wisdom, but this no more corresponds to the reality of his personality than does Felicia's appearance to him as the very goddess of love. Significantly, when they are called “well-matched,” it is when they are also described as “statuesque yet animated” (50)—a good summing-up. When, in the scene near the rock, their statue-like poses are finally broken, what comes out is exactly what each has been hiding: Renouard does all the things he has been painfully guarding himself from doing, pouring out his feelings, throwing himself at her feet (a “pose” which epitomizes the whole situation, blind adoration on his side, indifference and blind incomprehension on hers); she voices her one obsessional desire, to exercise power over her lost lover's fate, which to her is “truth.” Soon after this Renouard tells her that he has finally discovered her to be “mere froth and bubble on the inscrutable depths. … But you are you! You are you! You are the eternal love itself—only, O Divinity, it isn't your body, it is your soul that is made of foam” (77). Seeing the paradox inherent in his illusion, Renouard yet cannot stop deluding himself, nor can he prevent himself from trying to possess the object of his desire. In the attempted embrace she does not even recognize what is happening to her, and is not even afraid, because “she no longer believed in the existence of the crude impulses of old humanity” (77). The frigid Felicia is neither goddess nor real human being: Renouard's final realization is: “You don't conquer a wraith, cold mist, stuff of dreams, illusion …” (78).

Unable to possess, embrace the person (or “object.”.. a recurring word) on whom his illusion is based, he loses not only this object, but is himself emptied, burned dry by the last flare-up of his passion. Renouard, who is known and admired as an explorer, discoverer, adventurer, pioneer, has been driven to explore the nature of his illusion and finds at its heart nothing. Worse, this involves exploration into his own personality, and here the ultimate discovery is emptiness. His strange dream (31-32) prefigures the exploration and both of the discoveries. Renouard searches through dark passages, vast empty rooms and “innumerable doors.” Accompanied by the unreal and incomplete reflection of himself as searcher, he loses and finds his way; his small and ineffectual light (of reason?) goes out and is succeeded by the”sickly white light of dawn.” This, with the “cold and heavy” object (the statue's head) and the “so chilly” “puff of wind,” all suggest a particularly chilling experience of and awakening to reality—or rather unreality, for the object grows lighter, smaller, then crumbles, and finally becomes “a handful of dust” to be blown away by the light wind. His discovery of the insubstantiality of “the object” of his desire will correspond to this, but in his deliberate “review” of the dream Renouard tries to explain each part of it in terms of the everyday reality of his existence, hence misses the obvious point. We must distinguish between this point, as made within Conrad's pattern of imagery in this story, and any Freudian or Jungian interpretations which might well have their own interest and relevance. What is most curious and interesting, is the shifting quality, the insubstantiality of Renouard's images of himself in the dream and in his recollection of it. He lies in the dark, fearing sleeplessness, and the dream starts as if it were still waking reality: “he suddenly beheld his very own self.” This suggests firm identification of the personality, which is very soon to be recognized, however, as a reflection, then as “an image of himself,” which he finds”startling.” It then becomes his “frightened10 guide,” whom he”recognised” as “somebody he had to follow”—the self turning into an identity out there, separate, though inescapably linked. Next day, “on close examination,” “the reflection … was not really the true Renouard, but somebody else whose face he could not remember.” This employs the familiar dream-sensation of being oneself yet not oneself to prefigure Renouard's shifting, fading sense of selfhood, his gradual absorption in the illusion, to the point of inner emptiness and complete loss of his own identity. Significantly, after the dream, Renouard simply resigns himself to his”immense misfortune” (33), to “fate”—that is, from then on he virtually lives out the metaphor of the dream, pursuing its futile search in the relatively”real” conditions of day-to-day life.

Though Renouard's final discovery of selfhood is the discovery of emptiness, yet he is less worthless than Felicia. There is something of value in him and, more important, of value to him (and to Conrad) which, once lost, makes it impossible for him to go on living after his disillusionment. It is just after he has felt that “the moral poison of falsehood was such a decomposing power” that he feels “his old personality turn to dead dust” (65). This “moral poison,” then, is what destroys Geoffrey Renouard. Failure to speak the truth (because it would mean the loss of the object of his desire), willingness to “give the last shred of his rectitude to secure a day more of her company” (56) involves him in living a lie. He forgets what “simple honest sleep was like” (67-68). His rectitude lost, the planter seems to cling to the belief in the “truth” of his love, reproaching Felicia for not believing “in me … who must in truth be what I am—even to death” (75). There is even an authorial suggestion that there is such a ring of truth in his declaration that she, who is not worthy of hearing it, is momentarily stirred. This, the value which he attaches to the object of his pursuit, has so wholly entered into and taken possession of him that the illusion is now more “real” than anything in his experience. Indeed it has gradually come to be his only “reality,” so with the crumbling of the illusion, there is nothing left of the personality except this “truth” of his love. This is itself illusory but has displaced any other “truth” in Renouard—in so far as truth is represented in his positive qualities of courage, integrity, the use of reason and will.

Exploration and discovery, then, make up the painful and ultimately destructive experience of the planter. Disquieted by the intensity and palpability of his first recollection of Felicia, he feels it to be “like the discovery of a new faculty in himself” (12). The idea of the search for a man, with the allusion to the futile search of Diogenes for an honest man, suggests search for the truth of personality. After Renouard's last parting from Felicia, their walk seems to him to have been “like the supreme effort of an explorer, trying to penetrate the interior of an unknown country, the secret of which is too well defended by its cruel and barren nature” (79). Renouard's exploration has been primarily of the depths of a self in the grip of a total illusion, a journey to the heart of emptiness, the ultimate destruction of the personality. Pursuing a “mirage,” Renouard finds he has “gone too far,” he has been held in life by an illusion which is “binding” yet “mortal” (44). Appropriately, the final exploration, and his only possible escape, takes him”beyond the confines of life” (85), his eyes fixed upon a star.11


  1. “Author's Notes,” Within the Tides (London: Dent, 1950), p. viii. Within the Tides is published in one volume with The Shadow Line: all subsequent page references are to this edition.

  2. Lawrence Graver, Conrad's Short Fiction (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), p. 177.

  3. “Author's Note,” Within the Tides, p. vii. Conrad is not always the best guide to what he intended or achieved in his work, but before writing this note he had re-read the story and given much thought to criticisms of it.

  4. Paul Wiley, Conrad's Measure of Man (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1954), calls Felicia “in great part a reflection of his own [Renouard's] private view of a sterile Aphrodite” (p. 162) and speaks of “vivid yet fantasmal impressions of Felicia” (p. 163).

  5. Thomas Moser, Joseph Conrad: Achievement and Decline (Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1966), p. 144. The chapter in which this occurs is reprinted in Conrad: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1966), edited by Marvin Mudrich.

  6. For a full discussion of this, see Juliet McLauchlan, “Cosmic Indifference and Human Concern in Chance,L'Epoque Conradienne. Limoges, 1979.

  7. The ironical contrast is this. In Victory although Heyst possesses Lena, he can never “see” her devotion, passion, total commitment, dedication of self; to him her eyes remain always “veiled.” In “The Planter” Renouard never possesses Felicia, yet “sees” (in imagination) the passionate depths of a veritable love-goddess.

  8. “Author's Note,” Within the Tides, p. viii.

  9. Graver points out that this appears in the manuscript as “Sydney” (p. 158).

  10. Bruce Johnson, Conrad's Models of Mind (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971), makes the interesting point that in the manuscript this reads “fraternal” (p. 189).

  11. Perhaps the greatest point of weakness in “The Planter of Malata” is what Graver calls the “high coloring” of the closing paragraph (p. 158). Like Graver, I would discount this “rhetorical embroidery” as “surely temperamental” or as perhaps a sentimental sop thrown to the readers of the Metropolitan Magazine, where the story first appeared. The tale is complete without this paragraph, which for most readers adds only a jarring note.

Mark A. R. Facknitz (essay date winter 1987)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8034

SOURCE: Facknitz, Mark A. R. “Cryptic Allusions and the Moral of the Story: The Case of Joseph Conrad's ‘The Secret Sharer’.” The Journal of Narrative Technique 17, no. 1 (winter 1987): 115-30.

[In the following essay, Facknitz investigates references to the Old Testament in Conrad's “The Secret Sharer.”]

There is little theoretical work on allusion, and what there is tends to focus on obvious types—quotation, paraphrase, direct reference—none of which adequately describe Conrad's complex and generally cryptic use of Biblical allusions in “The Secret Sharer.” Indeed, so ‘missable’ are some of his allusions that in the huge commentary on the story only a few essays pay more than passing attention to allusions. Louis Leiter and Terry Otten explored references to the mark of Cain and the story of Jonah.1 Paul Bidwell, following Leiter, illustrated the parallels between the story and parts of Exodus, from the beginning, when the captain stares out at the rushes from which Leggatt emerges, to the end, when Leggatt strikes out for a “promised land” on the other side of the wilderness.2 There are many connections, subtle and widespread, between the story and a large and fundamentally Hebraic tradition as represented in particular by the five books of Moses, Jonah, and Isaiah. While critical discussion has centered on whether “The Secret Sharer” is a Doppelganger drama of deep psychological motives, or a rather quiet sailing adventure sprinkled with ironie and unambiguous symbols like the scorpion in the inkwell, the story has been short-changed because it has not been thoroughly explored as an allegory on divine and human law that swarms with Biblical tropes and archetypes of ritual that are apparent only through variously cryptic Old Testament allusions.3

Handbooks generally define four categories of allusion; topical, or current events; personal, or references to the author's life and circumstances; structural or imitative, as in Joyce's use of Homer's form in Ulysses; and metaphorical or figurative, the most common, which consists of one author preempting another's particularly fine figures. For allusion to work, the reader must be aware of the borrowing, and the general use is “to enrich a literary work by merging the echoed material with a new poetic context” (Miner 18) and this amounts to an “appeal to a reader to share some experience with the writer” (Cuddon 31). Allusions can be explicit or implicit, direct or indirect, clear or muddled, everything from epigraphs isolated on a page to recondite references that escape almost all readers.4

Allusion tends to reflect outward, telling us more about the author than his creation unless the allusion marks a thematic or narrative element that we can see because of light shed from the outside. In The Poetics of Quotation in the European Novel, Herman Meyer wonders if we can “attribute to the quotation the significance of a true structural element.” He continues: “Can the quotation … play an essential role in the total structure of a narrative work? Are quotations anything more than simply the raisins in the cake, and can their aesthetic effect go beyond the momentary delight that the raisins offer the palate?” (4) The questions might as well be rhetorical. Meyer decides that a novel “is not the mere product of organic growth” but the complicated result of a process that joins “the central, inchoate vision of the author” and “the multiplicity of traditional cultural values” (6). He calls the novel “a multiple totality, arisen out of multiplicity” whose “genesis is to a great extent a process of integration of heterogeneous elements” (6). Quotation, or allusion, can scarcely remain independent of such a process, no matter how emphatic its isolation as an epigraph or its clearly alien origin. The defining feature of allusion, Meyer decides, is its capacity to join in and stand aloof, and he writes “the charm of the quotation emanates from a unique tendency between assimilation and dissimilation: it links itself closely with its new environment, but at the same time detaches itself from it, thus permitting another world to radiate into the self-contained world of the novel” (6). The effect holds true whether the allusion is conspicuous or cryptic.

Ziva Ben-Porat shares Meyer's view, defining the literary allusion as “a device for the simultaneous activation of two independent texts,” and taking its function to be “to enhance and clarify thematic patterns, to provide the ironic regulating pattern, to add links to existing ones or to provide missing links, to establish an analogy or to supply a fictional world, whether it appears in veiled or overt form, concentrated or dispersed, local or all-inclusive” (127). According to Ben-Porat, allusion entails—by definition—two texts, a signal in the second that refers to the first, and “the presence of elements in both texts which can be linked together in unfixed, predictable patterns” (127). In short, allusion generates new meanings, and like Meyer, Ben-Porat sees allusion as much more than raisins in the cake or pedantic indications of the author's learning. Allusions are emphatic signs of intertextual links that must be taken as intentional.

In his theory of influence, Harold Bloom emphasizes the etymology of allusion, pointing out its kinship with play in words like ludicrous and elusion, and he situates the beginning of the sense of the world as “implied, indirect or hidden reference” in the early seventeenth century, adding that allusion's sense of overt or direct reference is incorrect but its currency is undeniable (Map 126). Plagiarism, Bloom argues, is a kind of allusion, and his sixth revisionary ratio—or apophrades, the return of the dead to houses they once inhabited—is sufficiently large to include allusion. Thus, in Bloom's theory, allusion is a kind of haunting, powerful and fearsome, and consequently capable of tremendous tropological impact, especially when used as a concealed weapon. Following the metaphors of Bloom's books, rather than the sign of the ephebe's subjugation, it is the stick with which the son beats the father.

However, Bloom's central idea is that influence is primarily a matter not of imitation, admiration, and consciousness, but of “making a space for oneself,” of reaction to envy, and its operations are obscure and often unnameable. In The Anxiety of Influence he gives the central premise of his theory:

Poetic Influence—when it involves two strong, authentic poets,—always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful poetic influences, which is to say the main tradition of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse willful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist.


But an allusion is never necessarily a misinterpretation, though it may actually be one by virtue of the author's error or idiosyncratic understanding. Bloom seems to recognize that allusion must be exempted, if not as a class, at least in the preponderance of particular instances. In “The Necessity of Misreading,” the final chapter of Kabbalah and Criticism, Bloom writes that “rhetorically considered tradition is always an hyperbole, and the images used to describe tradition will tend to be those of height and depth” (97). Thus he suggests that tradition stands over and behind the individual antipathies of competing pairs of poets and poems. If he is right, allusion is more nearly analogous to an appeal to a referee or the body of the law than to an anxiously pre-empted and re-directed trope. Anxiety shows itself not in a poet's urge to distance himself from tradition, but perhaps in an eagerness to rely on it, and to imply that one's work is valuable because of what is old in it, not what is new. In “The Secret Sharer” Conrad may be “swerving” from his contemporaries, or what he perceives to be the intellectual turpitude of his age, but for the most part the poet is Moses and the other book is the Pentateuch, and Conrad embraces the man and the text with enthusiasm and confidence that they will provide for him.

Bloom draws his examples from Romantic and post-Romantic poetry, and consequently he makes Milton “the great Inhibitor,” Paradise Lost a text of overwhelming power that in silencing the mundane reflections of later poets pushes them to new terrain. In other words, Milton's influence is negative. Since it is unlikely anyone can do the myth of the fall better, the strong poet will not try it. But the myths of the Bible rarely inhibit the utterance; rather they facilitate the sophistication and complication of narratives by providing broadly intelligible cultural counters which form a grammar of symbols accessible to a large audience, the people Conrad tried to reach, those willing to fork over half a crown for a good read. Such readers may not wish to elaborate an interpretation of “The Secret Sharer” based on its many cryptic allusions, but they may recognize the presence of Biblical allusions and be titillated by the fact. Indeed, allusions in general may be most important to this large ‘weak’ audience which, unlike the strong poet, reviles misprision and continues to believe that texts can reveal an author's intentions. Though Bloom's swerving or “clinamen always must be considered as though it were intentional and involuntary” (Anxiety 44-45), allusion offers no such paradox for it is as voluntary as it is intentional.

Yet, often it is hard for readers to know they are confronted with allusions, particularly if the allusions belong to that category Ben-Porat calls veiled and Meyer calls cryptic. The search for cryptic allusions is full of the same hazards as the most speculative of interpretive activity, and any case one bases on them can be easily weakened by counter-claims of circumstantiality. Since one finds cryptic allusions only after deciding that they are there, their use in an argument amounts to question begging. But if these are risks, is the interpreter barred from discussion of cryptic allusions? “The Secret Sharer” offers informative illustrations.

The example of the Sephora is particularly seductive and troublesome. Several readers have noted in passing that “Sephorah” bears a phonetic resemblance to “Zipporah,” Moses's wife, about whom little is known except that she saved her son on the return to Egypt by circumcising him with a flint (Encyclopedia Judaica 16: 1182), and Sephora is the variant spelling of Zipporah in the Douay Bible. In what respect is the ship like Moses's wife? Paul Bidwell has described analogies between Leggatt and Moses, but how is the ship that he leaves, on board which he killed a man in anger, and from whose bondage on a quiet night the risible captain Archbold allowed him to escape at all like Moses's wife? Such questions tempt one to conclude that Conrad was having us on or named the ship without really reflecting on how “Sephora” might be construed.

There is a more intriguing possibility. Conrad was a fastidious writer, and since the narrator and his ship are ostentatiously anonymous, it is likely that Conrad was very deliberate in giving Leggatt and the Sephora their names. Sephirah is the singular form of Sephiroth, which in the philosophy of the Kabbalah are the ten attributes or manifestations of God, the ways in which He enters into relation with the world, or, as Gershom Scholem puts it, they are “the potencies and modes of action of the living God” which express “the dynamic unity of God” and reveal the “process in which God emerges from his hiddenness and ineffable being to stand before us as the Creator” (100). The word is derived from the Hebrew, saphar, to number or to count, a fact made intriguing by the many instances of marking time and distance in the story, which Conrad tends to do with such strikingly resonant numbers as seven, forty, and one hundred twenty-three. Though it is perhaps incautious to specify, one of the clearest possibilities is that of the ten Sephiroth, the ship should be compared ironically to the emanation called Gevurah (power) or Din (judgment), whose defining quality is rigor, whose color is red, and which is associated with Isaac, all of which provide analogues to Leggatt who is surely rigorous, red in his anger and murderousness, and the junior to the captain who spares him. Moreover, its non-ironic opposite, or mirror Sephirah, is Hesed (love, mercy) or Gedullah (greatness), whose defining quality is grace, whose color is white, and which is associated with Abraham. Indeed, the opposition of son to father, of violence to calm, and of red to white, are a common motif, repeated often in the Old Testament, most notably perhaps in Isaiah: “‘Come now, and let us reason together,’ saith the Lord: ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow’” (1).

There is a third phonetic resemblance. The Sefer Torah is the most sacred book of the Jews, carried about in the ark around which hangs the drapery of the tabernacle. It is the Pentateuch, or the five books of Moses, which tell the story of the creation, the flight out of Egypt, and the arrival of the Jews on the shores of the Jordan after forty years wandering in the wilderness. Most important to “The Secret Sharer,” they give the law to the Jewish people and form the mythological nexus of the first major phase of Judeo-Christian culture. This third possibility will tend to emphasize the theme of a conflict between divine and human law as well as sea and land, and urges a closer look at the images of lights, altars, drapery, robes, and the written word.

In the Pentateuch the law is God's, and it extends far beyond ten commandments to include very particular proscriptions about diet and specifies punishments for crimes as diverse and mundane as incest and robbery. Indeed, there is no distinction between divine and human law, for human law is God-given, and God's law is sufficient for all occasions. The secular law alluded to in “The Secret Sharer” is another matter. As the subtitle states, the story is “an episode from the coast,” that line where two realms meet. The story suggests the line between human and divine law, a distinction as different as sea from land, or profane from sacred, and it does this very clearly in the contrast between the characters of the narrator and Captain Archbold.5 Archbold is the principal representative of profane authority (he says to Leggatt while still on the Sephora, “I am the law here”), and his strength is embodied figuratively by the twelve jurors whom Leggatt knows are not capable of judging him as a peer. Archbold's authority is actually based in a bourgeois complacency, a righteousness that is pretentious and ill-founded. His name is ironic, and perhaps not his name at all but one which the narrator accepts for its sardonic precision. His physiognomy betrays a debased or attenuated nature, for he has “a thin red whisker all around his face” and a “rather smeary shade of blue in his eyes” (115-116). He may try to puff himself, but Conrad lets us know “he has not exactly a showy figure; his shoulders were high, his stature but middling—one leg looked slightly more bandy than the other” (116). The narrator intimidates Archbold, who for all his authority looks “vaguely around” and convinces the narrator that “a spiritless tenacity was this man's main characteristic” (116). Indeed, rather than speak as a judge or law-giver, Archbold speaks “in a manner of a criminal making a reluctant and doleful confession” (116). In the terms of this argument, Archbold is a modern travesty of a priest, one who knows the gestures and spoken formulas of piety but who is finally “spiritless,” alienated from the real substance and mystery of law and mercy.

The captain/narrator is a much more powerful man; he makes correct choices intuitively and speaks with a natural sense of superiority and right. He forces Archbold to stop mumbling and to speak his deceitful version in a loud, clear, incriminating voice, and so Archbold relates that in his long years as captain he has never had to face such a thing as an officer murdering a seaman and he seems particularly outraged that this should happen on an English ship while a woman was on board. He speaks fatuously about his “painful duty” of having to bring Leggatt to justice and misses the point entirely when he claims the ship was saved by “a special mercy” of God when in fact Leggatt saved the ship by ordering the foresail reefed. As a fellow captain, the narrator is tempted to sympathize but he recalls Leggatt's hidden presence and thinks of him as “the unsuspected sharer of my cabin as though he were my second self” (117). Thus, at the crucial moment in his career, the narrator follows the better instinct that abiding Leggatt represents rather than the conventional wisdom of Archbold. As several commentators have mentioned, Leggatt's name bears a close resemblance to legate,6 an emissary, in particular an ambassador of the Holy See. As an emissary, and as an inheritor or legatee, Leggatt represents a sterner tradition than Archbold. Indeed, Leggatt is a fugitive of Archbold, and in choosing to conceal and protect Leggatt the narrator makes a spiritually correct choice. After seeing the nerve-wracked Archbold off his ship, the narrator goes to his cabin, learns Leggatt's truth, and thereupon the wind rises. His first command has begun in earnest only after he spurns Archbold.

This also begins the period of Leggatt's seclusion that ends with the near approach to wilderness and Leggatt's release. During the week in the cabin, Leggatt wears the captain's linen, eats foods that were reserved for a special purpose, and sleeps in his bed, closed in upon himself and kept safe from the eyes of the unworthy by drapery as well as by the fortuitous L-shaped construction of the cabin. Above the bed a single light swings from the bulkhead, suggesting a tabernacle flame as surely as does the binnacle light that illuminated the two men in pajamas during their first conversation while still on deck. Each light illuminates them as a pair and as they exchange secrets. Finally, the most important light, which like a tabernacle light is always lit, is the riding light which Leggatt—because he is a strong swimmer, constitutionally incapable of going in circles or committing suicide by drowning—strikes out for after jumping from the Sephora and ridding himself of his old clothes in a gesture he calls “suicide enough for me” (108).

At the nameless ship he is not sure where he has arrived, but on learning that the captain has not turned in “he seemed to struggle with himself,” and then, finding that he was speaking to the captain, and that the captain was in a sense there waiting for him, Leggatt whispers “By Jove” and announces his name in a voice that was “calm and resolute” (99). Very quickly the bond between them is deep and their communication instinctive:

A mysterious communication was established already between us two—in the face of that silent, darkened tropical sea. I was young too; young enough to make no comment. The man in the water began suddenly to climb up the ladder, and I hastened away from the rail to fetch some clothes.


What is important about this set of images is not that they are obviously appropriate to the context of a sailing story but that Conrad urges us to note so many details—the destruction of the original clothes, Leggatt's phosphorescent nakedness, the identical linen worn by each man—indeed, that the narrator is out on deck alone and in his pajamas—and then the journey into the sanctum sanctorum, each phase marked by dialogue in the course of which the narrator learns Leggatt's deepest secrets. This is a ritual which each is capable of accomplishing instinctually because each is motivated by a deep, unquestioned necessity, for, unlike the bewildered Archbold, Leggatt and the narrator are not mimicking obsolete ceremonies; rather, they are special men whose inborn understanding of the forms and motives of their actions authenticates the ritual. While they may fear failure because of interruption from outsiders, they never once doubt the significance of their companionship or, for that matter, question the propriety of their acts.

Perhaps most intriguing about the Biblical line of speculation is that it leads to seeing some powerful analogues in Leggatt. Louis Leiter discusses the direct allusion to Cain, and it should be emphasized that God visits his mercy on Cain,7 for when Cain complains he “shall be a fugitive and vagabond in the earth” and everyone will try to murder him, God promises “whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold” (Genesis, 4:14-15). Consequently, He sets His mark upon Cain, “lest any finding him should kill him.” But this is Leggatt's analogy, apt to an extent, and yet even Leggatt seems rather disdainful of it, mentioning it in the same breath with his comments on Archbold's nagging wife:

Oh, yes! She's on board. Though I don't think she would have meddled. She would have been only too glad to have me out of the ship in any way. The “brand of Cain” business, don't you see. That's all right. I was ready enough to go off wandering on the face of the earth—and that was price enough to pay for an Abel of that sort.


God also visits his mercy on Jonah,8 a slightly more abstruse allusion that several readers have noted. But unlike Leggatt, Jonah whimpers, and he is bad luck to his ship because he is dead weight, and someone of limited intelligence who in the course of his brief book of the Bible repeatedly insults God and is shown proof of his mercy no fewer than three times.

In other words, the allusions are informative, but they can be taken only so far, and in trying to push them one risks excluding at least three other less obvious allusions, powerful parallels to Leggatt—Isaac, the leper of Leviticus, and the scapegoat.9 In Genesis (22) God tempts Abraham, telling him to take his son Isaac to Meriah and sacrifice him on a mountain which God will make known. Abraham, of course, shows his devotion by denying his fatherly feeling in favor of a larger authority than the heart or even common sense, and because of the power of his faith God rewards him by saying “I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.” Thus, in broad strokes, we see repeated the narrator's affection for the younger Leggatt, who resembles him, as a son should, physically and in his character. We also see the narrator's success in a test of his secular power as a captain who takes charge of his vessel and in his simultaneous obedience to the mysterious and absolute authority of a voice that speaks only to him and requires of him the apparently absurd and potentially disastrous gesture of going into the lee of the land and placing Isaac/Leggatt at God's mercy.

The leper (Leviticus 13) emphasizes Leggatt's status as an outsider. Lepers can be healed by Aaron and his sons, the priests, and their lepers' scall will show white when they are cleansed, red when they are unclean, while anyone who happens to have a red spot on a bald forehead is called “utterly unclean.” Like a Jonah, the leper threatens the community's safety, and so he is cast out. First, however, he undergoes a series of purges or cures under the supervision of the priest—maneuvers that effectively rule out temporary or less harmful skin conditions—but if “the plague is in his head,” then he is excoriated and sent away:

And the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and his head bare, and he shall put a covering upon his upper lip, and shall cry, “Unclean, unclean.” All the days wherein the plague shall be in him he shall be defiled; he is unclean: he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his habitation be.

Because of his violence and his superiority, Leggatt is unfit for the community of the Sephora, and to the extent to which Leggatt represents the youthful hotheadedness which the narrator must discard in order to be a good captain, Leggatt must be cast out, though certainly not scorned or ridiculed. Set ashore in the loose, sacramental clothing of the sleeping-suit, Leggatt appears ill-prepared for life “without the camp,” and so the captain in his generosity—and perhaps because he wishes to resist the ritual motifs of casting out—presses him to take money and the hat. Leggatt, however, seems reconciled to being an outcast. He takes the money to placate the captain; whether he intends to leave the hat in the water remains one of the principal invigorating mysteries of the story.

By this point many readers have found their patience tested. For example, they may object that the similarities between the leper of Leviticus and Leggatt are few, and they occur at such a broad level of generality as to be uninformative. Indeed, writing about cryptic allusions can be like trying to skin live frogs with vaseline on one's hands. Moreover, there is little defense against someone who objects that this or that allusion is not cryptic at all, but a willful projection of the interpreter's idiosyncratic and self-serving designs upon a text. And interpretations that draw on cryptic allusions are circumstantial, based on an accumulation of sometimes hare-brained associations, and no case can ever be valid because validity depends on direct evidence and cryptic allusions are, by definition, indirect. The same sorts of objections arise against subjective or affective modes of inquiry; the difference is that in this case the interpreter implies the claim to objectivity by referring to a source text—Paradise Lost, the Old Testament, for example. In other words, one writes about formal elements, but formal elements that are as hard to validate in the context of interpretation as personal affective responses to a text. This does not, however, mean that cryptic allusions are idiosyncratic responses, located solely in the consciousness of a self-serving reader, for at the very least the analogies hold at an archetypal level.

Still, cryptic allusions must be anchored to be intelligible, or even plausible. Readers who agree that there is anything to the discussion of the name of the Sephora agree more readily than they would if they were not convinced of allusions to Cain, Jonah, and Moses. Once revealed, the systematic use of explicit and cryptic allusions indicates that we are reading an allegory, for there are now two surfaces, a primary, mimetic surface of incident on which takes place a sea story and a drama of doubles, and a second, symbolic surface where the shoddy sureties and moral compromises of the present struggle with ancient mysteries and divine law. One sees, for example, the impotence of Archbold's claims to moral authority in contrast to the faith of Abraham and the precious blood of Isaac.

The scapegoat's relation to Leggatt is more thorough, more specific, and more clearly intentional than the Isaac and leper allusions. In Leviticus (16) the Lord tells Moses to speak to Aaron, to bring him to the tabernacle ready for a sacrifice. There “he shall put on the linen coat, and he shall have the linen breeches upon his flesh … these are the holy garments; therefore shall he wash his flesh in water, and so put them on.” Among the several animals brought for sacrifice are two goats, and they are set apart as offerings in expiation of sins. Lots are cast over the two goats and chance decides between them. One goat is reserved for the congregation, and is sacrificed for it and consumed by it. The second goat is God's, and it is not killed; rather,

Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel … and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness; and the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited; and he [Aaron] shall let go the goat into the wilderness.

After this ritual, Aaron takes off his holy garments, washes himself, and returns to camp and to the more ordinary duties to his congregation. The goat wanders in the wilderness, with all the sins of Israel on his head, subject to God's mercy and the sign of his mercy.

This connection sets several key details in a special light. It explains why Leggatt is neither self-pitying nor truly arrogant. Leggatt might have occasion to bemoan the accident of his character and the chance circumstance of the storm that lead him to murder, but as the scapegoat he knows that he is not in control; indeed, he has been chosen for an important task. Yet there is no room for pride. His superiority to others comes from chance, and the captain understands this, and shares with him a matter-of-fact acceptance that they are men who have been given gifts of strength, courage, and understanding which equip them for special duties. Thus Leggatt sees the necessity of his journey into the wilderness:

I want no more. You don't suppose I am afraid of what can be done to me? Prison or gallows or whatever they may please. But you don't see me coming back to explain such things to an old fellow in a wig and twelve respectable tradesmen, do you? What can they know whether I am guilty or not—or of what I am guilty, either? That's my affair. What does the Bible say? ‘Driven off the face of the earth.’ Very well. I am off the face of the earth now.


Beyond human desire, fear, the reach of secular law and worldly judgments, Leggatt accepts his condition and his destiny. When the captain makes a perfunctory objection that he can't jump ship and swim to shore, Leggatt recalls his special garments: “Can't? … Not naked like a soul on the Day of Judgment. I shall freeze onto this sleeping-suit. The Last Day is not yet—and … you have understood thoroughly. Didn't you?” (132). The captain is ashamed of his momentary doubt, and promises to set him as close to shore as possible the following night. Leggatt expresses the bond between them, their common understanding and purpose:

“As long as I know that you understand,” he whispered. “But of course you do. It's a great satisfaction to have got somebody to understand. You seem to have been there on purpose.” And in the same whisper, as if we two whenever we talked had to say things to each other which were not fit for the world to hear, he added, “It's very wonderful.”


Once Leggatt was made to swim for the riding-light by his natural incapacity to take his own life or to wander aimlessly; now, after a week of sequestration, he recognizes his soul-mate and the wonderful beauty of their special purposes.

The priest takes the scapegoat to the wilderness and leaves him there at the edge of the unknown. The chart which the captain and Leggatt lay on the bed is incomplete, vaguely suggestive but never specific or unambiguous. A sea chart, it will only show the most significant land features visible from off shore, such as the twin mountains and low point of Koh-ring. As they look at it, it is “half-unrolled,” and the captain is only speculating when he says the land must be inhabited or there ought to be a town not far up the mouth of a river. These are surmises which the chart cannot affirm or contradict, but meanwhile Leggatt's thoughts are elsewhere; in fact, he is “following with his eyes his own figure wandering on the blank land of Cochin-China, and then passing off that piece of paper clean out of sight into uncharted regions” (134). There may be human succor on Koh-ring and there may not; it no longer matters to Leggatt, for henceforth wherever he goes will be symbolic wilderness.

In recalling how he pressed his hat on Leggatt's head, the captain paraphrases the story of Cain in Genesis and compares the hat to the “brand of the curse on his sane forehead” (142). In the terms of the story of the scapegoat, the analogous function appears in the gesture of the priest soaking his hands in the blood of the sacrificed animals and pressing them upon the head of God's goat, thus transferring the sins of the people to the scapegoat. In other words, it may be that the captain chooses a convenient and commonplace analogy—indeed, Archbold's wife's analogy—but the “fit” is not wholly comfortable. Leggatt resists—he tries to dodge and fend—and then suddenly desists and accepts the hat. There is no sense in Cain struggling against receiving the sign of protection by God; in fact, it is easier to see the captain as a priest or even the second goat than as God. Moreover, why would Cain wash away the brand, or once having granted it, why would God turn right around and wipe it away? A goat will naturally shy and fidget, but once convinced of his sacred purpose may resign himself. In these terms, the hat floating in the water, which marks the line between the secular and sacred worlds, suggests the washing away of the sins in the still darkness right at the “very gate of Erebus,” or right on the edge of the other world. To the extent Leggatt is a scapegoat, the moral seems to be that we are ultimately granted a mercy congruent with our faith. Simply put, if the hat goes on as sin, it comes off as redemption; in more literal terms, it goes on as a garment, and comes off as a light. When the captain looks for a sign by which to judge the ship's motion away from the wilderness, he sees not the steady phosphorescence of Leggatt which he saw at the beginning of the story, but the at-first faint and then flashing phosphorescence of the hat. Because of the evanescent knowledge that the hat gives him, the captain issues correct orders, finds the authority to silence the nearly mutinous trepidation of the first mate, and so guarantees “the way of silent knowledge and mute affection, the perfect communion of a seaman with his first command” (143).

The current view of Conrad's religion is that he had little, for he turned away from what Frederick Karl calls the “severe” Catholicism (26) of his family and his early spiritual education was a “mixed influence” of “country, mother, and religious mysticism” (44n). But this does not argue that Conrad eschewed religious symbols, and we can be sure that Conrad, in the same period that he wrote “The Secret Sharer,” was capable of disdain for anyone who would cheapen or subvert the mysteries of the human spirit. A sardonic review, “The Life Beyond,” looks at a vulgar piece of theosophy, Existence After Death Implied by Science, by Jasper B. Hunt, M.A. In his review, Conrad tells the Daily Mail's readership that though the author warns the book is not philosophy, metaphysics, nor natural science, Conrad could not say what it was except that it was a “breathless” and “constantly elusive argument.” Hunt's coarse vision of the hereafter exasperates Conrad:

Can you imagine anything more squalid than an Immortality at the beck and call of Eusapia Palladino? That woman lives on the top floor of a Neapolitan house, and yet our poor, pitiful, august dead, flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone, spirit of our spirit, who have loved, suffered and died, as we must love, suffer and die—she gets them to beat tambourines in a corner and protrude shadowy limbs through a curtain. This is particularly horrible, because, if one had to put one's faith in these things one could not even die safely from disgust, as one would long to do.


But finally reports of musically inclined zombies in South Italy are less of a concern to Conrad than the larger prejudice they reveal, a growing inclination to carry “humility towards that universal provider, Science, too far.” Conrad continues in Biblical tones, and his prescription is anti-empirical, ancient, catholic:

We moderns have complicated our old perplexities to the point of absurdity; our perplexities older than religion itself. It is not for nothing that for so many centuries the priest, mounting the steps of the altar, murmurs, “Why art thou sad, my soul, and why dost thou trouble me?” Since the day of Creation two veiled figures, Doubt and Melancholy, are pacing endlessly in the sunshine of the World. What humanity needs is not the promise of scientific immorality, but compassionate pity in this life and infinite mercy on the Day of Judgment.


Conrad held on to this view. In “Author's Note” to “The Shadow Line”—which he paired with “The Secret Sharer” as his two quiet tales of the sea—he writes disparagingly of “the mere supernatural,” which he calls “a manufactured article, the fabrication of minds insensitive to the intimate delicacies of our relation to the dead and to the living, in their countless multitudes,” as well as “a desecration of our tenderest memories” and “an outrage on our dignity” (ix-x).

Such statements reveal a preference for religious practice unspoiled by pseudo-science and the degrading urgencies and moral compromises of the industrial age. Similarly, “The Secret Sharer” is a dogmatic assertion of the superiority of tradition. In the allegory, tradition is challenged and sullied by the alliance of complacency, represented chiefly by Archbold, and technological and social progress, that together despoils the archetypes of the marine journey and the wilderness of the sea. (A Liverpool ship, the Sephora is out of Cardiff, an industrial city, and she is loaded with coal, which in the tropics could only be used to fire steam engines.) By rejecting the claims of Archbold and the prosaic human law he declaims, and by turning away from Bangkok and the Sephora and toward the wilderness, Leggatt and the narrator choose to enact ancient and pristine rites of renunciation and absolution. In all cases where a Biblical allusion may be ‘in force,’ Leggatt is a temporary sojourner or traveller. He is forgiven, he is chosen for a special purpose, and he is made ready for his purpose by an unalterable fact of his character or his history. As Cain, he is forgiven a great sin and granted the protection of God; as Moses, he is granted sight of the promised land; as Jonah, he learns that God's mercy extends even to the obdurate; as Isaac, he is the sign of his father's faith; as the leper, he has the promise that “he shall be clean” (Leviticus 14); and as the scapegoat, he bodies forth forgiveness. In all his guises, he stands for redemption. Finally, the allusions reveal that “The Secret Sharer” is an uncommon tale for Conrad, rare in its power of affirmation, and, because of its optimism, an uncommonly cheerful phosphorescence in the rather gloomy sea of Conrad's work.


  1. In discussing the analogy narrator: Leggatt = Abel: Cain, Terry Otten decides that the story's tension depends on a paradox, specifically that the narrator's “salvation from stasis can come only by a Fall, only by shattering the innocence that enslaves him and renders him spiritually impotent” (223). In his brilliant essay, “Echo Structures: Conrad's ‘The Secret Sharer,’” Louis Leiter discovers the correspondence between psychological and Biblical readings, for he finds that “murder and disobedience are deliberately confused by means of the fusion of archetypes, and they become … symbolic of any moral weakness which would not permit man to know his most secret self and the constant threat which that inner self imposes on personality” (172). Like this argument, Leiter's argument takes as one of its premises the possibility that several archetypes can be activated simultaneously. It is not clear, however, how Leiter decides that with the transference of the hat, “archetypes separate, and the story plunges toward its climax, each archetypal role clearly distinguishable from the others” (174).

  2. Paul Bidwell shows that “Leggatt, like Moses, finds it necessary to escape an inexorable law by entering the water” and that both “are saved by accidental and sympathetic discovery by one who might normally be expected to be an enemy” (29). In concluding, Bidwell comments that “the dilemma of a man who is celebrated for having brought his people a law which said, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ and yet who had himself been forced to kill, is a particularly Conradian irony” (33).

  3. Indeed, some find the story so straightforward as to call it flawed. Frederick Karl, for example, complains that “The Secret Sharer” is “obvious” for Conrad was “travelling very familiar and sure ground,” adding that his “only fault was in making every point a stated point and every psychological-ethical commentary a labored verbal explanation” and finally bemoaning the fact that the story lost its power “in a welter of amateur behaviorism” (Karl and Magalaner, 84). Douglas Hewitt's view is more moderate and more nearly typical. Hewitt sees the narrator of the story as “faced by the realization of a bond between him and Leggatt, but he finds a solution; at the end of the story he frees himself from the haunting presence of his ‘other self’” (70). Of the psychological interpretations, Edward Said's strongly suggests the archetypal extensity of the psychological allegory which I treat in Old Testament terms. Said summarizes the effect of the story as “the acceptance of a fact of past experience [which] is taken in and used to alleviate unrelieved tension in the present.” Indeed, at moments Said places his interpretation at the shadow line between the psychological and anagogic spheres: “Lastly, a convincing image of human kinship, modally altered to one expressed in terms of action and sympathy as opposed to action and thought, sends the figure from the past back into the unknown, free from constricting troubles, and sends the present consciousness into the future, armed with reassured mastery” (132).

  4. Ordinarily allusions are assumed to be decipherable and the responsibility for making sense of them falls to the reader. For example, in Continuing Presences: Virginia Woolf's Use of Literary Allusion, Beverly Ann Schlack writes: “vivid as traffic signs, [allusions] direct us to important aspects of textual meaning, and they remind us of our obligation as good readers, for they were not deliberately put there to be deliberately ignored” (x). In The Art of Allusion in Victorian Fiction, Michael Wheeler is similarly sure of his ground when he states “the critic who examines allusion is mapping areas which are open to inquiry and indeed often explicitly invite examination” (7).

  5. J.L. Simmons shrewdly argues that a special natural law inheres at sea, explaining “there is no leisure to weigh the merits: the voyage has begun and with it the moral life of the sea. Judgment must be simple, more than simple, it must be instinctive” (212).

  6. Mary Low-Schenk, for instance, see Leggatt as “an envoy or messenger” who in this case “bequeaths to the captain … nothing less than the authority of command” (2).

  7. Porter Williams, Jr. makes the same point, reminding his readers that “the traditional brand upon Cain's forehead was really a mark of God's compassion and not a stigma, except in the sense that a crime had made such a protective mark necessary. Both murderers, Cain and Leggatt, have asked for protection and received it” (28). It is worth noting the extreme fluidity of this archetypal relationship, for it is as consistent for Williams to assume the murdered sailor corresponds to Abel as it is for Otten, emphasizing the analogy of brotherhood, to see the narrator as Abel. In fact, this apparent contradiction repeats the central conflict of the subtext: allusions can be ironic and serious. For example, as the sign of Archbold, the Sephora is ironically named; as the sign of Leggatt's origins and his specialness, the ship's rubric is serious.

  8. Leiter describes the parallels with Jonah very succinctly: “Jonah's moral weakness arose from his disobedience; Leggatt's moral defection lies in his murderous disposition … Jonah flees his Lord; Leggatt flees from the captain's retribution and from the threat of law. Jonah, after spending three days in the whale, is coughed up and reconciled with his God; Leggatt, after spending a number of days in the narrator's cabin, bathroom, and sail locker, is lowered into the water, signalizing the reconciliation of the narrator with that other part of himself, the moral, controlled, ethical forces with the threatening, amoral forces of his personality” (171).

  9. The allusion to the scapegoat has been noted by Leiter, but rather than look specifically at parallels between Leggatt and the scapegoat as it appears in Leviticus, Leiter bases his discussion on one in Kenneth Burke's The Philosophy of Literary Form, a strategy that leaves his argument unnecessarily abstract and obscure.

    Nor should one infer that only Biblical allusions are active in “The Secret Sharer.” In “Conrad's Secret Sharer at the Gate of Hell,” Thomas R. Dilworth uses biographical and internal evidence to reveal allusions to Rodin's Le Penseur and La Porte de l'enfer, in which work Dilworth sees a secondary and fascinating allusion to Dante, and this, for example, leads him to some very rich speculation on the Italian resonances of Leggatt's name:

    The name may also derive from an Italian word of a different Latin root, legare, to bind or restrain—the past participle of which is legate. The word is used through the Inferno as a metaphor for the condition of the fallen soul. The sinner is said to have failed because of “some vital obstruction that binds,” the shades have “their hands tied” (legate), the soul itself is bound, its neck bound. In the Paradiso, Dante is warned against allowing emotions to bind the intellect. Leggatt's reason has been bound in this way and his unbreakable grip on his victim's throat signifies the ambivalent fraternal bond that is man's common nature. As a prisoner, Leggatt is physically unrestrained. He becomes self-restrained once he understands his passionate nature. The captain, in emphatically becoming Leggatt, likewise becomes legato, exercising courageous self-restraint at the gate of Erebus.

Works Cited

Ben-Porat, Ziva. “The Poetics of Literary Allusion.” PTL: A Journal for Descriptive Poetics and Theory of Literature. 1 (1976): 105-128.

Bidwell, Paul. “Leggatt and the Promised Land: A New Reading of ‘The Secret Sharer.’” Conradiana. 3.3 (1971-72): 26-34.

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

———. Kabbalah and Criticism. New York: Seabury/Continuum, 1975.

———. A Map of Misreading. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Conrad, Joseph. “The Life Beyond.” The Works of Joseph Conrad, Volume 18. New York: Doubleday, 1921.

———. “The Shadow Line.” The Works of Joseph Conrad, Volume 14. New York: Doubleday, 1921.

———. “The Secret Sharer.” The Works of Joseph Conrad, Volume 12. New York: Doubleday, 1921.

Cuddon, J.A. A Dictionary of Literary Terms. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.

Dilworth, Thomas R. “Conrad's Secret Sharer at the Gate of Hell.” Conradiana. 9 (1977): 203-217.

Hewitt, Douglas. Conrad: A Reassessment. Cambridge: Bowes and Bowes, 1952.

Karl, Frederick. Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.

Karl, Frederick and Marvin Magalaner. A Reader's Guide to Great Twentieth-Century Novels. New York: Noonday, 1959.

Leiter, Louis H. “Echo Structures: Conrad's ‘The Secret Sharer.’” Twentieth Century Literature. 5.4 (1960): 159-175.

Low-Schenk, Mary. “Seamanship in Conrad's ‘The Secret Sharer.’” Criticism. 15 (1973): 1-15.

Miner, Earl. “Allusion.” Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Alex Preminger, ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Otten, Terry. “The Fall and After in ‘The Secret Sharer.’” Southern Humanities Review. 12 (1978): 221-230.

Said, Edward. Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966.

Schlack, Beverly Ann. Continuing Presences: Virginia Woolf's Use of Literary Allusion. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1979.

Scholem, Gershom G. On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism. Ralph Manheim, trans. New York: Schocken, 1965.

Simmons, J.L. “The Dual Morality in ‘The Secret Sharer.’” Studies in Short Fiction. 2 (Spring 1965): 209-220.

Wheeler, Michael. The Art of Allusion in Victorian Fiction. London: MacMillan 1979.

Williams, Porter, Jr. “The Brand of Cain in ‘The Secret Sharer.’” Modern Fiction Studies. 10.1 (Spring 1964): 27-30.

Gaetano D'Elia (essay date May 1987)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4308

SOURCE: D'Elia, Gaetano. “Let Us Make Tales, Not Love: Conrad's ‘The Tale.’” The Conradian 12, no. 1 (1987): 50-8.

[In the following essay, D'Elia explores the relationship between love and war in “The Tale.”]

After Napoleon, a century later, England was threatened by another Great War. However, the two Great Wars, as Conrad defines them in “The Dover Patrol” (1921) were very different in their spiritual and moral consequences. Napoleon's threat “ran its course, as momentous, if less ruthless, than the deadly struggle in which the Dover Patrol has played its part. When it ended it left the world as weary, indeed, as it is today, but much less unsettled in its thoughts and emotions about the spiritual value of its monstrous experience. Men's ideas were simpler then, their sentiments less complex”.1

This is the reason why General D'Hubert does not draw any distinctions between the pleasure which can be got out of love or war. After Napoleon's and Feraud's ultimate defeats he runs to meet his fiancée Adèle “with as much pleasurable excitement as he would have found in walking up to a battery vomiting death, fire, and smoke”.2 A century afterwards this blend of love and war will be impossible: when in “The Tale” the Commanding Officer has finished narrating his dreadful war experience to his mistress (who then attempts to exonerate him with an embrace), he “disengaged himself, pressed her hands to his lips, and went out”.3 Yes, modern war corrupts everything (as does trade)—not only love but also the sea, as can be seen in “A Smile of Fortune” (1911): “Why must the sea be used for trade—and for war as well? Why kill and traffic on it, pursuing selfish aims of no great importance after all?”4 War and trade at sea seem to be the main features of “The Tale” (1916) but, on the other hand, its ending and general pattern show a great resemblance to “The Return” (1897) which does not even touch upon war at sea. While the Commanding Officer goes away after his hand-kissing, Hervey himself leaves his wife after her attempted adultery: “He flung both his arms out, as if to push her away, and strode from the room.”5 The two men have some values in common and express their ideas and likes with the same dark enthusiasm: “‘Yes! Restraint, duty, fidelity—unswerving fidelity to what is expected of you …’” (TU, [Tales of Unrest] 144); “‘I like that word.’ ‘What word?’ ‘Duty.’ ‘It is horrible—sometimes.’ ‘Oh, that's because you think it's narrow. But it isn't. It contains infinities … An infinity of absolution, for instance’” (TH, [Tales of Hearsay] 159-60).

The Commanding Officer, then, adopts the word “duty” which, though it may absolve, cannot exonerate and discharge. His lover, too, when she says, “‘Oh, yes. Sincerity—frankness—passion—three words of your gospel …’” (167), corroborates the religious undertone of the word “absolution” and clarifies the naval commander's real intentions. In fact, he changes his tale into a “confession to the woman who loves him”.6 Both the woman and the man focus their attention on words, their meaning and value; the tale itself (its verbal expression) gives the title to the last short story written by Conrad. The narrative itself (and its elocution) is the main topic of the story: finally “Tale” becomes, in the writer's fiction, a title after being mentioned in so many of his sub-titles. Beckett unhesitatingly entitled his first and last film-script Film while Conrad, whose last written word was “yarn” (“Legends”, LE, 47), kept his title till last. Oral delivery, on which so much of his prose is based, has received the ultimate consecration. After that and speaking of the First World War again, the word “tale” will be used with a different meaning as an archaic term or as a rhetorical and poetic noun. As a matter of fact, five years later, when Conrad employs it again in “The Dover Patrol”, it will mean “number”, “total”: “The tale of the Dover Patrol is the tale of a small nucleus of ships and crews of the Royal Navy” (LE, 63); “It was their conception of their honour, and they carried it out of this war unblemished by a single display of weakness, by the slightest moment of hesitation in the long tale of dangerous service” (64). In a very indirect way these two examples, in which “tale” when referred to the war loses its current meaning, show the greatest mistrust in the possibility of telling a tale (true or fictitious) of the war. Three months after “The Tale” Conrad in the essay “The Unlighted Coast” (1917) separates what he calls “war talk” (that is, the messages picked up by wireless men) from the “talk round the war”. These messages are “different from the war talk we hear on the lips of men … which often seems but talk round the war … The other, the grouped-letters war talk, almost without sound and altogether without fury, is full of sense, of meaning, and single-minded purpose; inquiries, information, orders, reports. Words, too. But words in direct relation to things and facts …” (LE, 50).

Here, Conrad is really “outside literature” as he will state in 1922 when he writes, under the above title, an article devoted to the “Notices to Mariners”, “the most trusted kind of printed prose” (LE, 43). Fiction, by contrast, is not so reliable: when he “had to begin … to write prose” himself, he “never learned to trust it”: “A dreadful doubt hangs over the whole achievement of literature” (43). This insurmountable mistrust is whetted by an event which Conrad considered crucial from an historical as well as a personal viewpoint—the First World War. It “was a watershed for European politics” and things were “changing not only socially and politically but literarily”.7 The war itself could not be entrusted to literature, to a short story, for example. If a tale is to be devoted to that war the only possible title must be “The Tale”: the medium is its subject, the “semiotic plenum” or “matrix”,8 as Bonney says, its main aim. If this is the privileged standpoint, every expectation disappears into thin air: in “The Tale”, for instance, there cannot be any place for heroism. Such a story “is not … quite what the Admiralty had expected him [Conrad] to write about their heroes”.9 “The Unlighted Coast”, by contrast, being an essay, still allows a small dose of heroism even if we must ironically observe that, though commissioned by the Admiralty, it was not utilized by them and was published posthumously.

Conrad's war experiences, too, come into play now to explain better the interrelation of essay and tale: all takes place between September 1916 and January 1917. The Admiralty, in the first three months of this period, allowed Conrad to join a minesweeper, “a vessel engaged in mending torpedo-net defences”10 and a decoy ship, so that he might take some part in the war and satisfy his own desires: this experience excited him in a somewhat exaggerated and childish fashion. But practically in the middle of these events he wrote an “exceptionally ambiguous” tale11 on the commanding officer of a British ship who treacherously sends the crew of a neutral cargo-boat to its death, behaving in a more despicable way than even the officers of the Patna did. An intermediate attitude is by contrast shown in “The Unlighted Coast”, based on his experiences but written some months later. Its general tone is neither ambiguous nor over-excited, but rather subdued. Even if the writer considers that “It's an odious thing to have to write in ‘descriptive’ fashion of men with whom one talked like a friend” (LE, 52), he relates the tale which a young gunner has told him about a Zeppelin he had damaged. The young man is reluctant, his lips are “unskilled in speech” (52); “he would have preferred”, after all, “to brood over it [his experience] in adequate silence” (57). Once again Conrad insists on saying that what is “outside literature” (an “official report”, in this instance) is more reliable and well-founded than tales and their written versions: “yet he left me with the impression that had he been permitted to taste the full flavour, his official report would have remained, of his own choice, his first and last utterance” (56-7).

But everything gets complicated and turbid when we take “The Tale” into account: for example, the interlocutor of the narrative is, for the first time in Conrad, a woman; the narrator himself, far from being reserved, is possessed by a paranoic sense of justice and sincerity which paradoxically leads him to fraud and deceit. Besides, the tale splits up into four “sub-tales”. “The fact is that there exist four concentric tales”: the “narrative voice of the story presents the entire aesthetic fabrication to the reader; the commanding officer presents his confessional tale to his mistress; the Northman recounts his misadventures to the commanding officer; and, while listening to the Northman, the commanding officer listens simultaneously to a ‘grave murmur in the depth of his very own self, telling another tale’”12, that is, his prejudices against the truthfulness and innocence of the neutral Northman and his crew. This general concentric structure has nevertheless several inner links. The story and the frame contain, for example, remarkable lexical recurrences. At the beginning, before the woman gives the cue to the narration by saying: “‘Tell me something’” (TH, 157), the officer's voice is like “a man's voice” which seems “to plead against the answering murmurs of infinite sadness” (155). The officer's inner voice, which prompts him not to believe the neutral, is also defined as a “grave murmur”. A thick fog compels the English crew to move the ship nearer the shore: “… she would be much better in a certain cove. It wasn't a large place, just ample room for a ship …” (176). In the opening lines of the tale the same details can be found: “… the gathering shades of the room”; “the deep, shadowy couch holding the shadowy suggestion of a reclining woman” (155). The cove and the couch (the alcove we might say) shelter the ship and the woman. Later on, confirming this tie, the officer says: the ship “was like a pretty woman who had suddenly put on a suit of sackcloth and stuck revolvers in her belt” (164). Even the sea, though metaphorically, gets into the room where the two lovers are: “The irresistible tide of the night ran into the most distant part of it” (155). The narrative voice, too, in the very first sentence, emphasizes the close-woven pattern of the whole when it defines the window of the room in which the tale takes place as “a great square gleam without colour, framed rigidly in the gathering shades …” (155). This colourless square surrounded by shades is a sort of graphic representation of the tale (and its frame) characterized, as it is, by fog on the physical level and by suspicion on the moral one. The semantic parallels, all the same, reveal the content of the square whose four corners are the four concentric tales already mentioned. The triple connection “ship-woman-revolver” may be interpreted as the stereotyped trinomial “sea-love-murder” which is retraceable in so much cheap exotic and melodramatic fiction. In the frame the officer states that in his story there is “slaughter” (161) and at the end of his confessional tale he dubiously says: “‘… I don't know whether I have done stern retribution—or murder; whether I have added to the corpses that litter the bed of the unreadable sea the bodies of men completely innocent or basely guilty. I don't know. I shall never know’” (204).

We have already seen that the sea (the tide) gets metaphorically onto the stage of the tale. The tribunal is there, too, with a single character who is simultaneously defendant and defending counsel: he, in fact, seems “to plead against the … sadness” (155) of his mistress. Whatever perspective we may adopt, we always find ourselves up against two or all three members of the same trinomial: the assessment of innocence or guilt implies a plea, on the one hand; on the other, the wrong course the officer imposes on the merchantman and the subsequent, fatal collision with some rocks amount to a murder in the presence of a dumb witness (the unintelligible, “unreadable sea”). The inescapable existence of the trinomial can also explain the odd fact that here Conrad, for the first time, employs a woman as auditor and interlocutor of the narrator. His growing infatuation with Jane Anderson (he met her about two months before the writing of “The Tale”) could biographically account for this new device (the woman as an inspirer of the narration), but its real meaning lies in the presence of the other two elements. The woman with “the faint oval of her upturned face and … her pale hands, a moment before abandoned to his kisses and now as if too weary to move” (156) stands for a stilted, melodramatic and, at the end, frustrated kind of love lacking in definite sexual overtones. Bernard Meyer interprets differently, pointing out the “reference to the sexual act, itself a most unusual element in Conrad's fiction. The story begins directly after a couple has been making love.”13 This inference cannot be validated by the officer's vexation after the woman has asked him to tell her a story: “But now he was feeling a little angry with her for that feminine mobility that slips out of an emotion as easily as out of a splendid gown” (158). It is also true that before saying “feminine”, the narrative voice uses the predicate “masculine” (“He stood over her a moment masculine and mysterious in his immobility …” [156]), but the prevailing note is given by his kneeling beside the couch, by “the white collar”, the “brass button” “on his uniform”, and “her black dress” (156) and by the hand-kissing before he takes his presumably final leave. Love is, then, only suggested in the frame because even if it can be found in the universe to which, according to the officer's solemn words, his tale belongs, he “won't talk of that” (161). His mistress seems either relieved or disappointed at this declaration corroborating the ambiguous and doubtful place of this sentiment in the story. What matters is really her role as inspirer: she opens the floodgate of the protagonist's words (“As usual, it was the woman who had the courage. Her voice was heard first” [156]). In the same way Mrs. Hervey in “The Return”, leaving a note for her husband (informing him that she has left him for another man) and then returning to him, puts Hervey in a position to perform a verbal firework display. In both stories, words fail for opposite reasons: in the earlier tale they are too heavy, uttered, as they are, by a dogmatic and rigidly oppressive character. Acquiring a physical consistency, they settle and are shrugged off: “One of her hands on her lap moved slightly as though his words had fallen there and she had thrown them off on the floor” (TU, 132); they can also become dangerous and vindictive shells: “Now and then he would stretch out his right arm over her head, as it were, and he spoke down at that sinner from a height … as though he could from his steep pinnacle see every weighty word strike and hurt like a punishing stone” (145); they become at last hellish: “‘… Words mean something—yes—they do—for all this infernal affectation’” (150). His marriage, however, is not saved by them and Hervey goes away for ever. In “The Tale” the woman appeals to them to escape from an inner conflict: “Her voice was heard first … while her being vibrated yet with conflicting emotions. ‘Tell me something,’ she said” (156-7). Her eloquent partner thinks she wishes to hear other love words (“Had he not just said to her everything worth saying in the world—and that not for the first time!” [157]); this time she wants a whole tale, especially as he is expert in this matter, too (“You used to tell—your—your simple and—and professional—tales very well at one time … You had a—a sort of art—in the days—the days before the war” [158]). In her stuttering way the woman realizes that now the circumstances have changed; as for the man, he corroborates the woman's hint, saying: “‘But now, you see, the war is going on’” (158). During the war his skill as a fabler (his tale, in fact, begins with “once upon a time” [160]) fails him, or rather his simplicity as a narrator has been dissipated. He is by now tainted by the war and possessed by the anguish resulting from it; his tale, being autobiographical, does not comply with the woman's wish: “‘It could be a tale not of this world … I mean another—some other—world. In the universe—not in heaven’” (159). In short he is overwhelmed by his own words, and the tale—seen as a relief from anguish—changes into a release from his woman: he refuses his mistress's embrace, disengages himself and goes out. “His passion for truth” (205) is frustrated, he feels himself “faced by an enormous lie, solid like a wall, with no way round to get at the truth …” (195); “All the truth had departed out of the world …” (196). His subtle and elaborate tale (while the war is still going on) cannot ease anybody's “conflicting emotions”. The woman, who had asked for a tale in order to feel more at ease, is left in the lurch; the naval officer, on the other hand, unwillingly realizes that the war has become “slaughter” and “murder” which cannot be cancelled by a woman's love. All is by now “unreadable”: not only the sea, but also love and war (and even the reason why the latter has changed into murder).

The writer, for his part, cannot do anything but take note of the failure of words (both ponderous and subtle): “The Tale” as a title and story is the most obvious proof of Conrad's awareness (eighteen years after “The Return”) of this problem. He, however, will go still further in the novel written immediately after “The Tale”, The Arrow of Gold (1918): “The unceasing opposition of excited and resounding scenes to others exclusively characterized by gestures in the dark, gives us to understand”, as Franco Marenco says, “that, for Conrad, truth can now live only in the absence of words: Beckett's world is not far away”.14

Words and the three couples in “The Return”, “The Tale” and The Arrow of Gold are really irreconcilable. The room invaded by the night in “The Tale” anticipates the one “utterly dark and silent, where George and Rita have found refuge”:15 in the novel “the raving” Ortega upsets and violates their silence while in the short story the woman has the “courage” to break it, thus setting the tale in motion but unintentionally bringing about her lover's desertion. The writer's achievement, then, depends on the existential setback of his characters.

Any Conradian accomplishment, however, is always two-faceted: his awareness of the unforeseen consequences of the use of language is never separated from his reflection on the political essence which, as much as words, gives a course to his writings. England and the English are unremittingly seen in the same context. The presence of a foreigner in “The Tale” exhibits this connection clearly. The Northman says: “‘Time's money, you say. Well—this time is money’” (190). The Englishman, hearing the saying, does not want to recognize his own language: “The Commanding Officer tried to keep under the feeling of immense disgust” (190-1). The Northman still nourishes an ideal concept of the English on an individual and general level: “‘… You are too much of a gentleman …’” (190); “‘Well, we know that you English are gentlemen. …’” (198); but he will pay dearly for his old-fashioned ideas: Lord Jim has been dead and buried for quite a long time! He knows, anyway, that “You [English] haven't done anything to be loved” (198). Being convinced that the neutral ship refuels German submarines, notwithstanding the Captain's protestations of innocence, the naval officer's greatest resentment is the fact that the crew “don't feel in danger of their life. They know England and English ways too well!” (193). British democratic warranties are excessive: every culprit can go unpunished. For the same reason, in The Secret Agent, anarchists from all over Europe sought refuge in England; on this account Vladimir, sharing the officer's opinions, says: “This country is absurd with its sentimental regard for individual liberty.”16 This conviction converts the Englishman into an executioner: thus “English ways” are nullified. After ten years the “Hyperborean swine” (SA, 186) has found a true-born Englishman who puts his [Vladimir's] ideology into practice. The war has certainly perverted and troubled every aspect of life, but the officer's paranoia can be explained only in the light of deeper sociopolitical motivations.

Three British subjects in The Secret Agent wish for people to be shot on political grounds; Ossipon, for instance, says: “If the police here knew their business they would shoot you full of holes with revolvers” (SA, 72). The officer, by contrast, who has already used the word “revolvers”, thinks that shooting on military grounds is not enough: “‘Shooting's too good for people that conceive neutrality in this pretty way’” (TH, 196-7). The boarding officer's reasonableness is ineffectual: his declaration that “The cargo of the ship was of a harmless and useful character. She was bound to an English port” (182) is not taken into consideration. The Northman himself will reaffirm later “‘My cargo is for an English port’” (191): England and the English have by now no appeal to the officer. Even if the “Papers and everything [are] in perfect order” (182), he thinks that “a log-book may be cooked” (191). He does not share the writer's trust in what is “outside literature” (official reports, notices to mariners or log-books). His mistrust becomes ontological: “Men were like that—moral cannibals feeding on each other's misfortunes” (191). The only suggestion he can make to the Northman is that of becoming a spy: “‘You may be able to tell something interesting, then, to our people when you come into port’” (199). The foreigner's answer is reminiscent of the general atmosphere of The Secret Agent; the Northman says: “‘I might. But you keep some people in your pay at Rotterdam …’”; while Heat stated: “‘It isn't as if he were in our pay’” (SA, 132). Beside these, other details are common to both: “the atmosphere of gratuitous treachery” (TH, 184) and “the atmosphere of murderous complicity” (201) are, for example, an exaggerated version of the “atmosphere of fraudulent cookery” which can be found in the novel (SA, 148).

The comical and grotesque levity in The Secret Agent is, here, replaced with overstatements which the war-setting can only partially explain. The truth is that the officer belongs to the same category of men as Hervey; this is made explicit when we read the following opinion: “Everything should be open in love and war. Open as the day, since both are the call of an ideal which is so easy … to degrade in the name of Victory” (TH, 173-4). In “The Return” Hervey could easily subscribe to this point of view: he, in fact, thinks: “The contamination of her crime [attempted adultery] spread out, tainted the universe, tainted himself; woke up all the dormant infamies of the world” (TU, 126). It is not by mere chance that we find the same verb repeated once again in the war context: “But his Commanding Officer was in revolt against … the atrocious callousness of complicities that seemed to taint the very source of men's deep emotions. …” (TH, 173).

The most remarkable difference between the two short stories is that in the former the narrative voice lets itself be dragged along by Hervey's oratorial and often mystical frenzy. In the latter there are no less than four concentric sub-tales whose function is to space out and complicate the content of the tale seen in its entirety: it is like an extendable telescope which can bring the visual field nearer or take it further away. The frame which encircles the main body of the story helps to avoid any involvement on the part of the reader. In addition to this, parallels between frame and story are striking: for instance, the woman assumes “a neutral tone” (161) which is reflected in the Northman's neutrality; and at the end “the commander is driven from the protective enclosure of the sitting room [the alcove], just as he had driven the Northman from the cove”.17 All these mirror images give “The Tale” a geometrical configuration as the “framed” “square” mentioned in its opening lines clearly reveals. The finishing touch to this elaborate construction is the title itself: a “verbal performance”18 is the subject-matter of the author's written performance. At least, in this way, the squaring of the circle has been attempted!


  1. “The Dover Patrol”, Last Essays (London: Dent, 1955), p. 59; hereafter abbreviated as LE.

  2. “The Duel”, A Set of Six (London: Dent, 1974), p. 263.

  3. “The Tale”, Tales of Hearsay (London: Fisher Unwin, 1925), p. 205; hereafter abbreviated as TH.

  4. Twixt Land and Sea (London: Dent, 1947), p. 6.

  5. “The Return”, Tales of Unrest (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), p. 169; hereafter abbreviated as TU.

  6. R.L. Mégroz, Joseph Conrad's Mind and Method (London: Faber, 1931), p. 229.

  7. F.R. Karl, Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives (London: Faber, 1979), pp. 793 and 800.

  8. W.W. Bonney, Thorns and Arabesques: Contexts for Conrad's Fiction (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins U.P., 1980), p. 209.

  9. Roger Tennant, Joseph Conrad: A Biography (London: Sheldon Press, 1982), p. 225.

  10. Jocelyn Baines, Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), p. 490.

  11. Ibid., p. 488.

  12. Bonney, p. 208.

  13. Bernard C. Meyer, Joseph Conrad: A Psychoanalytic Biography (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton U.P., 1967), p. 237. Bonney with more insight speaks of “personal limitations in or near the bedroom …” (p. 214).

  14. F. Marenco, “Joseph Conrad”, in I contemporanei—Letteratura inglese, ed. Amoruso-Binni (Rome: Lucarini, 1978), Vol. 1, 115. (The translation is mine)

  15. F. Marenco, “Introduzione” to Joseph Conrad: Ultimi Romanzi (Milan: Mursia, 1977), pp. xxxvii-xxxviii.

  16. The Secret Agent (London: Dent, 1947), p. 29; hereafter abbreviated as SA.

  17. Bonney, p. 214.

  18. Ibid., p. 213.

Dale Kramer (essay date winter 1988)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5450

SOURCE: Kramer, Dale. “Conrad's Experiments with Language and Narrative in ‘The Return’.” Studies in Short Fiction 25, no. 1 (winter 1988): 1-11.

[In the following essay, Kramer discusses Conrad's story “The Return” as a work of social satire.]

In “The Return” Joseph Conrad attempted to portray a social context with which he was unfamiliar—that of the London middle-class professional—and to develop within that scene the universality of the themes he had handled, and was to handle in the future, with confidence and stylistic density in novels placed in the Malayan forests and on ships of the merchant marine. He develops these themes in a style of detachment and irony, giving sympathy to neither the man nor the wife of the story, who are alienated from each other but need each other not only as a public declaration of their conventionality but also as a possible source of the honest emotion they desperately need but are never ready at the same time to accept.

The forces impelling Conrad to the story may have stemmed from his recent marriage, about which he was of at least two (and probably uncountable) minds, and the inspiration of a recent meeting with Henry James, the only writer Conrad ever called “Master.” The result of these efforts, hopes, and influences is the most ignored—and when noticed the most sternly condemned—of Conrad's works (“one of the worst [stories] ever written by a great novelist”),1 although one critic reads it respectfully as a near-paradigm of Conrad's recurring concerns with the relationship between ego and emotion and with the need to achieve self-identity.2 Conrad himself expressed conflicting ideas about the story, claiming initially it was a serious stylistic endeavor that his friend Edward Garnett persisted in misapprehending, but coming in time to saying “It is bad—and in sober truth I can't bear the sight of it any more.”3 But in studying the range of Conrad's comments, especially those shortly after the story's composition, his negative comments seem caused as much by puzzlement at his friends' and editors' inability to see what he was attempting as by his own rejection of his attempts.4

At the time he wrote the story—after finishing The Nigger of theNarcissus” and “Karain,” before writing “Youth” and starting Lord Jim and writing Heart of Darkness—he was still experimenting with style and métier, not having realized that the materials making up The Nigger of theNarcissus” were open to many permutations. Thus, in a state of professional uncertainty, he essayed serious new ambitions, especially in the shaping of the story's dialogue, which Edward Garnett attacked as “too logical” and which Conrad defended: “My dear fellow what I aimed at was just to produce the effect of cold water in every one of my man's speeches. … I've tried with all my might to avoid just these trivialities of rage and distraction which you judge to be necessary to the truth of the picture.”5

Whether Conrad could have developed into a “society” storyteller is a topic with little evidence, for this story is his only venture toward that mode. The story, however, is not the crashing failure it is seen as by so many loyal Conradians, not even when judged by the high standards that Conrad's ordinary level of production encourages us to apply. This is not to say that Garnett was “wrong.” Certainly one of his motivations was to help Conrad realize the potentialities he had perceived when first reading the manuscript of Almayer's Folly; surely it would have been difficult to encourage further writings in the style of “The Return” from the writer who recently had produced “The Idiots,” “An Outpost of Progress,” “The Lagoon,” The Nigger of theNarcissus,” and “Karain.” In these works, Conrad's style mixes evocativeness, audacity, punctilious and knowledgeable detail, and exotic or at least unusual setting. He deals with failures of sympathy, with betrayal, and with inabilities to understand new systems of belief; but ordinarily there is an effort to understand the beliefs. Empathy is not prohibited by the narrator's rejection of the ideology through unmistakable sarcasm.

The closest Conrad previously had come in the vein of social satire is “An Outpost of Progress,” and the satire there is focussed on two mediocrities, misfits in Europe as well as, as things turn out, in Africa; or perhaps in the closing passages of The Nigger of theNarcissus,” where the satire or criticism of England and materialism is voiced in the concluding magisterial tone of the polymorphic narrator who had already demonstrated command of a variety of perspectives and cognitions. In the novel, the closing satire is only one of several tones. The narrator's perspective is narrowed only temporarily at the novel's end: previously the narrator had been able to portray macrocosmic implications in a serious, non-ironic tone. “The Return” does not project a similar expansiveness. Its single tone is that of contempt, most frequently conveyed in an ironic manner. The narrator restricts his searchings to the main character's dilemma, as that character, Alvan Hervey, tries to come to terms with the first experience of his life that evokes an unanticipated emotion: his wife suddenly leaves him and then equally unexpectedly returns. (It is difficult to say which event in the sequence is the more upsetting to Hervey.) In relentlessly discouraging Conrad from social satire based on contemporary modish London circles, Garnett may well have preserved in Conrad his prophetic insight into matters beyond the stiflingness of polite hypocrisy as well as his seemingly inbred tone or analysis that reaches deeper than the kind of irony and sarcasm employed in “The Return.” Modern readers can appropriately feel gratitude to Garnett.

Nonetheless, there is permanence in the matter of “The Return” as well as in the more varied and sober stories of Conrad's greatness. That permanence comes in the awareness of the discrepancy between feelings, when those feelings are honestly got at, and the language that is available for expression of those feelings. Reinforcing this discrepancy is the emphasis on the conventional and the stereotypical as well as the interplay between the narrator's and the two characters' consciousnesses.

As with The Nigger of theNarcissus” and most other early Conrad stories, it is clear that Conrad has in mind a general vision of society. From its beginning, as the train bearing the protagonist, Alvan Hervey, arrives at the “West-End station,”6 the narrator emphasizes the representativeness of the setting, the characters, and the attitudes toward life and experience being embodied. Imagery suggests an anthropomorphism in the mechanical contrivances of city living (the underground train rushes “impetuously”; its carriage doors slam with a noise like that of a “fusilade”) and in the mechanism of the characters. Hervey is seen as effectively indistinguishable from “the rest” of the large number of men stepping out of the train, typed as professional workers in financial and business circles in the city: “They had high hats, healthy pale faces, dark overcoats and shiny boots; they held in their gloved hands thin umbrellas and hastily folded evening papers that resembled stiff, dirty rags of greenish, pinkish, or whitish colour.” The men all “appeared alike,” suggesting a “kinship” based on a resolute willingness to “ignore each other.” It may be a “brotherhood” that links them, but one that eschews familial warmth for “prudence, dignity, disgust, or foresight.” Alvan Hervey may himself consider that he is particularly “well connected, well educated and intelligent,” but the narrator immediately adjusts the reader's impression by noting that Hervey's attributes “were strictly on a par” with those of such other men as his fellow passengers.

Two human beings are isolated for notice by the author in the first paragraph, a “little woman in rusty black” and “a tottering old man”—singled out, in an ostentatious fashion, as “disregarded,” “no one spar[ing them] a glance.” The little woman and the tottering old man obviously are not incidental; they provide the focus for the observation that the narrator is making about the people typified by Hervey: “His clear pale face had under its commonplace refinement that slight tinge of overbearing brutality which is given by the possession of only partly difficult accomplishments; by excelling in games, or in the art of making money; by the easy mastery over animals and over needy men” (p. 112). By scattering in all directions, by avoiding each other as individuals, these men from the train characterize themselves as “men fleeing from something compromising; from familiarity or confidences; from something suspected and concealed—like truth or pestilence.”

Seldom does Conrad disguise the broad targets of his observations nor does he in this early story about a class of English society about which he knew little directly. Conrad's target in “The Return” is stereotypes—stereotypes about ourselves that we accept, partly for convenience and partly because we cannot tell what is real from what we have always unquestioningly understood to be the case. The course of “The Return” portrays Hervey's unwilling, slow, circumlocutory, self-resistant journey to an evaluation of the real and the understood; by the time the story ends the reader can understand a further purpose of that “disregarded little woman in rusty black” and the “tottering old man” who “stop[s] short in the moving throng [in the Underground station] to cough violently over his stick”: they have been adumbrations of Hervey and his wife, who remain isolated within themselves despite the feelings they experience during the story. The isolation of the individual cannot be broken unless he or she is willing to recognize another's true rather than understood self and unless that other person simultaneously makes a similar recognition. Little wonder, the story suggests, that so much of human life is loneliness, given the odds that two people linked arbitrarily will be able at the same time to recognize each other as something other than an appendage to self-concern and be able to find the words in their impoverished vocabularies to express states of feeling and mind they had until moments before never conceived of.

For this is the drama that the story develops, and perhaps the story's length is explicable and justifiable in terms of the aesthetic need that the slow coming to perception in Hervey be done gradually, inevitably, so that the final moment of awareness be perceived not only as a quasi-mystical insight but one backed up by a conviction that, although still only dimly understood, makes it impossible for Hervey to return to the complacent state of feeling and mind he had been in at the story's opening. Garver's judgment is that Hervey has a “vacuity from the second page”;7 mine is that the story traces Hervey's dim and intermittent but anxious and, as far as he is capable, sincere efforts to understand the situation of his wife's betrayal and return. There is a gap between Hervey's language (admittedly trite, shallow, melodramatic, uncomprehending, for most of the story) and the state of his mind (self-condoning but at moments approaching insight). Hervey, as the introduction I have just discussed makes clear, has never had an independent thought: he has married out of sexual attraction (since gone stale), he seeks success, and he is content with trivial friendships. This is how he has been socialized to exist. But even as he mouths expressions of the conventional outraged husband at his wife's behavior, the dominant state of mind appears to be bewilderment rather than outrage: he is not able to comprehend a state of affairs separate from the language he has been provided with to define himself. His life's values do not seem adequate to take in this new situation and permit him to go on as before.

His initial state is evident enough in the description of his marriage. “He had married five years ago. At the time all his acquaintances had said he was very much in love; and he had said so himself, frankly, because it is very well understood that every man falls in love once in his life—unless his wife dies, when it may be quite praiseworthy to fall in love again” (p. 112). Equally evident is the bearing of this allusion to an emotional life defined by general but transitory expectations of the Herveys' surrounding society:

“They moved … amongst perfectly delightful men and women who feared emotion, enthusiasm, or failure, more than fire, war, or mortal disease; who tolerated only the commonest formulas of commonest thoughts, and recognized only profitable facts. It was an extremely charming sphere, the abode of all the virtues, where nothing is realized and where all joys and sorrows are cautiously toned down into pleasures and annoyances. In that serene region, then, where noble sentiments are cultivated in sufficient profusion to conceal the pitiless materialism of thoughts and aspirations Alvan Hervey and his wife spent five years of prudent bliss unclouded by any doubt as to the moral propriety of their existence. She, to give her individuality fair play, took up all manner of philanthropic work and became a member of various rescuing and reforming societies patronized or presided over by ladies of title. He took an active interest in politics; and having met quite by chance a literary man—who nevertheless was related to an earl—he was induced to finance a moribund society paper. It was a semi-political, and wholly scandalous publication, redeemed by excessive dulness; and as it was utterly faithless, as it contained no new thought, as it never by any chance had a flash of wit, satire, or indignation in its pages, he judged it respectable enough, at first sight. … [H]e enjoyed also the special kind of importance he derived from this connection with what he imagined to be literature.”

(pp. 113-14)

The irony of this passage, within the story's first few pages, is already passing toward the tone of sarcasm; the heaviness of this tone ladled into the narrative's early pages no doubt helps account for the story's lack of success. (It was one of the few stories Conrad was unable to sell to a magazine before publication in a collection.) Conrad's idea of the narrow vision of complacent people is sound enough, the wit and wording are clever enough; but Conrad isn't confident enough with his new materials to realize that by the end of this passage he has already done quite enough in the way of denigrating his characters' intellect and way of life.

If part of Conrad's scheme is to show the gradual dawning of awareness in Hervey, another is to lambast him for being what his prior existence has made him. The difficulty is to render the casting off of a lifetime of accrued givens while keeping the protagonist, as representative of a class attitude, unsympathetic; thus the interweaving throughout the story of near-perceptiveness and of iterated boorishness. Equally relevant are the “individuality” in Hervey's wife's engagement in group philanthropy and the absence of “flash” in the writing sponsored by Hervey himself. The emphasis is on the absence of edge, the absence of independence of the individual in this society where ordinariness and humdrum reliability of expectation determine the “thought” that “individuals” should experience.

It is in this context of group security that Conrad places his tale, and though the scene is London the message is very close to the learning experiences of Europeans in Almayer's Folly, “An Outpost of Progress,” and, most strikingly, Heart of Darkness. At the points of Kurtz's deepest perception and revulsion—in negating the idealistic language of the report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs with his scrawled notation of distorted experiential wisdom (“Exterminate all the brutes!”) and in judging the experience of life shortly before his death (“The horror! The horror!”)—his reaction is to express in the extremities of language the extinction that true knowledge brings. To risk achieving individuality is to risk destruction, as Kurtz and Marlow learn; to challenge the limits of one's society is, in an ironic similarity, also risky, as Almayer learns despite his complacent self-assurance that his European “individuality” gives him special status in the society he expects to dominate. By its nature, language is a group creation; and in its utilization it perpetuates group conceptualization. Several of Conrad's protagonists (Kurtz, Heyst, Lord Jim, Razumov) learn that the ideal values they draw upon to justify their behavior cannot be communicated—they are isolated within their own achieved identities. Alvan Hervey is Conrad's first portrayal of a person coming to this realization.

The mirrors in his dressing room underscore Hervey's identity as one of a crowd, even when all the crowd is made up of various reflections of himself: “The strips of glass on the doors of wardrobes and his wife's large pier-glass reflected him from head to foot, and multiplied his image into a crowd of gentlemanly and slavish imitators, who were dressed exactly like himself; … who … had just such appearances of life and feeling as he thought it dignified and safe for any man to manifest. And like real people who are slaves of common thoughts, that are not even their own, they affected a shadowy independence by the superficial variety of their movements. … And like the men he respected they could be trusted to do nothing individual, original, or startling—nothing unforeseen and nothing improper” (pp. 116-17). This passage, just before Hervey discovers and reads the envelope his wife has left to tell him of her departure, represents the nature of Hervey's previous existence, for of course what is being described through the image of the mirrors is his relation to the society of which he forms a part (this becomes even more evident when, after he reads the letter, the reflections of himself become images threatening humiliation [p. 121] and rejection [p. 122]). His wife's abandonment destroys his preconceptions—of himself, of her, and of social needs and expectations; and the remainder of the story traces his coming to terms with the need to achieve contact with something genuine, indeed with the need to identify the “something” that can retain genuineness beneath the coverings and swathings of social decorum and emotional cowardice.

From the very beginning of his response to his wife's running away, the concern with language is more marked than is any other emotion. Grief for the loss of an individual is not present at all in Hervey; in fact, one of his first thoughts is, “If she had only died! Certain words would have been said to him in a sad tone, and, with proper fortitude, would have made appropriate answers. There were precedents for such an occasion” (p. 120). The salving quality of expected, conventional phrases allows one to get over disruptive moments in life, the more so in this case, no doubt, because Hervey would not have felt genuine grief even at his wife's decorous death (“The promises, the terrors, the hopes of eternity, are the concern of the corrupt dead; but the obvious sweetness of life belongs to living, healthy men” [p. 120]). But Hervey is not to have the consolation of self-contented survival, and of insincere, formulaic expressions of condolence. His first thought after he voices the words “She's gone!” is upon the ambiguous but portending quality of language in unconventional contexts: “It was terrible—not the fact but the words; the words charged with the shadowy might of a meaning, that seemed to possess the tremendous power to call Fate down upon the earth, like those strange and appalling words that sometimes are heard in sleep” (p. 119).

Hervey's initial reactions are confused, including rage at being the subject of horrified comments by “refined people” (he fears that his friends, though discreet and conventional, will refrain only in his presence from talking about his wife's behavior). But two threads are consistent through these early moments: Hervey is capable of perceptions of something lying behind the face of life (at p. 121 it is passion: “Yet he had a vision, a vision quick and distinct as a dream: … the destructive breath, the mysterious breath, the breath of passion … passion is the unpardonable and secret infamy of our hearts”; at p. 124 it is a more general knowledge: “For less than a second he looked upon the mysterious universe of moral suffering. … He stood alone, naked and afraid, like the first man on the first day of evil”); and for fleeting periods he is concerned that his situation combines “the novelty of real feelings” and “the sentiments which he knew that in fidelity to his bringing up … he ought to experience,” concerned because “he was unable to distinguish clearly between what is and what ought to be; between the inexcusable truth and the valid pretences” (p. 122). For most of the story he makes these gestures toward reconciliation with his true self, and repeatedly he retreats to the comforting conventional condemnation of his wife (who shortly returns home, unable to carry out her plan: she had not, after all, the passion that Hervey had feared she had been storing during their placid five-year marriage). While his keenest feelings are devoted to self-pity, he is also able to project his new-found knowledge of “crime” into “all the dormant infamies of the world. … Each [house he had earlier passed on the way home] seemed now an abode of anguish and folly” (p. 126).

The interchange between Hervey and his wife—whose lack of a first name significantly helps keep the reader's attention on Hervey—requires the remainder of this story. The emphasis upon conventional as opposed to genuine behavior—and the difficulty of telling the difference and expressing it—continues to occupy the narrator's energies, as Hervey struggles to achieve a true understanding of his own feelings and needs. His moments of perception of a truth beyond the conventional are hard-won, and so transitory that even as they are reached they are re-obscured by Hervey's conventionality and egoistic anxieties.

These moments are not frequent, and the two most notable ones are separated by the large portion of the story given to the conversation between Hervey and his wife in which he pompously lauds himself for his willingness to take her back while she (as the narrator informs us) is repressing her dismay that he has no concern for her feelings. The first occurs just before his wife's return. A highly colored presentation of Hervey's distressed self-absorption (through such trite phrases as “fit of hot anger” and “scorched surface of his heart”) precedes the narrator's disquisition, characteristically Conradian, about “a thrust, insidious and penetrating, that had stirred all those feelings, concealed and cruel, which the arts of the devil, the fears of mankind—God's infinite compassion, perhaps—keep chained deep down in the inscrutable twilight of our breasts.” The suggestion becomes explicit that Hervey is growing into insight but that it is only temporary. “For less than a second he looked upon the mysterious universe of moral suffering. … Then the curtain fell again, but his rapid vision left in Alvin Hervey's mind a trail of invincible sadness, a sense of loss and bitter solitude, as though he had been robbed and exiled” (p. 124).

The second critical moment of insight occurs after dinner, shared by husband and wife to preserve appearances in front of the servants, and it similarly renders a personality reluctant to hold to a new vision. By this time, near the end of the story, Hervey has come to realize that his previous standards—“success, humiliation, dignity, failure”—no longer mattered. “It came to him in a flash that morality is not a method of happiness.” Instead, “it was a question of truth or falsehood—it was a question of life or death.” Nonetheless, faced with the devastation that a break from conventionality would bring, he is willing to consider a retreat from his knowledge, from truth: “It was an awful sacrifice to cast all one's life into the flame of a new belief. He wanted help against himself, against the cruel decree of salvation. The need of tacit complicity, where it had never failed him, the habit of years affirmed itself. Perhaps she would help …” (pp. 167-68; my emphases). It is in this state of mind that he rushes to his wife for the concluding scene, a scene made ambiguous through the uncertainty of his own intention, for it is not clear whether he still intends to be asking for an act of complicity that would permit him to cover over his new knowledge; it is equally possible that he has changed yet again and is once more asking for truth.8 In one sense, then, “Can you stand it?” dumbfounds the reader's understanding as well as Mrs. Hervey's.

This kind of shift away from a perspective bounded by conventionality into narrator-endorsed consciousness and back again into self-protective isolation characterizes Conrad's method throughout this story. This observation points to perhaps the second major tactical error (in addition to the unrelieved heaviness of the early irony) made by Conrad in the story. His handling of narrative perspective creates unnecessarily a situation in which the narrator's broader perspective can become conflated with the more constricted intellect of one of the characters (Hervey, usually) coming to conscious self-knowledge. Inevitably, in a story focussed so closely upon the consciousness of characters limited both emotionally and intellectually, the primary mode of narration involves a close interaction between narrator and characters—that is, one in which the narrator presents, in the supposedly objective third person past tense, the details and significance of events and situations in the terms as understood by the character being portrayed at a given time.9 Thus, for example, the details of the opening scene are given as Hervey is capable of perceiving them, but of course without his being aware of the irony—the reader's grasping of the irony dependent upon his or her skill as a reader (and, in the case of “The Return,” Hervey's complacent acceptance of the aspects of the scene that are so clearly conventional).

Given the strong role played by the narrator, and the conflation of the narrator's consciousness and set of values and those of Hervey, it is not surprising that the perceptions and glimpses of self-knowledge gained by Hervey lean in the direction of characteristic Conradian ideales valeurs. Hervey seems to realize that physical passion led him to marry his wife, but as his feelings develop he realizes that the main value she had for him was to represent fidelity, a sort of symbol for the necessity to behave well, a recourse against the dark depths of life. He wants her to recognize this importance he's seen in her, but she thinks he is alternately pitying himself (thus continuing to show himself to be obtuse to her needs) and trying to make a sexual advance; and so she repulses him, saying at one point “This is odious.” Ultimately, in their brief, final encounter in her dressing-room, Alvan comes to see that even if their old life is re-established on the surface he will never know what she is thinking and thus will never know the truth of life, not even after death. That is, he will never have any certitude in life (for who knows? she may still dislike him, may still be thinking of others). All of this rushes upon Hervey suddenly, and although, as I explain above, Hervey's exact anxiety is kept undefined, his angry “Can you stand it?” refers essentially to the incertitude of re-establishing the old ground rules. But she interprets it to mean can she stand living with him knowing he's jealous. She says “Yes!”; he retors “Well, I can't!” and walks out to end the story.

The final scene, then, underscores on the personal level what had been stressed on the societal level of the opening scene. Indeed, throughout the story the primary emphasis is on people's isolation. Neither Hervey nor his wife makes their deepest, most sincere individual (as opposed to their socially shaped) feelings evident to the other; nor is there any way, in this story, for one person to communicate the truth of his or her consciousness to another. The moment of Hervey's insight brings home to him the unknowableness of truth, the lack of meaning; and he sees that marriage is like living in a house of ill-repute unless one knows—which one cannot—of the genuineness of professed love. The idea of the impossibility of participating in another's thought is underscored in the final dialogue, where his “Can you stand it?” and her reply “Yes” bear upon different aspects of their relationship. Nonetheless, the egoistic concerns manifested in their questions may approximate each other sufficiently to justify his departure.

Something of the tragic is evoked by this drawn-out portrayal of the shallowness and emotional sterility of the well-to-do. In his leaving, Hervey asserts the need to live honestly—an assertion that has only a touch of the melodramatic because it “locks in” (as Conrad wrote about the function of the ending of Heart of Darkness) and encapsulates numerous failed rapprochements by the couple in the preceding pages; but one scarcely feels confident that Conrad projects Hervey's new state as satisfactory. He had, of course, been “happier” in his time of comfortable and bland ignorance, but his awareness, however vaguely formulated in the story, of the consequences of honesty denies him a return to the delusions of ordinary life. On this matter, the story's final paragraph, “He never returned,” is definitive, even as it plays a concluding irony in its inversion of the story's title.

Ian Watt has pointed out that “The Return” was the first story Conrad began after he had met Henry James in 1897, and that the story has “a somewhat Jamesian subject—‘the fabulous untruth’ of a society husband's ‘idea of life.’” Watt accepts the customary judgment that the story is a failure, noting that “If “The Return” taught Conrad any permanent lesson, it was probably that he should avoid the Jamesian subject matter.”10 I am not so sure that the story is a complete failure, or that Conrad couldn't have written better had he continued in the Jamesian vein; on the other hand, I would rather have one James and one Conrad than two Jameses. Conrad's development of his own subject matter clearly was a gain for the history of fiction.


  1. Albert Guerard, Conrad the Novelist (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958), p. 96.

  2. Royal Roussel, The Metaphysics of Darkness: A Study in the Unity and Development of Conrad's Fiction (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971), pp. 33-37.

  3. Letters from Joseph Conrad, 1895-1924, ed. Edward Garnett (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1928), p. 129.

  4. Many of the letters in the newly published first two volumes of the Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, ed. Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, 1986), comment on “The Return.” Possibly in this story Conrad is using the Garnett circle, into which he had been drawn, in the same manner he had earlier used his own experiences, and that he was upset by, and self-defensive about, his evident failure to portray this level of society satisfactorily. The extent of his commentary may reflect how much Garnett had to say against it—which in turn implies it was effectively about Garnett's world. Conrad's response to Garnett's first communication about the story (which Conrad did not retain) is not easy to decipher in terms of Garnett's evident strong dislike reflected in Conrad's self-justifications in several of the letters (“The Return! And You—you are jealous! Of what? The subject is yours as much as ever it has been” [Collected Letters, I, 386]); presumably it refers to either the social level portrayed in the story or to a projected project by Garnett himself. Part of Conrad's self-criticism could well be his way of deflecting and diminishing Garnett's resentment at what could scarcely be thought a favorable analysis, while his stubborn insistence on trying to sell the story no doubt reflects his financial situation as well as residual confidence in the story's merits.

  5. Conrad, Collected Letters, I, 393, 387.

  6. Joseph Conrad, “The Return,” Tales of Unrest (1898). I am citing the Penguin edition (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1977), pp. 111-70.

  7. Lawrence Garver, Conrad's Short Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), p. 38.

  8. Conrad's reference to the ending of the story in a letter to Garnett suggests that the latter was Conrad's intention: “I wanted the truth to be first dimly seen through the fabulous untruth of that man's convictions—of his idea of life—and then to make its way out with a rush at the end” (Collected Letters, I, 387).

  9. The best discussion of this narrative mode is Roy Pascal, The Dual Voice: Free Indirect Speech and Its Functioning in the Nineteenth-Century Novel (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1977).

  10. Ian Watt, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), pp. 203-204.

Hugh Epstein (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7655

SOURCE: Epstein, Hugh. “‘Where He Is Not Wanted’: Impression and Articulation in ‘The Idiots’ and ‘Amy Foster.’” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 23, no. 3 (1991): 217-32.

[In the following essay, Epstein considers the ways in which writing conveys sensory experience in “The Idiots” and “Amy Foster.”]

“A writing may be lost; a lie may be written; but what the eye has seen is truth and remains in the mind.”

Arsat's passionate declaration in “The Lagoon” is compelling in its simple testimony to the enduring truthfulness of impressions. And we all know that Conrad conceived of his task in writing as “before all, to make you see.” But what happens when impressions are, in fact writing? This article will consider how writing conveys sensory experience in two of Conrad's stories of “the bewildered, the simple, and the voiceless”;1 and in the way in which his use of inarticulate protagonists is associated with a peculiarly intense apprehension of the indifference which greets human aspirations. The focus will be upon the status and achievement of language in a world which is known to our senses but conceived of in hope, dream, and illusion.


Conrad's early writing is often called impressionistic because it takes the “eloquence of facts”2 he so admired in Maupassant in terms of how that factual voice declares itself to the senses, in the attempt to record truly “the stress and passion within the core of each convincing moment.”3 So in “The Idiots”, the writing seeks what is resistant, giving a sense of the eye squinting in the sunshine against the gleams thrown off by light striking hard surfaces. In his “Author's Note” to Tales of Unrest Conrad wrote that “The suggestion of [“The Idiots”] was not mental but visual: the actual idiots.” Both as facts and as occurrences of a moment, at the opening of the story the idiots are encountered upon the road in words that build this “suggestion” into a simple but brilliantly-lit depiction of a dour and stunted life. The lack of explanation, the attention to the event of seeing and hearing, make light, land, color, sound into immediate presences: “The sun was shining violently upon the undulating surface of the land. The rises were topped by clumps of meagre trees, with their branches showing high on the sky as if they had been perched on stilts”(57).4 A graceless and obstinate immobility is conveyed by a method that gives the reader no easy or privileged access to the intention that assembles the succession of pictures.

The feeling of a slightly disconcerting assault upon one's senses that is one effect of this approach to description, was brilliantly characterized by Ford Madox Ford in his introduction to “The Sisters,” in which he writes, “if you read Conrad sentence by sentence with minute care you will see that each sentence is a mosaic of little crepitations of surprise and that practically every paragraph contains its little jolt.”5 This comment rightly removes the emphasis from a simple mimetic correspondence between the words and any visual image they might create for the reader, whilst retaining in “crepitation,” “surprise,” and “jolt” a notion of a relationship between the activity of language and the material world, but one that can only find its embodiment metaphorically, in a reader's mental response.6 So the impressionistic jolt produced by the sighting of the first child could be ascribed to the vividness of the pictorial description:

“Here he is”, said the driver again.

In the long grass bordering the road a face glided past the carriage at the level of the wheels as we drove slowly by. The imbecile face was red, and the bullet head with close-cropped hair seemed to lie alone, its chin in the dust.


But more accurately, it is the forcible joining of unexpected verbal fragments—“face glided,” “bullet head … seemed to lie alone”—that creates the impression of raw seeing. And the last two items, “seemed to lie alone, its chin in the dust,” leave the reader uncertain whether the disembodied head is a subject for pity or the object of a brutal visual joke.

At the beginning of the story everything seems declared to the narrator's senses and withheld from his understanding. So the emergence of a moral perspective upon the exhibition of these local curios is, for the present, shoved aside by the brute experience of seeing their exposure in sunlight:

“Ah. There's another,” said the man, with a certain satisfaction in his tone, as if he had caught sight of something expected.

There was another. That one stood nearly in the middle of the road in the blaze of sunshine at the end of his own short shadow. And he stood with hands pushed into opposite sleeves of his long coat, his head sunk between the shoulders, all hunched up in the flood of heat.


The conjunction here of a great deal of rhetorically engaging alliteration and vowelling with an apparent utter detachment of attitude achieves an abruptly declaratory tone, leaving the reader tensely expectant for an explanation which does not materialize. A similarly scrupulous distance and neutrality are maintained as the idiot's unseeing gaze is bestowed upon the narrator's passing: “but he did not turn to look at us. Probably the image passed before the eyes without leaving any trace on the misshapen brain of the creature”(58). The comment, almost ostentatiously devoid of sympathy, foregrounds the issue of seeing analytically; but the most obviously mimetic achievement of the writing in this opening section is, in fact, aural not visual. The narrator's final sight of the idiots is startling in its meaningless intensity:

Their cropped black heads stuck out from the bright yellow wall of countless blossoms. The faces were purple with the strain of yelling; the voices sounded blank and cracked like a mechanical imitation of old people's voices; and suddenly ceased when we turned into the lane.


An aggressively staccato arrangement of sound produces the sense of impact that something seen made upon the narrator. This is the impression; and to get the effect Conrad necessarily exploits the quite arbitrary yet reliable connections between the reader's mental registration of a sentence sound-pattern and a fictional world supposedly brought into being by sight. That is, until the final movement of the extract. Here, the sight of the purple faces and the sound of the yelling are suddenly cut off, not only semantically, but also by the enacting pause of the semi-colon; then the self-sufficient triplet “and suddenly ceased” represents the just perceptibly isolated moment of awareness of the absence of sound, followed by the more relaxed cadence of the final clause, “when we turned into the lane,” which acts as an explanation, finally, of the sensation just experienced.

Stephen Crane wrote of one of his descriptions in “War Memories,” “I bring this to you merely as an effect—an effect of mental light and shade, if you like: something done in thought similar to that which the French Impressionists do in colour; something meaningless and at the same time overwhelming, crushing, monstrous.” The expansion into the unexpectedly violent assertion of that final clause is closely matched in one of Conrad's own pronouncements, delivered in the famous letter to T. Fisher Unwin of 22 August 1896:

A picture of life is saved from failure by the merciless vividness of detail. Like a dream it must be startling, undeniable, absurd and appalling. Like a dream it may be ludicrous or tragic and like a dream pitiless and inevitable; a thing monstrous or sweet from which You cannot escape.7

Like much of Conrad, this reads in two ways. Of course, the insistently reiterated “like a dream” implies that nothing for Conrad would be merely an effect and, further, suggests a realm for depiction beyond the surface, one that is inaccessible to sense impressions alone. Written from the harsh Breton coast where he had completed “The Idiots” three months earlier, Conrad's statement about writing, however, also depicts man as the helpless harbinger of a succession of scenes that it is his fate to watch. The “merciless” quality Conrad seeks for his picture does associate these comments with an impressionist approach, implicit in which is a vision of life as yielding surfaces and moments, but as being fundamentally inscrutable; it can only be known as a succession of images which are the possession—yet which always elude the possession—of isolated consciousnesses. Moments of pure sensation are, in themselves, meaningless; and if life really is no more than a succession of perceived moments, it cannot be a shared story: we are fundamentally alone. But against this decomposing quality of prose “pointillism,” it is characteristic of Conrad to oppose the efforts of a narrator actively seeking to confer meaning on what he sees. That effort (significantly conceived as one of “imagination not invention”) is clearly an objectification of Conrad's own struggle to master his impressions and oppose a philosophy of mere contingency and solipsism to which his pessimism was prey. Such an enquiry into the re-presentation of impressions is beautifully caught for us when, in A Personal Record, Conrad considers the appeal for him of the Malay characters who were to people Almayer's Folly:

They came with a silent and irresistable appeal … It seems now to have had a moral character, for why should the memory of these beings, seen in their obscure sun-bathed existence, demand to express itself in the shape of a novel, except on the ground of that mysterious fellowship which unites in a community of hopes and fears all the dwellers on this earth?8

However, in “The Idiots” the major artistic impulse is towards the depiction of those moments that confirm only isolation and exile. In the letter to T. Fisher Unwin cited above, the next, much quoted, sentence runs, “Our captivity within the incomprehensible logic of accident is the only fact of the universe,” and the brief history of the Bacadous is Conrad's purest expression of that feeling. The story has much in common with Crane's sardonic little poem published three years later:

A man said to the universe:

“Sir, I exist.”

“However,” replied the universe,

“The fact has not created in me

A sense of obligation.”

In “The Idiots,” the narrator's attempt to site the idiots in a moral universe is stridently naive: “They were an offence to the sunshine, a reproach to empty heaven, a blight in the concentrated and purposeful vigour of the wild landscape” (59). The tale, when at last it stands before its narrator, will indeed reveal heaven to be empty; and the earlier description had insisted upon a sensational account of an indecipherable world, after which “offence” and “purposeful” sound merely rhetorical. Concentration and purpose belong to Bacadou, Madame Levaille, and the Marquis of Chevanes. If the tale dramatizes man's attempt to leave his imprint on the earth, then in a material sense Bacadou does so—“It's a good farm,” we are told. But in that self-mirroring sense so necessary to man in Conrad's conception, he fails. So, after the birth of the third child, Jean-Pierre's lips were “more tightly compressed than before; as if for fear of letting the earth he tilled hear the voice of hope that murmured within his breast” (63). In a brutal manner “like a dream,” “The Idiots” presents the pitiless and inevitable progression from Jean-Pierre's vision of “two big sons striding over the land from patch to patch, wringing tribute from the earth beloved and fruitful” (61), to his comfortless realization, “Having to face alone his fields, he felt the inferiority of man who passes away before the clod that remains” (70).

The persistence of an idea in the face of the facts is what the good part of the story is about. Bacadou's idea of having powerful sons is brought violently into collision with the reality of his idiot children. And the technique of composition ensures that the reader undergoes a mercilessly vivid encounter with the idiots before he has any access to the animating idea which, in fact, produced them. No one has expressed better than Ramon Fernandez the virtue of this approach: “Catching a glimpse is the best way of seeing because it is the best way of preserving the human element as if embalmed in our impression and at the same time respecting its living impenetrability.”9 Impenetrability is indeed the keynote of the vision in “The Idiots,” where nature gives no corresponding sign to man's presence. So, also, in “The Sisters,” Stephen turns his back on the sea because it does not give him the word, “the word desired, prayed for, invoked; the word that would give life, that would give shape, to the unborn longings of his heart.”10 Language, meaning, is a matter of human imposition, and the chances of success are not very high. When Bacadou shouts at the church for God to come out, “The song of the nightingales beat on all sides against the high walls of the church, and flowed back between stone crosses and flat grey slab, engraved with words of hope and sorrow” (68). The fluid song is repelled by man's structures, yet can accommodate itself around them; man's meaning, on the other hand, is a matter of fixing, trying to make words permanent by engraving them—an activity that extends by a nice syntactical ambiguity to his effect upon the nightingale's song too. The irony is deepened when we come to Madame Levaille who is more responsive to what moves granite than to what moves her daughter, giving a satiric as well as a pathetic thrust to Susan's cry, “Do you think I'm made of stone?” (73).

In “The Idiots” it is only the objects of the writer's satire, Madame Levaille and the Marquis of Chavanes, who wring any sort of meaning out of life. The logic of accident—an unlikely succession of idiot children—leaves the Bacadous howling amidst indifference. Susan's last utterance is “one shrill cry for help that seemed to dart upwards along the perpendicular face of the rock, and soar past, straight into the high and impassive heaven” (81). The vision of man in this tale is of a diminished creature who is not at home in his habitat, the potential tragedy in the story of patrimony receiving a sardonically reductive treatment. Conrad is almost comically unable to write the story of a woman's self-determination, although in Susan Bacadou we can see clearly the sort of interest that will later produce Winnie Verloc. In the final section, the attempt to amplify Susan's emotions by treating the landscape anthropomorphically is directly at war with the perception of earth's indifference which compels the detached visualization of the opening. The inability of either the characters or the narrator to articulate an effective cry of defiance at the impassivity of the universe limits the human scope of Conrad's achievement in the story, but it is also a condition for the peculiar intensity with which it briefly lights Stein's contemplation in the shadows: “Sometimes it seems to me that man is come where he is not wanted” (LJ 159).


The narrative strategy of all these stories—“The Idiots,” “The Lagoon,” “Karain,” “Amy Foster” and even, in a more complicated fashion, “Falk” and Heart of Darkness—is always to do with the disclosure of a dark hinterland to the visible scene. That which catches the light is forcefully presented by a primary narrator, only to have its impact complicated by a story retrieved from darkness by a second narrator. In fact, the “highest kind of justice to the visible universe,” “underlying” as its “truth” is, is not to be achieved by sustained looking: Conrad's descriptions are not as innocent as that. Meaning is a matter of human dreams and illusions that impose themselves upon the visible world: Conrad's tales become the story of that imposition.

The failure of “The Idiots” as a whole is the failure to narrate the disclosure. Conrad's belief in the existence of Karain and Arsat is so much greater than in the Bacadous that it permits their tales to escape the pessimistic sense of the human condition as being one of marginal attendance upon a gigantic accident, which is the overriding outlook of the French story. Their actions are the expressions of choice and have moral consequences: indeed action, leading to a sense of one's own story, is according to Conrad the only and the necessary detachment from the aimless revolution of the circumambient world. In the well known words from Nostromo, “In our activity alone do we find the sustaining illusion of an independent existence as against the whole scheme of things of which we form a helpless part” (409). And of course Decoud, Conrad's most articulate character, when robbed of the possibility of action and marooned on the Great Isabel, succumbs to an absolute impressionism and consequently an absolute loss of his sense of self. We can gain some sense of the desperation in which Conrad felt he was writing for his life by turning from Decoud directly to his own moving attempt to assert his conception of himself in the letter to William Blackwood of 31 May 1902: his writing “is not the haphazard business of a mere temperament. There is in it as much intelligent action guided by a deliberate view of the effect to be attained as in any business enterprise.”11 And we can now understand the insistence of his assertion in the same letter that his work is “nothing but action—action observed, felt and interpreted with an absolute truth to my sensations (which are the basis of art in literature),” which is a picture of the necessary struggle of his sense of self out of the impressions that assail him; yet an acknowledgement that, as an artist, he must allow his senses to be thus immersed.

We have seen that such an immersion can become solipsism, the view shared by artists as different as Pater and Maupassant that we are each locked in a world created by our own impressions. The partial fallacy of this view is that it assumes individuals construct their experience and view of the world entirely from their own sensations rather than from the shared social forms and categories provided by language. This is not the position of Conrad's maturity: Nostromo and The Secret Agent depict the self-enclosure created by people who construct their lives out of watchwords. Conrad saw acutely the fraudulence inherent in the generalizing tendency of language. He reserved his scorn for the great abstract nouns—glory, pity, progress, material interests—while acknowledging their power. Yet if the artist's “action” is to gain some degree of mastery over the visible universe, like Adam in the Garden his essential tools are substantives. It is this which makes a literature of pure impressions an impossibility, however much art must make its appeal by “an impression conveyed through the senses.” The imperative to trust substantives led Conrad to praise the security of “technical language … a flawless thing for its purpose,” a language “created by simple men with keen eyes for the real aspects of things they see in their trade.”12 I want to emphasize “keen eyes,” “aspects,” and “trade” to indicate the active and expressive, rather than the receptive and mimetic, qualities inherent in language.

A glance at two approaches to the place of language in perception, one theoretical and one artistic, may serve to sharpen our response to Conrad's own uneasy but courageous position. Conrad's neglected contemporary, the linguistic philosopher Fritz Mauthner, engaged with the issue in these terms: “It is only language which makes us split and double the world into the adjectival and substantive world, which makes us speak of things apart from their properties.”13 In a strikingly similar insight, Margaret Atwood in Surfacing, a novel profoundly concerned with true seeing as opposed to Americanized male categorization, has her protagonist think, or sense, “Sight flowing ahead of me over the ground, eyes filtering the shapes, the names of things fading but their forms and uses remaining, the animals learned what to eat without nouns.”14

Mauthner expresses the aesthetic of an absolute and pure impressionism when he writes, “An apple is nothing but the cause of sensations: round, red, sweet etc.; it does not occur, apart from the sensations of which it is a cause, for a second time, it does not exist a second time.”15 This ultimately is a recipe for the dissolution of our characteristic human construction of world into word through the agency of memory. In Surfacing, the protagonist specifically repudiates the human:

The forest leaps upward, enormous, the way it was before they cut it, columns of sunlight frozen; the boulders float, melt, everything is made of water, even the rocks. In one of the languages there are no nouns, only verbs held for a longer moment.

The animals have no need for speech, why talk when you are a word.16

Perception here is represented as being so immediate, complete, and harmonious that language is sensation, no longer construction. This umbilical relation to the world may be an ideal, but Mauthner marks out the boundaries of such a sensory receptiveness by saying that “every new technical expression is strictly speaking descriptive, only an adjective. That one uses it as a substantive is already the beginning of its misuse. Human language would be more philosophical if it had no substantives at all.17 So any linguistic philosophy that seeks a “natural” and transparent transmission, yet accepts that we have got the language that we have got, has finally to concede defeat. Mauthner talks of “the essential inadequacy of language for the knowledge of the world,” and recommends “a suicide of language … Critique of language must teach liberation from language as the highest aim of self-liberation”18 Conversely, Margaret Atwood's heroine, not entirely wanted anywhere, imagines for herself finally a return to the city and to “the intercession of words.” As philosophic sceptic, we sense that at times Conrad came close to Mauthner's position; but as artist he tenaciously pursues the direction taken so reluctantly by Atwood's heroine.

The direction is, however ambiguously, towards an encounter with words and all their duplicities: for the artist there is no unmediated encounter with the phenomenal world. Conrad's own most extensive remarks on the subject come in an 1899 letter to Hugh Clifford which offers a striking commentary on the apparently simple enterprise of trying “to make you see.” Offering both praise and astute criticism of Clifford's “In a Corner of Asia,” Conrad writes:

You do not leave enough to the imagination. I do not mean as to the facts—the facts cannot be too explicitly stated; I am alluding simply to the phrasing. True a man who knows so much (without taking into account the manner in which his knowledge was acquired) may well spare himself the trouble of meditating over the words, only that words, groups of words, words standing alone, are symbols of life, have the power in their sound or their aspect to present the very thing you wish to hold up before the mental vision of your readers. The things “as they are” exist in words; therefore words should be handled with care lest the picture, the image of truth abiding in facts should become distorted—or blurred.

… the whole of the truth lies in the presentation; therefore the expression should be studied in the interest of veracity. This is the only morality of art apart from the subject.19

The first thing to say is that the extract indicates Conrad's extraordinary consciousness of the material presence of words; he pictures them for Clifford as lying in wait, offering more than mere exchange value if approached correctly. Some readers will want to seize upon words presenting “the very thing” and “the things ‘as they are’ exist in words” as evidence of a transparent and mimetic view of language, one that would accord with simple surface impressionism. But the passage taken as a whole demonstrates Conrad's much more subtle relationship to observed facts and employed language, one that leads away from sensations towards conceptions. Words do not contain the properties they refer to, they are, more strangely, “symbols of life” which in a comparatively static form “present” and “hold up” things before the readers “mental vision.” These symbols replace the solidity of things with their own form of life, one whose supreme claim is to be “the image of truth” that dwells mutely in facts; and finally, the realm of “truth” is removed entirely from the province of facts to that of “presentation.”

Conrad goes on to quote from Clifford's writing:

‘When the whole horror of his position forced itself with an agony of realisation upon his frightened mind, Pa’ Tûa for a space lost his reason—

and comments

In this sentence the reader is borne down by the full expression. The words: ‘with an agony of realization’ completely destroy the effect—therefore interfere with the truth of the statement. [My emphasis]. The word ‘frightened’ is fatal. It seems to me as if it had been written without any thought at all. It takes away all sense of reality …

Reality and truth, in other words, cannot be directly apprehended. Writer and reader here have to concern themselves with a “sense of reality,” “the truth of the statement,” which are the properties of the effects of the writing. In wishing Clifford to excise “frightened,” Conrad insists, “No word is adequate. The imagination of the reader should be left free to arouse his [Pa Tûa's] feeling.” Writing a narrative, then, is neither a simple record of impressions, nor just telling the story: it is being concerned that the effect of the words is to preserve the integrity of the subject while allowing sufficient disclosure for the story to be constructed in the reader's imagination. Reading Conrad's tales confirms his generally post-impressionistic position, one which acknowledges that a writer is dealing in a medium that actively interposes itself between sensations and extra-linguistic reality. The word, the idea, the story—this is the characteristic and resolutely human domain of the “rescue work” that emerges from behind his land and seascapes. At his most successful, Conrad employs sensationalist writing to expose human vulnerability and, by contrast, the often fraudulent but often necessary protection offered by conventional language. Such a device finds its full force when it is associated with inarticulate protagonists confronting the dismaying unresponsiveness of the world in which they live.

“A lie may be written”: seeing that betrayal is such an insistent concern of Conrad's fiction, it is tempting to think that adherence to sense impressions was as attempt not to compound betrayal in the writing. So “what the eye has seen is truth”; but to understand what has been seen involves “a conviction of our fellow men's existence strong enough to take upon itself a form of imagined life clearer than reality.”20 Narrating a story to an audience may at least temporize with our existential solitude, even if it cannot dispel it. Conrad's most poignant expression of this is “Amy Foster,” in which Dr. Kennedy, and above all Yanko, try to construct a story, a life—and the tragedy is that Amy defeats them.


Both “The Idiots” and “Amy Foster” begin with an encounter on the road and proceed to retrieve the story behind their almost impenetrable subjects; but in “The Idiots” the disconcerting thrust into the confrontation is total while in “Amy Foster” the glimpse of the girl—“her dull face, red … as if her flat cheeks had been vigorously slapped” (229)—is given to a primary narrator while the telling of her story is dominated by a second narrator, Kennedy. Kennedy's discourse reveals itself as that of a receptive, enquiring, competent guide, opening with the relaxed certainties of an intelligence at ease with itself. Isaac Foster's affair is “scandalous enough to serve as a motive for Greek tragedy” (230); Amy's love “was love as the Ancients understood it” (232). Against these comfortable appeals to history and myth, the atmospheric impressionism given to the frame narrator is significant in establishing the silence and the unyielding passivity of land and sea in the face of human voicing. As the story is told,

Not a whisper, not a splash, not a stir of the shingle, not a footstep, not a sigh came up from the earth below—never a sign of life but the scent of climbing jasmine: and Kennedy's voice, speaking behind me, passed through the wide casement, to vanish outside in a chill and sumptuous stillness.


And what the whole tale dramatizes is how the security, both of the scientific outlook and of yarning with a friend, ebbs away to expose, but not to explain, the “inscrutable mystery” of human hearts. So, towards the end of his story, Kennedy pauses upon his own uncertainty, “I wondered …” and interrupts his tale-telling to look out upon the sea which, rather than the human understanding, is depicted “as if enclosing all the earth with all the hearts lost among the passions of love and fear” (254). Science ends in baffled assertion: “Physiologically now,” he said, turning away abruptly, “it was possible. It was possible.”

The sense of estrangement which overtakes Kennedy in his narration is borne throughout the tale by Yanko, for whom, knowing “nothing of the earth, England was an undiscovered country” (233)—a phrase which recasts the breezy assurance of the earlier description of Kennedy as “the companion of a famous traveller, in the days when there were continents with unexplored interiors” (228). Yanko is tragic because his career faithfully reproduces the picture of the human condition outlined in Conrad's statement to Cunninghame Graham in the letter that opens, significantly enough for “Amy Foster,” “You are the only man—in this or in any other country—who took any effective interest in [my fortunes]”:

What makes mankind tragic is not that they are the victims of nature, it is that they are conscious of it. To be part of the animal kingdom under the conditions of this earth is very well—but as soon as you know of your slavery the pain, the anger, the strife—the tragedy begins.21

Yanko's consciousness makes his story painful to himself, the knowledge that he utters “human accents” that are of no more account than parrotting. Deprived of comprehendable language, emerging from the sea to find his place among the animals, his first action in the story, like a birth, is to struggle “instinctively like an animal in a net, and this blind struggle threw him out into a field” (233). His condition is to crawl “on all fours” and to find a welcome in the bleating of sheep. He hides in Hammond's pig pound. Yanko has to work his way back up the evolutionary tree and the ladder to social respectability; and his experience of arriving on the south coast of England is in fact a birth into consciousness of man's plight,his struggle with existential loneliness and alienation. Nothing corresponds. Yet if Yanko's enforced inarticulateness is the artistic means by which his recognition of his plight is made so intense, it is his assertion of human identity—individual and national—which is the ground of his tragedy. Yanko is a vital force of life in the story, and he is invested as far as is artistically possible with a vulnerable openness of seeing unmediated by familiarizing language. Kennedy's simulation of Yanko's account of his journey out of eastern Europe is Conrad's purest piece of impressionism (235-36).22 The crucially generalizing nouns are gone, the words for naming train, station, ship. Instead the reader encounters the form and substance of such things, the presence of “the iron track … a bench in a house of bricks … steam machines … the side of a thing like a great house on the water … bare trees in the shapes of crosses.” The condition for the vivid immediacy of this telling is Yanko's ejection into an utterly unfamiliar succession of experiences of which he can take no possession by organizing and reducing them into the ordinary currency of language that we exchange instead of impressions. This is the world occurring once only and existing as nothing but the cause of sensations; and the sensibility expressed is that of a child, unable, because it does not occur in vividly pictorial form, to perceive the system behind the event. So the passage acts as a touchstone of innocence within the story in the manner in which it renders the impact of experience as a struggle into language. For the rest of us, the struggle is against the habits of received language so that experience can be faced more nakedly.

In fact Yanko never fully inhabits language in the unfolding of his story. Even when his “sort of anxious baby-talk” is replaced by “great fluency,” he still speaks “the words of an unearthly language.” The child may become the man, but only to learn yet more painfully how utterance fails to shift what surrounds him, and what that is is an impenetrable refusal of the cry of life. Yanko remains alien, unhabituated, undulled; unfitted to the melancholy round to which the people of Brenzett have reduced the world. To Smith he jabbers “in a most decomposing manner” (240); and, indeed, the composition of this mean-spirited little community can only be maintained by actually locking him up. Unlike Yanko, Smith finds the language to control the experience of the encounter, placing him first as “an unfortunate dirty tramp,” and then as “an escaped lunatic.” When, more kindly, the young ladies from the Rectory try to bring Yanko within the pale of language as they see it, the presentation is comically to their disadvantage: the parenthetical “(one of them read Goethe with a dictionary, and the other had struggled with Dante for years)” (244-45) is shortly followed by Yanko's “flood of passionate speech … pleasant, soft, musical” (245).

But to be without the protection of linguistic and social familiarity is to be ejected into a life of unmediated impressions which seems to Kennedy to be “an existence overshadowed, oppressed, by everyday material appearances, as if by the visions of a nightmare” (247).23 A vital openness leaves Yanko at the mercy of impressions, the most abiding of which is that of Amy's “golden heart.” Authentic utterance is what Yanko yearns for and seeks to find with his son; and Kennedy, in relating the tale, is striving for “that full utterance which through all our stammering is of course our only and abiding intention” as Marlow says in Lord Jim. They are both defeated by the silence and the fear of life embodied in Amy. Yanko, like a wild bird, lives vividly in the present; but his song has “a melancholy human note” of consciousness.

He was different; innocent of heart, and full of goodwill, which nobody wanted, this castaway, that, like a man transplanted into another planet, was separated by an immense space from his past and by an immense ignorance from his future. His quick, fervent utterance positively shocked everybody.


In “The Idiots,” dogged life that scarcely dares to express itself or its purpose is mocked by the contingent conditions of human life on this planet; in “Amy Foster,” the offer of vivid life is rejected by a community so dulled and turned inward that it can only retreat into mockery before the new and different. The bleakly sardonic philosophy of the earlier story has indeed been humanized in that denial and rejection have been made human responsibilities.

Behind the human drama, however, the impression of cosmic indifference persists powerfully in “Amy Foster,” and it is the occasion of the appeal and the protest that eludes any convincing expression in “The Idiots.” In the ironic breach between Yanko's final “Why?” cried “in the penetrating and indignant voice of a man calling to a responsible Maker” (256), and the answer, which is “a gust of wind and a swish of rain”, we approach the terrain of Lear's heath and his cry, “Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?” It is important to see in Conrad's story how, although all the quickenings of sympathy are associated with Yanko, the story comes to rest in the mystery of Amy herself and “the terror, the unreasonable terror, of that man she could not understand” (255).24 Conrad's choice of title, “Amy Foster” rather than “A Husband” or “A Castaway,” puts the emphasis, finally, where it should be. It insists, ironically enough considering the serialization in a Christmas edition of the Illustrated London News, on the essential pessimism of the tale that follows.

Amy's tenderness to Yanko is equivalent to that which she shows for Mr. Smith's “outlandish” grey parrot, whose “peculiarities exercised upon her a positive fascination” (231). Love of Yanko exercises “a powerful spell” over her, an “enchantment,” a “transport”; but the dream that sustains Amy's “mysterious forgetfulness of self” (232) is one from which she is “awakened,” it is extinguished by a deeper fear of otherness that stops her ears to “human accents”. The irreducible mystery of her fear is allowed to haunt the concluding pages of the tale, finding its most pointed moment in her soft exclamation during Yanko's illness,“Oh, I hope he won't talk” (255). As Sanford Pinsker has written, “Amy belongs to that camp of silence that ultimately destroys those who would articulate their experience in words.”25

And Kennedy too, though not an unreliable narrator—whether “we see as Kennedy sees” (McLauchlan) or find him guilty of “rhetorical overkill” (Pinsker)—is a defeated one.26 His response to that last utterance of Amy's reveals him berating himself for a failure of imagination: “I don't know how it is that I did not see—but I didn't. And yet, turning in my trap, I saw her lingering before the door, very still as if meditating a flight up a miry road” (255). Seeing is, of course, much more than eyesight—it involves the whole human imagination. The “as if” shows Kennedy attempting—with hindsight—to interpret, to fit his impression into the story. But it escapes from him. It is not just that Kennedy failed to be there at the right time, but that Amy's silence is a stronger force than the flickers of Kennedy's understanding. There is a silence at the back of the tale that throws into belittling relief all the talking required to convey it. It is, finally, the silence of a devouring inertness and a region of darkness that swallows up all impressions.

It is there in the fatality that ejects Yanko from an apparently safe anchorage. Despite coming to anchor “correctly by the chart” (241), the Herzogin Sophia-Dorothea is inexplicably rammed: “A completeness without a clue, and a stealthy silence as of a neatly executed crime, characterize this murderous disaster” (241). The Admiralty charts that represent “the patch of trustworthy bottom … by the irregular oval of dots enclosing several figures six, with a tiny anchor engraved among them, and the legend ‘mud and shells’ over all” (228), which are invoked in the opening paragraph as a secure orientation, are almost comic in their miniaturizing neatness. What seamen actually see is a dilapidated windmill and a Martello tower; what is out of sight will prove to be a scene of human disaster. The sentence draws attention to the necessary but purely symbolic nature of the guide offered; and so in the story as a whole we are left with our map of language for a silent terrain. But “nothing more curious or strange than a signpost” may cause one to “peer attentively” when “walking in a mist,” says Kennedy early on, trying to explain why “a curious want of definiteness” first made him notice Amy's face (231). Equipped only with such signposts, Kennedy increasingly finds himself saying “I don't know,” until, in the last two paragraphs all assurances of interpretation are absorbed and nullified by Amy's silence. “And she says nothing at all now. Not a word of him. Never. Is his image gone from her mind … ? It is impossible to say whether this name [Johnny] recalls anything to her” (256).

While Conrad's protagonists suffer under the force of their impressions, his articulate narrators bear the burdens of an incomplete consciousness. In the letter to Cunninghame Graham already alluded to, Conrad exclaims “if only we could get rid of consciousness.” Czeslaw Milosz, a poet soaked in Conrad, puzzles the problem a little further in his 1986 poem of the same name. The brief third section offers something of an answer, less bleak but more equivocal than the chirpy Stephen Crane poem, to Stein's gloomy reflection:

I think that I am here, on this earth,
To present a report on it, but to whom I don't know.
As if I were sent so that whatever takes place
Has meaning because it changes into memory.(27)

“Amy Foster” endorses this pained and tentative, yet finally positive, vision of the place on this earth of its most self-conscious inhabitant. The poem illuminates the relation between impression and articulation and the puzzled observer who, in assembling his words and pictures, finds himself constructed anew by them. In the construction lies the slight gleam of hope in contemplating “the supreme disaster of loneliness and despair.”


  1. A connection between “The Idiots” and “Amy Foster” has been suggested by many critics, most pointedly by Richard Hernden in “The Genesis of Conrad's Amy Foster,” Studies in Philosophy, 57 (1960): Hernden links the two stories with The Secret Agent in “the plot of the unsuccessful marriage.” The taciturn Verlocs and the inarticulate Stevie clearly deserve a whole article, so I have deliberately avoided them here.

  2. In his exemplary article “Making you see Geneva: the sense of place in Under Western Eyes.L'Epoque Conradienne, December 1988, Paul Kirschner shows how Conrad's fidelity to factual “truth” serves his expressionist art. This is, of course, the mature Conrad at his best; in this earlier work that I am dealing with here more of the focus of the writing is upon the sensory quality of sense impressions.

  3. The Preface to The Nigger of the “Narcissus”. I have not noted all the references made to the Preface.

  4. All page references from Tales of Unrest, The Nigger of the “Narcissus”, Typhoon and Other Stories, Lord Jim, and Nostromo are to the Penguin Modern Classics editions, Harmondsworth, England.

  5. Ford Madox Ford, Introduction to The Sisters (New York: Crosby Gaige, 1928). To judge from Conrad's letters, “The Idiots” was written within six weeks of “The Sisters” having been “laid aside”.

  6. Vygotsky is surely convincing when he writes, “The nature of meaning as such is not clear. Yet it is in word meaning that thought and speech unite into verbal thought … A word does not refer to a single object but to a class of objects. Each word is therefore already a generalisation. Generalisation is a verbal act of thought and reflects reality in quite another way than sensation and perception reflect it.“L. S. Vygotsky, Thought and Language (Cambridge; MIT Press, 1962), p. 5

  7. Conrad to T. Fisher Unwin, 22 August 1896, The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad: Volume 1, ed. Fredrick Karl and Laurence Davies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 303.

  8. A Personal Record (London: Dent, 1923) p. 9

  9. Ramon Fernandez, “The Art of Conrad,” originally published in La Nouvelle Revue Francaise, 1 December 1924, collected in R.W. Stallman, The Art of Joseph Conrad: A Critical Symposium (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1960). In Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives (London: Faber & Faber, 1979), Fredrick Karl says, “Conrad could not deal simply in glimpses, although he would have liked to”(p. 456).

  10. “The Sisters”, p. 43

  11. Conrad to William Blackwood, 31 May 1902; Karl And Davies, Letters, 2, p. 417.

  12. The Mirror of the Sea,(London: Dent, 1923), pp. 13 and 21.

  13. Fritz Mauthner, “Worterbuch der Philosophie.”, 1910, quoted by Gershon Weiler, Mauthner's Critique of Language(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 169. Fritz Mauthner (1847-1923), born a Jew in the linguistic border area of Bohemia, shared with Conrad an admiration for Bismarck as a man of action who scorned reverence for words, theories, and ideologies. However, there can be no question of influence, or a debt on Conrad's part: Mauthner was a very isolated figure whose works were only published in German. The point in referring to Mauthner is to highlight a counterpart in linguistic philosophy to Conrad's own most skeptical remarks about language. Mauthner's view is that as everyone is acquainted only with his own private sense impressions, there is always a certain lack of correspondence between the impression and the public word used to describe it. It follows that we are able to describe correctly neither the outside world nor our own experiences. Although Mauthner's work had little direct influence, it plays a part in the deep questioning of the adequacy of language which is so characteristic of our century. We know that Beckett read Joyce selections of Mauthner's writing, apparently to Joyce's approval; and “Mr. Maut” makes an appearance in Finnegan's Wake (p. 319).

  14. Margaret Atwood, Surfacing (London: Virago Modern Classics, 1972), p. 150

  15. Mauthner, quoted in Gershon Weiler, p. 169

  16. Surfacing, p. 181

  17. Mauthner quoted in Gershon Weiler, p. 153

  18. Mauthner quoted in Weiler, pp. 159 and 296

  19. Conrad to Hugh Clifford, 9 October 1899; Karl and Davies, Letters, 2, p. 200.

  20. A Personal Record, p. 15.

  21. Conrad to Cunninghame Graham, 31 January 1898; Karl and Davies, Letters, 2, p. 30.

  22. Readers of Conradiana will already know Gail Fraser's excellent article “Conrad's Revisions to ‘Amy Foster’”, 20 (1988) which was published after my own essay had been largely written. Her detailed commentary on this particular passage shows how Conrad worked to increase the feeling of encounter and alienation through the use of a less idiomatically English syntax than he had initially conceived.

  23. The analogy with Robert Graves's well-known poem “The Cool Web” is striking.

  24. A section of the manuscript quoted by Gail Fraser reveals Conrad's concern with the mystery of alien people that confronts a castaway: “… of another race (of another people) whose tongue, thoughts manners are a (mystery) complete and momentous mystery.” I want to suggest that the revised ending of “Amy Foster” amplifies Amy's mystery so that it dominates the view point of the whole tale.

  25. Sanford Pinsker, Conradiana 9 (1977).

  26. Juliet McLauchlan, Polish Review 23 (1978).

  27. Czeslaw Milosz, “Consciousness,” from Unattainable Earth (Nieobjeta Ziemia, 1986), The Collected Poems, Penguin, 1988.

J. H. Stape (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Stape, J. H. “Conrad's ‘Unreal City’: Singapore in ‘The End of the Tether.’” In Conrad's Cities: Essays for Hans van Marle, edited by Gene M. Moore, pp. 85-96. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1992.

[In the following essay, Stape identifies the unnamed city in “The End of the Tether” as Singapore and determines the influence of the city on Conrad's story.]

While unnamed in “The End of the Tether,” the Sofala's port of registry is undoubtedly late nineteenth-century Singapore, recreated with “remarkable fidelity,” as Norman Sherry rightly asserts in his study of the story's topography.1 But more than simply a feat of memory in an effort to support the realist programme of providing convincing local colour, the port city's re-creation functions structurally and thematically to generate the story's relentlessly ironic texture. John Masefield, who reviewed Youth: A Narrative, and Two Other Stories, has not been alone in misconstruing the tale's backdrop as mere “picturesqueness.”2

Singapore's recent past, its development from jungle outpost to colonial metropolis, operates first as a symbolic contrast to Captain Whalley's own fortunes. On the most obvious level, the city has flourished and prospered while he has become impoverished, the loser in the harsh realities of economic competition and thus a victim of circumstance rather than the master of his fate. The city's commercial success, which makes it one of the “most important”3 places in the East, ironically counterpoints Whalley's history; and his famous walk along the city's sea-front, examined in close detail by Sherry, serves to present and highlight his decline and fall.

From the Post Office, to the Courts of Justice, to the Treasury, along “the grandly planned street” (181) to the Esplanade and St Andrew's Cathedral, Whalley observes in turn the concrete evidences of material progress and the triumph of colonial order and officialdom over primeval jungle. Each of the buildings he passes represents a victory over Nature, but, in the end—and it is a lesson he tragically fails to learn—the aspiration to control and dominate is foredoomed and the acceptance of, but not surrender to, vicissitude and mutability takes on, by the end of the tale, a moral significance.

As in Nostromo, a work Conrad began only a month after he had completed “The End of the Tether,” the imposition of order to support the capitalist enterprise ultimately proves an illusion. The buildings Whalley notices thus signify and embody only makeshift responses to fundamentally intractable problems of social organisation. The Post Office at which he deposits his letters to his daughter Ivy in Melbourne becomes by the story's conclusion a symbol of frustrated communication, as the final letter she receives and the story's ironic ending establish. “Justice,” which Whalley at one point demands, is mockingly absent from the universe itself, and thus, the “new Courts of Justice” (181) represent but one aspect of a larger façade.4 The reference to the “new Colonial Treasury” (181) draws attention to the pervasive mercantilist foundation of colonial society, while the tale's action repeatedly emphasises how money, though a means of social and personal empowerment, is the most fluid and unstable medium of exchange.

What Conrad suggests in his reconstruction of Singapore's cityscape as the site for Whalley's fall is that this tropical city itself rests upon a number of carefully created and painstakingly sustained illusions, illusions that are gradually revealed to the reader, although Whalley remains blind to the implications of what he sees around him with a blindness that increases as the plot unfolds. The counterpointing of insight and blindness is revealed in the very structure of Singapore as a city divided into two non-communicating parts. It is of paramount symbolic importance that the well ordered “grandly planned street” is totally devoid of life, “empty and shunned by natives after business hours, as though they had expected to see one of the tigers from the neighbourhood of the New Waterworks on the hill coming at a loping canter down the middle to get a Chinese shopkeeper for supper” (180). While this image strikes a slightly tongue-in-cheek note, it also points up the predatory and hostile character of an imported and imposed civilisation of “crude frontages […] alternat[ing] with the blank fencing of vacant plots” which has replaced the “fishing village, a few mat huts erected on piles between a muddy tidal creek and a miry pathway that went writhing into a tangled wilderness without any docks or waterworks” (180f.). The import of this contrast between city and fishing village is lost on Whalley, who, like Captain Mitchell in Nostromo, is mesmerised by the sham benefits of materialism and its attendant “progress.”

Conrad immediately establishes the degree to which such attempts fail to order life during the next stage of Whalley's walk. Happening upon a native quarter, contingent to but divorced completely from “official” Singapore, Whalley becomes “lost like a straw in the eddy of a brook amongst the swarm of brown and yellow humanity filling a thoroughfare, that by contrast with the vast and empty avenue he had left seemed as narrow as a lane and absolutely riotous with life” (182). The obvious intention of this disjunction between the empty governmental avenue with its discreet compartmentalization of human activity and the lane full of life with its anarchic flux is further bolstered by a cluster of images summoning up primitive chaos: the Chinese shops are “cavernous lairs” offering “heaps of nondescript merchandise that overflowed the gloom of the long range of arcades” (182). The absence of order and the evocation of an immemorial, pre-historic past (the cavern) diminish Whalley's stature and rob him of his “grand air” (182). His confrontation with the riot of human life as an indiscriminate group—“the swarm”—reawakens his sense of society as a consciously organised system and further stimulates his nostalgia for individual significance in the established order of things. Not surprisingly, then, as he emerges from this moment, he envisages the perils to soul and class that his daughter Ivy confronts as a keeper of a boarding-house in Melbourne.

While Singapore's structural duality assists Conrad in asserting the intense illusoriness of its official life, his emphasis on its unvarying and persistent sub-structure unmasks both the essential inadequacy of Whalley's self-conception and the cultural biases underpinning it. As in Heart of Darkness and Nostromo, the individual who unreservedly identifies with the myth of progress and its technologies is necessarily self-destructive because such an ideological positioning requires self-delusion for its maintenance. Properly regarded, then, “The End of the Tether” engages political questions that its critics have neglected in focussing almost exclusively on Whalley's individual drama and in detaching the work from its moorings in the social contexts of place and time. In this light, the story's colonial setting unquestionably serves not as an incidental backdrop but as a vital constituent of its meaning.

The assault on Whalley's sense of self, a kind of existential vertigo, results in a temporary halt in his peregrination of Singapore as he takes mental refuge in his hotel; but this attempted evasion of pressing reality proves not, in fact, to arrest the memories that crowd in upon him, but only to intensify his sense of isolation and loneliness. Far from providing sanctuary, his thoughts about his hotel underscore impermanence and flux as pervasive existential conditions. Conrad's images present the hotel as a type of Hades, a locus of literal disembodiment:

the periodical invasions of tourists from some passenger steamer in the harbour flitted through the wind-swept dusk of the apartments with the tumult of their unfamiliar voices and impermanent presences, like relays of migratory shades condemned to speed headlong round the earth without leaving a trace.


Doomed to repeat forever the purposeless circling of the earth, these living-dead appear to lack any control over their movements and are reduced to mechanical and unconscious motion. Their aimlessness also negates the possibility of memory and the past, for, never fully alive, the hotel guests are incapable of leaving a trace behind them. Conrad's image suggests, moreover, the widening fissure between Whalley's ideal self and the possibilities available for its social actualisation in a place that has literally passed him by.

Continuing on his walk, Whalley turns towards the quay, away from the life of the land with its complex economic, historic, and social entanglements towards the life of the sea. Again the descriptions function more to register an adjustment in Whalley's psychology than to record the mere passing scene:

Captain Whalley stopped short on the apex of a small bridge spanning steeply the bed of a canalized creek with granite shores. Moored between the square blocks a sea-going Malay prau floated half-hidden under the arch of masonry, with her spars lowered down, without a sound of life on board, and covered from stem to stern with a ridge of palm-leaf mats.


From the symbolic vantage point of the bridge's apex, Whalley's view of the moored native craft whose “ridge of palm-leaf mats” contrasts markedly with the “granite shores” and the “arch of masonry” takes in the terms and extent of the English hegemony over trade and shipping. The Malay prau, made of natural materials and fitted for an indigenous purpose, is linked meaningfully to a particular place and its immemorial past, in explicit contrast to the civilisation that has relegated it to insignificance. A vestige of the original fishing village supplanted by the port city built by foreigners, the solitary prau becomes a poignant symbol of a lost sense of connectedness, an embodiment of cultural memory now left for dead in an alien and altered present. The further link between man and boat in rhetoric that recalls a marriage—“she, too, had her indispensable man. They lived through each other” (190)—suggests a harmonious integrity. The moment summarises Whalley's nostalgia for his former self, which has been inextricably linked to an earlier, more innocent Singapore, and for his own “very pretty little barque, Fair Maid” (170), reluctantly sold to meet economic exigencies. Both for him and for the city surrounding him, the present lacks vitalising power, and the colony's transformation, paid for by the extinction of its age-old rhythms, has failed to enrich. Hemmed in by new civic improvements, the stilled native craft, is finally Whalley himself, and the “shroud of sewn palm leaves” acts as a presentiment and emblem of his fate.

The culminating point of his walk occurs, however, not during this moment of identification but a bit further on at a moment of dissociation, on the “newly opened sea road” (191) abutting the Esplanade where he observes the fashionable world in its open carriages observing its afternoon passagiata, a self-regarding ritual definitively signalling the city's economic and social alteration. This incident contains the first significant image-cluster evoking the Wheel of Fortune as Conrad focusses attention upon the carriage wheels turning “solemnly” (191) during this procession of might and power. The climax of this ceremonial display occurs on the arrival of the gubernatorial landau containing within it the very symbol of the state and the apex of its social life—“a man, heavy lidded, distinguished and sallow, with a sombre, thick, iron-grey imperial and moustaches, which somehow had the air of solid appendages” (192). In so heavily ironizing this display—partly by the symbolic wheels, partly by Whalley's naïve awe, and most obviously, in the deflationary portrait of the Colonial Governor—Conrad establishes the central emptiness of political power. And this emptiness is further underpinned by an image of absolute vacancy that presages the abyss: “The landau distanced the whole file in a sort of sustained rush […] left behind an impression of fixed stares and impassive vacancy; and […] the whole lofty vista of the avenue seemed to lie open and emptied of life in the enlarged impression of an august solitude” (192).

The hostility evident here is directed not, primarily, towards commercialism but to its romanticisation and intrusive “colonisation” of other areas of life. Not dissimilarly does Whalley misread the true power of money. In his hopes to alter what he perceives as his daughter's sordid existence, he mistakes the attempt to change her social and class status as a selfless act of love, whereas it is a final attempt to control and fix, an assertion of power in an inherently mutable universe. Indeed, this instability extends outward as well, for the “new” city, despite its granite banks and peristyles, is precariously balanced, emptied at its very core of meaningful connexion with the peoples inhabiting it and longing for a past it never experienced. Conrad thus exposes the primary illusion of the colonial polis, contrasting its self-important and banal officialdom and its pretentious architecture recalling the heroic achievements of ancient Greece and Rome with the riotous, unregulated life that threatens its dreams of permanence. Even Whalley, so lacking in perspicacity about his own position and place, experiences at this moment on the Esplanade an illuminating insight into his own and the collective present in which “the efforts of small men, the growth of a great place [… are] robbed of all consequence by the greatness of established facts, by hopes greater still” (195), and he registers, at last, the incongruity between his former ambitions and his current plight by the self-astonished phrase: “What the devil am I doing here!” (195).

The effect of this turning-point is further heightened by the arrival of Captain Eliott, one of the old sort but “a man of an old-fashioned and gouty aspect” (195), the port's Master Attendant, who, in his official capacity, exercises power and influence over seamen. As Conrad himself noted, Whalley's meeting with Eliott provides the narrative and thematic climax to the story's first segment:

the episode is mainly the first sign of the fate we carry within us. A character like Whalley's cannot cease to be frank with impunity. He is not frank with his old friend—such as the old friend is. […] The pathos for me is in this that the concealment of his extremity is as it were forced upon him. Nevertheless it is weakness—it is deterioration.5

This meeting, a direct and unmediated confrontation with the embodied past on which Whalley's thoughts have dwelt throughout the length of his peregrinations, is strategically situated in the cityscape as the pair of shellbacks confront yet another evidence of Singapore's alteration in the shape of St Andrew's Cathedral:

The sacred edifice, standing in solemn isolation amongst the converging avenues of enormous trees, as if to put grave thoughts of heaven into the hours of ease, presented a closed Gothic portal to the light and glory of the west. The glass of the rosace above the ogive glowed like a fiery coal in the deep carvings of a wheel of stone.


This description, like the other ones of the city's self-imaging, is replete with purposeful resonance. The theme of solitude and the recollection of a lofty, if distanced, aim amidst quotidian anxieties force a renewed awareness of Whalley's sense of dedication and duty. (Although culturally engendered, these have profoundly personal implications.) The focus on the Cathedral's architecture, however, extends and complicates these surface-level meanings. As “a wheel of stone,” the rose-window refers analeptically to the wheels of the carriages on the Esplanade and proleptically anticipates the wheel of the Sofala which eludes Whalley's control and is in the end “smashed to bits” (330). In being likened to a “fiery coal” the window's glow may also be linked to the text's final cataclysm—the explosion of the Sofala.6 In the Gothic style, the cathedral, like the other evidences of colonial society imported whole cloth into an alien setting, also resonates ambiguously in recalling a past belonging to another place. And, lastly, its presence at this crucial moment evokes the testimony to faith and belief that is manifested in adherence to a code of conduct, an analogy to Whalley's present situation.

The final Singapore detail is a wholly undercutting reference to the tooting of the cable car setting out from “the empty peristyle of the Public Library” (yet another significant vacuity and another reference to the imported architecture of the Greek polis) on its way to “the New Harbour Docks” (209). This telling linkage between high culture and commerce is a final ironic social misconnexion. As William Bonney has argued:

the physical edifice of a city or home (whatever the scale) images merely the perceptual modes of its inhabitants who in the past wielded sufficient coercive power to force a portion of the phenomenal world briefly to accept a partial imprint of their reactions to anxieties and desires, and as a result become an evanescent incarnation of their efforts to make Time itself comprehensible, if not manageable.7

What Conrad does is systematically to undermine the city's presumed stability by underlining its newness, its imported and decontextualised self-imaging, and, finally, the fragility of its conquest over the landscape in associating it, both by contrast and by resemblance, with Whalley's own condition. That the stability of the phenomenal universe itself proves chimerical is suggested by the conclusion of the story's opening chapter, in which the failure of a bank shakes “the East like an earthquake” (169).

Whalley's meditative tour, which takes in the pillars of the newly established colonial society, its public and official life, social structures, and religious and cultural institutions, counterpoints his own history with its uncertain and unstable significances. Both Singapore and he yearn for permanence, yet both rely upon fluctuating media to achieve it, while through a series of images Conrad rejects the transcendence of time as a social or an individual possibility.

While the carefully interlinked symbols thus effect the story's multi-layered irony, its structure also plays a crucial rôle in elaborating its meanings, for the careful impressionistic rendering of Singapore with the focus on its symbolic buildings is counterbalanced by references to other cities in terms of similar or contrasting signs. Van Wyk's Batu Beru on the Malay coast is itself destined for transformation, eventually becoming an imitation in miniature of Singapore: “a tropically suburban-looking little settlement” (277). Manila is associated exclusively with Massy's monomania, the lottery, and hence with chance, luck, and insecurity. And, lastly, Melbourne is contracted to the spot where Ivy ekes out her drab existence as the keeper of a boarding-house (a place of temporary habitation) married to an invalid.

The various associations of these locales extend Singapore's meaning. Batu Beru parodies its rise and triumph in imitating its development, a state of affairs engineered, ironically enough, by Van Wyk, a misanthrope whose reassimilation into society is also thus ultimately ironised. Manila becomes the sole fixed point among the incertitudes of luck and “the chances of fortune” (321). (The words “game,” “chance,” and “luck” insistently play throughout the closing sections which witness Whalley's final defeat.) Moreover, the opposition between Whalley, who has put his faith in the painstaking effort required by capitalism and trade, and Massy, who surrenders to total arbitrariness, is also emphasised by their identification with the different cities. The latter's decision “to make his fortune dead sure in Manila” (335) is formulated in a rhetorically charged description, aptly summing up the fate that awaits him. In their extreme attitudes towards life—the one attempting to dominate and control as an aspect of what he assumes to be his responsibility, the other submitting completely to vicissitude—the seeming antagonists meet, alike destroyed by the force and logic of their opposite decisions. The bleakness of this perspective remains unrelieved by shifting the tale's Flaubertian coda to Melbourne, for Ivy's mute acceptance of the terms her life offers there constitutes only another illusion.8

But the still greater illusion of “The End of the Tether” is collective and social: the city itself constitutes and offers a meaningfully ordered reality, while it is, in fact, alienated by its wilful rejection of its precolonial experience and its artificial nostalgia for a past it never knew. The portico and the peristyle, the Gothic cathedral amidst the tropical vegetation, are displaced and fundamentally foreign structures, introduced by the colonist in an attempt to recall a past irrelevant to the collectivity of the tropics and unrelated to his present. The architecture's referentiality necessarily fails because of its lack of authenticity, but its aspiration to transcend the anxiety of otherness is perhaps not lacking in poignancy. This anxiety, basic to existence itself because consciousness makes humanity an interloper in the phemonomenal world, is foregrounded and heightened by the colonial experience. The architectural expression of this anxiety testifies to a longing for permanence and identity in a situation of peculiar flux and stress; but colonial Singapore, as a consequence of its triumphant materialism and its repression of its past, is simply, to invoke T. S. Eliot's phrase, an “unreal city.”

Whalley's attempt to place himself in it constitutes, in some sense, his real tragedy. The Romantic identification of place with self (the Wordsworthian projection of the self outward onto Nature) collapses as Conrad limns an external environment that is as radically displaced as the consciousness that fails to register that displacement. Whalley has, however, already confused the distinction between inner worth and external recognition by his overvaluation of his great moment: his discovery of the passage that bears his name, inscribed on the Admiralty's charts, is “the clearest gain he had out of life” (168). The rhetoric here insists upon conflating value and materialism, and the reification of Whalley's “gain” is thus the first step in his alienation from it.

Conrad's complex point is possibly assisted by citing a parallel in “Poland Revisited,” where during his night walk through Cracow, a city filled with memories of his childhood as well as of the collective Polish past, he finds a schoolboy joke “officially adopted,” altered into “a horrid piece of cast-iron.”9 Conrad's bitter tone of rejection is only in part a response to his marginalisation by the alteration of the phenomenal world; his greater hostility is, indeed, to the concretisation of an idea and in what he conceives as its ineluctable degradation in becoming fixed and therefore limited.

The ideological values to which Conrad subscribes determine his presentation in “The End of the Tether”; but Whalley's mistaken identification of self with place also occurs within the wider context of the literary history of the city in the post-Romantic period during which it became increasingly depicted as demonic—predatory, anonymous, and anarchic, associations that Conrad fully develops in The Secret Agent. Nonetheless the individual identity as emerging from and based in an urban social context is insistently registered as a spatialization of the self, whether, for example, as Emma Bovary's longing for the validation of her inner exalted states in bourgeois Rouen, or as the functioning of Leopold Bloom's internal organs in Ulysses, where he and the life of modern Dublin become so mutually identified as to be inseparable. The city and the self are no less united in “The End of the Tether,” but in portraying Whalley's “fall” Conrad warns against reification of the self and identification with the polis. Part of his hostility, based possibly in an aristocratic, hierarchical ideology, is centred in a rejection of the relativisation of social status by the flux of commercialism, as well as in the threatened dissolution of the individual into the mass man whose significance comes to lie outside the self in economic security and the outward tokens of accumulation.

Certainly, in Whalley's case this projection outward and his unquestioning acceptance of societal values, particularly that of class, becomes fatal. (In this context his identification with Samson [301] is hardly incidental, for in bringing about the end of a corrupt society he also kills himself.) When material circumstances rob him of the possibility of identifying with the ship and the life of the sea, always subjects of idealisation in Conrad's fiction, he shifts the grounds of his faith in himself, placing it in brute commercialism by transforming the significantly named Fair Maid into a means of securing his daughter's economic welfare. Though Whalley's aim is not in itself wholly ignoble, in Conrad's idealising terms he pursues it ignobly, for his alliance with Massy represents a capitulation. Dishonest in its origins—Whalley himself confesses to having “traded on his [Massy's] misery” (300)—and later in the elaborate charade of sightedness when he is going blind, the association undermines Whalley's hold on himself and his notions of the universe. While these are only “saving illusions,” they permit a sense of self-worth, and in losing them Whalley also loses that. In this, too, he and the city are one, for they have both lost a sense of essential purpose in having “traded” integrity for commercial gain.

Whalley's suicide is in part an attempt at self-recovery in opposition to social norms, a heroic gesture to an ideal fidelity that he had abandoned; but it is also a meaningless surrender to fate and to the consequences of a whole series of related actions that see him increasingly subject to forces that lie outside of and eventually elude his control. His reassertion of identity with the ship as he “put[s] all these pieces of iron” that had caused it to sink “into his own pockets” (333) is as much an act of atonement as an ultimate reification and the climax of the series of images of rigidity that include the hardening of the nerves of Whalley's eyes and the inflexibility of his will. The collective interpretation of the meaning of his death in the final word given to the observing crowd also cuts, as so frequently in Conrad, both ways: “The general theory was that the captain had remained too long on board trying to save something of importance” (336). But as in Lord Jim, whose ending offers a notorious interpretive crux, the chorus-like commentary on Van Wyk's homeward return and the naïve assertion that “These good times won't last for ever” (337) undercut the value of any “general theory.” The inability to see and to interpret is thus universal, the shared condition of beings otherwise caught up in their own illusions. And the coda completes the circles of irony as Ivy recapitulates Whalley's essential act of self-delusion by trying to manufacture and then to convince herself of a feeling she does not have. By resorting to irony, an irony missed by commentators who sentimentalize “The End of the Tether” as a tale of love and fidelity, Conrad extends the notion of the community outward to embrace his readers.10 But while the text's ironizing procedures explicitly demand interpretation, they also destabilise the grounds for it and thus foreclose the possibility of any individual or collective “final word.”


  1. Conrad's Eastern World (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1966), 175. Until recently Singapore has also been considered the setting for the Patna inquiry in Lord Jim, mostly on the basis of Sherry's exposition. Hans van Marle and Pierre Lefranc present conclusive evidence that the inquiry's setting is Bombay in “Ashore and Afloat: New Perspectives on Topography and Geography in Lord Jim,Conradiana 20:2 (1988), 109-35.

  2. Review in The Speaker, 31 January 1903, 442; rpt. in Conrad: The Critical Heritage, ed. Norman Sherry (London: Routledge, 1973), 142.

  3. Conrad, “The End of the Tether,” in Youth, Heart of Darkness, The End of the Tether, ed. Robert Kimbrough (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984), 180. Subsequent references are cited in the text of this essay. The pagination of this edition is identical to that of Dent's Collected Edition.

  4. For an interpretation of the novel's symbolism from a humanist perspective, see Juliet McLauchlan, “‘The Empty Heavens’: A Reading of ‘The End of the Tether,’” L'Époque Conradienne (1988), 47-61.

  5. To David Meldrum, [August or September?] 1902, The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, ed. Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986), II, 441.

  6. The most significant Wheel of Fortune, that of the Manila lottery, remains implicit and extra-textual. For Conrad's own interest in the announcement of the winning numbers of the French national lottery, see The Collected Letters IV (1990), 8, 22, 56, 60f., 72.

  7. “Politics, Perception, and Gender in Conrad's Lord Jim and Graham Greene's The Quiet American,Conradiana 23:2 (1991), 100.

  8. Yves Hervouet identifies the ending's specific verbal debt to the conclusion of Chapter 2 of Madame Bovary in The French Face of Joseph Conrad (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990), 80. The ending's structure is also more generally indebted to Flaubert's L'Éducation sentimentale.

  9. Notes on Life and Letters (1921; London: Dent, 1949; rpt. 1970), 166.

  10. Although a number of recent critics have grounded their observations in what Kimbrough calls “The James-like irony of the subdued narrator” (“Introduction,” Youth, Heart of Darkness, The End of the Tether, xxv), Richard Curle has not been alone in finding in the story “the soft atmosphere of triumphant love” (Joseph Conrad: A Study [1914]; cited in Zdzisław Najder, Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle [Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983], 392).

William Bonney (essay date winter 1996)

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SOURCE: Bonney, William. “Contextualizing and Comprehending Joseph Conrad's ‘The Return’.” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 1 (winter 1996): 77-90.

[In the following essay, Bonney argues that Conrad's story “The Return” is “a quality work of art.”]

There is nothing behind the curtain other than that which is in front of it.

—G. W. F. Hegel

“It's death to come back. There's been overmuch of coming back of late. …”

—Abel Magwitch (Great Expectations)

There are few works by Joseph Conrad that have been so consistently neglected, if not hastily condemned, as the short story “The Return.”1 This is unfortunate, because if this tale is experienced within appropriate conceptual and technical contexts, it proves to be a quality work of art. Conrad's fiction consistently generates a context of anxious yearning for reassurance, if not certitudes, in a cosmos embodying primarily recalcitrant transformations—“the immensity of … vague and burning desire” (NN 134),2 “all mankind longing for what cannot be attained” (Tales of Unrest 179). Willems's thoughts are typical:

Round him ceaselessly there went on without a sound them ad turmoil. … He wanted to clasp, to embrace solid things; he had an immense craving … for touching, pressing, seeing, handling, holding on, to all these things.

(OI 331)

Because this desire is typically expressed through metaphors of grasping and clinging, Conrad's male protagonists repeatedly resort to analogies that are gendered as feminine when they struggle to comprehend frustratingly elusive phenomena. Thus, conceptual limitations often emerge in or near conjugal bedrooms, and superficial, socially imposed relationships, expectations, and categories founder. It is such a crisis that “The Return” anatomizes in conceptual and rhetorical terms that are commonly encountered primarily in the art of the nineteenth century. Indeed, John R. Reed in Victorian Conventions devotes an entire chapter to a discussion of them (see 216-49).

In Conrad's fiction intense, unspecified desire for coherence and comfort haunts most everyone, even barely articulate drudges. Aboard the Narcissus, after the ship once again is righted and the crew becomes belligerent, Captain Allistoun poses the challenge “What do you want?” (NN 130), which goes unanswered. In “The Return,” Alvan Hervey's wife eventually formulates the same question, “What did they [men] want?” (TU [Tales of Unrest] 176-77); but she gets a reply, of sorts. Her husband expresses his incongruously aesthetic “picturesque desire” by stammering “I want … to … to … know” (TU 185; original ellipses). Satisfaction of this need is conceived in terms of physical appropriation, an ability “to grasp” (TU 153). Thus, each partner at different moments reaches toward the other: Hervey's wife “made one faltering step towards him, putting out her hands,” and later he himself “made a step forward, putting his arms out” (TU 153, 178). However, both proffered embraces go unanswered, as they must, since they are tropes for “desire of a certitude” in a cosmos that itself offers “Nothing within—nothing, nothing” (TU 182, 184). And the tale ends with Hervey vanishing into the night after enacting physically his completed wisdom, having “flung both his arms out, as if to push her away” (TU 186), apparently reconciled to the perpetual absence of any “return” at all.

Such moments of what might be termed “frustrated embrace” recur in Conrad's works with remarkable frequency both as dramatic scenes involving characters who clutch at one another and as syntactic structures bearing figurative import (see, e.g., TU 39; HD [Heart of Darkness] 115, 136; LJ 416; N 182, 354; AG 224; TLS [‘Twixt Land and Sea] 69-70, 189).3 Indeed, The Rover practically begins with the phrase “vanished as soon as grasped” (1). In extreme cases, such moments mimic the topos of “Adam's dream,”4 which Keats interrogates in “The Eve of St. Agnes,” “Lamia,” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” and which Conrad parodies in Lord Jim by means of Stein's remark, “I had dreamed of [it] in my sleep and here suddenly I had [it] in my fingers” (LJ 211).

A glance at literary history is useful. Although various mythic antecedents might be cited (e.g., Apollo and Daphne, Orpheus and Eurydice, Pan and Syrinx), the most important paradigm is established in Vergil's Aeneid, book 2, when Aeneas, searching burning Troy for Creusa, encounters the “phantom” of his now-dead wife and learns that she has been forbidden by Jove to accompany Aeneas on his journey. Unwilling to accept her message,

                                                                                Three times
[Aeneas] tried to fling [his] arms about her neck;
Three times in vain, the phantom slipped through [his] hands
Like … the fleeting of a dream.


This embrace cannot be completed for a supernatural reason, as Creusa announces: it is “forbidden” by the “Mighty Ruler of Heaven,” and is “opposed / To what is Right.” Only in another land can Aeneas legitimately possess another woman. He must locate Italy, and displace and kill Turnus, thereby rectifying the fate of the country, which he will rule, and of Lavinia, who will be his proper bride. Because Vergil's cosmos is rigorously controlled tropologically and teleologically, Aeneas's private passion figures forth political destiny, embodies “what is Right,” and therefore is not philosophically vulnerable to the subversive question “What is right?” (TU 157) posed by Alvan Hervey's wife.

The device of figuring forth the ascendancy of a certain perceptual order by means of a stellar protagonist claiming the body of a lover is ancient. It can be observed in many diverse works, from the Aeneid, the book of Revelation, and Spenser's Faerie Queene, through Hoffmann's The Golden Pot and Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz.6 Indeed, noting the way this device is manifested in the works of various authors provides a means (albeit reductive) whereby distinctions can be initiated that often separate teleologically biased works from those dramatizing dysteleological perspectives. A fine example of the latter is Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, in which Oedipa Maas's quest in San Narcisco for final understanding is eroticized rhetorically, as “the mind's plowshare” seeks futilely to “probe ancient fetid shafts and tunnels of truth,” and those who have given up the search belong to “In amorati Anonymous” (95, 83). It is fitting, then, that the literature of nineteenth-century Europe, a culture under much revisionary philosophical stress, is pervaded by enactments of the “failed embrace,”7 for efforts to seize another are often a sign of radical need. As Alvan Hervey is aware, “looking at his wife” means “looking within himself” (TU 172).

Efforts to achieve inclusive understanding in the Occident have long been conceptualized figuratively in terms of attempts to seize coherent, frequently gendered, surfaces that lurk with finality beneath layers of occluding partiality and error—cf., e.g., the impossible hope of Tennyson's “widowed” narrator in In Memoriam to penetrate “Behind the veil” (40.1; 56.28). Only late in the nineteenth century was the trope of epistemological stratification finally discredited, as “the Romantic … analytic dismantlement of the superstructure of western culture” proceeds in an effort to “dissolve the regnant constructs … of the past [and] far more important the ideologies which those constructs exemplified” (Peckham 363, 60). In the case of representations of truth as a spatial hierarchy, Nietzsche and Conrad accomplish the dissolution. The perceptual problem they assaulted can be summarized as follows: For millennia in European culture, various observations were made of phenomena whose physical attributes manifest a radically impermanent process (from ocean waves to active, or rotting, human bodies). Observers then abstracted from these observations the general concept “change,” treating the specific instances of impermanence as if they were manifestations of a single, universal principle (e.g., Spenserian “mutability”) lurking behind these instances and functioning as their noumenal cause. In On the Genealogy of Morals (1887) Nietzsche identifies this tropological move as the merely linguistic source of all manner of illusory, transcendental agents:

the popular mind [for example] separates the lightning from its flash and takes the latter for an action, for the operation of a subject called lightning. … But there is no such substratum; there is no “being” behind doing, effecting, becoming; the “doer” is merely a fiction added top the deed; when it sees the lightning flash, it is the deed of a deed: it posits the same event first as cause and then a second time as its effect.


There is no longer any justification to assume that visible sensations necessarily announce the existence of a potential object of knowledge, for “the superficiality of existence [is] its essence” (Nietzsche, Gay Science 125).

As a result of Nietzsche's revision, human perception is now located within the very surfaces that its act of contemplation generates. To Conrad, it is (probably) a mistake to strive to escape from this “dream,” this liminal “sea,” in the hope of gaining access to some profundity beyond, for this is like trying to “climb out into the air,” and precipitates figurative drownings (LJ 214). Indeed, even a visually accessible “fact dazzling, to be seen,” is not solid, precisely defined, and static, but only a frothy, vacillating similitude, “like the foam on the depths of the sea, like a ripple on an unfathomable enigma” (HD 105). There is possible only anxious suspension within a dynamic surface, within the undulating, figurative integument that Conrad calls, in a letter to Edward Garnett, “the eternal something that waves” (144). Jacques Derrida concludes that the trope of a visually inviting, ideally penetrable veil should be displaced by a terminal veil in figurative suspension:

‘Truth’ can only be a surface. But … that truth which is not suspended in quotation marks casts a modest veil over such a surface. And only through such a veil … could ‘truth’ become truth, profound, indecent, desirable. But should that veil be suspended … there would be no longer any truth, only ‘truth.’


In marked contrast, of course, Conrad's Jim (according to Marlow) seeks a final definition of self in terms of the abstractions “honor” and “faith,” and imagines he has penetrated a veil, “beheld the face of that opportunity which, like an Eastern bride, had come veiled to his side” (LJ 416). Jim's encounter is a fatal revision of Alvan Hervey's confrontation in “The Return” with a corporeal woman who “lifted her veil” (TU 140). Like much of Conrad's fiction, this tale dramatizes a tense quest for a means whereby a horrible “suspense … as if poised … to fall into some devouring nowhere” (TU 154) might be evaded. Although to Conrad, of course, such an enterprise is futile, the protagonist's questing generates much of the conceptual and rhetorical integrity of the story.

Consider merely the complexities present in the striking opening paragraph (TU 118-19), which establishes the terms that function aesthetically to unify the remainder of the tale. This passage describes that moment at the end of the day when prosperous men, who have sacrificed awareness and individuality in order to gain and wield economic power, and who thus have access to the “inner circle” in both a geographical and figurative sense, complacently fare homeward aboard public transportation. These men, who “appeared alike,” travel on a train that, as it “rushed impetuously out of a black hole,” suggests in its mechanical action the psychic compunctions of Alvan Hervey and his peers, all of whom look as if they had been “wearing a uniform” and behave as if they are “fleeing from something … suspected or concealed.” Fittingly, the compartments of this train are segregated according to economic class, and hence embody the unpleasant facts that occasion this flight. For these are men who, like Hervey, exude that “tinge of overbearing brutality that is given by the possession of only partly difficult accomplishments; by excelling in games, or in the art of making money.”

The socially definitive “partly difficult” achievement, of course, is the “easy mastery over animals and needy men” made possible for members of the ruling class by centuries of contrived legalities and selective applications of raw military force. It is these contrivances that sustain the conditions that make the above identification of beasts and destitute human beings more than mere syntactic caprice, and which result in people “in distress” assaulted by “spiteful” noise like “fusillade,” as they face an infantry-like “band of brothers” in “dark overcoats and shiny boots” erupting “headlong” from the first-class compartment and flourishing “evening papers” and “umbrellas.”

The strict conformity of their dress and mannerisms denotes their determination to avoid any “black hole” of potentially damaging ideological interrogation and thereby keep surfaces intact. Those who possess great economic power can use it to evade an awareness of the consequences of their access to privilege. Hence, “No one spared … a glance” to a “tottering old man … over his stick,” and Hervey and his “brothers” likewise pass a “disregarded little woman in rusty black … in distress.” However, it is difficult to practice only partial impercipience. Even the “evening papers” these men ritualistically carry are of little interest, treated like “stiff, dirty rags.” As a result, the members of this singular “band” are distinguished by an inclusive deficiency of awareness that ultimately defines their great vulnerability, for these “brothers” secure their illusions of superiority and security only by negating their own dubious fraternity—they share a “kinship of indifferent faces” that “would resolutely ignore each other,” and their eyes had “all the same stare, concentrated and empty, satisfied and unthinking.”

The only authentic individuality in this opening paragraph is exhibited by the very people whom Hervey and his ilk, with “healthy pale faces,” carefully neglect visually, emotionally, and economically. Largely invulnerable to the “icy draught” that causes a crippled old man to “cough violently over his stick,” Hervey is “good-looking and healthy,” and, secure in his protective wraps, he can walk “in the rain with careless serenity.” Still, the old man's “woollen comforter” confers a certain worthy divergence. Like the “rusty black” garments of the “disregarded little woman,” it differs to advantage from the “dark overcoats” of the “lot of men” emerging in stereotypical ranks from the train. More important are this woman's possessions and mode and route of travel, for she has “both arms full of parcels” and “ran” and “bolted” into a “third-class compartment.” Apparently boarding the train on her frantic way home to a family housed somewhere beyond the fashionable suburbs, her heavily laden yet eager return at the end of the day parallels the simultaneous journeys homeward of the fatuous, tepid Hervey, who bears only “a smouldering cigar,” and his irresolute, alienated wife, even as its energetic deprivation subverts by contrast the Herveys' supercilious lives.

The story begins proleptically with the “slamming of carriage doors” on the train from underground and finds Hervey eventually “standing alone.” After he has arrived home he hears “as if in the entrails of the earth” a “door close” like a “clap of thunder” when his wife returns, and eventually she hears “as if in the entrails of the earth, a door slammed” like a “clap of thunder” as he terminally departs (TU 118, 138, 186). These violent portals define sites in the story at which Hervey is offered opportunities to increase both compassion and self-knowledge. But he consistently fails, for his identity is determined and sustained more by the dictates of social convention than by solitary insight. He is a timid businessman who “recognized only profitable facts” and “tolerated only the commonest formulas of commonest thoughts” (TU 120). He wields money and words, and has contrived his existence so as to accumulate reassuring examples of his ability to impose his will externally by conforming manipulatively to conventions of quantification and vocabulary. Avoiding eccentricity, and thereby “enlarging the circle of … acquaintance,” Hervey enumerates social interactions acquisitively: “Thirty people knew them by sight; twenty more … tolerated their occasional presence …, at least fifty others became aware of their existence” (TU 120).

His private life is arranged according to the same perceptual habits. He weds a physically charming young female, to whom he proposed amidst an outdoor scene whose “sunshine,” “leafy boughs,” “short grass” and bland “sumptuous serenity” cause a “belief in felicity as the lot of all mankind,” and of whom “he never for a moment thought … simply as a woman” (TU 128, 152-53). This scene merely precipitates in Hervey a longing for additional appropriation, “desire to get promptly something for himself … out of that splendour” (TU 153). Thus, his wife becomes merely another surface whereby his identity is reflectively confirmed, for she is “healthy, tall, fair, … well connected, well educated, and intelligent,” just as he is “tall … good-looking and healthy,” and “well connected, well educated and intelligent” (TU 119-20). Predictably, there is repeated stress placed upon surrounding surfaces: the “polished discretion of closed doors and curtained windows,” the “walls [that] seemed to enclose the sacredness of ideals,” the “black oak sideboard, the heavy curtains” (TU 145, 155, 170). And the bedroom, the most intensely personal space, is defined primarily by “strips of glass” that deprecatingly multiply Hervey's

image into a crowd of gentlemanly and slavish imitators who were dressed exactly like himself … obsequious … dignified and safe. … And like real people who are the slaves of common thoughts … not even their own, they affected a shadowy independence by the superficial variety of their movements.

(TU 124)

Hervey and his wife are “like a pair of cautious conspirators in a profitable plot,” only able to consider “their own … advantage.” Therefore, they are presented as people who

skimmed over the surface of life hand in hand, in a pure and frosty atmosphere—like two skillful skaters cutting figures on thick ice for the admiration of the beholders, and disdainfully ignoring the hidden stream … restless and dark … profound and unfrozen.

(TU 123)

Hervey fails to understand that meaning is not imminent in the phenomenal world, that the physical structures whereby he confirms, indeed supports, his identity are not stable. Rather, their ability to provide a comforting underlayment depends entirely upon the stability of his own perceptions. And these perceptions, in turn, are sustained only by the daily consistency and “excessive dullness” of his lexicon, which “contained no new thought” (TU 121). Thus, when his wife behaves in an unexpected way, his clichéd coherences become incomplete infinitives, “to … to … er,” as verbs migrate to normally inanimate foundations and he feels as if “the house had moved a little under his feet” (TU 161, 125; original ellipses).

The primary tension in “The Return” is not the possibility of marital discontent or infidelity. Rather, it is the unaccustomed tension that Hervey experiences when he begins to sense that heretofore reassuringly reflective surfaces contain a figurative conceptual third dimension. Hervey, “successful and disdainful,” does not look closely at other people. They pass by “disregarded,” with “indifferent faces” in a numbing urban cold that is hardly “pure and frosty” (TU 118-19, 123). Even his wife's “features … mirrored for him the tranquil dignity of a soul of which he had thought himself … possessor” (TU 171). Yet, though he typically “looked, of course, at nothing” (TU 124), after a singular “vision quick and distinct,” when he “scanned her features” he could “see” in her “something new.” And this is an “unlucky speculation,” indeed (TU 130, 168, 135).

The interchangeability of the rhetoric of visual perception and finance is both thematically crucial and intellectually absurd. Speculative capitalism requires militarily enforced semiotic stability so as not to incur “unprofitable waste,” and such “stainless” security is consistently mystified ethically and identified with “morality … gods … law, conscience” (TU 164, 142). Thus, Hervey conceives of the “unusual” in terms of a threat to militaristic dominance—“disarmed and cornered by the enemy,” he experiences “a thrust, insidious”—and to property and (hence) ethical propriety—“odd action [is] essentially … indecent,” “tainted,” a “contamination” (TU 125, 121, 135). And he struggles to preserve the financial metaphor that for five years he successfully imposed upon “his property,” his wife—in response to her shocking conduct, initially “he took stock of his losses … like a man counting the cost of an unlucky speculation,” hoping to resist “unprofitable sentiments,” the “unprofitable waste of errors and passions” (TU 135, 141, 164).

In “The Return,” that is, Hervey expects profitable “returns.” He justifies such expectations metaphysically, since “on judgment day … hearts … shall return … to the Inscrutable Creator,” and he assumes his supplication “I want to know,” and his “desire to see, to penetrate, to understand,” are contained within a cosmos that allows “profitable … illusions” and “the return of idealized perfections” (TU 174, 146, 139, 183). Confusing finances with apperception, Hervey shares with most denizens of Western European culture the assumption that words and numbers directly refer resolvently to external things, that his demand, “What's the meaning of this?” (TU 168), with its absurd definite article and pronoun, is meaningful. Even after he conceives of knowledge as entailing figuratively more than two dimensions, “walls concealing passions,” and thinks of “his most cherished convictions … as the narrow prejudices of fools,” he continues to maintain the traditional epistemological assumption that something comprehensible and final, albeit temporarily “veiled,” exists behind the “dark curtain [that] seemed to rise before him,” to be eventually “unveiled” (TU 135, 137, 133, 168).

Much of his life, Hervey has experienced “longing,” “desire,” “yearning” (TU 120, 153, 173). Small wonder, then, that he is prompted to marry, which to him meant “to get … something” (TU 153), for the Women's Property Act of 1870 had done little to alleviate the financial vulnerability of women after marriage (see Pearsall 175 ff.). Still, after his wife's disorienting conduct he realizes that “his immense desire” is not for some “thing,” but rather for final refuge, for “great tenderness, deep as the ocean, serene and eternal … what he had wanted all his life” (TU 178). And he conceives of such a refuge as a “gift,” thereby abandoning the “pitiless materialism” that has dominated his mature life for something “immaterial and precious” (TU 121, 178-79).

In other words, Hervey wishes to remain a conceptual flatlander within the two-dimensional world to which he is accustomed, largely “unable to look … at a fact … or a belief otherwise than in the light of … [his] own glorification” (TU 123). The petrific illumination cast by his “Rigid principles” is embodied manageably and (thus) morally in the “marble woman, decently covered from neck to instep with stone draperies [and] lifeless toes [that] thrust out blindly a rigid white arm holding a cluster of lights” (TU 157, 123). This figure definitively anticipates Kurtz's painting of a woman bearing a torch, Jewel's lighted torch, and Edith Travers's “blazing torch” (HD 79, LJ 300, R [The Rescue] 393)—Conrad's way of figuring forth the urgent desire for a static certitude that men hope can be imposed invalidly upon phenomenal flux by feminine accomplices who only briefly can be enticed into embodying such desire. Hence, Hervey's wife can only temporarily be reduced to collaborative statuary, abolish her female essence and seem to be “an obelisk,” for the torpid glow cast by the “crude gas flame that resembled a butterfly” cannot arrest her psyche (TU 120, 124; cf. TH [Tales of Hearsay] 60). Consequently, a pall is cast figuratively over familiar surfaces, and Hervey inevitably must experience disorientation, as fatuous illumination fails and he is repeatedly “appalled” (see TU 127, 130, 136, 185).

Hervey's “desire” (TU 180-82)—occasionally specific, “yearning to know the secret thoughts” of his exclusively female servants, but ultimately general, “I want … to … to … know”—is epistemological (TU 173, 185; original ellipses). Hervey obeys the metaphoric dictates of Western European culture, conceptualizes this desire three-dimensionally, and seeks “to penetrate” to “something deep,” to the “profound” (TU 146, 168, 123). Moreover, his wife seems to incarnate this metaphor. Soon after she returns, she “lift[s] her veil … like the lifting of a vizor,” and seems to offer to her husband, who fears “feminine penetration,” a way to avoid militaristic confrontation in the “lamentable region … of unveiled hearts” (TU 140, 176). But, of course, like all of Conrad's suspended questers, he can only share Arsat's definitive perception of “nothing” by an “unveiled” surface “polished and black,” for “there is nothing to know” (TU 202-03, 146). There exist only vestigial “Thorns and Arabesques,”8 only an inviting but intellectually lacerating surface, “veiled forever,” and Hervey, enmeshed forever superficially, learns that his wife “will give nothing but what I see,” for there is “Nothing within” (TU 178-79, 184; cf. “nothing within” [HD 74]).

In “The Return” there are no affirmative returns, for “Nothing came back—not even an echo” (TU 183). And Hervey begins to understand this while he watches in alarm a young female servant carry a candle toward him up a dark staircase, as a “black hole,” resembling that from which he and his supercilious “band of brothers” had emerged at the outset of the story, looms once again (TU 118). This “young” figure, welling upward, is a physical embodiment of the “feminine penetration” that displaces the previously reassuring inert “woman of marble,” which now holds merely “extinguished lights.” She seems to elicit all the liquid dynamism, “restless and dark,” that Hervey, who for years “skimmed over the surface of life,” has managed to elude amidst the artifacts in his home that simulate his denials:

At every step the feeble flame of the candle swayed before her tired, young face, and the darkness of the hall seemed to cling to her black skirt … rising like a silent flood, as though the great night of the world had broken through. … It rose over the steps, it leaped up the walls like an angry wave, it flowed over the blue skies, over the yellow sands, over the sunshine of landscapes, and over the pretty pathos of ragged innocence and of meek starvation. It swallowed up the delicious idyll in a boat. … It flowed from outside—it rose higher in a destructive silence.

(TU 123, 182-83)

Hervey learns what Conrad's narrative voice already knows—that a quest for “the hidden logic,” the “hidden truth,” is a “mental undertaking fit for the leisure hours of a madhouse” (TU 128, 168). It inevitably leads to still another figurative shipwreck, “an angry wave” that “swallowed” the “idyll in a boat,” as, celebrating the absence of illumination, “the shadow of a colossal woman danced lightly on the wall” and a “tenebrous sea filled the house,” ruthlessly parodying the “tenderness, deep as the ocean” for which he once yearned (TU 182, 178).

“The Return” ends in a manner similar to “A Tale,” for Hervey abandons his quest and leaves his own “madhouse” of a home to plunge into “sooty obscurity” and “illimitable darkness,” like the Captain, who flees the dwelling wherein are located both “the irresistible tide of the night” and the woman who forces him to acknowledge “I shall never know” (TU 126, TH 59, 80).9 Hervey's terminal insight is compared analogically to the birth of Athena, as he succumbs to the militantly feminine realization that “nothing of what he knew mattered in the least,” his chattering, moralistic mind is overwhelmed by inarticulate emotions, “wisdom springing full-grown, armed, and severe out of a tried heart” instead of a supernal forehead, and the “Divine” is only a mundane trope for the oxymoronic potency of “revealing night” that abolishes the patriarchal “gods” Hervey once thought “were on his side” (TU 183-84, 142).

Definitive existential absence is revealed to Hervey through the inadequacies of his responses to his wife, and this is why it finally makes no difference whether she remains visually obscured or confronts him openly, “her soaked veil … a sordid rag festooning her forehead” (TU 167). For within the context of nineteenth-century critique, the very desire to obtain epistemological relief generates and sustains a gossamer concealment, Decoud's “veil of usage” (N 180), that is coextensive with efforts linguistically to unstitch it (in French, découdre). As early as 1819 Keats is suspicious that such may be the case—in “The Fall of Hyperion” the narrator knows that “words” can be a “half unravel'd web” even when uttered by a vatic female, herself insubstantial, only a “veiled shadow,” a “shade … veil'd,” to whose essence the narrator is powerless to penetrate because of his “terror of her … veils” (1.307-08, 141, 216, 251-52). But even when feminine hands “Parted the veils” there is disclosed no presence, only an interminable diaspora, “constant change … deathwards progressing / To no death” (1.259-61). Thus, even the territory beyond “Veil'd Melancholy,” whence there is no return, is “cloudy” (“Ode on Melancholy” 26, 30).

Even the modest pretense of Tennyson's narrator in In Memoriam, that just a “lucid veil” (67.14) may be sufficient, fails ultimately, and this failure anticipates the definitive appearance of Winnie Verloc, Conrad's augur of absence in The Secret Agent, who is lucidly, but lethally, remote, “veiled in black net” near “a gas-lamp veiled in a gauze of mist” (280). And it matters little whether, like Hervey's wife, her “black veil hang[s] like a rag against her cheek,” or she “lift[s] her veil,” for she remains “impenetrable,” with a “black gaze where the light … was absorbed and lost” (SA 259, 256, 296). Such are the culturally revisionary configurations which late in the nineteenth century contribute to a general recognition that there is no existential “return of idealized perfections,” that “Nothing came back,” and which, in turn, cause the specific disappearance of Conrad's protagonist, for Hervey, together with the philosophical and economic pretensions he embodies, “never returned” (TU 183, 186).


  1. Guerard's sovereign judgment that “The Return” is “certainly Conrad's worst story of any length, and one of the worst ever written by a great novelist” (96), and Graver's two-paragraph plot-summary in a book supposedly devoted entirely to explicating Conrad's short fiction (see 38), are indicative of the shoddy treatment this quality story has received. For an intelligent discussion of the work in a fine but neglected work of scholarship, see Wiley 25-28, 34.

  2. References to Conrad's works (Dent, 1946) are abbreviated as follows throughout this essay: The Arrow of Gold (AG), Heart of Darkness (HD), Lord Jim (LJ), Nostromo (N), The Nigger of the “Narcissus” (NN), An Outcast of the Islands (OI), The Rescue (R), The Secret Agent (SA), Tales of Hearsay (TH), Twixt Land and Sea (TLS), Tales of Unrest (TU).

  3. For alternate discussions, see Bonney, Thorns and Arabesques (94-96, 102) and “Politics, Perception, and Gender” (112-17). The “failed embrace” is the subversive counterpart of one of the most prominent of nineteenth-century situational motifs, that of agonized suspense as Andromeda, offered to Cetus, is rescued by Perseus: see Munich for an inclusive discussion.

  4. The phrase belongs to Keats (Letters 1: 185). See also Milton, Paradise Lost 8.460-90. References to Keats's poetry are not capricious. Conrad was profoundly influenced by nineteenth-century European literature, and particularly by the works of Keats, whom he called “My favorite poet” (Tutein 56).

  5. Vergil apparently regards such a moment as bearing much figurative weight, for these details and vocabulary are repeated in book 6, in which Aeneas once again tries to grasp a wraith, in this case the ghost of his father:

                                                                                    Three times [Aeneas]
    Tried to fling his arms round that dear neck, three times
    The spirit melted from his hands
    That clutched in vain, like the
    … swift dissolution of a dream.


  6. Although neglected at the present time by Western readers, the works of the Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz were widely circulated in Europe throughout the nineteenth century, and much valued by Conrad, who could quote from them by heart even as a child (see Gurko 11, 57). Indeed, the name “Conrad” carries much patriotic significance within the context of Polish culture and is derived from Mickiewicz's Konrad Wallenrod.

  7. The following citations are only suggestive, by no means exhaustive: Goethe, Werther (60, 64, 69, 106, 119), Faust, pt. 2 (1.6560-63, 3.9804-10, 9939-44); Keats, “Lamia,” “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”; Shelley, “Alastor” (lines 184-91); Byron, Manfred (1.1.188-92); Mickiewicz, “Romanticism” (lines 5-13), Forefathers' Eve 3 (2.109-12), Konrad Wallenrod (lines 319, 1783, 1896). Perhaps the definitive twentieth-century example of this figurative event occurs in To the Lighthouse when the philosopher Mr. Ramsey gropes in the dark for his dead wife: “he stretched his arms out. They remained empty” (200). Completed embraces appear in Conrad's fiction typically only as rhetorical devices laced with annihilatory implications: see, e.g., Marlow's speculation that the wilderness “had taken [Kurtz], loved him, embraced him … consumed his flesh,” a trope that he anxiously extends unwittingly when he describes Kurtz's native mistress, who, as “she opened her bare arms,” generates “shadows [that] darted out … gathering the steamer in a shadowy embrace” (HD 115, 136).

  8. By 1898 the arabesque had functioned for over a century—since Goethe's essay “Von Arabesken” (1789)—as a figure bearing inclusive aesthetic and existential significance in European Romantic discourse. For instance, Schlegel alone uses the word 98 times in his extant writings between 1797 and 1801. It suggests to him the “original chaos of human nature” that should be rendered in the design of prose fiction—the “most important thing in the novel is chaotic form” which is exemplified by the “arabesque.” To Schlegel, the figure was embodied by the French Revolution, a “grim chaos,” a “gigantic tragicomedy of humanity” (Brown 91-93). As usual, Conrad invokes the profundities attached to a word by his culture even as he uses it within a context that derides the very assumption that anything can be penetratingly profound (Latin pro: “before,” “at” + fundus: “the bottom”).

  9. For a reading of “The Tale,” another neglected but excellent story by Conrad, see Bonney, Thorns and Arabesques (208-15) and Hawthorn (260-08).

Works Cited

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———. “Politics, Perception, and Gender in Conrad's Lord Jim and Greene's The Quiet American.Conradiana 23 (1991): 99-121.

Brown, Marshall. The Shape of German Romanticism. Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1979.

Byron, George Gordon, Lord. The Poems of Byron. Ed. P. E. More. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1905.

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Derrida, Jacques. Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles. Trans. Barbara Harlow. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979.

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Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. The Sorrows of Young Werther. Trans. Catherine Hutter. New York: Signet, 1962.

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Guerard, Albert. Conrad the Novelist. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958.

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Keats, John. Poetical Works of John Keats. Ed. H. W. Garrod. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1958.

———. The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821. Ed. Hyder Rollins. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958.

Mickiewicz, Adam. Konrad Wallenrod, and Other Writings of Adam Mickiewicz. Trans. Jewell Parish, et al. Berkeley: U of California P, 1925.

———. Pan Tadeusz. Trans. Kenneth Mackenzie. New York: Hippocrene, 1992.

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———. The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1974.

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Tennyson, Alfred. In Memoriam. Ed. Michael Davis. New York: St. Martin's, 1967.

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A. James M. Johnson (essay date June 1996)

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SOURCE: Johnson, A. James M. “Into Africa: ‘The Black Savages and the White Slaves’ in Joseph Conrad's ‘An Outpost of Progress’.” English Language Notes 33, no. 4 (June 1996): 62-71.

[In the following essay, Johnson examines the representation of race in “An Outpost of Progress.”]

Recent currents in critical inquiry have tended to liberate literary works from the limitations of canonical approaches. As a result it is now possible to read texts traditionally received as being subversive in a more complex manner. Joseph Conrad's “An Outpost of Progress” is a case in point. This short story, which V.S. Naipaul argues is “the finest thing Conrad wrote,”1 and which Conrad himself considered his “best story,”2 is widely known as a powerful critique of European culture, yet Conrad employs racially charged representations to dramatize his critique, and this latter fact has not received adequate attention. When the issue of racism is acknowledged as a legitimate critical concern, “An Outpost of Progress” loses its clearly interrogative status and appears to occupy a much more problematic position. Indeed, what emerges is a text that is situated at an ideological crossroads: firmly in the grasp of dominant configurations even while enacting a subversive assault.

“An Outpost of Progress” is set at a remote trading station in the Congo, where the actions of the two protagonists, Kayerts and Carlier, provide a bleak and unflattering view of European culture. Constituted by “the high organization of civilized crowds,”3 these “perfectly insignificant” (89) characters are “incapable of independent thought” (91), and thus view themselves in the language provided by conventional dogma: they are “pioneers of trade and progress” (93) engaging in “the sacredness of the civilizing work … bringing light, and faith and commerce to the dark places of the earth” (94). Conrad demonstrates an enormous discrepancy between imperialist rhetoric and reality when these two “blind men” (92) become accomplices in a trading incident (orchestrated by Makola, their local liaison) in which the station's ten indentured African labourers are exchanged for six huge tusks of ivory. Kayerts and Carlier are initially shocked by this transaction. “Slavery is an awful thing,” Kayerts claims, to which Carlier replies, “Frightful—the sufferings” (105). Yet they soon become accustomed to the idea, especially after weighing the tusks.

The slave trading incident proves to be the pivotal event in the story, for when Kayerts and Carlier allow “the sacredness of the civilizing work” to be eclipsed by the more tangible and the more nakedly aggressive interests of “commerce,” they rupture the cultural fabric that sustains them in a foreign environment. Upon their arrival in the Congo, “they felt themselves very much alone, when suddenly left unassisted to face the wilderness” (89). The narrator goes on to suggest that

the contact with pure unmitigated savagery, with primitive nature and primitive man, brings sudden and profound trouble into the heart … a suggestion of things vague, uncontrollable, and repulsive, whose discomposing intrusion excites the imagination and tries the civilized nerves of the foolish and the wise alike.


Kayerts and Carlier are initially protected from this “discomposing intrusion” precisely by the illusions propagated by “civilized crowds.” When these illusions are compromised, however, the impinging wilderness becomes a mirror in which they dimly perceive their own moral nakedness: “the great silence of the surrounding wilderness, its very hopelessness and savagery seemed to approach them nearer, to draw them gently, to look upon them, to envelop them with a solicitude irresistible, familiar, and disgusting” (108). Soon relations between the two men become strained, and a trivial quarrel develops into a violent altercation in which Carlier is shot and killed. Kayerts then finds himself alone and confronted by his actions. Slave trading and murder prove to be realities that he is unable to contain with rhetorical props. On the next day, the Company steamer arrives, and with it the mentality of the “civilized crowd” returns:

Progress was calling to Kayerts from the river. Progress and civilization and all the virtues. Society was calling to its accomplished child to come, to be taken care of, to be instructed, to be judged, to be condemned; it called him to return to that rubbish heap from which he had wandered away, so that justice could be done.


But Kayerts can no longer take refuge in the illusions provided by his community, and instead, he “look[s] round like a man who has lost his way” (116), and then hangs himself.

Through the downward spiral enacted by his protagonists, Conrad dismantles the rhetoric of “Progress and civilization” and replaces it with the reality of the “rubbish heap.” This attack on European culture and its imperialist activities has been readily identified by critics. Brian Shaffer, for example, suggests that “An Outpost of Progress” offers a parody of the optimistic teleology of Herbert Spencer,4 and Jeremy Hawthorn lauds “the steadiness and penetration of Conrad's ideological position. There are no romanticizing or idealizing impulses here; rather, there is the impulse to expose attempts to romanticize or to idealize imperialism.”5 But such commentators tend to avoid the ideological complexity of Conrad's writing by dealing only with his interrogative stance and by thus avoiding the racial codings that enable his subversive position. J. C. Hilson and D. Timms begin their treatment of the story by stating that “Conrad is far more interested in what happened to the whites in the Congo than in what happened to the blacks.”6 This is no doubt accurate, but taking their cue from Conrad, these critics are not concerned with non-Europeans either, an oversight that tends to normalize rather than to interrogate demeaning representations. The statement, “what happened to the blacks,” is notable here, for it implies an historical distance from the reality of racial exploitation when it can be argued that “what happened” is continuing to happen in the realm of representation.

In Conrad's Africa, Europeans come into “contact with pure unmitigated savagery, with primitive nature and primitive man.” Africa and Africans become indistinguishable, and together embody a vision of primal nature to which Europeans such as Kayerts and Carlier descend from the duplicitous realm of culture. There are three groups of Africans in “An Outpost of Progress.” The people who inhabit the village closest to the trading station appear in the guise of the noble savage: they are “naked, glossy black,” and “perfect of limb,” and like animals they send “quick, wild glances out of their startled, never-resting eyes” (92). Conrad here depicts nature's vital alternative to the impotence and indolence embodied by Kayerts and Carlier. Meanwhile, the minimal culture that the text endows on these people is denigrated: their language is like “an uncouth babbling noise” (92), and their chief, Gobila, is a “savage” (95) with superstitious beliefs that include propitiating “Evil Spirits” with “extra human sacrifices” (107). Even the perspicacity of Gobila's perception that white men are “very young, [and] indistinguishably alike” (95), is connected not with penetrating intellect but with a natural simplicity that also includes viewing white men as “immortal” (96). It may seem specious to censure Conrad for providing a demeaning representation of African culture in a text that presents a negative view of European culture. There is, however, an important distinction to be made here. Conrad demystifies European culture—this is the very core of his project. The same cannot be said of his presentation of Africa. European culture is presented as being false; African culture, to the extent that it exists in Conrad's text, is not false, but rather appears as a manifestation of the “savagery” of “primitive nature and primitive man.” One could say that Africans are not granted the sophistication required to generate the illusion of culture.

The representation of the other two groups of Africans in “An Outpost of Progress” does not depart significantly from the portrayal of Gobila's people. There are the ten labourers who work at the trading station:

They were not happy, regretting the festive incantations, the sorceries, the human sacrifices of their own land; where they also had parents, brothers, sisters, admired chiefs, respected magicians, loved friends, and other ties supposed generally to be human.


Conrad seems to intend to bestow sympathy on these people who have been taken from another part of the Congo to become the virtual slaves of the trading Company. But such sympathy, manifest in the understatement of the suggestion that “They were not happy,” exists alongside a condescending and patronizing tone that is particularly evident in the clause, “other ties supposed generally to be human.” Furthermore, the entire passage reduces African culture to clichéd forms of the primitive (“festive incantations,” “sorceries,” “human sacrifices”). As for the third and final group of indigenous people, the aggressive slave traders with their leader, “a powerful and determined-looking negro with bloodshot eyes” (97), they embody the “pure unmitigated savagery” that is the very essence of the wilderness. With these marauders, the condescending suggestion of “human sacrifices” encountered with the other peoples is replaced by the ruthless reality of slavery.

Whether they appear as noble savages, as passive victims, or as violent marauders, the Africans in “An Outpost of Progress” are fixed in the realm of nature. Furthermore, the occasional African who strays out of the realm of nature and into the deceitful and hypocritical realm of culture is clothed by Conrad in obviously ill-fitting garments. This can be seen in Heart of Darkness in the characterization of Marlow's helmsman and fireman, the former referred to as a “fool” and the latter likened to “a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs.”7 In “An Outpost of Progress” it is Makola, the African who engineers the slave trading incident and is arguably the dramatic pivot of the story, who appears in this guise. Hilson, Timms, and Hawthorn all agree that Conrad's text is primarily concerned with the fictional quality of European culture, and they also agree that this central concern is focused on Makola. Hilson and Timms maintain that Makola is “the living symbol of the ruthlessness and duplicity of the Company”; the “true representative of the hypocritical system.”8 Hawthorn singles out Makola as the character who “is able to adapt to the dominant needs of imperialism: maximal extraction of wealth disguised by the most convincing lies.”9 What needs to be added here is that Makola's function within the text's general critique of Europe is based in large part on the dynamics of race.

The initial description of Makola suggests a dual identity:

The third man on the staff was a Sierra Leone nigger, who maintained that his name was Henry Price. However, for some reason or other, the natives down the river had given him the name of Makola, and it stuck to him through all his wanderings about the country. He spoke English and French with a warbling accent, wrote a beautiful hand, understood bookkeeping, and cherished in his innermost heart the worship of evil spirits.


The narrator appears to be ambivalent about which of two signifiers is more appropriate for this man: “Makola” or “Henry Price.” Makola is an African name conferred by other Africans, and is the name that is used repeatedly in the text. Henry Price, on the other hand, is mentioned only once, and is a European name that, it would seem, is affected unsuccessfully by the subject himself. Indeed Makola is very much a man of artifice and affectation; his accomplishments include the mastery of various signifying systems (dialects, calligraphy, accounting) that are essential to the operation of the European trading company. Meanwhile, underneath the false surfaces of culture that Makola seeks to affect there is an African identity that is presented by Conrad in derogatory and condescending terms: he is “a Sierra Leone nigger” who “cherished in his innermost heart the worship of evil spirits.”

Makola's dual identity can best be understood in relation to Kayerts and Carlier. Makola is “very neat in his person” (102), and is depicted at one point washing himself, a detail that counterpoints the description of Kayerts and Carlier as “dirty” and “untidy men” (87). Kayerts and Carlier move from the superficially ordered but ultimately false realm of culture (signified by Europe) to the anarchic realm of nature (signified by Africa). Makola seeks to reverse this movement, but is unsuccessful, for he is evidently properly at home in the amoral wilderness. After all, he is the real villain of the story (the architect of the slave deal) against whom the ineffectual Europeans appear merely pathetic. While Kayerts and Carlier suffer crises after the slave deal, Makola simply relaxes with his children (105), untroubled by an exchange that seems to be well within the normal bounds of his conduct. The Europeans are revealed to be hypocrites in that they have beliefs that are undermined by their actions. Makola, conversely, lacks beliefs, and like the wilderness itself, has no conscience. Thus, while Makola is surely a victim of the Company (his occupation marks his self-alienation), Conrad's portrayal of him is hardly likely to generate sympathy. Makola's identity is summarized by the statement that he is “a civilized nigger” (102), a designation that in the racial context of the story should be read as an oxymoron: the word “civilized” connotes the false surfaces of Europe that he seeks to affect; the word “nigger” connotes the reality of Africa that he cannot escape.

Richard Ruppel points out, in a discussion of the generic affinities of Heart of Darkness, that a “derisive attitude toward westernized natives is an unattractive but common feature of exotic stories” in the 1890s.10 While Ruppel does not elaborate on the motivation underlying such characterizations, it could be suggested that “westernized natives” intimate the permeability of racial boundaries, a possibility that is then countered, or contained, by a “derisive attitude.” Certainly this would seem to be the conclusion reached by Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow in their extensive survey of the British image of Africa:

The Westernized African contravened the clear-cut distinction the British had drawn and intended to maintain between themselves and the Africans—ruler and subject, white man and “nigger,” civilized and savage. … The Westernized African was an ever-present reminder to the British that the disparity could be overcome in a single lifetime. They viewed the acculturated African as a threat to their prerogatives and to the established social order. Their response in the literature was to make him a target for ridicule and censure. … At any rate, the quality of African mentality was believed to be of such a nature that any manifestation of civilized behavior was believed to be superficial and tenuous, since sooner or later the African would revert to savagery.11

Viewed alongside the presentation of Makola in “An Outpost of Progress,” this passage suggests how far Conrad is from subverting the racial views of his culture. Makola's “civilized behavior” is decidedly “superficial and tenuous”—underneath his “Westernized” veneer lurks his true “savagery.” Of course Kayerts and Carlier, and the Company as a whole, also display a “tenuous” hold on “civilized behavior,” but they go to Africa to have this revealed. Africa functions as the obverse of culture; Africans (such as Makola) who exhibit the accomplishments of culture appear to be somehow out of place.

Conrad's forceful critique of European culture and imperialism in “An Outpost of Progress” exists uneasily alongside a demeaning representation of non-Europeans that pulls his text back into the orbit of dominant structures of thought. Conrad's Europeans may exist in the hypocritical realm of culture and consciousness, but they still occupy a dominant position over his Africans, who are essentialized to embody the lowest common denominator of savagery. Furthermore, Conrad provides a perspective that allows Europeans to mediate their enslavement to hypocrisy. In a letter composed in the Congo in 1890, he writes to his aunt, Marguerite Poradowska, “while reading your dear letters I have forgotten Africa, the Congo, the black savages and the white slaves (of whom I am one) who inhabit it. For one hour I have been happy.”12 In “An Outpost of Progress,” Africans are savages while Europeans, arguably, are slaves—slaves to the lie of culture. While Kayerts and Carlier are slaves for whom there is no possible release, they do not necessarily represent the absolute European condition. Conrad's response to his aunt's letters suggests that he is momentarily released from oppressive circumstances through an aesthetic appreciation of European writing. In this sense, even if there is no hope of final freedom, there may at least be the possibility of parole. A residual value that adheres to culture in “An Outpost of Progress” can be seen in this light, for Conrad's ironic narrative, with its sweeping and penetrating omniscience, defines by its very nature the existence of a heightened intellectual vantage point.13 The text offers the reader a momentary release from slavery through aesthetic appreciation. In other words, although this story is one of Conrad's most pessimistic statements, the narrative hints at an alternative defined by its own commanding point of view: a detached awareness that adumbrates the later arrival of Marlow in Heart of Darkness. Regarding “An Outpost of Progress,” Daniel Schwarz points out that

the narrator's confident moral stance and self-control, demonstrated by the discipline and unity of the tale's structure, affirm the existence of an alternative and far more attractive concept of civilisation than the one espoused by the predatory colonialists.14

Evidently, then, an element of European aesthetic activity survives the general discrediting of culture and continues to dominate the African realm of nature. In Conrad's presentation the European and the African may meet in the primal realm of nature, but only the European occupies the realm of culture, and of course it is from the realm of culture, however compromised it may be, that the text itself proceeds.


  1. V. S. Naipaul, “Conrad's Darkness” (1974), Joseph Conrad: Third World Perspectives, ed. Robert Hamner (Washington: Three Continents, 1990) 193.

  2. Joseph Conrad, “Congo Diary,” Congo Diary and Other Uncollected Pieces, ed. Zdzislaw Najder (New York: Doubleday, 1978) 82.

  3. Joseph Conrad, “An Outpost of Progress,” Tales of Unrest (1898; London: Dent, 1947) 89. Subsequent references to this text will be provided parenthetically.

  4. Brian W. Schaffer, “‘Rebarbarizing Civilization’: Conrad's African Fiction and Spencerian Sociology,” PMLA 108 (1993): 53-55.

  5. Jeremy Hawthorn, Joseph Conrad: Narrative Technique and Ideological Commitment (London: Edward Arnold, 1990) 168.

  6. J. C. Hilson and D. Timms, “Conrad's ‘An Outpost of Progress’ or, The Evil Spirit of Civilization” (1975), Joseph Conrad: Third World Perspectives, ed. Robert Hamner (Washington: Three Continents, 1990) 107.

  7. Joseph Conrad, “Youth,” “Heart of Darkness,” and “The End of the Tether” (1902; London: Dent, 1946) 110, 97.

  8. Hilson and Timms 109, 111.

  9. Hawthorn 160.

  10. Richard Ruppel, “‘Heart of Darkness’ and the Popular Exotic Stories of the 1890s,” Conradiana 21.1 (1989): 11.

  11. Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow, The Africa that Never Was: Four Centuries of British Writing About Africa (New York: Twayne, 1970) 99-100.

  12. Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies, eds., The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, vol 1 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 1983) 62-63. Subsequent references to this text will be provided parenthetically.

  13. In another letter to his aunt (although not written in the Congo), Conrad states:

    Man must drag the ball and chain of his individuality to the very end. It is the price one pays for the infernal and divine privilege of thought; consequently, it is only the elect who are convicts in this life—the glorious company of those who understand and who lament, but tread the earth amid a multitude of ghosts with maniacal gestures, with idiotic grimaces.


    The phrase, “the infernal and divine privilege of thought,” nicely captures the sense in which Conrad views conciousness as both a mark of slavery and a mark of distinction.

  14. Daniel Schwartz, Conrad: Almayer's Folly to Under Western Eyes (London: Macmillan, 1980) 26.

Myrtle Hooper (essay date autumn 1996)

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SOURCE: Hooper, Myrtle. “‘Oh, I Hope He Won't Talk’1: Narrative and Silence in ‘Amy Foster.’” The Conradian 21, no. 2 (autumn 1996): 51-64.

[In the following essay, Hooper explores the function of the frame narrator and the role of silence in “Amy Foster.”]

On first reading “Amy Foster” I found it puzzling that Conrad had chosen to name his story after ‘the woman’ and not ‘the man’, since so much of his imaginative interest seemed to be vested in the history of Yanko Gooral, alien washed up on the shores of English civilisation. In this respect, the story offers an interesting counterpoint to the situation in Heart of Darkness, in which an English narrator recounts his story of alien experiences on an English ship riding at anchor on an English river. Of course, it is expressive of both Conrad's alienation and his irony that the experiences of English civilisation should be as damaging to the alien castaway as the experiences of Kurtz were to him who ventured into the ‘primitive interior’ of African ‘darkness’. In another respect, the narrative structure of both tales is quite similar, since in both we encounter named narrators whose narratives are in turn framed by the anonymous listeners who hear their stories. There has been a fair amount of speculation about the functions of the frame narrator in Heart of Darkness: in part it will be a concern of this essay to consider the functions of the frame narrator in ‘Amy Foster’. Yet my initial puzzlement remains: and it is also partly in an attempt to find answers to the naming of the story that I embark on this consideration of narrative and silence in ‘Amy Foster’.

In an examination of ‘Impression and Articulation in “Amy Foster” and “The Idiots”’ Hugh Epstein suggests that Conrad's choice of title ‘puts the emphasis, finally, where it should be’, which is in the ‘essential pessimism of the tale that follows’.2 This pessimism is evident in the opposition between the narrative and the silence of Amy Foster which defeats it: a silence which is ‘a stronger force than the flickers of Kennedy's understanding … a silence of a devouring inertness and a region of darkness that swallows up all impression’ (Epstein 229-230). The ‘black hole’ of Amy's silence is thus one pole of the story's absorption with language, and with the interrelations between the acquisition of language and the acquisition of social and cultural identity. The absorption is understandable, given Conrad's own ‘journey through many tongues’ and his final adoption of, if not adaptation into, an English home. Nevertheless Epstein's reading of Amy's silence, and that of Sansford Pinsker whom he cites (‘Amy belongs to that camp of silence that ultimately destroys those who would articulate their experience in words’, Epstein 229), is one that needs to be recognised, located and challenged, not least because it coheres with the antipathetic rendition this silence is given by the doctor who relates Amy's (and Yanko's) story.

It is one of the purposes of Epstein's analysis to demonstrate the ways in which Conrad's ‘use of inarticulate protagonists is associated with a peculiarly intense apprehension of the indifference which greets human aspirations’ (217). Locating Conrad in a ‘generally post-impressionistic position, one which acknowledges that a writer is dealing in a medium that actively interposes itself between sensations and extra-linguistic reality’ (225), Epstein understands “Amy Foster” as Conrad's most poignant expression of the ability of narrative to temporise with but not to dispel our existential solitude. In this reading Amy ‘defeats’, tragically, the attempts of Kennedy and of Yanko to ‘construct a story, a life’ (226). If, as Epstein believes Conrad believed, ‘existential solitude’ is the immanent condition of humankind, it is not surprising that Amy's silence should be read as a reminder of this solitude. Nor is it surprising, I suppose, that it should be read in such negative terms: for example, in the concatenation of ‘silence and fear of life’ which is, allegedly, embodied in her (Epstein 228); in the way this silence ‘throws into belittling relief all the talking required to convey it’ (230); and in the ‘irreducible mystery’ which her fear is said to be (239). What is intriguing, and what does need attention, is the extent to which these judgements cohere with those of the named narrator, who calls Amy's trepidation ‘vacant’ (206), her terror ‘unreasonable’, and her fear ‘unaccountable’ (207).

Although it is certainly my intention to take issue with Epstein's reading of Amy, the point I'm making at the moment is not that his reading is wrong, but that it is directed by his line of entry into the story. To emphasise the post-impressionism of Conrad's method is, in a sense, to require Amy to represent what is ‘impenetrable’; to require her to serve, as Africa did in Heart of Darkness, as a ‘dark hinterland to the visible scene’ (Epstein 222). In these terms, Kennedy's narrative can certainly be understood as a ‘defeated one’: articulate as he is, Epstein reminds us, Kennedy ‘increasingly finds himself saying “I don't know,” until, in the last two paragraphs all assurance of interpretation are absorbed and nullified by Amy's silence’ (230). In a telling analogy, Epstein links the effects of Amy's silence upon the narrative with the shipwreck of the vessel which brings Yanko to England: reminding us ‘a completeness without a clue, and a stealthy silence as of a neatly executed crime, characterize this murderous disaster’ (230).

Now, in addition to my feminine sense of injustice this reading rouses, I am moved by an interest in ‘silence’ as a narrative and as a cultural phenomenon to challenge Epstein's reading of “Amy Foster”. It seems to me that a stronger emphasis on both these dimensions of the story, as opposed to its impressionism, will render problematic the masculine hegemony which understands Amy's silence in such pat and such negative terms. Indeed I will go so far as to claim that this hegemony has conspiratorial overtones, can be construed as reflecting a collusion between narrator, writer and critic which strives to conceal the ‘murderous’ intent not of Amy but of Kennedy the narrator, and the exculpation of the doctor in which the narrator indulges.

A useful theoretical framework that will help us to disassemble this hegemony has been advanced by Wieslaw Krajka, who draws on insights from Bakhtin to examine what he terms the ‘abortive dialogue of cultures’ in “Amy Foster”. Dialogue, he points out, ‘is a pivotal concept in contemporary interdisciplinary studies of culture … [because] culture displays its identity only through dialogical connections: both internal (as an interplay of various factors within it), and external (as points of contact with other cultures)’.3 The notion of ‘dialogue’ becomes particularly interesting in application to the narrative of ‘Amy Foster’, by directing us to identify the terms and the values underlying the judgements that are made by it and within it.

The parties to this ‘dialogue’ are, on the one hand, Yanko, who is imbued with the culture of Polish mountaineers, and the English villagers amongst whom he is cast up and with whose culture he comes into collision. The relative status of the ‘cultures’ designated in the story helps explain the mechanisms of the conflict that ensues. So, for example, ‘Goorall is a completely isolated outsider, who, like any emigrant, has to follow the rules of the game set by the autochthones in order to assimilate and survive’. There is nothing inherently right or superior about the culture he encounters: it is simply the case that he must obey its dictates in order to survive. He does so, to an extent, but is never fully integrated: in Krajka's terms, ‘The English villagers refuse to recognize the new-comer's cultural ego, despise the values of his ethnos, totally negate all the elements of his ethos’. Each of the two parties (Yanko and the villagers) constitutes an ‘orbis exterior’ for the other, the ‘phenomena [of which] are considered in pejorative terms, and hence are to be rejected or even despised’ (5).

Of the ‘villagers’ with whom Yanko comes into contact, there are two in particular with whom he enters into ‘dialogue’: Amy Foster who, with the offer of a piece of white bread, brings him back ‘within the pale of human relations with his new surroundings’ (“AF” [“Amy Foster”] 196), and who in due course marries and then abandons him; and Kennedy the doctor who treats him as a patient, listens to and reconstructs his stories, and subsequently recounts them. These two people who have stories to tell of Yanko react very differently to their experience of ‘dialogue’ with him. The silence for which Amy stands critically condemned is one response; and one to which I shall return. By contrast, the tale itself is Kennedy's version of past events which is motivated by his past relations with Yanko and his past and present relations with Amy. The ‘black hole’ of Amy's silence is only one aspect of the story's absorption with language; and it is characteristic of most of the villagers that they are inarticulate. The doctor is recognisably different: he is introduced as a scientist, an explorer, and a student of nature who has access to modes of conceptualising experience that are not circumscribed by village reality; and it is the forms and the codes of his discourse that signally shape the story.

Before examining this story, it is worth reminding ourselves that Kennedy's act of narration is triggered by the presence of a friend from outside the community who is visiting him, and who much later recounts the story to us as readers. The functions of this frame narrator are substantial. One of them is to supply a natural and symbolic context which modifies and qualifies the internal story in important ways. It is the frame narrator who comments on the listlessness and suspension of life that seems to characterise the people and the town of Colebrook.

With the sun handing low on its western limit, the expanse of the grass-lands framed in the counter-scarps of the rising ground took on a gorgeous and sombre aspect. A sense of penetrating sadness, like that inspired by a grave strain of music, disengaged itself from the silence of the fields. The men we met walked past slow, unsmiling, with downcast eyes, as if the melancholy of an over-burdened earth had weighed their feet, bowed their shoulders, borne down their glances.

(“AF” 185)

This view reinforces Kennedy's comments about the people of Colebrook—their uncouthness, leadenness, heaviness of gait—and by extension, his sense of the difference of Yanko. A second function of the frame narrator is to evince a frame of values shared with Kennedy and originating in their joint seafaring past. It is a frame of values which applies to reading and apprehending life, and telling stories about it, and hence is apparent in Kennedy's inclusive use of ‘us’ and ‘we’ at points such as this one: ‘… The relations of shipwrecks in the olden time tell us of much suffering … We read about these things, and they are very pitiful’ (“AF” 187).

Yet because this friend is an outsider to the village community, a third function he serves is to exert on Kennedy's narrative a pressure to explicate, so that in his story Kennedy must represent not only Yanko and Amy, but also the village and, indeed, himself. We have seen that this narrator's perception of Colebrook echoes and amplifies Kennedy's description of it. And since Yanko is dead the version of him Kennedy supplies can be neither corroborated nor contested by the frame narrator. Nonetheless, Kennedy's construction of Yanko cannot be taken as given because the other person who knew Yanko well has survived; and it is in the frame narrator's perception of Amy that a difference in perspective arises which provides a space for questioning Kennedy's version of her.

Although most of what we learn of Amy comes to us from Kennedy, our first perception of her is that of the frame narrator:

I had the time to see her dull face, red, not with a mantling blush, but as if her flat cheeks had been vigorously slapped, and to take in the squat figure, the scanty, dusty brown hair drawn into a tight knot at the back of the head.

(“AF” 182)

The crucial detail offered here is the punishment Amy has endured: she looks as if she has suffered. It is not an observation Kennedy makes, because Kennedy never attempts to represent Amy's point of view. If the functions of the frame narrator are to qualify Kennedy's narrative, and to enable a questioning of its inclusions and exclusions, it is also his interest in Amy that triggers the telling of the story, and Kennedy's substantial exclusion from it of Amy's point of view is both paradoxical and worth exploring in greater depth.

Kennedy, we are told, is equipped with ‘intelligence … of a scientific order, of an investigative habit, and … unappeasable curiosity’; and a pair of ‘gray, profoundly attentive eyes’ (“AF” 182). The predominance of the visual indexes one of his modes of relating to Yanko. In this respect his perception of Yanko links him to Amy: ‘She and I alone in all the land’, he says, ‘could see his very real beauty’ (“AF” 203). Like Amy, Kennedy is attracted by Yanko's difference and by his personal grace. In another respect, however, this predominance of the visual is associated with and allied to a scientific code which shapes his perception of Yanko and contains his closeness to Yanko both as a man and as a human being—and thus distances him from Yanko. It is, for example, the vocabulary of ‘fauna and flora’, of the ‘scientific societies’ (“AF” 182), which induces him to ‘see’ Yanko struggling ‘instinctively like an animal under a net’ (“AF” 186), when he crawls onto land, and to be reminded by Yanko's ‘panting breast and lustrous eyes’, when he is near death, of ‘a wild creature under the net; of a bird caught in a snare’ (“AF” 208). It is a perception of Yanko as ‘specimen’ which is finally not very far from that of old Swaffer who collects curiosities.

Allied to this scientific code is a morality of naturalism whose effect is to sanctify and to close over the small tragedy of Yanko's death. Before relating Yanko's story, for example, Kennedy offers the following context:

‘one would think the earth is under a curse, since of all her children these that cling to her the closest are uncouth in body and as leaden of gait as if their very hearts were loaded with chains. But here on this same road you might have seen amongst these heavy men a being lithe, supple and long-limbed, straight like a pine, with something striving upwards in his appearance as though the heart within him had been buoyant. …’

(“AF” 185)

In part the predominance of the visual over the verbal is an artefact of Conrad's method, the impressionism to which Epstein has drawn our attention. It is no coincidence that revisionist ethnographers have rejected the predominance of visual description in favour of a receptiveness to the multiple voices which can and should make up an ethnographic account. As Epstein suggests, however, it is also characteristic of Conrad to oppose to this visualism ‘the efforts of a narrator actively seeking to confer meaning on what he sees’ (220). In other words, the impressionism itself can be opened up to debate if one recognises the tension rather than the coalescence between the visual and the verbal. For example, although both Kennedy and Amy are able to respond visually to Yanko in a way that differentiates them from the villagers, his discourse inescapably reflects his otherness, and challenges their perceptions of him. Even the ties between Kennedy and Yanko are lacking in ‘profound understanding, mutual appreciation and exchange of ideas and values, enrichment with elements of the other culture’, as Krajka points out (9).

In Kennedy's case, his perceptions and conceptions of Yanko are complicated by the relationship not only of doctor and patient but also of storyteller and listener-become-storyteller; by the opposition of scientific objectivity and narrative allegiance. Like Amy, Kennedy develops a relationship with Yanko, in the context of which he collects the fragments of the story he then reconstructs. He comments: ‘I have been telling you more or less in my own words what I learned fragmentarily in the course of two or three years, during which I seldom missed an opportunity of a friendly chat with him’ (“AF” 190). His interest in Yanko stems from a ‘talent of making people talk to him freely, and an inexhaustible patience in listening to their tales’ (“AF” 182). Now, as recent psychological ventures into narrative theory have disclosed, to tell a story of a person is in important ways to bring that person into being, to create an identity for him (or her). This is crucially the case for Yanko, since, in the narrative present of the story he has already died. As much as Yanko's learning of English equips him with an English identity, it is Kennedy's story of him that ‘brings him into being’—though, as Krajka would remind us, both the acquisition of language and the acquisition of identity are qualified. It is an indicator of Yanko's strangeness that his English is never fully domesticated, that he passes from ‘anxious baby talk’ to ‘quick fervent utterance’ to ‘unearthly language’.

Like Kennedy, if we are to believe him, Amy's first response to Yanko is a visual one: ‘She was not frightened. Through his forlorn condition she had observed that he was good-looking’ (“AF” 196). Her own mode of relating to him, however, if we recall both the piece of white bread and her flight, is predominantly gestural rather than visual, though it is as complicated by the verbal as Kennedy's. Lacking access to the detachment of Kennedy's scientific code and the containment and regulation it allows, Amy is at much more direct risk from the otherness of Yanko that emanates in his discourse. She also has less narrative power to reconstruct and reinterpret events to her own advantage.

In Kennedy's first presentation of Amy, he describes how her employer's gray parrot, the ‘outlandish bird, attacked by the cat, shrieked for help in human accents’, and caused Amy to run ‘out into the yard stopping her ears’ (“AF” 184). The moral force of the symbol is complex. In the first place it offers a predictive indictment of Amy's fallibility; in the second it anticipates the cruel fate which lies in wait for Yanko; in the third it demonstrates Kennedy's doubts about the efficacy of human speech; and in the fourth it shows his reservations about Yanko's ultimate articulacy. Yanko's speech frightens the villagers when he first arrives, and remains the mark of his difference. In fact, Yanko's impact on English is literally to defamiliarise it, even to the villagers who take language so for granted. Kennedy describes his acquisition of English thus:

He told me this story of his adventure with many flashes of white teeth and lively glances of black eyes, at first in a sort of anxious baby-talk, then, as he acquired the language, with great fluency, but always with that singing, soft, and at the same time vibrating intonation that instilled a strangely penetrating power into the sound of the most familiar English words, as if they had been the words of an unearthly language.

(“AF” 190)

Yanko's use of his own language is even more problematic, not least because it precipitates his death. In Kennedy's description, ‘I discovered he longed for their boy to grow up so that he could have a man to talk with in that language that to our ears sounded so disturbing, so passionate, and so bizarre’ (“AF” 205). It is precisely this possibility that is most threatening to the relationship between Yanko and Amy, because it is the most acute emanation of his alienness. Yanko himself does not understand her fear of him, why when he ‘croons’ to the child she ‘snatches’ it out of his arms. He dismisses this reaction as something ‘that would pass’ (“AF” 205). Differentiated as Kennedy is from Amy by superior intellect, experience and access to a scientific code that transcends the boundaries of the village community, and aware as he is of the effects of Yanko's use of language, we might expect more understanding from him. It is not forthcoming. In Kennedy's version, she is ‘awakened … from that mysterious forgetfulness of self, from that enchantment, from that transport by a fear resembling the unaccountable terror of a brute’ (“AF” 185).

Given the disjunction between Kennedy's articulacy and Amy's silence, given, in other words, the disjunction in their respective narrative power, it seems important to try ourselves to understand her fear. In effect, the question that arises to divide them is focused upon the child:

His wife had snatched the child out of his arms one day as he sat on the doorstep crooning to it a song such as the mothers sing to babies in his mountains. She seemed to think he was doing it some harm. Women are funny. And she had objected to him praying aloud in the evening. Why? He expected the boy to repeat the prayer aloud after him by-and-by, as he used to do after his old father when he was a child—in his own country. And I discovered he longed for their boy to grow up so that he could have a man to talk with in that language that to our ears sounded so disturbing, so passionate, and so bizarre. Why his wife should dislike the idea he couldn't tell.

(“AF” 205)

To Yanko, Amy is a source of ontological security greater even than Kennedy. In particular, the child they have together is someone who might learn his language, and who might learn to recognise and respond to the ethnos of his cultural identity. Yet Yanko's need for ontological affirmation and security blinds him to a real awareness of Amy's needs, and to the fact that his determination to teach his child his own language is an assertion of difference which divides him from her. The threat Yanko poses to the villagers is most acute in its impact upon language and hence upon meaning. In Amy's case, her fear of Yanko is her fear of his foreignness, and her fear of his foreignness is her fear of his language. For her, the hermeneutic threat becomes an ontological one once it is directed towards the child: because she has vested so much of herself in the maternal relationship, and because by speaking to her child in a strange language, Yanko is, in Amy's eyes, trying to turn the child into a stranger, to replicate in the child his own alienness and difference. Yanko's threat implicates her role as mother, indeed sets in opposition her roles as mother and wife, as she understands them; roles both central to her self. Yanko in effect forces her to choose which one she is going to be, because the ontological threat he poses makes it impossible for her to continue to be both.

Again, it is understandable that cultural differences might make it difficult for Yanko to understand his wife. It is less so, though, that the doctor's perception of Amy should be both unpenetrating and erratic. Before the event, he ‘looked into her short-sighted eyes, at her dumb eyes that once in her life had seen an enticing shape, but seemed, staring at me, to see nothing at all now’. After the event he is able to say, ‘Ah! but you should have seen stirring behind the dull, blurred glance of those eyes the spectre of the fear which had hunted her on that night three miles and a half to the door of Foster's cottage! I did the next day’ (“AF” 207). Amy does offer an explanation: she says, stolidly, ‘And there's the baby. I am so frightened. He wanted me just now to give him the baby. I can't understand what he says to it’ (“AF” 206). In Kennedy's report this becomes, ‘There was nothing in her now but the maternal instinct and that unaccountable fear’ (“AF” 207). Kennedy's oversight seems an inescapably gendered one, rendering him unable to recognise or to interpret her as woman and mother: her eyes, to him, are ‘dumb’, and seem, to him, to ‘see nothing’. Yet Amy's fear is accountable, as I have shown—and the fact that Kennedy does not bring his knowledge of the situation to bear to account for it should alert us to the narrative impulses which motivate both his story and his perception of her.

If Yanko's limited or odd command of English structures and shapes his relations with village people, including his wife, one of the effects of Kennedy's naturalistic morality is to sanctify and close over the processes leading to Yanko's death, a narrative effect of which we ought to be suspicious. Although it is clear that Amy's abandonment precipitates Yanko's death, it is also clear that Kennedy himself has responsibilities to Yanko, both as doctor and as friend. And these responsibilities should not be disguised by the sense of limited medical liability that informs his reflection: ‘I impressed upon her the necessity of the greatest care, and then had to go. There was a good deal of sickness that winter’ (“AF” 207). Kennedy is guilty at the least of a crucial failure of perception and insight; at the worst of dereliction of duty. Although he has ‘wondered’ ‘whether [Yanko's] difference, his strangeness, were not penetrating with repulsion that dull nature they had begun by irresistibly attracting’, this recognition occurs only after the event of Yanko's death: ‘I don't know how it is I did not see—but I didn't’, he remarks in retrospect (“AF” 207). By failing to register in time the potentially destructive force of Yanko's otherness Kennedy in fact contributes to his death.

Epstein says of this moment:

His response to that last utterance of Amy's reveals him berating himself for a failure of imagination. … Seeing is, of course, much more than eyesight—it involves the whole human imagination. The ‘as if’ shows Kennedy attempting—with hindsight—to interpret, to fit his impression into the story.


Yet Kennedy's sense of his own failure is never explicitly acknowledged; nor does he pass judgement upon himself. Rather his judgements are projected outward, to nature, to life, to the ‘gust of wind and swish of rain’ that answers Yanko's ‘penetrating’ and ‘indignant’ call; and his own voice, he says, seems to ‘lose itself in the emptiness of this tiny house, as if I had cried in a desert’ (“AF” 208). The impression Kennedy is attempting to ‘fit’ into his story is Amy's dereliction of duty, not his own. He is unable—or unwilling—to tie up his awareness of Amy's devotion to her child (the ‘very passion of maternal tenderness’ he observes after Yanko's death) with an account of her response to her husband. As I have tried to show, Amy's fear of her husband is by no means ‘unaccountable’, yet Kennedy's judgements are powerful enough to make challenging them quite difficult. The attempt to do so is important, however, because Amy's silence is so crucial to Kennedy's narrative.

Despite or perhaps because of his role in Yanko's death, Kennedy's loyalties, as doctor and as friend, motivate him to attempt to define and locate his relationship with Yanko, to pay tribute to it. It is a personal responsibility he enacts in crafting and telling the story that has been entrusted to his care. If Kennedy's narrative brings Yanko (back) into being, it does so in order to compensate for his failure at the time to protect and secure the precarious social existence Yanko achieved in the village community.

In advancing this claim, I wish to return to two summative comments Epstein makes on the point:

Kennedy's discourse reveals itself as that of a receptive, enquiring, competent guide, opening with the relaxed certainties of an intelligence at ease with itself … [yet] what the whole tale dramatizes is how the security, both of the scientific outlook and of yarning with a friend, ebbs away to expose, but not to explain, the ‘inscrutable mystery’ of human hearts.


Kennedy's narrative is ‘defeated’, because, despite the advantages of hindsight, he fails to ‘fit’ his impression into the story, ‘it escapes from him’ (Epstein 229). In my reading, the story's escape from its narrator is fortuitous, because on the one hand Kennedy reveals himself unequal to the task of depicting or representing Amy, and on the other his version of events depends on her silence. If, as I would contend, he is as guilty of dereliction as she is, it is convenient to him to render her silence as ‘inscrutable mystery’, to allow the story to be foreclosed by the ‘black hole’ of her silence, rather than to confront and acknowledge his own culpability.

Unlike Yanko, Amy has both participated in the events that Kennedy narrates, and survived to form part of the present of the narrative. Within her silence she holds the potential for confirmation or rebuttal of Kennedy's story. If she chose she could exculpate the failure of imagination which helped kill Yanko. It is this implicit power of authentication which makes her silence so problematic for Kennedy: it functions as a refusal to condone, to confirm, to corroborate.

The reading I have offered is one that seeks to supply the understanding of motherhood which Kennedy so patently lacks: my purpose has been to highlight the ways in which the mystery that characterises the story is attached to Amy by Kennedy, and for reasons that suit him. Our responsibility as critics, I would contend, is not to condone, but to challenge the narrative closure that interprets her silence in convenient ways. If it is a defeated narrative, it is also a patently unjust one, to which we should be alerted at least by the simple detail in the frame narrative of the hermeneutic status of Amy's red cheeks. The presence and the perception of the frame narrator enables the polyphony of the text, and if amongst the voices there is one that is silent, we need to be sensitive to this silence, not concur with its narrator in a reading of it that is morally convenient to him.

The further point I would make in conclusion has to do with the attempt to narrate across cultures, and the critical positioning that is entailed by it. Rather than focus on intrinsic features of the narrative such as impressionism, I would suggest, our critical endeavours can be directed more fruitfully if we view such a narrative attempt in oppositional terms. Doing so will encourage a sensitivity to the relations of power that are intrinsic to cross-cultural encounter, relation and narration. Attempts to narrate across gender boundaries might then be viewed in a similar light. In the final analysis, Amy's positioning as wife and mother renders her more alien to Kennedy than Yanko is. If such positioning serves to objectify her, it also helps to explain the complex of inarticulacy in which she is located, and by extension the naming of the story “Amy Foster”. In this story, consciousness of tragedy is given to Yanko and not to Amy. To rephrase slightly, Amy is silent so that she won't interfere with the version of Yanko's tragedy that is offered by Kennedy. The inarticulate suffering of women is by no means an uncommon trope in Conrad: in this instance, the collusion of masculine critic with masculine narrator serves to mask the crucial irony in the tale. The real ‘other’ in Kennedy's story is not Yanko, but Amy; and it is her opposition of silence to his narrative that makes her so. The object lesson remains clear: we need to recognise Kennedy's partiality and treat it with some circumspection. Rather than accept his version of Amy we need to read her silence as an act of its own, and respect it in those terms.


  1. Conrad, J. 1992. The Lagoon and Other Stories, edited with an introduction by Samuel Hynes. London: Pickering & Chatto. p. 207. All further references are to this edition.

  2. Epstein, H. 1991. “‘Where he is not wanted’: Impression and Articulation in ‘The Idiots’ and ‘Amy Foster’”, Conradiana, 23.3, pp. 217-232 (p. 229).

  3. Krajka. W. 1990. Paper presented at the Conference of the Société Conradienne Française. Marseilles, France: September, p. 5. References are to a copy of the paper kindly given to me by Professor Krajka.

Douglas Kerr (essay date autumn 1998)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7451

SOURCE: Kerr, Douglas. “Conrad and the ‘Three Ages of Man’: ‘Youth,’ The Shadow-Line, ‘The End of the Tether’.” The Conradian 23, no. 2 (autumn 1998): 27-44.

[In the following essay, Kerr elucidates the themes of age and life transition in three of Conrad's stories.]

The topos of the three ages of mankind provides a recurring subject in classical painting, whether the three figures are represented together in a shared allegorical landscape, as perhaps most famously by Titian in The Three Ages of Man, or more realistically, as in another Titian masterpiece, the portrait of three musicians entitled The Concert.1 This essay will take three tales by Conrad and arrange them into an intertextual triptych so as to allow Conrad's treatment of this old theme to emerge. The tales in question are “Youth” (1898), The Shadow-Line (1917), and “The End of the Tether” (1902). Of course these are not Conrad's only studies of youth, maturity, and old age. They were not written as companion pieces (“Youth” and “The End of the Tether” were published together with Heart of Darkness in 1902 in Youth: A Narrative, and Two Other Stories). What is more, in sequencing them as the three ages their order of composition is rearranged, since the middle term of the sequence, The Shadow-Line, was written some fourteen years later than “The End of the Tether.” The justification for putting these tales together in this way to illustrate my theme is that in each of them the question of age, of limits and transitions, is, quite self-consciously, the primary subject, as their titles indicate in one way or another. Each sends its central character on a dangerous journey that is specifically epochal, the dramatization of a life-transition—into adulthood, into the age of responsibility, and from working maturity into incapacity and death.

Before proceeding I ought to meet the reasonable objection that, if this investigation is to be undertaken, it would make more sense to take for its texts the collection of three stories that Conrad himself grouped and published together in 1902: “Youth,” Heart of Darkness, and “The End of the Tether.” In the last year of his life, Conrad told F. N. Doubleday that “every volume of [his] short stories” had “a unity of artistic purpose,” and cited various examples:

Or take the volume of Youth, which in its component parts presents the three ages of man (for that is what it really is, and I knew very well what I was doing when I wrote “The End of the Tether” to be the last of that trio). I can't somehow imagine any of those stories taken out of it and bound cheek and jowl [sic] with a story from another volume. It is in fact unthinkable.2

This sounds fairly conclusive, although as usual with Conrad's remarks on his works and intentions, a degree of cautious scepticism does no harm. There is the problem of reconciling his 1924 claim—“every volume of my short stories has a unity of artistic purpose”—with the opening sentence of his 1917 “Author's Note” to the Youth volume: “The three stories in this volume lay no claim to unity of artistic purpose” (v).3 These statements are not absolutely irreconcilable, to be sure. My opinion is that, whether or not this was part of Conrad's intentions for the tale, Heart of Darkness clearly is about the second age, and moreover dramatically so, chronicling a life-transition, an epoch in the experience of a man who leaves his youth behind and engages with (whatever one may think of the implications of the term) maturity. As such, it would certainly have been apt for the purposes of this essay. I decline the commonsense invitation to use it as my example of the second age for several reasons, but chiefly because The Shadow-Line is more interesting on the theme of age than is Heart of Darkness, and more concentrated on it, so that the theme stands out more clearly.

What does it mean to be young, or middle-aged, or old, in Conrad's fiction? An examination of these stories together will show that Conrad had a theory of psychological maturation, and that no less than the classical theorists and depicters of the ages he thought of a human life as divided up into distinct phases, its course involving not just physical maturation and decline, but also certain changes, represented as being equally natural and inevitable, in character and conduct. (It is possible that this way of understanding the course of a life might have seemed particularly appropriate to a man who had himself lived and worked for years in a professional hierarchy of seniority, and a man, besides, whose own experience fell distinctly into “three lives,” as Frederick R. Karl has it.) But since characters in realism are inseparable from a highly specific environment, and since these stories all deal with trade and traffic to or in Eastern waters in the colonial era, this investigation will move beyond the private domain of individual psychology, or outwards from it, to the world of affairs inhabited and observed by these individuals in their transit, a world that is itself at every moment becoming more old and more new. The question of individual youth and age in these Conrad stories becomes entangled in the question of history and modernity. Finally, besides the psychological and historical dimensions of the issue, there is a third, formal or mimetic level on which the question may be made to bear. A reading of these tales can also suggest that the three ages are associated with different modes of seeing (or failing to see), and of representation; so that the third age of “The End of the Tether” is more belated, more “modernist,” than the second age of The Shadow-Line, written some fourteen years later.

The discourse of the ages of man has a classical pedigree and its most authoritative source seems, not surprisingly, to be Aristotle, who provided a taxonomy, in Book Two of the Rhetoric, of “the various types of human character, in relation to the emotions, states of character, ages and fortunes” (2:2213). Youth is hot-tempered and generous, says Aristotle (and he means young men: he does not say whether he thought women too had three ages), whilst old age is cautious and small-minded. Aristotle's postulation of three ages—whether or not this was a structure he inherited from the psychology of his time—enables him to present the second age as possessing a character between that of the young and the old, free from the extremes of either. As he says, “To put it generally, all the valuable qualities that age and youth divide between them are united in the prime of life, while all the excesses or defects are replaced by moderation and fitness. The body is in its prime from thirty to thirty-five; the mind about forty-nine” (2:2215).

The theory of the ages was capable of plenty of variety, and some sophistication. Wedded to a Christian teleology, it can produce a mutual allegory whereby the ages of a man's life correspond to the ages of history itself, the life of the world. Augustine expounds a scheme of dividing into six the ages of an individual, and he relates these to the six ages of history, as if each of us might experience in his or her own lifespan something equivalent to the whole history of mankind (Burrow 1988, 80-92, 199-200). The last life-phase, senectus, corresponded to the last age of the world, from the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem to the end of things. Horace advised poets to assign to their characters the distinctive behaviour appropriate to their age. In Ars Poetica, he himself describes four of them, all male, prefixing childhood to the Aristotelian triad of youth, prime, and old age (ll. 153-78). Though there was some dispute about the number of ætates hominum—three, four, six, or seven were favourites—classical and medieval authorities seem to have been agreed that a life falls into certain fixed epochs. J. A. Burrow says: “Most ancient and medieval authorities speak of the course of human life not as a process of continuous development but as a series of transits from one distinct stage to another … They generally saw the transitions between these estates as datable events rather than gradual processes” (ll. 177-78).

Although a more organic psychology would find this unrealistically tidy, the idea of a natural psychological maturation continues to be commonplace. It is one of the capital themes of the nineteenth-century novel, its particular expression being the Bildungsroman with its narrative pattern of a movement towards maturity that naturalizes the acquisition of a particular kind of “experience” of the world, an experience that, as the captain in The Shadow-Line says in another context, “means always something disagreeable as opposed to the charm and innocence of illusions” (65). Freud's narrative of the triumph of sublimation might be seen in the same generic Bildungsroman terms (a rather Gothic Bildungsroman, admittedly), but Freud was not greatly interested in the processes of maturation over a lifetime; his psychosexual theory of development stops at puberty. Proponents of lifespan developmental psychology, such as Kimmel, tend to re-institute the idea of the ages or stages of life, with their attendant teleologies.4 For Jung there were four psychological ages, and we must accommodate ourselves to each, he said, with the appropriate adaptations and renunciations: this was only natural, for “to speak of the morning and spring, of the evening and autumn of life is not mere sentimental jargon” (109-31).

“O youth! The strength of it, the faith of it, the imagination of it!” (12). These are the things that the forty-two-year-old Marlow invokes as he remembers his twenty-year-old self. He later describes his former self as living “the life of youth in ignorance and hope” in the Judea, and ends his narrative on “a moment of strength, of romance, of glamour—of youth!” (18, 42). Strength, faith, imagination, ignorance, hope, romance, glamour—these are the qualities of youth that the tale commemorates and mourns; from the vantage of the later age of Marlow and his land-locked listeners, the “illusions” (the final word) of youth are regretted not because they were illusory but because they have been lost. The tale frankly envies its protagonist, even when he is being a bit ridiculous. The young Marlow himself is virtually an allegory of youth, leaving behind the motherly wife of the captain, who mends his socks, and venturing on a rite of passage, an initiatory voyage to manhood under the sponsorship of the appropriately named patriarchs, Captain Beard and the first mate Mahon (pronounced Mann).5 These figures of age themselves seem to grow visibly older as the voyage proceeds. After the fire Marlow notices that the captain has hollow eyes and sunken cheeks, and it also strikes him suddenly that “poor Mahon was a very, very old chap” (22).

Young Marlow himself is an admirer of Byron and a romantic egotist, and his youthful imagination has no trouble turning the voyage of the lumbering and prosaic Judea into a drama of the egotistical sublime: “To me she was not an old rattle-trap carting about the world a load of coal for a freight—to me she was the endeavour, the test, the trial of life” (12). As a junior officer, his element and responsibility is action alone. He is scornfully uninterested in the commercial side of the voyage, the squabble between owners, underwriters, and charterers that is finally sorted out, Marlow reports haughtily, by “a man, some kind of agent to somebody” (16). This romantic insouciance means that, unlike the captain, Marlow is not demoralized by the months of delay in port: it is simply a time when the story of adventure, the only real story, is in abeyance. He reads himself as an action hero, a specifically literary one, thinking “By Jove! this is the deuce of an adventure—something you read about; and it is my first voyage as second mate—and I am only twenty6—and here I am lasting it out as well as any of these men, and keeping my chaps up to the mark” (12). His self-scrutiny does not apply itself to the inner life, but only to conduct.

A lack of self-consciousness seems to have been part of youth's repertoire for Conrad. The point will be made again in The Shadow-Line, where it is said that the privilege of early youth is to live “in all the beautiful continuity of hope which knows no pauses and no introspection” (3); and it may have been a commonplace. Jung, for example, says that only the mature subject can have doubts about himself and be at variance with himself (115). Interestingly, when Marlow assumes his first command—though only of a lifeboat—and reaches his destination, which is both the East and manhood, he comes to himself under the eyes of “the men of the East,” the crowd of onlookers who gather to stare at the new arrivals, immobile, exhausted, and weak in the aftermath of action (40). Acutely aware of this scrutiny, and of how he must look to others, it is as if Marlow acquires in this moment at his journey's end the self-consciousness Conrad associated with maturity in an ethnographic context: it is the oriental other, in this case, staring back, that completes a process. The narrated action freezes on this moment that confers the self-consciousness that will enable Marlow in due course to tell the tale of his youth, but that also confirms that his youth is lost. The move from youth to age is also a move from originality to repetition, and from action to narration.

The imagination and faith of youth can glamorize a prosaic existence into adventurous romance, but this is an immature taste. The narrator of The Shadow-Line gives up a perfectly good berth as mate in an excellent ship for reasons he cannot explain even to himself, but which seem to be understood by his captain, and are nothing other than an intuition, almost physiological in its symptoms—“the green sickness of late youth,” with its restlessness and irritability—of an impending change from one age to another, “a shadow-line warning one that the region of early youth, too, must be left behind” (5, 3). With this change comes the assumption of new roles. Young Marlow's relationships in the Judea were overwhelmingly filial—with the captain and his wife, with Mahon, with the ship herself. The narrator of The Shadow-Line receives the token of his own maturity—his command—from patriarchal sponsors, Captains Giles and Ellis, but the promotion changes his status from that of a son to that of a bridegroom:

Half-an-hour later, putting my foot on her deck for the first time, I received the feeling of deep physical satisfaction. Nothing could equal the fullness of that moment, the ideal completeness of that emotional experience which had come to me without the preliminary toil and disenchantments of an obscure career.


The captain is wedded to his ship in a relation here described, in the familiar lovers' hyperbole, as “more intimate than there are words to express in the language.” But there are two aspects to this. There is an exalted, even sublime feeling of plenitude, but in the same moment an earnest practical appraisal: “A lot of details perceptible to a seaman struck my eye vividly in that moment.” The captain has crossed the shadow-line from youth to the age of prudentia, and from now must take account of—and responsibility for—the mundane practical details, including the “silly commercial complications” of supplies and cargoes and contracts that the youthful Marlow had paid little heed to. The maturity on which the captain has literally embarked is the age of realism in both senses: the sense of prudentia or the practical application of experience, and the literary-historical sense of a world of things, imagined in terms that are prosaic, pragmatic, and material. He is faced with the challenge of keeping faith with the realism of maturity in the most phantasmagoric moments of his voyage, when it seems most in danger of turning into a tale, like Coleridge's contributions to Lyrical Ballads, “supernatural or at least romantic.”7

So the story goes: the romantic individualism of youth (and of “Youth”) suffers metamorphosis, in the Bildungsroman pattern, into the realism and social responsibility of maturity, which is then tested in its own ordeal. The assumption of command is the institutional confirmation of what is a natural process of change, becoming senior. It immediately brings an onset of that self-consciousness that youth was supposed to lack. Having announced his new identity (“‘I am your new captain,’ I said quietly”), the newcomer takes his seat in the captain's chair, where the first thing he sees is himself, his image in the mirror that has in turn reflected each of his predecessors in the patriarchal order of command (52-53). This is a self-awareness different in quality from the concern of the young Marlow (or, for example, the young Jim at training school in Lord Jim) for the figure he cuts in the world. It is a self-critical consciousness that looks inwards to an alienated interiority that is one of the prices paid for responsibility, an interiority belonging with realism. Notably, the captain has now entered into “the only period of my life in which I attempted to keep a diary” (105), that genre of the secret life, and he will fill its pages with his lonely doubts and self-reproaches. He has also acquired a historical sense, a strongly felt and sustaining relation to the past.

For the young Marlow the past had been a romance tradition, constructed from colourful if clichéd language, which enabled him to imagine the crew of the lumbering and coal-filled Judea as belonging to the legendary order of those “men of old” who had hazarded the same journey “to the land of palms, and spices, and yellow sands” (18). The captain in The Shadow-Line, with the realism of his age, sees a past that is much more specific and institutional, though in its different way just as inspiring—the dynasty of former commanders of this ship he has now joined. (It is a problematic inheritance, of course, in view of what he is soon to learn about the most recent of his predecessors.) The ghosts of these men's reflections still inhabit the captain's mirror, and what he reads there is a history which is prosaic and austere, a shadow-line of obscure precursors who did their duty and left no memorial “in an immensity that receives no impress, preserves no memories, and keeps no reckoning of lives” (53). They have left no visible trace, no memoir, on the sea or the mirror of the sea. Yet when the captain sees his own face in the glass he sees theirs, and when he thinks of their lives he is also pondering his own. In the mirror of seniority he sees both his duty and his death. This sense of mortality, completely and almost magically absent from “Youth,” in which Marlow is blessed with “the feeling that will never come back any more, the feeling that I could last for ever” (36), underlies The Shadow-Line's rhapsodies about command, service, comradeship, and sail. The chord of duty and mortality is echoed in the person of Ransome the cook, “thoroughly sailor-like” and “in his earliest prime” (67, 68) and therefore the captain's contemporary, who with his weak heart carries a deadly enemy in his breast that may strike him down at any moment. Ransome cannot afford youthful spontaneity. He is past it. He has (as we say) to watch himself. This is a lesson his captain also has to learn: “Youth is a fine thing, a mighty power—as long as one does not think of it. I felt I was becoming self-conscious” (55). When he returns to the “Eastern port,” Singapore, after the ordeal in the Gulf of Siam—an ordeal that, as so often in Conrad, has been a test of patience as much as of action—the captain declares to the avuncular Giles that he feels old; to his eyes, everyone on shore looks like a youngster.

Captain Whalley, the central figure in “The End of the Tether,” is the real thing, a genuine bearded patriarch of some sixty-seven years. The tale keeps emphasizing his solidity. He is a man of great size and strength, the picture of health after his fifty years at sea, moving through life with an enormous and pious self-confidence until age deals him the failing eyesight that brings about his tragedy. He made his name in a heroic age of seamanship, as “Daredevil Harry Whalley” of the Condor, a sailor and explorer who “had made famous passages, had been the pioneer of new routes and new trades” (167). But although he has been a romantic figure, he has also a reputation for being perfectly dependable, having handled many thousands of pounds of his employers' money and “attended faithfully, as by law a shipmaster is expected to do, to the conflicting interests of owners, charterers, and underwriters” (168). It is possible to imagine both the adventurous young Marlow and the conscientious captain of The Shadow-Line as younger selves, or earlier ages, of Captain Whalley. To the Dutch planter Van Wyck who befriends him, he seems everything that an old man should be, “the perfection of manly gentleness” (286):

The striking dignity of manner could be nothing else, in a man reduced to such a humble position, but the expression of something essentially noble in the character. With all his trust in mankind he was no fool; the serenity of his temper at the end of so many years, since it could not obviously have been appeased by success, wore an air of profound wisdom.


This is the stereotype of old age as we would like it to be, and it is of interest that the appraisal is made by the generally cynical and anti-social Van Wyck. This serene figure expresses faith in a reassuring (or challenging) teleology, in the goodness of providence, in the progress of the world “in knowledge of truth, in decency, in justice, in order,” and particularly in the steady improvement of the peoples of the East under the benign influence of the West, with its superior intelligence, knowledge, and force in the service of God's will (288, 289). The whole of this missionary position—itself resting on a theory of the ages, as applied to civilizations, with the mature West providing example and guidance to the immature East—is seductively naturalized in the figure of Whalley, the solidity of his frame, his manly manners, and the deep and limpid resonance of his voice, expounding opinions with the authority of his years behind them: “The smoke oozed placidly through the white hairs hiding his kindly lips” (289). It sounds too good to be true, and it is. This comforting image of patriarchal serenity is a fraud, and what issues from those kindly lips is a fraud too. The progressive, unidirectional grand narrative of Western-driven history, which he expounds a little smugly to Van Wyck and seems guaranteed by his own ample and secure embodiment, is to be contradicted in at least three ways: it is at odds with his own secret physical deterioration, with the modernist architecture—both desultory and catastrophic—of the Conradian narrative in which he unwittingly has his being, and with the contracted scope of the voyages of his old age, the cramped circulation that was Conrad's favourite figuration of futility.

The old explorer's horizons have shrunk to the “monotonous huckster's round” of the coaster Sofala, endlessly repeating the circle of her familiar ports-of-call. He is the father of a daughter in Australia whom he has not seen for years, who has asked for money to enable her to set up as the landlady of a boarding-house. This is why, having lost his own savings in a bank crash, he is still working, and has had to take a berth in the steamer Sofala, whose engineer and owner he despises, and whom he has deceived (or allowed to deceive himself) into signing the contract. As a result of this deception, the impeccable Captain Whalley feels “corrupt to the marrow of his bones” (214). By the terms of this contract he must be fit to serve out a full three years in the Sofala, or forfeit part of his stake. This means that his august and impressive body, which in the eyes of Van Wyck incorporates the old man's wise serenity, has been turned into a commodity of barter: “Not a bad investment for the poor woman this solid carcass of her father” (214). It is a bad investment, of course, when he begins to go blind, and compounds his self-betrayal by concealing this from his partner and crew. The story then moves with a measured and ruthless rhythm towards shipwreck and his death, made more poignant by its glimpses of what old age ought to mean, but rarely does.

What we see in Captain Whalley, then, are two faces, or perhaps two phases, of the third age. There is the figure Van Wyck sees and admires, the benevolent sage, full of years and wisdom, with a heroic career behind him, unspoilt by his successes and unembittered by his reverses. He embodies a vastly dependable reassurance that all is right with the world, and in particular with the Western traffic with the East in which both he and Van Wyck are engaged. But beneath this figure, or slouching up behind it, is the other image of age, the senile impotent, his physical faculties crumbling, his judgement unreliable, his actions a liability and danger to others. “The End of the Tether” inherits a cluster of motifs from King Lear, but even the last dignity of tragedy is more or less denied Cap-tain Whalley, who cheats his employer, endangers his crew, and goes down with his ship for the sake of an Australian boarding-house. The in-dignity and ultimate disaster of the captain's old age have come about because circumstances have forced him into a role for which his body now disqualifies him. Instead of withdrawing from the sphere of action to contemplation—the proper and “natural” thing for an old man to do—he is trying to do a job that should be done by someone else.

So this is the composition of Conrad's “three ages of man,” on the evidence of these three texts: on one side, youth, a figure of hopes and illusions, of action unencumbered by self-consciousness and introspection, seeming to irradiate his surroundings with the light and colours of romance; in the centre, the prime of life, the age of realism, a figure of authority guided by calculation and self-scrutiny, prudence, and responsibility; and, on the other side, old age, withdrawn from action and dispensing serenely the wisdom of long experience for the encouragement and help of others.8 But behind this third image, in the shadows, is the other figure of age, this time envisaged as loss, impotence, and indignity, the face of old age as tragedy and farce.

Clearly what is being engaged with here is a cluster of stereotypes. The particular qualities of the protagonists in these tales are presented as qualities of character and conduct that inhere naturally and inevitably in their respective ages. Yet of course not all young people are carefree optimists by nature; not everyone in his or her prime of life (however that is reckoned) is prudent and introspective; and there are plenty of people under sixty-five who ought to retire to contemplation before they do any more harm. Physiological maturation aside, the characterization of the ages is mythological, in the Barthesian sense, and it would be interesting to enquire just what is being naturalized under its sponsorship, as we enquire about the naturalizations of the myths of gender, class, and ethnicity. We would be looking for answers in terms of the legitimation of traditional relationships in the family and the workplace, and (particularly in Conrad's sailing stories) of a career structure. The rest of this essay sketches some of the connections that might be drawn out in these three tales between the story of the three ages and the story of the traffic of Western empire that is the context of all three of them. I am using the term “traffic” as a shorthand indicating all the economic, political, and ideological transactions between Europeans and the East in the colonial era.

All three tales are predominantly focalized through a single character; their narration is dialogically infiltrated by the cognitions of the protagonist, even though in no case, strictly speaking, is the protagonist also the narrator.9 The figure of each age stands in a ground apposite to each; that is to say, the context is focalized through the perceptions, if not the actual words, of the protagonist. What this gives us is a view of the traffic through the optic of the three ages. Although the journeys at the centre of these tales, from Marlow's first voyage as an officer to Whalley's last, cover no significant historical span, the way that each is focalized enables us to trace through them a story about the youth, prime, and decline of Western traffic in the East.

Marlow journeys a much-travelled route to Bangkok in an ancient steamer carrying an industrial cargo, in a voyage long delayed in part by wrangling between the owner, the underwriters, and the charterers. These banal aspects of the voyage do nothing at all to unsettle his romantic and largely aesthetic conception of it as an adventure for adventure's sake. He is heroically uninterested in the Judea's commercial business. In his eyes, this is a voyage of ordeal and discovery, belonging to the repertory of romantically motivated journeys of exploration that are the inaugurating myths of empire. When finally, “exulting like a conqueror,” he reaches the shores of Java, he feels he has arrived in an earlier age and place, “the East of the ancient navigators” (38, 41). What is more, he describes that first encounter between the exhausted Europeans in the Judea's lifeboats and the silent and fascinated crowd of “men of the East” as if it were indeed the very first such encounter—an authentic, Columbian moment of mutual discovery—even though not far off is anchored an English steamer from Singapore, a habitual visitor to the bay.

If the generic myth of the first age is that of the romance of discovery, like the explorers' narratives, the second age of European traffic in the East is, appropriately, a story of the triumph of character. To move from “Youth” to The Shadow-Line is to enter a world that has become more complex, an East less conceivably romantic, more modern and urban, and much more closely observed. Its protagonist has just finished a spell as first mate on board a European-officered steamer belonging to a Straits Arab, “as loyal a subject of the complex British Empire as you could find east of the Suez Canal” (4). In “Youth,” the East was a light, a jetty, and the scented air; in The Shadow-Line, it is a modern port, at the same time bustling and mediocre, with the institutions of its Harbour Office and its Officers' Home, “a large bungalow with … a curiously suburban-looking little garden” (8). The prospect of command casts a temporary glamour over this humdrum city—for “Command is a strong magic” (29). But in this prosaic world there is no ignoring either the “silly commercial complications” or the personal ambitions, follies, and spite of others.

Before the voyage of his first command even begins, the new captain has to overcome intrigues and rivalries ashore and deal with a sullen first officer, a bad contract, and the legacy of his predecessor's collapse into madness. Once the journey starts, he has to contend with a sick crew (and no quinine), almost preternaturally difficult weather conditions, and the delirious mate's ravings that the ship has been jinxed by its former master. He and his crew overcome these trials by unflinching endurance—by “character,” in the ideological sense intended in the phrase “character-building,” and associated with the Bildungsroman closure of “maturity,” meaning an ability to live in the real world and to accept stoically what cannot be changed. This sense is alluded to by the captain himself when he speaks of “that episode which had been maturing and tempering my character—though I did not know it” (129). This quality of maturity is best embodied by Ransome himself, the captain's contemporary, described as both “serene” and “active” (98), and thus an Aristotelian combination of the best properties of age and youth. But it is also a group effort, a triumph for the entire English crew (“Worthy of my undying regard,” as the epigraph has it). Such stoical dedication to duty, resisting listless despair, hysterical superstition, fever, and madness—all traditionally Asiatic hazards, in colonial discourse—is the essential quality on which the British claim to authority in the world, and in the traffic of empire, was based. This claim is subjected to withering scrutiny elsewhere in Conrad, particularly in Lord Jim, a notable study of immaturity. If the claim seems unproblematically endorsed in The Shadow-Line, it is worth remembering that the story was published in 1917 and was dedicated to Borys Conrad and all others serving in the forces in the Great War. This celebration of national character in adversity has its own context in a time of national crisis and anxiety.10

The claim to a national or ethnic maturity is a commonplace of colonial discourses. Kipling's “The White Man's Burden” is its locus classicus. But if The Shadow-Line is about the maturity of the imperial traffic, what about “The End of the Tether”? The conservative myth of the maturity of the imperial nation, with sub-plots that include the infantilizing of Africans and the gerontification of the Chinese, is a naturalization only up to a point: it is not usually assumed that these states will themselves mature. But this is just what is imagined in “The End of the Tether,” in which the shipwreck of Captain Whalley and the Sofala can be read as pointing ahead to the end of the imperial traffic itself.

This may seem an unlikely reading. After all, a long section of the tale is devoted to describing the visible signs of the development, prosperity, and expansion of the port of Singapore, which has moved in Whalley's own lifetime, as J. H. Stape puts it, “from jungle outpost to colonial metropolis” (85). But, as Stape has shown, the Singapore of “The End of the Tether” is a very peculiar place. The city patrolled by the redundant old sailor is both very new and very old—both modern and moribund, the very latest and the last of colonial life. The city has lost touch with the virile individualism of its own myths of foundation, myths in which “Daredevil Harry Whalley” himself had had a hand. “There had been a time when men counted,” he remembers, but such men were “now robbed of all consequence by the greatness of accomplished facts” (194, 195). The place seems to have been feminized, too. Whalley remembers with respect Mr. Denham, a governor of the early days, a lone bachelor of Spartan lifestyle; but the present governor rides in a fancy carriage with three women, and both the Master-Attendant (a father of three daughters) and of course Whalley himself are now reduced to serving the interests of women. The city is now a place of aimless circulation, where no useful work is done, and where fortunes can be made and lost randomly, on the luck of a Manila lottery ticket or the equally arbitrary collapse of a bank like the notorious Travancore and Deccan Banking Corporation, in which Whalley has lost his life's savings. Beneath the scrupulous realism of observation in the Singapore part of the tale is a Beckettian, even surreal world. It is not just that the colonial city has ceased to work. It comes as something of a shock to notice that the wide thoroughfares and impressive buildings through which Whalley drifts and meditates do not contain any human beings (or none of whom the narrative, focalized through the old man, takes notice). Colonial Singapore is a ghost town, its pompous frontages as imposing as the captain's own appearance, but no more than that. It is a city from which has fled or drained the energy that once drove it. Where the Colonial Treasury now stands, Whalley can remember an outpost similar to the place of first encounter of Marlow's youth, “a fishing village, a few mat huts erected on piles between a muddy tidal creek and a miry pathway” (181); but now the place has passed presumably through the phase of banality, business, and intrigue of the city in The Shadow-Line and entered a sinister sort of afterlife, industrializing and corporate (the new Consolidated Docks Company) but lifeless and purely automatic: “Place runs itself,” grumbles Captain Elliott. “Nothing can stop it now” (198).

The colonial presence in this city has suffered the fate of other decadent aristocracies and become entirely a matter of show. A parade of fine carriages, with equipages and horses and turning wheels and servants and parasols, is given a sumptuous and very funny page of description but, until the governor's party is mentioned near the end, the entire passeggiata is apparently as empty as the buildings were of living colonial passengers, for they utter no distinct word and are visible only as “the motionless heads and shoulders of men and women,” who appear “as if wooden” (191-92)—just like the stolid Captain Whalley on the bridge of the Sofala, who is himself reduced to a kind of figurehead.

This is a colonial city of the third age, looking good and hogging the limelight but incapable of work or action, and emptied of the energy and values on which its legitimacy was founded. It has become a ghost of itself. No wonder that in its streets the old sailor struggles with a feeling “of loneliness, of inward emptiness—and of loss, too, as if his very soul had been taken out of him forcibly” (185). This necropolis is his place, his age.

Not that the entire city is redundant and fraudulent, of course. Plenty of busy work is being done in the native quarter, amongst the rather alarming “swarm of brown and yellow humanity” into which Whalley plunges like a diver, and from which he emerges to take refuge in the (empty) hotel. Here too there is a connection to be made between the age of the protagonist and the historical sense of the story, its representation of the phase of the colonial traffic that is his context. For if Singapore's subject population is alert and vigorous while its British governing class has lost its useful faculties, this situation is recapitulated in the Sofala. Without exception the European officers are a sorry lot, and Whalley, clinging onto a command he knows he is no longer competent to exercise, is in some ways the worst of them. How can a blind man navigate a ship? The answer is of course that someone else is doing the work.



“You are watching the compass well?”

“Yes, I am watching, Tuan.“

“The ship is making her course?”

“She is, Tuan. Very straight.”

“It is well; and remember, Serang, that the order is, that you are to mind the helmsman and keep a lookout with care, the same as if I were not on deck.”


It is the Malay serang (who interestingly disrupts the paradigms of age by being both wrinkled and childlike) who navigates and ensures the safety of the ship, at least until its English engineer and owner himself sabotages the compass. But if the serang's job is to look after the ship as if the captain were not on deck, what is the captain's job? If the third age of colonial traffic is one in which the ship goes about its business in Asian waters while the colonial figure himself is inert and useless (though handsome) as a ship's figurehead, perhaps this indicates that the time is right for the next age, of post-colonial localization.

Captain Whalley has sailed, moreover, into the treacherous waters of the formal and epistemological breakdown we associate with modernist writing. He moves uncertainly forward through the darkness, leaving far behind the glamorous romance of his daredevil youth, but now also losing his grip on the realist's confidence in the substantial universe, that confidence that the world can be measured and predicted and mastered, which the captain in The Shadow-Line had clung to when his own voyage had seemed most horrifying and directionless. Captain Whalley's substantial and solid form, at his place on the bridge, still bespeaks that confidence, but hollowly now, ironically. Already isolated in his blindness, pinning his faith on a compass that has lost its sense of direction (a sufficiently modernist image), what he is moving towards is the wreck and breakup of his ship. He cannot distinguish what is real from what is false. Absolutely nothing on earth can be relied on:

The horror of incertitude had seized upon Captain Whalley, the miserable mistrust of men, of things—of the very earth. He had steered that very course thirty-six times by the same compass—if anything was certain in this world it was its absolute, unerring correctness. Then what had happened? Did the Serang lie? Why lie? Why? Was he going blind, too?

“Is there a mist? Look low on the water. Low down, I say.”

“Tuan, there's no mist. See for yourself.”


But what the blind captain will soon see for himself is what Philip Larkin has called “the only end of age.”11


  1. Both paintings date from about 1515. Hans Tietze, Titian: The Paintings and Drawings (London: Phaidon Press, 1950), 371, 375.

  2. G. Jean-Aubry, ed., Joseph Conrad: Life & Letters, vol. 2 (London: Heinemann, 1927), 338.

  3. The anomaly is noted in Moynihan, 173.

  4. Woodward in her essay “The Mirror Stage of Old Age” offers an unusual Lacanian reading of the third age.

  5. These authentically patriarchal and masculinist-sounding names were actually borne by the officers of the Palestine when the youthful Korzeniowski sailed in her (see Najder, 73, 78). Captain Elijah Beard was born in 1824, and first mate H. Mahon in 1831.

  6. Conrad was twenty-six when he served in the Palestine.

  7. Coleridge 2:6. It is easy to see how The Shadow-Line has to struggle not to turn into “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

  8. Conrad's scepticism about this stereotype may be gauged from his exasperated variations on it in the characters of Stein in Lord Jim and Captain Giles in The Shadow-Line.

  9. In the autobiographically narrated “Youth” and The Shadow-Line, narrator and protagonist are different phases of first-personality, the latter having his being only in a past age.

  10. Apollinaire, another Pole and literary radical, paid his dues to his own adopted nation in its wartime crisis with his enthusiastic poems from the front, published in Calligrammes (1918), and his 1918 lecture “L'Esprit nouveau et les poètes” (3:900-9), which claimed to find in his own modernist practice and that of his friends a restatement of the classic national virtues of the French.

  11. Whether or not we use it, it goes,
    And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
    And age, and then the only end of age.

    (“Dockery and Son”)

Works Cited

Apollinaire, Guillaume. Œuvres complètes de Guillaume Apollinaire. Edited by Michel Décaudin. 4 vols. Paris: Balland-Lecat, 1965-66.

Aristotle. The Complete Works of Aristotle. Revised Oxford Translation, edited by Jonathan Barnes. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Burrow, J. A. The Ages of Man: A Study in Medieval Writing and Thought. Oxford: Clarendon, 1988.

Coleridge, S. T. Biographia Literaria. Edited by James Engell and W. Jackson Bate. 2 vols. London and Princeton: Routledge and Princeton University Press, 1983.

Horace. Satires, Epistles, and Ars Poetica. Translated by H. Rushton Fairclough. London: Heinemann, 1929.

Jean-Aubry, G., ed. Joseph Conrad: Life & Letters. 2 vols. London: Heinemann, 1927.

Jung, C. G. “The Stages of Life.” In Modern Man in Search of a Soul, 109-31. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961.

Karl, Frederick R. Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives. London: Faber, 1979.

Kimmel, Douglas C. Adulthood and Aging: An Interdisciplinary Developmental View. New York: John Wiley, 1974.

Moynihan, William T. “Conrad's ‘The End of the Tether’: A New Reading.” Modern Fiction Studies 4.2 (1958): 173-77.

Najder, Zdzisław. Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle. Translated by Halina Carroll-Najder. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Stape, J. H. “Conrad's ‘Unreal City’: Singapore in ‘The End of the Tether’.” In Conrad's Cities: Essays for Hans van Marle, edited by Gene M. Moore, 85-96. Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1992.

Tietze, Hans. Titian: The Paintings and Drawings. London: Phaidon Press, 1950.

Woodward, Kathleen. “The Mirror Stage of Old Age.” In Memory and Desire: Aging - Literature - Psychoanalysis, edited by Kathleen Woodward and Murray M. Schwartz. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Celia M. Kingsbury (essay date fall 1998)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5823

SOURCE: Kingsbury, Celia M. “‘Infinities of Absolution’: Reason, Rumor, and Duty in Joseph Conrad's ‘The Tale’.” Modern Fiction Studies 44, no. 3 (fall 1998): 715-29.

[In the following essay, Kingsbury asserts that Conrad's story “The Tale” explores the uncertainties and moral contradictions of war.]

In “Autocracy and War” Joseph Conrad writes: “It seems that in [opposing] armies many men are driven beyond the bounds of sanity by the stress of moral and physical misery. Great numbers of soldiers and regimental officers go mad as if by way of protest against the peculiar sanity of a state of war …” (87). Of course, the war Conrad speaks of in this 1905 essay is the Russo-Japanese War, the mad soldiers, mostly Russian. And yet even a cursory examination of such works as Paul Fussell's seminal The Great War and Modern Memory reveals among soldiers of that war a debilitating “moral and physical misery,” and a highly “peculiar sanity.” As we shall see, Fussell, Samuel Hynes, and others report curious behavior on the part of combatants and civilians alike. Growing out of moral misery which arises when the rules governing human behavior are suspended and replaced by nationalistic sentimentality, irrational behavior becomes the norm. War fervor, heightened exponentially, becomes not merely a peculiar sanity, but a lack of sanity. Normally critical judgment falls prey to the forces of jingoism and rumor.

Reflected in Conrad's only World War I story, “The Tale,” the peculiar sanity of war informs the action and positions the story's commanding officer, also our narrator as we learn, in a moral as well as literal fog. In the opening frame of the story, when he is asked by his female companion to tell a tale “not of this world” (60), the narrator, momentarily silenced, slips into his story of “seas and continents and islands” (61) which resemble those of the earth, but are not the familiar landscape of our rational existence. Although it is deceivingly quiet, this “other world” is the war zone. Even the setting of the frame is shrouded in mystery. The Great War, from which the narrator and his companion are “on leave,” is never directly named. We remain in the darkening room in which the story is framed, or, in the tale itself, on the deck of a fog-shrouded ship, only guessing at our location and at the source of the moral misery into which we are plunged. We accompany the commanding officer, “a man made of our common, tormented clay on a voyage of discovery” (61). We learn that the narrator, normally a fair-minded man, has been easily drawn into the madness of war and will for the remainder of his life suffer the consequences of his actions—sinking a ship which was most likely neutral. Our discovery forces us to interrogate the means by which normally fair-minded humans, ourselves included, are thus transformed. In the case of “The Tale”'s commanding officer, irrational fear, goaded by rumor and xenophobic rage, becomes a substitute for reason. Once out of the war zone, the officer realizes his folly, but the jingoistic climate of the home front prevents anyone from questioning his behavior.

From the outset, one of the most challenging aspects of “The Tale” proves to be the story's frame. Jeremy Hawthorn, Jakob Lothe, and William W. Bonney attempt to establish parallels between the frame and the tale the commanding officer tells by breaking the story up into three or four concentric tales. One point of argument concerns whether or not the “grave murmur” the commanding officer hears, which is his inner voice, constitutes one of the concentric tales. While examinations of this kind remain interesting, they may also distract us from larger questions by allowing the moral issues raised by the story to be obliterated in questions of semantics. All three critics provide useful structural analyses of the story, without delving into the historical context, which in fact creates its “peculiar sanity.” While Jeremy Hawthorn offers an enlightening investigation into shipping agreements in existence early in the war which justify the Northman's destination of an English port, his focus remains other than that of establishing a further historical context. We might note that in his development of parallels between the story's layers, Hawthorn at one juncture compares the woman, the commanding officer's companion, to the neutral ship when at the end of the story the woman lies immobile on her couch. While we defer to the habit of referring to ships as “she,” we also might point out that such examples best illustrate the problems created by purely textual examinations.

It would seem, however, that the gravest error is that of Bonney in locating the source of what both he and Hawthorn refer to as the neurosis of the commanding officer. According to Bonney, “manifestations of [the commanding officer's] neurosis are primarily linguistic” (209). A sunken ship is more than a linguistic manifestation. If we limit ourselves to semantic games and lose sight of historical context, we may fail to admit that in war, a sunken ship is a palpable object, a location of death, which in the case of “The Tale,” becomes the commanding officer's responsibility.

Jeremy Hawthorn comes closest to pinpointing the location of the officer's peculiar sanity when he compares the commanding officer to Alvan Hervey, the husband of Conrad's 1897 story “The Return.” In this story, the reader follows Hervey through the trauma of learning that his wife has left him for another man. Totally bound up in social convention, Hervey finds her action unthinkable; her departure shakes the foundations of all his beliefs. As we witness his suffering, we realize, however, that his adherence to “the rules” has defined his marriage—he has invested little emotion in the relationship and is thus likely responsible for her defection. His wife's return home and declaration that she could not finally elope with her lover cannot restore his faith in his marriage or in society. Hervey is not capable of starting over with new rules. Like the commanding officer in “The Tale,” Hervey detests the “lie” with a pathological vehemence. Both men doom themselves to moral misery.

In linking these two stories, Hawthorn accurately reminds us that both men are “unwilling to accept incertitude as a condition of living” (265). Yes, and both also believe, or sincerely want to believe, that the rules provide the certitude they seek. But, as Marlow reminds us in Heart of Darkness, “Principles won't do” (97). The rules “fly off at the first good shake” (97). War, and we might add, love gone awry, provides that good shake. Hawthorn stops short of making that connection, of looking to historical context for the source of contradiction and neurosis. “Is it not believable,” he asks, “that Conrad was exploring a neurosis in “The Tale” similar to that considered in “The Return”? If so, it is quite appropriate that the Northman and his ship should present the commanding officer with evidence which is inconclusive. It is almost as if Conrad scatters contradictory evidence and clues in front of him” (265; emphasis added). If we concede that war is full of contradictions, we need not wonder why Conrad placed them in the way of his protagonist as a test of his “principles.” Both protagonists suffer from a gap between reality and their perception of it; they are deluded. While we might agree that “reality” is an elusive construct, we must argue, as Conrad does here, that it generally does not lie in popular social mythology. Since both protagonists insist that Truth can be found in contemporary wisdom, we might look there for the neurosis that Conrad explores. When Hervey realizes that the solid foundation that he believes underpins his relationship with his wife is hollow, he has nowhere to turn; when he sees himself “an exiled forlorn figure in a realm of ungovernable, of unrestrained folly,” where “[n]othing could be foreseen, foretold—guarded against” (“Return” 159-60), he cannot “stand it” (185). This threat to Hervey's way of life underscores the gap between reality and Hervey's perception of it according to popular mythology. That gap, that lie, is the location of the parallel between Hervey and the commanding officer and their neuroses.

Perhaps no greater gap exists than the one between the popular mythology and the reality of war. Both governments and civilian populations rely on war mythology to maintain civilian morale. The lie, something the commanding officer detests, becomes the foundation of morality. In a 1928 study of war hysteria, Falsehood in War-Time, Arthur Ponsonby describes the various ways untruth worked in The Great War. According to his study, “[t]here must have been more deliberate lying in the world from 1914 to 1918 than in any other period of the world's history” (19). There was, according to Ponsonby, the deliberate official lie; the deliberate lie or concocted story, such as that of nurse Grace Hume, reported by her “sister” to have died as a result of having both breasts cut off by German soldiers; the mistranslation; the “general obsession, started by rumour and magnified by repetition and elaborated by hysteria” (20); the concealment of truth; and the faked photograph, among others. “War is fought,” Ponsonby continues in his introduction, “in this fog of falsehood, a great deal of it undiscovered and accepted as truth. The fog arises from fear and is fed by panic. Any attempt to doubt or deny even the most fantastic story has to be condemned at once as unpatriotic, if not traitorous” (25-26). Ponsonby's words very accurately describe the behavior of the commanding officer. Conventional morality of the kind Alvan Hervey and the commanding officer believe in condemns the lie and celebrates the truth, yet, even in peacetime, the lie serves to hold conventional society together. But in wartime, as Ponsonby continues, “failure to lie is negligence, the doubting of a lie a misdemeanour, the declaration of the truth a crime” (27). The force of law in the form of the Defense of the Realm Act, or DORA, supported uniformity of thought. DORA basically gave the British government complete control over the lives of British citizens, as Samuel Hynes explains, including “the censoring of wartime English thought and expression” (80). We might note the interesting coincidence that the acronym spells a woman's name, and perhaps the more interesting coincidence that it is the pseudonym assigned to the female patient in Freud's often-alluded-to 1905 case history. Not so coincidentally, DORA legitimized mythmaking by oiling the wheels of the propaganda machine. Within this ethical “fog,” we might certainly locate what Hawthorn and Bonney identify as the commanding officer's neurosis, a disease, if you will, both shared and fed by the officer's milieu, what we might call a national disease.

To return to the function of the frame, then, we might look to the way in which the home front, the location of the frame, enables and supports the war effort. Even a casual reader of Conrad knows the writer often resorts to the use of frames. Heart of Darkness is also a tale within a tale—Marlow's tale of Kurtz framed by the unnamed narrator who hears the story on the deck of the Nellie and later shares it with the reader. Like “The Tale,” Heart of Darkness begins in twilight and continues as the sky darkens. Marlow's voice becomes gradually disembodied as the listeners on the deck of the Nellie realize they are going to “hear about one of [his] inconclusive experiences” (51). Marlow's first words in the sinking gloom on deck, “And this also … has been one of the dark places of the earth” (48), serve to link the place of the telling, London, with the place of the tale, the Congo. In establishing this connection, Conrad draws both the listeners on deck and the reader into Marlow's story and establishes a complicity between those at home and those who physically seek to extend the boundaries of empire. Indeed the very last words of that novel lead us on the Thames “into the heart of an immense darkness” (162). In the same way the frame of Heart of Darkness links the civilized world with the “uncivilized,” the frame of “The Tale” links the world of the Great War with the home front. Uncharacteristically, Conrad's listener here is a woman. If the frame's most important function is to bring the war, the front line, as it were, into the parlor, even into the boudoir, then the female listener is a logical choice.

As we have seen, the home front, both in England and in America, played a most significant role in the war effort. And women, in the roles of sister, wife, mother, and nurse, formed a profound basis for propaganda, both official and unofficial. Samuel Hynes reports that the suffrage movement was put on hold for the duration of the war. Suffragists, in his words, “shifted their belligerency to a different war” (88). Both propaganda posters and popular songs in England and America enlist the image of the pure and sacrificing female. In the 1918 song by James A. Brennan and Jack Caddigan, the Red Cross nurse becomes “The Rose of No Man's Land,” the

one red rose the soldier knows,
It's the work of the Master's hand;
'Mid the war's great curse stands the Red Cross Nurse,
She's the rose of ‘No Man's Land.’


On the cover of this sheet music, the nurse stands, arms extended in a pleading gesture, bathed in celestial light. The image of the sacrificing, but demanding, mother also appears in popular images of the time. A popular song printed in both America and Great Britain asks, “Are You Half the Man Your Mother Thought You'd Be?”

In this vein, perhaps the most stunning image is that of “the little mother,” on whose letter Robert Graves reports, with very little comment, in Good-Bye to All That. Falsely reported dead to his parents, Graves returns home for treatment of his wounds. In what becomes a sort of rebirth, Graves enters once again into “normal” life and is puzzled by it. “England looked strange to us returned soldiers,” he tells us. “We could not understand the war madness that ran about everywhere, looking for a pseudo-military outlet. The civilians talked a foreign language; and it was newspaper language” (228). As an illustration of this phenomenon, Graves quotes the letter verbatim. In it, the little mother refers to “we who ‘mother the men’ who have to uphold the honour and traditions not only of our Empire but of the whole civilized world” (229). Incensed at calls for peace, this woman insists that “[t]here is only one temperature for the women of the British race, and that is white heat. … We women pass on the human ammunition of ‘only sons’ … so that when the ‘common soldier’ looks back before going ‘over the top’ he may see the women of the British race at his heels, reliable, dependent, uncomplaining” (229). This image of motherhood sending its sons to almost certain death is chilling and most soundly illustrates the national neurosis reflected by the commanding officer and his companion who at the end of his tale offers the absolution he is unable to accept.

The frame then, like the tale itself, in revealing the moral misery that the commanding officer suffers, illustrates the specific nature of war madness. In a civilization that prides itself on truth, truth is a crime. Patriotism insists on a world where issues are clear cut, black and white, but reality reveals only ambiguity, especially on the sea where there is no “final brutality,” no “taste of primitive passion” (“Tale” 64). “One envies the soldiers at the end of the day,” the Officer tells his companion, “wiping the sweat and blood from their faces, counting the dead fallen to their hands” (64). The sea which swallows up friend and foe alike offers no such finality, only “the hypocrisy of an old friend” (64), the possibility of sudden death. We must not be puzzled, then, over the ambiguity of the story. War is full of contradictions and “The Tale” reflects those uncertainties in the inexplicable behavior of the commanding officer and the “extraordinary response” (Hawthorn 264) of his companion.

The vagueness of the commanding officer's mission “to be sent out [in his ship] along certain coasts to see—what he could see,” (“Tale” 63) leads him to an acute paranoia which is heightened by the real threat of being blown out of the water by a mine or a submarine, by something, the narrator tells us, “you have not seen” (64). Seeing, or the inability to see, as Lothe and Hawthorn remind us, further complicates the officer's muddle. Reliable information remains sketchy. Rumor has it that neutral merchant ships have been dropping supplies to enemy submarines. “This was generally believed,” we are told, “if not absolutely known” (66). Here we see the juxtaposition of reality and rumor, the exaggerated truths and outright lies, outlined by Ponsonby and Graves. The tragedy inherent in the proliferation of half-truth, in the insistence that gossip become gospel, is the unfortunate reality that both sides frequently acted on speculation. The cliché “Shoot first and ask questions later” becomes a modus operandi. Ill-timed rumors on both sides could send suspected spies to their deaths.

In a modern examination of mythmaking in the Great War, Paul Fussell investigates the function of rumor, which, as he explains, was “especially fertile” (115) during World War I. Resulting from what he names “inexpressible terror long and inexplicably endured” (115), rumors, superstitions, legends, and other “unmodern” phenomena proliferated in the trenches, creating in Fussell's words “an approximation of the popular psychological atmosphere of the Middle Ages” (115). From the story of the Crucified Canadian to myths of German ghosts appearing in the trenches, these stories serve to vilify the enemy, to explain what cannot be explained by normal logic. Harold Krebs, narrator of Hemingway's story, “Soldier's Home,” speaks of lies, of “stating as facts certain apocryphal incidents familiar to all soldiers” (112). Krebs remembers “detailed accounts of German women found chained to machine guns in the Argonne forest” (112). H. G. Wells in his novel Mr. Britling Sees It Through, published the same year as “The Tale,” refers to “[t]ales of torture and mutilation, tales of the kind that arise nowhere and out of nothing, and poison men's minds to the most pitiless retaliations, [which] drifted along the opposing fronts …” (280). Britling, who eventually loses his son to the war, understands that the “realities were evil enough without any rumours” (280). These rumors, while disconnected from any form of logic, remain unsubstantiated, and many seem relatively harmless until we remember, as Ponsonby compels us, that “the purpose of most of them is to fan indignation and induce the flower of the country's youth to be ready to make the supreme sacrifice” (26).

But other kinds of rumors abounded as well, rumors of noncombatants aiding the enemy. According to Fussell, a Belgian farmer was reported shot for allegedly signaling the Germans by particular alignments of his plow horses. Other Belgian farmers allegedly signaled the enemy with laundry, windmills that rotated backwards, white cows, and steeple clocks (120-21). D. H. Lawrence, physically unfit to serve and married to a cousin of the legendary pilot, Manfred von Richthofen, The Red Baron, became the victim of war rumors. Lawrence biographer Harry T. Moore reports that when the Lawrences lived in Cornwall, they were accused of supplying German submarines, and Frieda was accused of taking photographs with what proved to be a loaf of bread. Once frolicking on the beach, Frieda allowed her long white scarf to blow in the wind. Seeing the danger, Lawrence screamed at her, “Stop it, stop it, you fool! Can't you see that they'll think you're signaling to the enemy!” (233). More fortunate than the Belgian farmers, the Lawrences were simply run out of Cornwall shortly thereafter.

Even Conrad himself tasted war paranoia; in a letter to Pinker, he writes of the threat of spies. After going out on a minesweeper as part of a tour of naval bases, the source of “The Tale,” Conrad anticipated a cruise in northern waters that had been scheduled and then postponed. In the letter, Conrad speaks as if he may not return from the trip: “[I]ts no use ignoring the fact that the vessel has made three trips already and she may have been spotted. Also there are spies about. The prospect of an expedition of this sort gives a curious force to the idea of spies” (Letters 671). As the editors of the letters point out, “The Tale” reflects this unease.

Executions based on suspicions of spying were so commonplace that Robert Graves refuses, in Good-Bye to All That, to consider them atrocities (183). Herein lies the vital question the narrator of “The Tale” raises when he attaches an “infinity of absolution” to the performance of duty (61). When the narrator tells the woman that he likes the word “duty,” she replies, “It is horrible—sometimes” (61). And so it is when it involves serious moral conflict. But the narrator, knowing he has made a questionable moral choice in the performance of his duties, builds into that performance forgiveness, a forgiveness he is ultimately unable to accept. Indeed, at the beginning of the story, by his construction of another world in which to place the tale, he refuses even to admit to his actions. The commanding officer's sense of duty, combined with both profound xenophobia and profound paranoia, allows the hysteria of rumor to cloud his reason. From the beginning, as we have seen, a lack of facts impairs the judgement of the officer. His information is limited only to the kind which was “about as useful as information trying to convey the locality and intentions of a cloud …” (63). Relying on the wisdom of a world which “was not very wise” (62), he believes that certain neutrals must be “watched by acute minds” (62). When the “object” appears one day as the ship patrols a rocky coast, we are told that “twenty pairs of eyes on … deck stared in all directions trying to see—what they could see” (65). Since they are traveling in a thick fog, they can see little. The unnamed object, which “may have been nothing more remarkable than, say, a barrel of a certain shape and colour” (65), performs double duty here. First, it sets in motion the commanding officer's speculations as to its source. Second, the object becomes, in the tale itself, as vague and imprecise as the officer's orders and the rumors concerning the behavior of certain neutrals; it symbolizes in a way the nature of rumor wrought from the peculiar sanity of war. Referring to the rumors that link neutral merchant ships to enemy submarines, the narrator tells us, “[t]he object … put it beyond doubt that something of the sort had been done somewhere in the neighbourhood” (66). In other words, we do not know what, if anything, has been done, or where, or by whom. The commanding officer and his second in command decide that the object has been dumped in haste and that “[t]he parties are miles away” (66), but the commanding officer, suffering from moral misery, remains rankled at “the murderous stealthiness of methods and the atrocious callousness of complicities that seemed to taint the very source of men's deep emotions and noblest activities …” (67). His indignation is indeed fanned. As fog surrounding the ship thickens, the officer only considers the possibility that he is in the grips of folly.

Easing the ship into a cove to wait out the fog, the crew discovers another vessel not far off. Questions immediately arise in the commanding officer's already anxious mind. When the boarding party he dispatches returns with the news that the ship is a neutral, the commanding officer begins to build his case against it. Aware that “[s]uch suspicions as the one which had entered his head are not defended easily” (70), the commanding officer decides to go aboard the ship anyway. Captained by a Northman, the ship is said to be headed to an English port. Here we find the first of several references to the real world. Drawn into the tension of his tale, and possibly assuming his listener is drawn in as well, the narrator lapses into moments of truth, or confusion as to which “world” he is speaking of. Again, the vagueness of his mission emerges in the narrator's descriptions of what he expects to find on the neutral ship. Because all the logs and papers on board are in order, all he can search for is “the atmosphere of gratuitous treachery” (71). The narrator finds it in the drunken paranoia of the Northman. Rightly suspecting himself to be in danger, the Northman is nervous and defensive. Well aware of the force of rumor, he appeals to the commanding officer's sense of justice. Again we are edged back into the real world, when the narrator actually refers to himself as an Englishman. Echoing Marlow in Heart of Darkness, he deplores the possibility of a lie, “an enormous lie, solid like a wall, with no way round to get at the truth, whose ugly murderous face he seemed to see peeping over at him with a cynical grin” (76). What the narrator refers to here, we must suppose, assuming a deliberately misplaced modifier, is the liquor-illuminated visage of the Northman, but to name it truth, both ugly and murderous, he must also see something of his own reflection there, as Alvan Hervey sees in the mirrors of his dressing room. The narrator is about to become a probable murderer, and in the retelling of the tale, understands his own treachery when he sees it.

The tale becomes more ironic as virtually everything the narrator says of the Northman points to his own irrational behavior. In the chart room, which the Northman uses as a cabin, we are told “[t]he air … was thick with guilt and falsehood braving the discovery, defying simple right, common decency, all humanity of feeling, every scruple of conduct” (78). The Northman then says, “Well, we know that you English are gentlemen” (78). But shrouded in the fog of moral misery, those gentlemanly values the Northman counts on fail him. In fact, his reliance on English values dooms him because the commanding officer, as Gaetano D'Elia points out, believes those values are being abused (D'Elia 56). “They don't feel in danger of their life,” the narrator asserts, “[b]ecause they know England and English ways too well” (“Tale” 76). What the narrator learns too late, however, is that the peculiar sanity of war, solidified by rumors and lies, undermines reason by invoking an unreasonable and unreasoning sense of duty to those very values. Those values themselves are pushing the commanding officer over the edge.

Throughout his questioning, the Northman maintains that he is lost in the fog, an assertion that, if true, probably validates his innocence. Carried away by his fury at “the atmosphere of murderous complicity” (79) he senses on the merchant ship, the commanding officer devises a curiously cowardly “test” for the Northman. He forces the ship out of the cove and gives him directions that, if the Northman is really lost, will send him to his death. If he is lying and really does know where he is, he will escape. The outcome here becomes the only documented “truth” in “The Tale”; that is, the Northman does not know where he is and thus perishes with his crew on the rocks. Back in “the real world” of the frame, the narrator admits that the certainty he felt in the heat of the moment may have been misguided. “I don't know whether I have done stern retribution,” he tells us “—or murder; whether I have added to the corpses that litter the bed of the unreadable sea the bodies of men completely innocent or basely guilty. I don't know. I shall never know” (80). Because the “unreadable sea” has swallowed any evidence that might have confirmed the commanding officer's suspicions, he is left in perennial fog.

Conrad biographer Zdzislaw Najder tells us that Conrad wrote “The Tale” in the fall of 1916, after visiting the Royal Navy shipyards in Scotland where he heard war stories told. R.B. Cunninghame Graham, in his preface to Tales of Hearsay, the collection in which “The Tale” appears, compares Conrad's treatment of the story which was “probably badly told in skeleton” (xiii) to Shakespeare's elaborations of historical episodes he took from Holinshead. “[S]o,” Graham says, “Conrad dealt with this sailor's yarn and left it glorified” (xiii). Najder compares the story to Graves's Good-Bye to All That because, like Graves's memoir, it offers, in Najder's words, “a marked contrast to the military stories then common … “(418). Indeed, Conrad's collaborator, Ford Madox Ford, also rumored to be a spy, in 1914 published a propaganda story “The Scaremonger” (Tate 2), in which rumors of a landing by German submarines prove true and only the vigilance of the local citizens saves the day. Clearly, from his own experience, Conrad understood the force of war mania. With his son Borys at the front, he knew the tension of waiting. After completing his northern cruise in November 1916, Conrad wrote to J. M. Dent that because “mankind is essentially forgetful” he did not believe the war would change human nature: “It isn't so much the war itself,” he writes, “as the course it has taken. … I am more emotional, it appears, than I imagined myself to be” (Letters 682). Conrad, like Graves, it would appear, was able thus to recognize the human capacity for folly; “The Tale” does not condone action based on emotion. The commanding officer will forever live with the consequences of war hysteria, of acting on the basis of hearsay. “The Tale” becomes appropriate to the collection's title, Tales of Hearsay, in two ways. The tale itself, as we have seen, is one that Conrad heard, one of the exaggerated or apocryphal stories of the kind Fussell, Hemingway, and Wells describe. But hearsay also works within this story in the shape of the rumors that inform the commanding officer's actions. Reality, truth, innuendo, reason, and folly merge here in the cloaking fog; the ship becomes both literally and symbolically a Ship of Fools. In Mr. Britling Sees It Through, Wells specifically uses this term to describe a marauding Zeppelin. Britling, called to Filmington-on-Sea where his cousin, Aunt Wilshire, has been mortally wounded in a Zeppelin raid, wails to a cold night sky: “Oh blood-stained fools! … Even that vile airship was a ship of fools!” (297). Foucault describes these ships in Madness and Civilization as “highly symbolic cargoes of madmen in search of their reason” (9). Historical realities, Ships of Fools ferried wandering madmen from city to city. According to Foucault, the custom served a purpose beyond ridding medieval cities of the insane. In some cases, lunatics were escorted to religious shrines where it was hoped they would be cured. But for others, the passage over water itself also carried the possibility of “purification.” In “The Tale,” the commanding officer's “voyage of discovery” over this purifying element, in the words of Foucault,

delivers [him] to the uncertainty of fate; on water, each of us is in the hands of his own destiny; every embarkation is, potentially, the last. It is for the other world that the madman sets sail in his fools' boat; it is from the other world that he comes when he disembarks. The madman's voyage is at once a rigorous division and an absolute Passage.

(11; emphasis added)

Conrad's narrator in “The Tale” is compelled by the peculiar sanity of war to abandon reason to the wild illogic of rumor. Lost in a fog in that other world, he commits what might be deemed a reprehensible act, an act exonerated by the “infinity of absolution” he believes to be associated with the performance of duty. Only “possibly” aware that he might be guilty of folly when he sails along the coast to see what he can see, the commanding officer questions his actions once he disembarks into the “real world.” Although publicly absolved, once back on land, he sees more clearly what war mania has insisted that he forget; he commits the crime of delving into the truth. The officer tells the tale, perhaps hoping in that way to achieve the private absolution he has not yet felt, but he is not absolved. His companion understands his conflict because she knows “his passion for truth, his horror of deceit, his humanity” (81). While she tries to offer consolation with words of possession, “Oh, my poor, poor—” (81), she cannot relieve his sense of guilt. The possessive pronoun might seem to cancel the uncertainty of their earlier exchange, but the Officer's acceptance of existential responsibility ignores her offer. “I shall never know” (81), he says as he leaves the room and the sympathy of her love. While he may never know the true mission of the Northman, he knows he has acted without restraint; the rules have indeed flown off at the first hint of a shake. Like Alvan Hervey, our narrator now has nowhere to turn; he must also become “an exiled forlorn figure in a realm of ungovernable, of unrestrained folly …” (“Return” 159-60). The greatest irony perhaps lies in the realization that the world Hervey describes is one of peace, not war. In either case, we are only left with the uncertainty we know both men fear and despise. All we know “beyond doubt [is] that something of the sort had been done somewhere in the neighborhood” (“Tale” 66).

Works Cited

Bonney, William W. Thorns and Arabesques: Contexts for Conrad's Fiction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980.

Brennan, James A., and Jack Caddigan. “The Rose of ‘No Man's Land.’” New York: Feist, 1918.

Conrad, Joseph. “Autocracy and War.” Notes on Life and Letters. New York: Doubleday, 1921. 83-114.

———. “The Return.” Tales of Unrest. New York: Doubleday, 1923. 118-86.

———. “The Tale.” Tales of Hearsay. New York: Doubleday, 1925. 59-81.

———. The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad. Ed. Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies. Vol. 5. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. 5 vols. 1983-1998.

———. Heart of Darkness. Youth. New York: Doubleday, 1923. 45-125.

D'Elia, Gaetano. “Let Us Make Tales, Not Love: Conrad's ‘The Tale.’” Conradian 12.1 (1987): 50-58.

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. 1965. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Vintage, 1988.

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford UP, 1975.

Graham, R.B. Cunninghame. Preface. Tales of Hearsay. By Joseph Conrad. New York: Doubleday, 1925. vii-xv.

Graves, Robert. Good-Bye to All That. 1929. New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1957.

Hawthorn, Jeremy. Joseph Conrad: Narrative Technique and Ideological Commitment. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Hemingway, Ernest. “Soldier's Home.” The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Scribner's, 1987. 111-16.

Hynes, Samuel. A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture. New York: Atheneum, 1991.

Lothe, Jakob. Conrad's Narrative Method. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989.

Moore, Harry T. The Intelligent Heart: The Story of D. H. Lawrence. New York: Farrar, 1954.

Najder, Zdzislaw. Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle. Trans. Halina Carroll-Najder. Rutgers: Rutgers UP, 1983.

Ponsonby, Arthur. Falsehood in War-Time. New York: Dutton, 1928.

Tate, Trudi. Introduction. Women, Men and The Great War. Ed. Trudi Tate. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1995. 1-9.

Wells, H. G. Mr. Britling Sees It Through. 1916. London: Hogarth, 1985.

Keith Carabine (essay date spring 1999)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7328

SOURCE: Carabine, Keith. “‘Gestures’ and ‘The Moral Satirical Idea’ in Conrad's ‘The Informer.’” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 31, no. 1 (spring 1999): 26-41.

[In the following essay, Carabine examines the relationship between form and idea in “The Informer.”]

In January, 1908, in response to Algernon Methuen's request for “a general definition of the stories” that he could use to advertise the forthcoming A Set of Six Conrad wrote:1

All the stories are stories of incident—action—not of analysis. All are dramatic in a measure but by no means of the gloomy sort. All, but two, draw their significance from the love interest—though of course they are not love stories in the conventional meaning. They are not studies—they touch no problem. They are just stories in which I've tried my best to be simply entertaining.

(CL4, 29-30)

Conrad's “general definition” is full of embarrassed negations and qualifications precisely because he knows that these stories, like almost all those written since “Karain” (1897) manifest “my unconventional grouping and perspective, which are purely temperamental and wherein almost all my ‘art’ consists.”2 Thus he knows that his indirect narrative strategies—in marked contrast to popular practitioners of the genre for whom incident, drama, humor, and romance are paramount—show that he did not aim at “pure story telling.” Rather as he told Blackwood, “I am modern” because “My work … in its essence … is … nothing but action—action observed, felt and interpreted” (CL2, 418). Hence the dazzling range of characterized frame-narrators who introduce, listen, record, strive to construe and analyze, and finally enclose another character's tale, such as Mr. X's in “The Informer.” All his short stories, therefore, even when packed full of “incident,” such as the latter and “An Anarchist” in A Set of Six, are “studies” because their double narratives foreground the problematics of interpretation for both narrators and readers. Consequently, what James called the “prolonged hovering flight” of Conrad's narrators “over the outstretched ground of the case exposed,” ensures that his narratives lack the pace and robustness of (say) Kipling's first person “special correspondent” in the tales of the common soldier in India gathered in Life's Handicap (1891): thus the “episode” cannot become (as James claims for Kipling) a “detachable, compressible ‘case’” making for “an admirable flexible form” and for “the vivid picture.”3

Conrad's “general definition” of the stories in A Set of Six was designed to market them and is markedly at odds with his description of the idea that imbues “The Informer” written when he was finishing the story:4

I would like the Informer to be entitled Gestures. … On looking at the story you will see why that title is the proper one as bearing not on the facts but on the moral satirical idea.

(CL3, 305)

As the gloss on “Gestures” indicates, the “facts” service an “idea” that informs the “presentation” of the story wherein, for Conrad, as for Flaubert, “the whole of the truth lies” (CL2, 200). I stress these inter-relations between form and the pervading “idea” because “The Informer” is one of Conrad's most complicated and teasing narratives. It is told by an unnamed, fastidious, first-person narrator who is a collector “of Chinese bronzes and porcelain,” and he receives a visit from another connoisseur, Mr. X, who is “preceded by a letter of introduction from a good friend of mine in Paris” who “collects acquaintances” (73) rather than artefacts.5 Mr. X is his “most distinguished specimen” (101) because, surprisingly, “He is the greatest rebel … of modern times” (73-74). The fastidious narrator admits he doesn't “understand anarchists” (75) but he is curious about their underground activities. One evening over dinner X casually remarks, “There's no amendment to be got out of mankind except by terror or violence” (77); and then sardonically recounts to his shocked, naive listener an elaborate tale of his successful staging of a “sort of theatrical expedient” (86) when, at the head of an anarchist group posing as policemen (“A conspiracy within a conspiracy” [87]), he unmasked the “informer” in “the Hermione Street” anarchist cell. He turns out to be Sevrin, “a genius among betrayers” (93), who only gives himself away because of his love for “a young Lady Amateur of anarchism” (84), whose involvement with the cell, love for Sevrin, and subsequent “retreat into a monastery” are cynically dismissed by X at the close of his tale: “Gestures! Mere gestures of her class. … That is why their kind are fated to perish” (101).

The narrative, however, ends with a brief coda which recounts a subsequent conversation between the frame-narrator and his Parisian friend in which the former expresses his disgust at X's “cynicism” and says his “finer feelings” are “grated” by his friend's “great delight” in and enthusiasm for X: “He's unique, amazing, absolutely terrific” (101). The Parisian effusively agrees that X's cynicism is “abominable”:

“And then, you know, he likes to have his little joke sometimes,” he added in a confidential tone.

I fail to understand the connection of this last remark. I have been utterly unable to discover where in all this the joke comes in.


Clearly much of the “entertainment” in this Chinese-box narrative resides in the reader's willingness to “collaborate with the author” (CL2, 394) by rereading it and searching for “the joke” that evades its baffled teller.6 Early critics such as Fleishman, who locates the joke in the Lady Amateur's rejection of the police spy “who … is working to protect the bourgeois order itself … with one of the conventional postures of her class,” and Cuthbertson, who discerns an “absurd ‘gallows humour’” in Sevrin's being “an anarchist of anarchy,” are unconvincing because they fail to engage the complexities of the double narrative.7 Not surprisingly, most critics concentrate on Mr. X's mocking of his obtuse auditor, who finds his presentation of the Lady Amateur anarchist “intolerable to my sentiment of womanhood” (96); and who seems oblivious to X's ridiculous verbal and visual puns such as the minor character “called Bomm,” and his impassive “attack … with measured movements” on “a bombe glacée” as he begins his tale of anarchists who hide explosives in tins of “Stone's Dried Soup” (88).8 Such absurd details have persuaded critics that the joke resides in either X's droll success of “getting his auditor to accept the anecdote—a melodramatic intrigue with all the stereotypes of anarchism—as a fascinating and tragic ‘inside’ story,” or in the narrator's inability to see “that he has been taken in, or collected by X.”9 Concomitantly, such critics argue that X's withering critique of the bourgeois—“an idle and selfish class that loves to see mischief being made, even if it is at its own expense”—“may be taken as a full and reliable expression of the attitude that informs the story of the informer”; and this class includes not only the “Lady Amateur of emotions” who betrays her heritage “without even understanding” her “own convictions,” but both the Parisian and the fastidious narrator, who are fascinated by and implicated in the “underground side” of X's life.10 Hamilton, Shaddock, and Billy (rightly) concentrate on the links between collecting, aestheticism, and anarchy.11 The former expands on Walton's case that Mr. X takes “pleasure … in manipulating the emotions” of all the bourgeois and of his fellow anarchists and notes that X, the anarchist-nobleman-aesthete is presented as a manipulator of language and the story exploits “the historical affinity between anarchists and aesthetes” (Hamilton, 33).12 Billy entertainingly argues that “Conrad establishes a dual frame of reference in the tale, burlesquing the anarchist movement but also satirizing the shallow affectations of the aesthetic movement in the late nineteenth century” (108).

Common to all these readings, even when critical of Mr. X, is an assumption that Conrad shares his character's withering critique of bourgeois “gestures”; and consequently they fail to engage the astonishing range of gestures that are observed and analyzed in “The Informer” and the ways they bear “not on the facts but on the moral satirical idea.” Gestures in fiction and the theatrical arts, as in life, are always significant indicators of “character,” but they are always inherently ambiguous because it is difficult to know in both spheres whether they are natural movements signifying genuine feelings or calculated and artificial movements masking false feelings. In drama, gestures are rhetorical devices calculated to imitate feeling and much of the pleasure for the audience lies in an aesthetic appreciation of what Mr. X in “The Informer” calls “the consummate art” of actresses, such as the “Lady Amateur” (85) who, he claims, only plays at anarchism. Gestures, therefore, like language, are, in X's phrase, “conventional signs” (93) that need to be read and they always raise the question posed by Razumov in Under Western Eyes, and central to all Conrad's fiction, “How can you tell truth from lies?” (188).

This great issue, in fact, is imbedded in the double narrative of “The Informer” and explicitly posed as a conundrum in its closing frame. As we shall see, the frame narrator, Mr. X, and the Parisian—and herein lies the gist of the “moral satirical idea”—are incapable of telling “truth from lies” because they are connoisseurs who cannot distinguish between “objects” and “subjects” (73). Moreover, they are shown to be both stunted human beings and false construers because they are cut off from life and lack the Conradian artist's respect for and sense of the problematics of language and “gestures.” The story, then, is indeed a “study” that simultaneously alerts us to the irresponsibility and blindness of judgements which are based on purely aesthetic criteria and to the necessity for another more humane set of criteria—so famously articulated in the “Preface” to The Nigger of the “Narcissus” “to make you hear, to make you feel … to make you see!” (xiv). This necessity is most evident in Conrad's satirical presentation of Mr. X's foppish pose and gestures and in the ways the reader (as so often in Conrad) is persuaded against the grain of the telling to construct an alternative and more compassionate account of the characters' actions—especially those that constitute the “love interest” in the tale.


“The Informer” begins with the narrator's description of his Parisian friend who “collects acquaintances”:

He observes them, listens to them, penetrates them, measures them, and puts the memory away in the galleries of his mind. He has schemed, plotted, and travelled all over Europe in order to add to his collection of distinguished personal acquaintances.


The narrator's categories anticipate his subsequent proud claim that his “whole scheme of life had been based upon a suave and delicate discrimination of social and artistic values” (77). The term missing here, of course, is “moral,” just as the missing verbs in his appraisal of his friend's connoisseurship, are “hear,” “feel” and “see.” The sequence of the verbs reveals that, though the Parisian seems to have a human interest in his acquaintances (he listens), it is a mark of “the patience, the passion” he brings to collecting them, rather than of any feeling for them as “subjects”; so they quickly become “objects” to be categorized and stored in “the gallery of his mind.” The museum metaphor confirms the Parisian's essential detachment from humankind, but the narrator is too fond of his own witty, urbane discriminations to notice that he shares his friend's isolation and lack of a sense of felt life, of a moral vision. Relatedly and unwittingly, his figuring of collecting as a form of espionage (“schemed, plotted”) foregrounds Conrad's doubling of anarchism and aestheticism, which is central to the “satirical moral idea” of the story and pursued in X's contemptuous attitude to his own tale.

The Parisian friend's letter appraising X confirms his own and his prize specimen's human deficiencies:

“The world knows him as a revolutionary writer whose savage irony has laid bare the rottenness of the most respectable institutions. He has scalped every venerated head, and has mangled at the stake of his wit every received opinion and every recognized principle of conduct and policy. Who does not remember his flaming red revolutionary pamphlets? … But this extreme writer has been also the active inspirer of secret societies, the mysterious unknown Number One of desperate conspiracies suspected and unsuspected, matured or baffled. And the world at large has never had an inkling of that fact! This accounts for his going about amongst us to this day, a veteran of many subterranean campaigns, standing aside now, safe within his reputation of merely the greatest destructive publicist that ever lived.”


The narrator thinks his “wealthy” and “well connected” friend is “unprejudiced” because he happily adds X to his “collection,” but his confused appraisal (inadvertently) lays bare “the rottenness” at the core of both “enlightened” (74) connoisseurship and anarchism. When authors and “subjects” like X, who is a “publicist” and a terrorist incognito, are wittily praised for their “savage irony,” rather than criticized for their brazen folly, and are especially prized as rare objects because their “value is unappreciated by the vulgar,” then all grounds for moral discriminations, on which civilization depends, collapse beneath us. This collapse was, of course, precisely the aim of X when he was an “active inspirer of” and participant in “conspiracies”: but the Parisian's rapturous aesthetic attitudinizing (“He's unique, amazing, absolutely terrific”) over “this rare item of his collection” (101) ensures that he cannot “tell truth from lies” and cannot see that “safe within his reputation of merely the greatest publicist who ever lived” X is terrifying because, like the professor at the end of The Secret Agent, he passes “on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men” (311).

The Parisian prizes X as an “object” in his collection, but he and the narrator are themselves prime specimens for X of “an idle and selfish class” that “loves to see mischief being made, even … at its own expense” (78). They are simultaneously fascinated by “the underground life” (76) of anarchism and they, too, like the Lady Amateur, think that because they belong to a “class … used to the feeling of being specifically protected” (92) that they will remain untouched by the “terror and violence” of anarchist politics. But as X's tale reveals, the world of anarchism is peopled by figures like Horne, “a fanatic of social revolution” and “an engraver and etcher of genius” whose work is “appreciated” by “a small group of connoisseurs” (83) who number among the narrator's acquaintances. They are, therefore, the most obvious butt of both X's “little joke” and of Conrad's satire of the gesture-politics of radical chic; and, throughout the story “such engagement with anarchism on the level of fashion and taste” (anticipating the depiction of the Lady Patroness in The Secret Agent) “is exposed as a form of decadence that colludes with and fosters anarchy.”13

The Parisian's pride in “specimen” X prompts him to ship it/him over to England for his fellow connoisseur to assess; and as the narrator “sat, evening after evening, facing him at dinner,” his “curiosity” is aroused by “What I may call his underground life.” These narrative conditions suggest that both X and the narrator are brought together “as part of the friend's amusement”:14 and then the narrator in turn is, as Walton and Hepburn argue, the butt of X's “joke.” Such readings, however, understimate the ways in which Conrad's “moral satirical idea” also informs the narrator's evaluation of X's “underground life”:

I am a quiet and peaceable product of civilization, and know no passion other than the passion for collecting things which are rare, and must remain exquisite even if approaching the monstrous. Some Chinese bronzes are monstrously precious. And here (out of my friend's collection), here I had before me a kind of rare monster. It is true that this monster was polished and in a sense even exquisite. His beautiful unruffled manner was that. But then he was not of bronze. … He was alive and European; he had the manner of good society, wore a coat and hat like mine, and had pretty near the same sense in cooking. It was too frightful to think of.


This complex passage simultaneously satirizes the hollowness of fin de siècle aestheticism and, in ways the narrator fails to understand, subtly suggests, by doubling him with X, the links between dandyism and anarchy. The narrator complacently and punningly presents himself as a fully fledged aesthete, immune to every “passion” except an extravagant, foppish devotion to a cult of the beautiful and to a fastidious insistence on a separation of art from life: and his estimation confirms that he is as morally myopic as his Parisian friend. Thus his pun on “monstrous” links Chinese bronzes (whose motifs include dragons and demon and ogre masks) with hugeness, yielding the fey oxymoron that his bronzes are “monstrously precious.” Conrad, however, is a much sharper punster and, as every detail of the sequence suggests, the activity of collecting is “atrocious” and the narrator himself is “affectedly refined.” Hence, as Hamilton notes, his sole “passion” is acquisitive. He is a capitalist who collects rare commodities that as he proudly tells X “shall be worth a fortune to my heirs” (74). A denizen of the interior, the narrator-collector, by appealing to exclusively aesthetic values, vainly strives to transform his precious objects into works of art that “must remain exquisite” and detached from both life and the market place.15 Furthermore, as his metaphor (“a rare kind of monster”) indicates, he is as keen as his Parisian friend to relegate X to the “galleries of his mind”—even though he recognizes (unlike his friend) that because X's “manner” and bourgeois habits mask “his underground life” he threatens the very civilization he values. Conrad's “moral satirical idea” also turns upon his deep pun on “exquisite” which yields meanings that subvert the narrator's aestheticism. Buried in the narrator's anaemic appreciation of X's “underground life” lies an alternative and chilling interpretation, namely that X has turned his life into a “polished” performance that is as “exquisite”—of consummate excellence or beauty—as a work of art. X's exquisiteness is, however, “frightful to think of” precisely because he is human and “social” and yet affects fixity and performs as if indifferent to time, circumstance, and people. Thus, one of the deeper ironies of Conrad's “ironic tale” is that all X's gestures, which are obsessively noted by the narrator, signify that his life, like the narrator's aestheticism and the bourgeoisie he scorns, is also “all a matter of pose and gesture” (84). In fact, he is an “exquisite,” a fop, or dandy. Thus “his neat little feet, with short steps” (74); “his perfect impassiveness of expression” (75); “his quiet mechanical precision” (75-6); “his detached calm manner”; “his voice … monotonous in a low key”; “his beautiful unruffled manner” as he recounts his contemptuous tale, and “the extreme precision “with which “he fitted on his glossy high hat” as he ends it, all confirm that he is a rigidly controlled, inhuman poseur.16 He is a “perfect” actor whose gestures ape (and enable him to infiltrate) the bourgeoisie; and, chillingly, they never change from one performance to another because all audiences and auditors are alike to this precious and complacent performer.


Shortly before X tells his tale he “casually” remarks: “There's no amendment to be got out of mankind except through terror and violence” (77). X speaks here and throughout his tale, like the dandy who can, in Shewan's neat phrase, “shock without being shocked,” unaware that both his inhumanity and incoherence are beautifully exposed in the two meanings of “amendment”: its technical meaning of correcting an error in a legal document is coldly pedantic and indicative of X's foppish, mannered detachment from the real world; and “terror and violence” are unlikely to improve the health of mankind! X's aim, however, of épater le bourgeois strikes home.17 The narrator responds squeamishly (“You can imagine the effect of such a phrase out of such a man's mouth upon a person like myself”) vainly striving, against all the suggestions of his narrative, to dissociate himself from X's “forms of violence” insisting that they appear “as unreal” as the “activities” of “giants, ogres” in “legends and fairy tales!” (77).

X then confidently pronounces that the bourgeoisie's “own life being all a matter of pose and gesture, it is unable to realize the power and danger of a real movement, and of words that have no sham meaning” (78); and recounts a tale that proves “why their kind is fated to perish” (101). X's convictions are, however, “unreal” in ways the queasy narrator cannot appreciate. Thus, when X appeals to a “Real or Truth that lies outside of bourgeois artifice, the Real of anarchism and revolutionary language,” he inadvertently informs against himself, because like both his fellow connoisseurs and the girl he detests, he too knows “little of anything except of words” (92).18 Thus, just as the Lady Amateur's ignorance of anarchism invites X's scorn because it allows her to write “many sentimental articles with ferocious conclusions” (84): so his ferocious framing glosses on his own tale which advocate terror and prophesy the death of “that class” are revealed as “sham meaning,” as ideological fantasies, mere utopian and fictional constructions of the world. Conrad then most profoundly reveals the symbiotic relationship between the aesthetic movement and anarchism in the ways the Parisian in his letter, X in his “pamphlets” and his tale, and the narrator in his story use language. All three are amoral artists who cannot represent “things as they are” because of their irresponsible relation to “words” which “should,” Conrad insists, be handled with care lest the picture, the image of truth abiding in facts should become distorted—or blurred” (CL2, 200). (And as we shall see, X's appraisal of his own tale evades and distorts the bitter contradictions and conflicts that delineate for Conrad the real conditions of existence.)

Correspondingly, X functions as a pure illustration of why Conrad distrusted and scorned “the revolutionary spirit” which

is mightily convenient in … that it frees one from all scruple as regards ideas. Its hard absolute optimism is repulsive to my mind by the menace of fanaticism and intolerance it contains. No doubt one should smile at such things; but … all claim to special righteousness awakens in me that scorn and anger from which a philosophical mind should be free. …19

X's “special righteousness” is manifest in his contempt for “the well-fed bourgeois” (78) who ensured “my writings were at one time the rage, the fashion,” for his naive auditor, and of course for the Lady Amateur in his tale. His contempt, however, is merely another version of “the silly vanity” he despises in the bourgeois. Moreover, his “ideas” and closing vaticination are mere fantasies because he lacks his author's recognition of the tragic possibility that “We talk with indignation or enthusiasm; we talk about oppression, cruelty, crime, devotion, self-sacrifice, virtue, and we know nothing real beyond the words” (“Outpost of Progress,” Tales of Unrest, 105). Indeed they are “repulsive” because “safe within his reputation of merely the greatest destructive publicist who ever lived” (80), his words inspire both “the amateurs of emotion” he despises (84) and “fanatics of social revolution” such as Horne (89). Thus X's use of words in total disjunction from either his own terrorism or from the deeds his “venomous pen-stabs” initiate illustrates his studied contempt for, and insulation from, human society. Indeed his detachment and complacency anticipate and are as absolute as Vladimir's in The Secret Agent who also scorns “the imbecile bourgeoisie” (29) and whose “philosophy of bomb throwing” (32) sponsors “an act of destructive ferocity so absurd as to be incomprehensible, inexplicable, almost unthinkable”—“in fact, mad” (33) because absolutely free of concern for human exploitation and oppression. X's and Vladimir's cynical use of words undercuts “every recognized principle of conduct and policy” (74) and leaves them “linguistically isolated,” making “life itself impossible. It is in fact anarchy.”20

X's “revolutionary” attitude to words, the world, and his tale demonstrates that he is “monstrous” in his implacable complacency and self-righteousness, in his “menace of fanaticism and intolerance.” And in a parallel that illuminates the “moral satirical idea” that informs Conrad's story, X—an “object” in the Parisian's “collection”—proceeds to treat the characters in his tale as human specimens who exemplify his fastidiously mad belief in the necessity of “amendment” through “terror and violence.” Thus Conrad's story contains a cunning parallel; that just as both the Parisian and the narrator cannot either “hear,” “feel,” or “see” the menace of X, so X can neither understand nor take responsibility for the very tale he recounts: all three connoisseurs are so linguistically and humanly disabled that they turn subjects into objects and store them away in “the galleries of their minds.”

X's moral obliquity is most apparent when we consider his contemptuous appreciation of the girl's “gestures” and the ways “The Informer” “draw[s] its “significance from the love interest.” Every gesture of the (unnamed) “young Lady Amateur of anarchism” (bar one to which I will return) is dismissed as studied and theatrical and expressive of the inauthenticity of both her commitment to the cause and of her love for Sevrin. Thus

“To more personal charm … she added the seductive appearance of enthusiasm, of independence, of courageous thought. I suppose she put on these appearances as she put on her picturesque dresses and for the same reason: to assert her individuality at any cost. … She had acquired all the appropriate gestures of revolutionary convictions—the gestures of pity, of anger, of indignation against the anti-humanitarian vices of the social class to which she belonged herself.”


Similarly, X supposes

she felt it necessary to round and complete her assumption of advanced ideas, of revolutionary lawlessness, by making believe to be in love with an anarchist … her gestures were unapproachable, better than the very thing itself in the blended suggestion of dignity, sweetness, condescension, fascination, surrender, and reserve. She interpreted her conception of what that precise sort of love-making should be with consummate art. And so far, she too [like Sevrin], no doubt was in earnest. Gestures—but so perfect!


Once again, as critics have always noticed, X's contempt for the Lady Amateur's “silly vanity of being abreast of the ideas of the day after tomorrow” (78) anticipates Conrad's critique of the lady patroness of Michaelis in The Secret Agent and Madame de S—in Under Western Eyes. But at such moments and throughout his tale Conrad also dissociates himself from X by revealing his limitations as an interpreter of the “facts” he narrates and of the world he judges. In his “Preface” to The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” he argues:

The artist … like the thinker or the scientist, seeks the truth and makes his appeal. Impressed by the aspect of the world the thinker plunges into ideas, the scientist into facts—whence, presently, they make their appeal to those qualities of our being that fit us best for the hazardous enterprise of living.


In marked contrast to the trio Conrad canvasses, X is rigid and unimpressed by any aspect of the world, and rather than appeal to “those qualities that fit us best … for living,” he exploits “the poignant miseries and passionate credulities of a mankind always so tragically eager for self-destruction” (“Author's Note” to The Secret Agent, ix). He is, therefore, completely incapable of plunging in the search for “truth”: and his narration neither reveals the artist's descent “within himself,” the thinker's “clean logic of a triumphant conclusion,” nor unveils, like the scientist, “one of those heartless secrets which are called the Laws of Nature” (“Preface,” xii). X's stance, rather, is a frigid combination of a connoisseur's aesthetic pleasure in the girl's perfect performance and a blind ideological certainty that because like all her class she cannot experience genuine feelings even when “in earnest,” that she “is fated to perish” (101). Moreover, this “heartless secret” is itself inauthentic because it is based not on “facts” but on the linguistic fiction of the “real movement” of anarchism. Like his fellow collectors he lives on the surface, is detached from the world, and lacks feeling and, therefore, he pitilessly turns her into an exquisite and valuable object, who subserves both a mad “logic” and a fabricated “Law of History.”

In common, however, with all Conrad's obtuse observers and story tellers, the isolato X functions at such moments as a medium of illumination for the reader; and he is hoist with his petard in that he is used to persuade the reader to construct an alternative narrative “which speaks” on behalf of the Conradian artist “to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives … to the subtle … conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts: to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions” (“Preface,” The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” xii). These feelings are evident when he records the girl's “natural” gestures when she inadvertently stumbles upon the dénouement of X's “theatrical coup” (89): “she advanced”; “her face had gone completely colourless” and then “she extended her hand towards the motionless Sevrin. And that at least was no gesture. It was a natural movement” (92). For X, the actor-aesthete-ideologue, all “gestures” are perforce artificial and symptomatic of the falsity of bourgeois lives, and his lack of awareness of the inherent ambiguity of all “signs” is one register of his “hard absolute optimism” and inhumanity. Thus, he is used by his author to evoke the reader's pity for what Marlow calls in Lord Jim the complex of “speechless feeling” (78) inherent in natural gestures such as that of the Lady Amateur's “entreating hand” (93), which expresses her mingled feelings of indignation, astonishment, and anguish at her beloved's betrayal of herself and the cause.

Relatedly, Sevrin's “fanaticism is human” (“Prince Roman,” Tales of Hearsay, 48), whereas X's isn't. Sevrin, in ways that escape X, is an heroic personality who thwarts and betrays the anarchists (as Prince Roman does the Russians) “from conviction” (97). “Fortunately,” from X's point of view, Sevrin's fanaticism is flawed and, though “Most likely he saw through the game” (91) of the mock police raid, he is aware (and the girl isn't) that the building may be dynamited by the Professor in the attic. Thus he reveals that he is “the most systematic of informers”:

he had fallen in love with the accomplished and innocent gestures of that girl. An actor in desperate earnest himself, he must have believed in the absolute value of conventional signs. As to the grossness of the trap into which he fell, the explanation must be that two sentiments of such absorbing magnitude cannot exist simultaneously in one heart. The danger of that other and unconscious comedian robbed him of his vision, of his perspicacity, of his judgement.


X's analysis is complicated because it is a pitiless version of a recognition that is central to Conrad's vision of life and of his art: “The only legitimate basis of creative work lies in the courageous recognition of all the irreconcilable antagonisms that make our life so enigmatic, so burdensome, so fascinating—so full of hope” (CL2, 349). However, because X himself is a cynical poseur and ideologue convinced of the artificiality of all “signs” and “gestures” (except, mistakenly, the “real … words” of his own utopian pamphlets), he cannot begin like Conrad “to render the highest kind of justice to the visible world” and to the “sentiments” he witnesses.

Sevrin's dilemma both resembles and differs from that of his successor, Razumov, who also pretends to be a revolutionary and falls in love with Natalia. The former is in love with the girl and appreciates her “high-minded motives” (the very qualities X despises), but he realizes that his desire “to make” her share his and Conrad's “conviction” of “the criminal futility” of anarchism (“Author's Note” to The Secret Agent, ix), will destroy their love because, as she says, “If I ever felt sure of anything it was of Sevrin's high-minded motives” (99). And because he is in love “in earnest,” the girl, guided as lovers are by their feelings, fails to consider the ambiguity inherent in all gestures and invests “absolute value” in the “signs” of his wooing (“he looked attentively into her eyes” [95]), which are, indeed, “serious, intense, as if on the brink of the grave” (85), for he rightly fears that they will not translate into a sustaining love, based on either shared convictions or on honesty and trust. Similarly, Razumov recognizes that to confess his love to the sister of the man he betrayed, who shares her brother's belief in the struggle for liberty from “under the net” (139) of tsarism, will ensure that “perdition is my lot” (362). But, whereas Razumov's confession is inspired by his veneration for Natalia's “light!” and “truth!” (361), Sevrin cannot confess either his love or “conviction” because the girl enthusiastically embraces and is in thrall to the very “sham meanings” he is determined, like his author, to subvert. Thus, in ways neither X's ideological-aesthetic nor the narrator's abstract notions of “my sentiment of womanhood” (90) can grasp, Sevrin, like Razumov, suffers, because neither peace nor fulfilled love is possible this side of the grave.

If X fails to register the tragic dimensions of Sevrin's dilemma, his insistence that the girl is only “an unconscious comedian” reveals that his judgements of her behavior are as confused and irresponsible as the connoisseurs' of his anarchism. Thus, on the one hand, he ideologically insists on the inherent artificiality of all her bourgeois gestures, yet on the other, reconstructing Sevrin's feelings, he notes that her gestures are “innocent” and “natural.” Indeed, her anguished responses to Sevrin's betrayal of both herself and the anarchist cause—“has ever anyone been exposed to such a terrible experience?” (99)—anticipates Natalia's “It is impossible to be more unhappy” (356). For the girl, anarchism is not the exotic form of entertainment the brutal connoisseur X presumes, and her “gestures”—in marked contrast to his own exquisite performance—register a search for “truth,” an attempt to realize her humanity and, finally, her profound disillusionment. “And as so often happens,” as the narrator of The Secret Agent compassionately records, “in the lament of poor humanity rich in suffering but indigent in words” her response contains “the very cry of truth” (298). Her plight, arguably, is more painful than Natalia's because she has acknowledged her love for him: and, whereas Razumov sends his diary to Natalia wrapped in her veil, prompting her positive reevaluation of her life and activity, X's “small malice of sending her Sevrins's diary” provokes the girl's disillusioned “retreat into a convent” (101), which for X is symptomatic of an expendable and doomed class. “What does it matter?” he scathingly asks; and his question exposes the irresponsibility of his act and the fantastic cant and inhumanity of his judgement. X, the foppish misogynist, whose only “passion” is contempt and whose sense of the “marvellousness” (78) of the world is confined to “exquisite” objects, cannot perceive that the conviction of being in love demands the acceptance of “the absolute value of conventional signs.” Because they irresistibly draw men and women together, they will always be more powerful than either “the passion for collecting things,” or the ideas the girl proof-reads for the Alarm Bell and the Firebrand, such as “the dissolution of all social and domestic ties” (89), or the “conviction” of the menace and untruthfulness of anarchism that has inspired Sevrin's life until he met her and irrevocably responded to the appeal of her “entreating hand.” The girl's “gestures” are misconceived but, none the less, the possibility remains that her lover's betrayal and suicide did break her heart. Thus buried in X's tale of the gross “trap” into which Sevrin fell because an “unconscious comedian robbed him of his vision … judgment” is another tale that confirms that “the bitterest contradictions and the deadliest conflicts of the world are carried on in every individual breast capable of feeling and passion” (“The Anarchist,” A Set of Six, 161, my italics); a tale of thwarted love and human misery, that reveals the imbecility of his ideas and the baseness of his judgements.

I hope it is clear, now, that readings of the story that locate the “little joke” as either X's at the expense of the narrator or the Parisian's at the expense of both are mistaken (102). The Parisian's idea of a little joke is distinctly not Conrad's; his “moral satirical idea” is nothing less than a “study,” through his superficial construers, of “the special righteousness” of purely aesthetic judgements on and constructions of humankind. They are unfitted for, and unable to do justice to, “the hazardous enterprise of living” because they lack a moral imagination and a sense of felt life. Moreover, they are incapable of seeking “truth” because of their complacent relationship to the slippery and fragile “conventional signs” that “give intellectual form and reality to feelings but are always inadequate to them or unable to contain the complex combinations, ‘the irreconcilable antagonisms’ that are the very essence of feeling.”21 Without feeling they can never really “hear” and cannot begin to “see” the reality of others and, therefore, they confuse “subjects” and “objects.” X, the Parisian, and the narrator do not “feel” and therefore (to paraphrase Marlow in Lord Jim) they do not count; whereas Sevrin and the girl (like Jim) “in virtue of” their “feeling” matter (222). The narrators function, unwittingly, to illustrate the necessity and centrality of “passion and feeling” to which Sevrin (contrary to X's judgement) supremely attests when he “sacrifices his future usefulness” as an informer in order to protect his misguided, feeling beloved; and they are subtly employed to convey Conrad's humane belief that “action observed, felt and interpreted,” rather than penetrated, measured, and catalogued, is the true task of the writer.22


  1. CL 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 refer to the volume numbers of Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies, eds., The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983-97).

  2. G. Jean-Aubry, Joseph Conrad: Life and Letters (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1927), vol. II, 317.

  3. Henry James, “The New Novel” and “Rudyard Kipling,” Essays on Literature, American Writers, English Writers (New York: Library of America, 1984), 49, 1131.

  4. 1 Jan '06. Two weeks later Conrad told his agent Pinker: “I write some alternative titles for the story. I would prefer any of them to the Informer” (CL3, 311); but he does not go on to list them.

  5. Norman Sherry, Conrad's Western World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966) argues persuasively that “The Informer” is based on Conrad's knowledge of the anarchist activities of Ford Madox Ford's juvenile relatives, Olive, Henry, and Arthur Rossetti, 205-18. All page references to “The Informer” and to his other works are from the Collected Edition of the Works of Joseph Conrad (London: Dent, 1946).

  6. The implicit request in the closing sentences to reread is typical of all Conrad's framed narratives that presume and incorporate listeners and foreground the problematics of interpretation (e.g. “Karain,” “Amy Foster” and “Il Conde”): and, inevitably, our interpretive forays alert us to the different productions of shape and meaning they sponsor. Peter Brooks concentrates on such concerns in Reading for the Plot (New York: Vintage Books, 1985).

  7. Avrom Fleishman, Conrad's Politics: Community and Anarchy in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967), 138; Gilbert Cuthbertson, “Freedom, Absurdity, and Destruction: The Political Theory of Conrad's A Set of Six,” Conradiana, 6.1 (1974), 49.

  8. “The Informer” in common with most of Conrad's fiction is riddled with puns and disguised jokes. Two the critics seem to have missed are that Sevrin chimes with sévir (to act ruthlessly) and that “spark” as in “most women, if not always ready to play with fire, are generally eager to play with a loose spark or so” (79) contains the obvious “joke” that the narrator detects and X denies, and is also Conway cadet slang (from before 1890) as in “have a spark” for “a youth, or a man of spirit”: Eric Partridge, The Penguin Dictionary of Historical Slang, report 1986, 883. Mr. X as an incendiary pamphleteer is a “loose spark”; but as a human being he is the antithesis of “a man of spirit.”

  9. James H. Walton, “Mr. X's ‘Little Joke’: The Design of Conrad's ‘The Informer’,” Studies in Short Fiction, 4 (1967), 328; Allan Hepburn, “Collectors in Conrad's ‘The Informer’,” Studies in Short Fiction, 29 (1992), 109.

  10. Walton, 325; Hepburn, 108.

  11. Carol Vanderveer Hamilton, “Revolution from Within: Conrad's Natural Anarchists,” The Conradian, 18.2 (1994), 30-48; Jennifer Shaddock, “Hanging a Dog: The Politics of Naming in ‘An Anarchist’,” Conradiana, 26.1 (1994), 56-69; Ted Billy, A Wilderness of Words: Closure and Disclosure in Conrad's Short Fiction (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1997).

  12. Hamilton, 33. “The Informer” is the counterpart to “An Anarchist” in that both employ bourgeois collectors to frame the tales of the anarchists, Mr. X and Paul, thereby exploring the links between the two activities and their respective tellers. In “An Anarchist,” Paul the ignorant mechanic is presented as the dupe of both anarchist and capitalist “Naming” and “Advertising,” suggesting “that anarchism works within and is a product of the capitalist system” (Shaddock, 56). Mr. X, the collector is like Harry Gee “The Anarchist” a capitalist, and both are presented as manipulators of language.

  13. Paul Hollywood, The Voice of Dynamite: Anarchism, Popular Fiction and the Late Political Novels of Joseph Conrad, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Kent, Canterbury, 1994. This brilliant thesis is an indispensable study of the political novel. See also Hollywood's “Conrad and Anarchist Theories of Language,” Keith Carabine, Owen Knowles, Wieslaw Krajka, eds., Contexts for Conrad (Boulder: East European Monographs, 1993), 243-64. Conrad's satire at such moments is surely at the expense of the Garnetts and their circle, who welcomed and supported the nihilists such as Stepniak and Volkhonsky, at the close of the century, and revolutionary exiles such as David Soskice and Father Gapon at the beginning of the twentieth. Cp. Keith Carabine, The Life and the Art: A Study of Conrad's Under Western Eyes, (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996), 179-80; Thomas C. Moser, “An English Context for Conrad's Russian Characters: Sergey Stepniak and the Diary of Olive Garnett,” The Journal of Modern Literature, 11.1 (March 1984), 3-44.

  14. Margaret Scanlan, “Language and Terrorism in Conrad's ‘The Informer’,” Conradiana, 27.2 (1995), 120.

  15. “The collector is the true inmate of the interior. He makes the transformation of things his business. To him falls the Sisyphean task of obliterating the commodity-like character of things through his ownership of them. But he merely confers connoisseur value on them instead of intrinsic value”: Walter Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, ed., Peter Demetz, (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), 155.

  16. Hamilton misses the pun on “exquisite,” but notes that “Mr. X's hostility to the bourgeoisie suggest that he is an aesthete, a dandy, like Felix Fénéon, the prominent anarchist and art critic” (37). As far as I'm aware Conrad never mentions Fénéon, but as he was “the assistant editor of the most important and influential of all the artistic reviews of the 1890s, the Revue Blanche” he must with his active interest in French culture have been aware of him (James Joll, The Anarchists, 2nd Ed., London: Methuen, 1979, 151). Similarly, he must have known of the notorious trial in Paris in 1894 of the thirty editors, writers, and bohemians, including Fénéon who were accused after the murder of President Carnay, of criminal conspiracy. Most were acquitted, but Fénéon mocked the judge and engaged in verbal gamesmanship (Joll, 151-2). Joll also cites another Parisian anarchist, Laurent Tailhade, “who coined a famous phrase about terrorism - ‘Qu'importe les vagues humanités, pourvu que le geste soit beau’” [“What do the vague humanities matter providing that the act is beautiful”] (152). Mr. X would concur.

  17. Rodney Shewan, Oscar Wilde: Art and Egotism, (London: Macmillan, 1977), 75.

  18. Hamilton, 38. Because Hamilton accepts X's case concerning “The bourgeois inability to inhabit a Real” (38), she misses Conrad's critique of X's own linguistic constructions.

  19. “A Familiar Preface,” A Personal Record, 1912, xxi-ii. The holograph of “The Informer” contains a cancelled sequence that anticipates this “Preface.” It follows X's claim that Sevrin was like some “converted atheists” (100): “These are the most dangerous fanatics. But it is the same soul after all. And he had a revolutionary mind which as you know absolves from all scruples as to methods of action” (MS, p. 73). Perhaps Conrad immediately cancelled these reflections because X too obviously exemplifies them.

  20. Hollywood, Ph.D. Dissertation, 401-2, 387

  21. Hollywood, Ph.D. Dissertation, 325.

  22. For a contrasting view, see Hamilton who argues that Conrad in “The Informer” fails “to distinguish the anarchist from the artist” (32).

Ted Billy (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11779

SOURCE: Billy, Ted. “The Short Fiction: Tales of Unrest (1898), A Set of Six (1908), 'Twixt Land and Sea (1912), Within the Tides (1915), and Tales of Hearsay (1925).” In A Joseph Conrad Companion, edited by Leonard Orr and Ted Billy, pp. 281-304. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Billy provides an overview of the major thematic concerns and critical reception of Conrad's short stories.]

Although Conrad's critical reputation rests primarily on his five major novels (Lord Jim, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes, and Victory) and two long tales (Heart of Darkness and The Shadow-Line), he also distinguished himself as a short-story writer. Among his seven volumes of short fiction are such frequently anthologized tales as “Youth,” “The Secret Sharer,” and “The Lagoon.” The fact that Lord Jim and Nostromo, two of his greatest novels, began as short stories suggests that Conrad seriously applied himself to the art form, though, in the course of his artistic career, he increasingly gave in to the temptation to compose potboilers to satisfy his ever-accelerating financial needs. This was largely in keeping with the decline in his artistic creativity in his later years, for, as in the case of his novels, his early short-story collections exhibit his best work. He sometimes wrote short fiction that displayed extensive affinities with his novels, as in the case of “A Planter of Malata” and “Because of the Dollars,” which correspond with Victory. Yet despite the uneven quality of his shorter works, Conrad's tales dramatize his characteristic themes: human isolation, existential mystery, and the vulnerability of the individual amid the vast forces of nature.


The publication of Conrad's first collection of tales (which followed the appearance of Almayer's Folly, An Outcast of the Islands, and The Nigger of the “Narcissus”) elicited mixed critical response from reviewers who praised the exotic atmosphere of the Malayan stories but also bemoaned their oppressive gloom. The Daily Telegraph's anonymous reviewer singled out “The Lagoon” and “Karain, a Memory” for their depiction of the “wild picturesque life” of the Archipelago but objected to the morbidity and loathesomeness of “The Idiots” and “An Outpost of Progress.”1 After criticizing Conrad for his slipshod artistic method, the anonymous reviewer for the Daily Mail praised “The Return” for its keen psychological insight (Sherry, 103). Edward Garnett, writing an anonymous review for the Academy, obviously knew Conrad's artistic aims thoroughly, for he praises the literary artist's vision in dramatizing the assertion of ego in “a chaos of experience” (Sherry, 105). According to Garnett, Conrad forces us to confront the darkness of human nature while perceiving human nature in relation to the surrounding universe (Sherry, 105-6). Conrad's technique is modern, Garnett asserts, in the same way that Turgenev and Flaubert are modern (Sherry, 107). The Academy gave one of its awards in 1899 to Conrad's Tales of Unrest, with the quasi-imperialistic comment that Conrad “has annexed the Malay Peninsula” for English fiction (Sherry, 110).

“Karain” (which originally appeared in Blackwood's Magazine in 1897) unfolds as a sequence of retrospectives told by an unnamed gunrunner who has returned to civilization. The narrator recalls how he and his cohorts, Hollis and Jackson, smuggled guns to Karain, a native ruler involved in territorial disputes. Although Karain poses as a haughty leader in the light of day, at night he seems paranoid and cannot do without the constant companionship of an old sorcerer. When the gunrunners return for a final sale, they learn of the death of the old wizard. Some days later, Karain boards their ship and confesses that he suffers from remorse. He narrates the story of the betrayal of his friend, Pata Matara, whom he had accompanied in pursuit of a Dutchman who had run off with Matara's sister. After many years they found their quarry, but Karain had become so obsessed with the thought of the girl's reputed beauty that he shot Matara before she could be killed. Since that day, Matara's phantom has haunted Karain, and only the old wizard's charms could ward off the ghost. Now that the charms are useless, Karain asks the white men to take him to their land of unbelief for protection. Anxious to be rid of Karain, Hollis gives the Malayan a potent charm from the West. The talisman, a Jubilee sixpence representing Queen Victoria, fascinates Karain, who leaves the ship triumphantly to rejoin his subjects. The Malay rejoicing prompts Conrad's conspicuous authorial intrusion, whereby the narrator inquires about the reader's reaction to the sham resolution to the problem. This places the burden of interpretation squarely on the reader.

The closing scene, set in London long after the main episode, involves a conversation between Jackson and the narrator. Jackson's recollection surfaces when he seems to see Karain's face reflected in a gun shop window. Jackson cannot forget the native chieftain, but in response to his old friend's sense of wonderment, the narrator calls his attention to the restless activity in the street. To Jackson, the compulsive nature of hectic modern life seems unreal, prompting the narrator to conclude that his comrade “had been too long away from home.”2 (56). Their humorous exchange documents the bankruptcy of their reliance on illusions of civilized order and continuity. Both Karain and the Westerners are victims of their cultural memories. Jackson's epiphany regarding the barbarism of Western culture has validity, even though Conrad depicts him as a romantic buffoon. Ultimately, Conrad implies that the supposedly superior English are sophisticated victims of cultural conditioning.

Lawrence Graver endorses the narrator's perspective, even though he also takes into consideration the tale's enigmatic ending, for he views the final scene as a disclosure of the moral discovery made by the Westerners.3 Yet the narrator's comments are ambiguous at best and, at worst, obtuse and supercilious. More recent criticism of “Karain” has not abandoned the search for a moral touchstone but has more closely examined Conrad's complex narrative structure. Mark Wollaeger maintains that the foregrounding of the status of words at the end of “Karain” harkens “back to the opening pages, in which the narrator introduces the reader to an exotic fictional locale through a virtual invocation to the evocative resources of language.”4 (44-45). Thus, the story's circularity underscores the illusory quality of words, both factual and imaginative. Language never allows us to go beyond the represented to the real (Wollaeger, 47).

“The Idiots” (first published in the aesthete-oriented The Savoy in 1896) unfolds as a melodramatic tale with an ironic denouement. Passing through Brittany, where he observes the behavior of some imbecile children, Conrad's narrator makes inquiries about them and eventually pieces together enough information to relate their story. The unfortunate children are the offspring of Susan and Jean-Pierre Bacadou, who had married in order to raise strong sons to tend the farm. As each child proves mentally unsound, Jean-Pierre's frustration leads to verbal and physical abuse of his wife. When she is provoked into retaliation, Susan stabs him in the neck and flees from the house. She turns to her mother for assistance, but Madame Levaille is scandalized by her daughter's action. She flees again, only to hear the voice of a potential rescuer that she mistakes for her mortally wounded husband. Deluded by her panic, Susan leaps into the sea. In a terse epilogue, the narrator reports the recovery of Susan's body and reveals that the Marquis de Chavenes plans to appoint Madame Levaille guardian of the children and administrator of the farm so that the land will not fall into the hands of his political enemies.

Although Conrad refers to “The Idiots” as “an obviously derivative piece of work” in his 1898 “Author's Note” to Tales of Unrest (ix), the story cannot be dismissed as merely borrowed melodrama. Conrad's primary concern is not the domestic turmoil involving the parents of four imbecile children but rather the warped sensibilities of three successive generations set against the backdrop of widespread political, social, and religious corruption.5 Like his chief models at the turn of the century—Maupassant, Flaubert, and Zola—Conrad derides the inhumanity of modern institutions, the corruption of their officials, and the foolishness and ignorance of their victims.6 Conrad crystallizes the multiple meanings of his title in an ironic epilogue that mixes superficial consolation with sarcasm aimed at sanctimonious authority. Conrad's ending undermines the foundations of European civilization—hypocritical institutions such as marriage, religion, and monarchy.

In “An Outpost of Progress” (reprinted from The Cosmopolis, 1897), a kind of companion piece to his acclaimed Heart of Darkness, Conrad weaves his web around the inane predicament of two simpletons, Kayerts and Carlier, who command a trading post in a remote part of Africa. With wry, caustic wit, Conrad details their absurd incompetence at an outpost where “progress” means ivory, and “civilization,” extermination. They understand nothing and do nothing, except to straighten the large cross marking the grave of the chief who built the station and to protest feebly before finally acquiescing when they learn that Makola, their native assistant, has sold their workers and some villagers into slavery in return for ivory. Emotionally overwrought by prolonged isolation, Kayerts accidentally shoots Carlier in a squabble over sugar rationing. Hearing the whistle of the approaching company steamer, Kayerts insanely reacts by killing himself. When the Managing Director finds his body hanging from the cross, Conrad calls attention to the obscene sight of Kayerts's tongue protruding from his mouth as a final salute to the idiocy of the colonial enterprise. As this final image suggests, “An Outpost” ultimately mocks hierarchical modern civilization as well as its mindless stooges. For Conrad's tale has as much in common with Bouvard et Pecuchet as it does with Heart of Darkness.7 Like Flaubert's savage attack on bourgeois stupidity, Conrad's narrative satirizes the dull, mechanical sensibilities conditioned by Western culture's mania for organization and regimentation. Conrad's robotic drones function only within the confines of their routines, and once estranged from their habitual frame of reference they begin to disintegrate.8 But a culture that thrives by exploiting the stupidity and indolence of its masses eventually will be undermined by these same qualities. Ultimately, Conrad's main target is the hierarchical authority of Western civilization, not its mindless automatons.9

Conrad himself called “The Return” (which was never serialized) a “left-handed production” in his “Author's Note” to Tales of Unrest (x) and bitterly referred to it as “odious” and “infernal” in his letters to Edward Garnett shortly after its composition.10 Twentieth-century critics have tended to follow his lead in condemning this marital melodrama. Lawrence Graver considers the story an “example of an artistic road not taken,” “one of the strangest works in the Conrad canon” (34), largely as a result of the apprentice author's unfamiliarity with the materials of his narrative. But although the tale has more than its share of flaws, it does reveal much about Conrad's attitude toward life and fiction, and the qualified meanings that can be derived from both.

“The Return” unfolds as a Jamesian tale about a case of linguistic “possession” that prevents a husband from reconciling with his wife. Mrs. Alvan Hervey leaves her husband for another man, only to discover that she cannot go through with her desertion. She returns to her husband, who has just read her farewell note and responds to her sudden reappearance with stunned disbelief. The story's O. Henry ending (that is, Hervey's abrupt departure) underscores the illusory nature of human knowledge as the opening pages of the final scene emphasize the haunting refrain, “Impossible to know” (172, 173). Alvan Hervey has just prepared himself to live the rest of his days without his wife, whose love had always seemed assured. Now he finds that he must live with her but without “certitude immaterial and precious” (179), for he believes that he cannot be sure what his wife really thinks or feels. Hervey recognizes that he has been duped by his wife's conventional facade of amiability and now confronts a world in which all external signs may be deceptive. At this point it seems all too easy to interpret the story as a parable of existential unfathomability, yet the story ultimately subverts its own quasi-nihilistic final disclosure of epistemological incertitude, for Conrad distances himself from the central intelligence responsible for the final revelation by emphasizing the cookie-cutter conformity that masquerades as Alvan Hervey's personality. In addition to the emphasis on Hervey's psychological myopia, Conrad's tale calls into question Hervey's reliance on words as his trusted refuge. For “The Return” also illustrates the folly of putting one's faith in language, for words cannot guarantee stable selfhood.

“The Lagoon” (originally published in The Cornhill in 1897) features a moribund plot that, with the exception of Arsat's narration, remains almost totally static. A white man arrives by boat at the home of Arsat, a Malayan he has known for many years. Together, they await the death of Arsat's wife, Diamelen. As they wait, Arsat recounts the story of his longing for the woman, who belonged to his own Ruler. Arsat and his brother had successfully carried off Diamelen, but, in the process, Arsat had to forsake his brother, who was killed by the pursuing natives. Thus, Arsat betrayed not only his Ruler but his brother as well in his obsession to possess Diamelen. Following this account, Arsat announces her death, and at the close he vows to avenge his brother's death. Conrad's final glimpse of the mournful scene emphasizes both Arsat's determination to reaffirm his cultural identity and the white man's refusal to believe that such a self-destructive sacrifice is necessary. The conclusion of “The Lagoon” appears problematical because Conrad presents two opposing viewpoints but does not endorse either. With its emphasis on silence and immobility, the ending serves as a synecdoche of the whole tale.

In his Malayan tales, Conrad frequently contrasts Eastern and Western attitudes, usually to the detriment of European culture. He derides Western hypocrisy and rapacity, by-products of modern civilization, and casts a favorable light on the traditional values and instinctive qualities of his fictional South-Seas natives. Yet, in “The Lagoon,” Conrad does not draw such a sharp contrast between the white trader and the Malayan warrior.11 The nameless white man suffers from the delusions of self-aggrandizement, but he is not the only character blinded by egoism. For Arsat's confession, the pivotal tale within the tale, implies that a kinship of desire unites the two main characters. Conrad converts the title of his story into a psychological morass, in which the death of the dream of possession results in the petrification of selfhood.12 In his struggle to overcome his psychological immobility, Arsat seems to cultivate yet another myopic obsession. He intends to recover his former identity, which can only lead to death. For Conrad demonstrates that serenity always lies beyond the reach of those in pursuit of self-interest or haunted by the consequences of their previous actions.13


Less impressive than “Youth” and “Heart of Darkness,” its companions in the Youth volume, “The End of the Tether” (first published in Blackwood's, 1902) nevertheless won critical plaudits from reviewers who found its portrait of an old sea captain facing the prospect of blindness and the loss of his command poignant. Conrad, in fact, was exasperated by reviewers who emphasized Captain Whalley's poignancy, but many critics still find the Captain's actions admirable in general.14 In addition to praising the convincing descriptions of sea life, reviewers singled out the tale's picturesque quality and its subtlety. Surprisingly, anonymous reviewers for the Times Literary Supplement and the Athenaeum called “The End of the Tether” superior to the other two stories in this landmark volume (Sherry, 137, 139).

On the surface, Conrad's novella presents Captain Whalley in a favorable light. Chapter I establishes the current situation: Whalley, now 67 years old, commands the steamer Sofala in an attitude of almost perfect immobility. Conrad employs Chapters II through VI to flash back, tracing the origin of Whalley's decline to “the great failure,” which depleted his financial resources, leaving him his retirement barque, the Fair Maid, as his sole possession. Whalley dotes on his daughter Ivy, who lives in near-destitution in Australia. She requests £200 from her father in order to open a boarding house, and Whalley reluctantly sells his barque to raise the money. Fearful of spending his last £ 500 (which he always considers Ivy's money), he seeks employment and encounters Captain Elliot, who tells him about Massy, the chief engineer and owner of the Sofala. Whalley agrees to command the ship in return for investing his £500 pounds in a partnership.

Near the midpoint of Chapter VI, Conrad terminates the extended flashback and returns to the present. Whalley now faces progressive blindness (after three years as Captain of the Sofala), yet he deceives everyone to protect Ivy's investment. Sterne, the unscrupulous mate, discovers the Captain's secret but is unable to use this in his efforts to persuade Massy to put him in command. Hoping to frighten Whalley into resigning, he tells Van Wyck, the Dutch planter and cynical hermit, to inform the Captain that “the game is up.” At dinner, Whalley confesses his blindness to Van Wyck, who decides to bribe Sterne into remaining quiet until the end of the voyage. Massy plans to stage a shipwreck to collect the insurance money. After Massy disorients the compass with pieces of iron in his coat, the ship collides with a reef and begins to sink. Discovering Massy's trick, Whalley listens to the owner's plea to throw the coat overboard and keep quiet to collect his share of the insurance money. Massy takes refuge in the lifeboat, but Whalley, dreading his exposure as a fraud at an inquiry, chooses to keep the coat and go down with the ship, dying with the knowledge that Ivy will receive her money.

Following Whalley's suicide, Conrad focuses on Van Wyck, who fears the worst when the Sofala does not return to port on time. Van Wyck learns of the calamity when he visits the ship's port of registry. He also meets Sterne, who informs him that the inquiry had exonerated everyone because it is impossible to determine the cause of the wreck. Moreover, Van Wyck has a conversation with a lawyer who assents to the “general theory” concerning Whalley's accidental death and informs him that the Captain had given him a sealed envelope to send to Ivy in the event of his death. When she receives her father's posthumous letter, Ivy musters up a poignant tear or two as Conrad undermines the pathos of the final scene with his customary irony.

Interpretations of “The End of the Tether” generally pivot on the question of the Captain's culpability. Early reviewers found tragic dignity and even grandeur in the fate of Captain Whalley.15 Yet, more than a half century after the publication of Conrad's novella, critics have discounted the poignant and touching aspects of the tale in favor of more incisive analyses of Whalley's psychological defects and spiritual shortcomings.16 These critics offer valuable insights into the Captain's moral dereliction, yet this does not entirely invalidate the poignancy of Whalley's demise. Indeed, a careful inspection of Conrad's closing pages reveals opposing elements held in balance: sentimental and ironic implications locked in dynamic tension. For Conrad's text prohibits us from arriving at a definite conclusion about Whalley's character, which is as self-contradictory as Captain MacWhirr's identity in “Typhoon.”


Not surprisingly, reviewers enthusiastically embraced the title story as the best work in this volume, but the other tales also gained a measure of critical admiration, particularly in the case of “Amy Foster” and “Falk.” The anonymous reviewer for the Academy credited “Amy Foster” as reaching “the deeps of essential and inevitable tragedy” in its characterization of the loneliness and alienation of Yanko Goorall, the stranger in a strange land who seems so akin to his creator (Sherry, 154). The same reviewer termed “Falk” a “most remarkable study” that documents Conrad's mastery as an interpreter of the moods of the human spirit. Even “To-morrow” had its ardent supporters, including Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (writing for the Bookman), who called it superior to anything else in the Typhoon volume (Sherry, 156).

Originally entitled “The Husband,” the partly autobiographical “Amy Foster” (originally appearing in Illustrated London, News, 1901) involves Yanko Goorall's marriage to the title character following his shipwreck on the English coast. Yanko's central-European background and unfamiliarity with the English language make it difficult for him to adapt to his new environment. Even his wife turns against him when Amy hears Yanko cry out for water in his native tongue during a severe fever. Conrad's conclusion is a poignant account of Amy's abandonment of Yanko and his death. Like Gaspar Ruiz, Yanko seems reincarnated in his child, Johnny, whose frightened “‘big black eyes’” display “‘his fluttered air of a bird in a snare’” (142). Ironically, however, Johnny is known as “‘Amy Foster's boy.’”

“Falk” (never serialized) is certainly one of Conrad's most involuted scenarios. Subtitled “A Reminiscence,” the story opens with an elaborate frame that calls to mind the beginning of Heart of Darkness. A passing German tugboat escorting a Norwegian ship reminds one of several veteran seafarers of an “absurd” episode from his own experience. The old captain proceeds to narrate the story of his first command, which he received in an unnamed Eastern port. While preparing for departure, the narrator relaxes by periodically visiting Hermann and his family aboard their ship, the Diana, where he notices that Hermann's niece has attracted the attention of Falk, who commands the only tugboat in the seaport. Falk refuses to move the narrator's ship, thinking he has competition for the niece's affections. He even makes off with the Diana, but the narrator reassures Falk and agrees to act as an intermediary. But Falk nearly ruins the narrator's “diplomacy” by announcing that he once had to resort to cannibalism at sea. Hermann balks at the prospect of bestowing his niece on a cannibal, but he finally acquiesces, not because he arrives at a higher judgment but because he can save money on the return voyage to Europe without his niece.

Despite Conrad's lifelong enthusiasm for “Falk,” most commentators either ignore it completely or dispute its value.17 However, a number of critics have advanced favorable assessments of the tale.18 Generally, these interpretations emphasize Conrad's contrast of Hermann's civilized orderliness and Falk's atavistic impulses.19 They emphasize that the narrator, who serves as mediator of the conflict, ultimately switches his allegiance from the corrupt Hermann to the primitive Falk, whom he views as the embodiment of the “will-to-live.”20 Yet Conrad should not be confused with the narrator, who compromises his integrity to attain his personal objectives. The romantic promise of the closing scene in “Falk” conflicts with Conrad's conversion of romance into a selfish commercial transaction.

Originally entitled “The Son” and later transformed into the play One Day More when Conrad felt compelled to cannibalize his own fiction to make ends meet, “To-morrow” (first published in Pall Mall Magazine, 1902) dramatizes Captain Hagberd's obsession with the long-delayed arrival of his son, Harry. Hagberd's obsession becomes contagious when he promises his neighbor Bessie Carvil that Harry will marry her. When Harry does return and his father blurts out his promise to Bessie, young Hagberd flees. Conrad's melodramatic conclusion anticipates the “madness and despair” refrain of The Secret Agent in depicting Bessie Carvil's victimization by the men in her life. In the closing scene, Conrad portrays Bessie as a latter-day tenant of Dante's Inferno, where hope is another word for madness.21

A SET OF SIX (1908)

By 1908 most of Conrad's best work was already behind him, as partially indicated by the tales in this collection. Yet Robert Lynd, writing for the Daily News, was tempted to call “Gaspar Ruiz” one of “the greatest short stories in the English language” (Sherry, 211), though he revised his estimate of the story downward because its ending is pathetic rather than tragic. (Lynd does praise Conrad's masterful use of impressions throughout the tales in this volume.) Various reviewers also put “Il Conde,” “The Brute,” “The Duel,” and “An Anarchist” in the class of minor masterpieces. In all of these tales Conrad displays his ironic sensibility.

“Gaspar Ruiz” (which appeared in 1906 in Pall Mall Magazine), the stuff of popular magazine fiction, is set in revolutionary Chile. When the Royalists capture the Republican Gaspar and force him to fight for them, he suffers the misfortune of being recaptured by the Republicans, who condemn him to be shot as a deserter. He survives the firing squad and takes refuge with an aristocratic family, falling in love with Erminia in the process. After murdering the civil governor who objects to their marriage, Gaspar weds her and they have a child, but both Erminia and her daughter become prisoners in a fortress held by the Republicans, Gaspar's soldiers lay siege to it, and he dies while mounting a cannon on his back. Erminia, confessing her love for Gaspar for the first time, commits suicide. In the closing scene, Conrad adds lethal doses of melodrama and sentimentality in his depiction of the symbolic reincarnation of Gaspar in his daughter, Erminia.22 (In 1920, Conrad wrote an unfilmed movie script based on “Gaspar Ruiz” entitled The Strong Man.)

“The Informer” (published in Harper's Magazine, 1906), subtitled “An Ironic Tale,” unfolds as a story within a story, with a complex point of view. It verges on the absurd, and one critic has even termed the tale of self-parody.23 The tale opens in a Jamesian manner with the introduction of a squeamish narrator who recounts his meeting an anarchist known as Mr. X. At dinner, the fastidious narrator learns that the anarchist, despite his commitment to ultra-violence, has a taste for luxury. When the narrator comments on this incongruity, Mr. X relates a lengthy anecdote to prove that the idle rich have fostered the revolutionary cause without fully realizing the implications.24 His example concerns a young English woman he calls Lady Amateur, who offers her house on Hermione Street as a headquarters for anarchist activity. Her romantic poses and gestures attract the attention of Sevrin, one of the anarchists, but secretly an informer for the police. Sevrin and Lady Amateur conduct a “politico-amorous” relationship, which quickly disintegrates when Mr. X and his cohorts raid the headquarters in the guise of London policemen. During the fracas, Sevrin reveals his guilt in an effort to save Lady Amateur. Stunned by the revelation of Sevrin's treachery, she rebuffs him and he commits suicide. After reading the love rhapsodies in his diary, she retires to a Florentine convent. Mr. X concludes his anecdote by launching a tirade on the “mere gestures” of the privileged class.

“The Informer” has a dual frame of reference, burlesquing the anarchist movement and satirizing the shallow affectations of the aesthetic movement. Conrad views both anarchists and aesthetes as deluded victims of their own narcissistic cult of decadent self-indulgence. By employing the vocabulary of aestheticism in dramatizing a farcical story of anarchist insurgence, he underscores the histrionics of terrorism and the vacuous pretension of its deluded practitioners. Conrad infuses a potboiler plot with inside jokes and frivolous puns delineating the fopperies of the cult of decadent self-indulgence. Ultimately, he implies that the amoral wit and satanic wisdom of the aesthetic movement masks a narcissistic conceit.25

“The Brute” (which appeared in the Daily Chronicle, 1906) unfolds as an anecdotal potboiler in which the title character is actually The Apse Family, a vessel that has never made a single voyage without someone perishing on board. Ultimately, the ship sinks when Captain Wilmot carelessly disregards his scrutiny of the compass while distracted by the enticing charms of a governess. Wilmot, ironically, is the brute's symbolic final victim, for he ends up driving a wagon in Australia. Regretfully, this is the sole irony in a story that rarely rises above conventional melodrama. Another slight tale, “An Anarchist” (reprinted from Harper's Magazine, 1906) concerns Paul, a Parisian lost soul who is imprisoned after shouting out “Vive l'anarchie” while drunk. After fleeing an island fortress off the coast of South America, Paul pulls a gun on two of his associates whose actions led to his original arrest. He kills the two men and finds work at a cattle ranch, where a tyrannical manager makes his life miserable. Yet Paul refuses to escape once again, believing that he is better off far removed from human society. Conrad's story wallows in pathos and despair, and its only striking element is a rather cryptic statement at the conclusion affirming that anarchists have warm hearts and weak heads.

“The Duel” (published in Pall Mall Magazine, 1908), set in Napoleonic France, dramatizes the rivalry of Feraud and D'Hubert, two officers who fight duels on matters of honor. Alter 16 years, D'Hubert gets the upper hand in a duel and forces Feraud to promise to give up the recurring dispute. Yet D'Hubert's life has been so profoundly influenced by his adversary that he secretly sends money to Feraud in order to ensure his welfare. The implausibly happy closing scene partly reconciles the tension of the plot yet does contain one significant irony: Feraud persists in his animosity toward D'Hubert and nostalgically recollects the old days of the Napoleonic Wars, never realizing that D'Hubert is now financially supporting him. Though this story is hardly a Conrad classic, it was made into a wonderful full-length film of the same title, directed by Ridley Scott (whose Nostromo spaceship in Alien paid tribute to Conrad).

At the outset of “Il Conde” (appeared in Cassell's Magazine, 1908), an unidentified narrator relates his first meeting with an aged aristocrat, also nameless, who is courteously referred to as Il Conde by all the servants in Naples. The narrator stresses the Count's idealism, naivete, and well-ordered life-style. Residence in Naples means leisure and amusement to the Count, but, more importantly, it offers him the only hospitable climate, due to his rheumatic ailments. The narrator never learns the name or nationality of the distinguished aristocrat, though he does know that the Count thrives on a modest fortune not of his own making. When the narrator returns to Naples after ten days at the bedside of a sick friend, he finds the Count crestfallen and desperate. The old man relates the story of an “abominable adventure” that transpired in the narrator's absence. While walking up and down a “somber” alley in the Villa Nazionale during an outdoor concert, the Count was robbed at knifepoint by a young Italian Cavaliere, who abruptly vanished in frustration and rage at the small booty obtained from his victim. Taking advantage of a twenty-franc piece he had withheld from the robber, the Count attempts to satisfy his hunger at the Cafe Umberto. But there he once again meets the Cavaliere, who insults the old man for holding back the money and vows revenge. When the Count learns from Pasquale (the obsequious cigarette vendor) that the robber is a Camorra, the Count dismisses the possibility that Pasquale may be fabricating the notion and decides to leave the country as a result of this singular “outrage” to his dignity. The story ends with the narrator's poignant last glimpse of the Count, who boards the train knowing that it leads him to his death.

A deceptively simple narrative that looks back at James's “The Beast in the Jungle” and forward to Mann's “Death in Venice,” Conrad's “Il Conde” has been the focus of sporadic critical controversy.26 The diversity of critical interpretations of the tale testifies to the intriguing complexities of a reputed “potboiler” that Conrad “knocked-off” in a mere ten days of composition. The title character's sentimental portrait, like that of Captains Whalley and Davidson (in “Because of the Dollars”), obscures a more cynical portrait that Conrad paints beneath the surface of the narrative. Personifying the decadence of Imperial Rome during its decline, he represents civilization in full rout before the anarchy embodied in the Cavaliere. Like Whalley, the fastidious aristocrat fails in his vain attempt to keep the forces of chaos at bay. His final resolve amounts to a pathetic self-annihilation.


The opening chapters of “The Planter of Malata” (published in Metropolitan Magazine, 1914) consist of lengthy discussions between an Editor and Geoffrey Renouard, an explorer living in isolation as a silk planter on the island of Malata. Renouard questions the Editor about the Moorsom family, who constitute a search party intent on tracing the whereabouts of Felicia's ex-fiance, Arthur, who left England after being implicated in a financial scandal. When Felicia and her father, Professor Moorsom, learn that Arthur has taken an assumed name (Walter) and has gone to Malata as Renouard's assistant, the planter is already too infatuated with Felicia to admit that he buried his new assistant before leaving Malata. Renouard allows himself to be coaxed into guiding the search party to Malata in his own ship. Before landing on the island, he informs the Moorsoms that Arthur is away on a tour of the islands. After days of agonizing concealment, Renouard takes Felicia to the other side of the island where he points out her ex-fiance's grave. Immediately thereafter, he rashly declares his love to Felicia, who coldly rebukes him and walks away. The Moorsoms leave the island, and the planter dismisses his workers to brood in isolation. The last chapter of “Planter” focuses on the absence of the title character, who has sacrificed his life for nothing, as Conrad scorns the inspired frivolities of humanity.

The critics who have discussed this gloomy novella at any length have illuminated much of Conrad's artistic strategy and cultivated valuable literary terrain, yet rarely do they consider the story exclusively on its own terms.27 (Meyer even relates the tale's protagonist to Conrad's retreat from skepticism and introspection after his 1910 breakdown. He calls “The Planter” one of several fictions that tend to “view the world in black and white simplicity, to the end that people are reduced to stereotypes, thoughts to platitudes, and the turmoil of life to a set of easy formulas” [222].)28 Yet a close examination of the elements of the story reveals that Conrad is actually inverting the stock conventions of melodramatic romance: Renouard, the man of action becomes a fool immobilized by love; Felicia, statuesque femme fatale becomes an embodiment of froth; Moorsom, the wise old man, becomes a gullible pawn manipulated by his daughter; and the romantic quest for knowledge becomes an inquiry into nullity.

“The Partner” (appeared in Harper's Magazine, 1911) combines tedium and melodrama yet nonetheless offers an interior narrative with many convolutions. The narrator, a writer of magazine stories, meets an impressive old ruffian in Westport who scoffs at the “silly yarn” boatmen tell to tourists about the wreck of the Sagamore. The writer/narrator, more interested in the old adventurer's mannerisms than in his tale, discusses the process of literary composition with his taciturn drinking partner. Eventually, the conversation prompts the old ruffian to narrate his version of the shipwreck. The vessel's owners, Captain Harry Dunbar and his brother George, maintain an adequate but hardly lucrative trade until George enters into partnership with Cloete, a rascal with a background in the “patent-medicine” business who has recently arrived from America. Dissatisfied with his new investment, Cloete tries to convince George to wreck the ship for the insurance money and then finance the advertisements for a new patent-medicine scheme. George cannot persuade his brother to take a sabbatical away from the ship, and he ultimately rejects Cloete's plan. However, Cloete does convince a lazy “skunk” named Stafford to join the crew of the Sagamore as a saboteur. George, after hearing that his naive brother has signed up Stafford for the next voyage, does not take the opportunity to expose Stafford to the Captain. When George and Cloete learn that the ship has been wrecked, they hurry there in the hope that the vessel will sink quickly. Cloete comes aboard the Sagamore and encounters Stafford, who has blackmail in mind. He overpowers Stafford and locks him in the cabin to retrieve some papers and money. When Stafford mysteriously climbs into the lifeboat instead of the Captain, Cloete and the coxswain go back to find the Captain killed by a bullet through the heart from his own revolver. The coxswain erroneously assumes it a grief-stricken suicide, but Cloete remains silent with the knowledge that Stafford murdered the Captain. Back on shore, the Captain's wife goes mad with grief, Cloete accuses George of indirectly causing his brother's death, and, in anger, Cloete and Stafford part company. Cloete bemoans the fact that the Captain's unforeseen death deprives him of the chance to make a fortune from the new lumbago pills. Stafford (who initially told Cloete that he shot the Captain, mistaking him for his treacherous “partner”) confesses on his deathbed that he killed the Captain, who surprised him in the act of theft.

Superficially, in “The Partner,” Conrad divides his persona into two fictive surrogates: a writer/narrator in the Jamesian tradition and an old master stevedore who provides the younger man with raw material for a potential story. What emerges from their conversation, however, is not a whale of a tale of high adventure but rather a sporadic debate on the craftsmanship and execution of the art of fiction (which may, in part, account for its almost total neglect by critics and its status as one of Conrad's least admired works).29 True, the potboiler plot affords little in terms of entertainment, but this is largely due to Conrad's fragmentation of the coarse and crude story within the story as a counterpoint to the immaculately-polished and scrupulously designed prose format endorsed by the specious writer/narrator. In “The Partner,” Conrad implies that realistic fiction is a contradiction in terms. At the conclusion, the narrator (who represents the conventional reader craving definitive interpretation) rejects the stevedore's story as unworthy of transformation into a neat fictional pattern. Thus, the inconclusive ending of “The Partner” undermines the ideal of artistic integrity based on symmetrical patterns.

“The Inn of the Two Witches” (previously published in 1913 in both Pall Mall Magazine and Metropolitan Magazine) has been universally damned as a shameless potboiler,30 even by Conrad himself.31 Critics of this anecdotal tale have documented Conrad's probable debt to Wilkie Collins's “A Terribly Strange Bed”32 and have commented on the ironic use of the framing narrator to undercut the melodramatic excesses of the interior narrator.33 Sixty-year-old Edgar Byrne narrates the harrowing story of how he almost met the same ghastly fate as his friend Cuba Tom in his youth. After landing on the Spanish coast and negotiating for a guide at the village wineshop, Byrne sends Tom into the interior, disregarding the warning of a cloaked man with a yellow hat who claims that the guide and shopkeeper are thieves. Initially, Byrne dismisses the warning and returns to his sloop, but he later attempts to overtake Tom and the unscrupulous guide, eventually reaching an inn where Tom had lodged the previous night. Byrne agrees to sleep at the inn, despite the peculiar behavior of the two elderly women (the “witches” of the title) who manage the inn. A fascinating “gipsy girl” shows him to “the archbishop's room” where Byrne spends a terrifying night, haunted by the spectral voice of Tom issuing a warning. Byrne breaks open a locked wardrobe to find Tom's corpse inside. He carries Tom's lifeless body to the bed and later observes the heavy canopy slowly descend upon the mattress. This solves the mystery of Tom's death, but it also disorders Byrne's mind so that he mistakes the arrival of Gonzales and his soldiers the next morning for a French invasion. Assaulting the soldiers with his bare hands, the deranged Byrne receives a blow to the head that knocks him unconscious. When Byrne regains consciousness, he learns that the two witches and the gypsy girl have been executed for setting “that infernal machine” into motion so they could acquire the coat buttons on the uniforms of Tom and Byrne. Despite the melodramatic content of the tale in general, it is of some interest for its elaborate framing introduction and its final image of the cloaked man (with the yellow hat) astride his donkey, which may reflect Conrad's self-mocking commentary on his potboiler plot.

The plot of “Because of the Dollars” (published in Metropolitan Magazine, 1914) also resonates with mawkish melodrama.34 Hollis points out Capt. Davidson as “a really good man” to the anonymous narrator (169), who requests more specific details, prompting Hollis to recount an anecdotal story to demonstrate Davidson's good-naturedness. The Davidson episode transpired at a time when the government ordered an exchange of old dollars for new. Davidson's vessel regularly visited isolated outposts, and thus he was charged with the duty of bringing in the old dollars. Unfortunately, Davidson spoke openly of his dollar-laden voyage. At this point Conrad shifts to a flashback two years prior to the exchange of the dollars, when Davidson first discovered that his former acquaintance, Laughing Anne, a reformed “painted woman,” was living with Bamtz, a “reformed loafer.” Since that time, Davidson has made regular stops at Bamtz's settlement to see Anne and her son, Tony. After the flashback, Hollis takes up the narrative again at the point when Fector and two other thugs, Niclaus and a “Frenchman without hands,” plot to steal the dollars from Davidson after taking Bamtz into their confidence. When Davidson arrives at Bamtz's house he finds Anne distracted by her son's illness and the four men talking in a conspiratorial atmosphere. Gradually, Davidson discovers the menace posed by the criminals. Anne discloses that she will warn him with her laughter if they decide to attack under the cover of night. A brief gunfight ensues, and when Davidson realizes that the Frenchman is pursuing Anne to punish her for betraying the criminals, the Captain tries to save her, only to find Anne's skull crushed by a seven-pound weight she had previously helped to fasten onto one of the Frenchman's arms. Taking Tony back to the ship, Davidson plans to let his wife raise Tony, but she immediately becomes suspicious of Tony's origin and her husband's involvement in the whole affair. She accuses Davidson of carrying on a “base intrigue” and eventually deserts him, even after Tony has been sent away “to the White Fathers in Malacca” (210). Now Davidson has become a lonely old man, deprived of wife and foster son.

In “Dollars” [“Because of the Dollars”] Davidson's characteristic “goodness” actually denotes a psychological blind spot, a myopic inability to evaluate the lower depths of the human psyche. His self-reproach hinges on his reluctance to acknowledge evil in his world. And so he ends up as “poor, good Davidson,” unable to prevent harm to those he likes and inadvertently fragmenting his family by doing the good deed of taking in Anne's son. Conrad converts Davidson's trust in his wife's “natural compassion” into a “fatal move.” (It often seems as if no good deed goes unpunished in Conrad's fiction.) As in Victory, in which Davidson also appears, faith and trust in humankind makes individuals vulnerable to annihilation in a deceptive, uncertain world.


Referring to the three narratives in this volume as “Studies in fascination,” Robert Lynd, writing for the Daily News, lauds Conrad's ability to cast a spell, conveying “his sense of life” through elemental forces rather than through his eccentric characters who seem more like victims than active protagonists (Sherry, 252-53). Most of the critical plaudits, naturally, were bestowed on the much-anthologized tale “The Secret Sharer,” but “A Smile of Fortune” and, to a lesser degree, “Freya of the Seven Isles” did receive some critical support. John Masefield, in the Manchester Guardian, even compared “A Smile of Fortune” to Heart of Darkness, viewing both stories as gradual revelations of character (Sherry, 254). He also praised “Freya” as a tragic tale of psychological blindness. An anonymous reviewer in the Spectator celebrated the volume as a sign that Conrad was throwing off the influence of Henry James and returning to the style and subject that established his literary reputation at the end of the nineteenth century (Sherry, 258).

“A Smile of Fortune” (published in London Magazine, 1914) opens with the narrator's rapturous description of the fertile island Mauritius where he hopes to acquire a large cargo of sugar. But he mistakes Alfred Jacobus, an opportunistic ship's chandler, for his brother Ernest, an important merchant. Once he discovers his error, he loses interest in the chandler's importunities, yet he is enticed to visit Alfred's walled garden where his seventeen-year-old daughter, Alice, passes time. Her father lures the young captain to his house in order to sell him a shipment of potatoes. Upon meeting Alice, the narrator becomes obsessed with the girl and haunts her garden daily. Before leaving the port, he finally makes romantic overtures, but her father suddenly arrives after she pushes the narrator away and runs to her room. Jacobus maneuvers him into trading all his money for potatoes. The narrator departs furtively in the night and seeks forgetfulness at sea, but the omnipresent smell of potatoes reminds him of his failure throughout the voyage.

Commentators generally eschew the humorous content of the tale and instead focus on other aspects. They have analyzed the story as a dramatization of Maupassantian moral solitude,35 a psycho-drama pitting the commercial self against the non-commercial self,36 a treatment of the betrayal of love and of the maritime code,37 a psychological critique of the confusion of romantic and business conventions,38 and a cynical assessment of the alliance of sexuality that leads to “unintentional and almost ruinous comedy” (Graver, Conrad's Short Fiction, 158-63). Conrad couches a mock-romance within the context of a mock-commercial cruise and plays one off against the other with absurd results. His narrator blunders into a preposterous cast of caricatures in a sequence of events that defies belief. Conrad exposes his embarrassingly-innocent narrator to ridicule from all sides—on ship, on shore, and, most of all, in the enchanted garden of love. The novella is a tragic farce peppered with absurd incongruities mocking the shallowness of the narrator's romantic yearnings and commercial cravings.

One of Conrad's most anthologized short fictions,39 “The Secret Sharer” (published in Harper's Magazine, 1910) has become a classic tale in the tradition of the psychological double, along with Poe's “William Wilson,” Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dostoevsky's The Double, and Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. It is also an initiation tale, for the narrator is a young captain who views his first command as an opportunity to define his own identity by discovering his hidden potential. This endeavor is seemingly interrupted by the arrival of Leggatt, a fugitive whom the captain harbors secretly on his ship because of his strong sense of kinship with a man who may have been wrongly accused of murder. As the Captain's bonding with Leggatt progresses, he violates maritime law and even comes close to running his ship aground in the effort to give his alter ego a chance to swim to freedom. The sighting on the surface of the water of his own floppy hat (which he had put on Leggatt's head just before the fugitive departed) gives the Captain the information he needs to navigate his ship to safety. At the close he feels at one with his command for the first time.

Contemporary criticism of “The Secret Sharer” has polarized into mutually exclusive viewpoints, with many commentators seeing Leggatt, “the secret self,” as an agent of the narrator's initiation into the rites of passage of mature self-command,40 and other critics stressing the narrator's delusive egoism, which prompts him to risk the welfare of his ship to insure Leggatt's safe departure.41 Psychologically oriented critics, most particularly, have had a field day with Conrad's use of the doppelganger motif and his portrayal of the self as unknown and potentially unknowable. The tale capitalizes on the late-Victorian fascination with “the other self,” “the better self,” “the higher self,” as the narrator strives to measure up to his ideal conception of his role as captain while dealing with Leggatt in a humanitarian manner. Though Leggatt swims to freedom and the narrator apparently attains a sense of unity with his ship and crew, Conrad's story engenders disturbing doubts about the justification of the narrator's actions.

“Freya of the Seven Isles” (published in 1912 in both Metropolitan and London Magazine) concerns the title character's romantic relationship with Jasper Allen, an alliance that earns the disapproval of her father, “old Nelson (or Neilsen),” a retired Dutch trader. In particular, Freya dotes on Jasper's feats of daring-do on his brig, the Bonito. The love affair takes a bad turn when Freya rejects the attentions of Heemskirk, a Dutch lieutenant who takes revenge on his rival by smashing the Bonito on the rocks, driving Allen insane. After Freya dies of pneumonia, old Nelson, in a closing conversation keeps insisting that Freya was too “sensible” to have really loved Allen. Yet the narrator views Freya as “vanquished in her struggle with three men's absurdities” (238). When he finally tells Nelson that she died for love, the self-deluded old man can only sob in despair, “And I thought that she was so sensible” (238).


The four stories published in this posthumous collection merit little attention other than to briefly sketch out the plot of each tale. Composed at various points in Conrad's career, they do not reveal his artistry at its zenith but tend to indulge in sentimental excesses that Conrad in his prime would likely have scorned. “The Tale” (appeared in Strand Magazine, 1917), undoubtedly the most interesting story in this slim collection, concerns a British ship whose commander discovers that a tanker has been supplying enemy submarines near the coast. When he encounters a Northman who captains a neutral ship and claims to have become lost in the fog, the British officer begins to suspect that the Northman is a war profiteer. He orders the Northman to leave the cove, even though the fog has not lifted. By giving his counterpart a false set of bearings, the British officer tests the Northman. If the neutral ship avoids the rocks and makes its way to freedom, the officer will have the Northman hunted down. But the ship sinks, and the officer is haunted by his decision, for he does not know whether he has committed murder or exacted a form of retribution. Conrad's epilogue concludes on a strong note of moral indeterminacy, yet it is tarnished by the woman's stock sentimental response.42

A tale of endured suffering, “Prince Roman”43 (originally published in Oxford and Cambridge Review, 1911, and reprinted in Metropolitan in 1912 as “The Aristocrat”) is chiefly interesting to Conrad's biographers and sheds light on his Polish background in its dramatization of a man who had to eat dog to survive. Yet it has at least one note of irony embedded in its sentimentality. For although the Prince returns from exile to become a valuable member of his community, his daughter and son-in-law consider him a “poor judge of men”: “They think that I let myself be guided too much by mere sentiment” (55).

“The Warrior's Soul” (appeared in Land and Water, 1917) is set during Napoleon's disastrous retreat from Moscow and is told to some young men by an elderly Russian officer. While serving on duty in Paris, Tomassov falls in love with a woman who learns that the French intend to arrest the Russian delegation. She asks her lover, a French officer named De Castel, to warn Tomassov to escape while he can. Later, on a Russian battlefield, Tomassov faces a terrible dilemma, for the man to whom he has expressed eternal gratitude lies bloody and disgraced. De Castel demands that Tomassov obey the order to shoot him. After initially refusing, Tomassov kills De Castel when the latter accuses him of cowardice. (Tomassov is later reprimanded for shooting an unarmed prisoner and resigns his command to go back to the hinterlands of his province.) The closing scene unfolds as a poignant but pathetic tableau as Tomassov silently meditates over the body of De Castel, whom he has killed as a way of discharging his debt to the French officer. (Ironically, however, though Conrad emphasizes Tomassov's “warrior” soul and his exile after the killing, De Castel is not shot until he calls Tomassov a “milksop.”) This tale is perhaps most significant for inspiring Conrad's revealing statement in a letter to Pinker: “The story I believe is quite sufficiently developed for Mag[azine] Pub[lication]. I'll work on it for book form” (cited in Graver Conrad's Short Fiction, 166). This may only suggest that Conrad was apologizing for the mediocrity of “The Warrior's Soul,” but it may also show that Conrad viewed magazine stories as a quick way to put bread on his table, to be followed by more painstaking artistic editing when assembling the magazine pieces for publication in book form.

“The Black Mate” (a tale from Conrad's literary apprenticeship years yet published in London Magazine in 1908 almost two decades after its original composition) emphasizes deception throughout the narrative and features a surprise ending. Winston Bunter stands out as the new first mate of the Sapphire because of his dark black hair. Captain Johns sees no value in sailors over forty yet believes in the presence of ghosts. Bunter has actually been dyeing his hair black in order to avoid being discharged (as the narrator has learned), but he fears that the Captain will discover his secret. At sea, Bunter hatches a plan to safeguard his position. He first argues with Johns against the existence of ghosts, but a few days later he claims to have fallen off a ladder after encountering a ghost, a traumatic event that has turned his hair white. Johns accepts the story, and Bunter does not have to reveal the truth, now that his hair dye has run out. Ironically, however, Bunter's wife's recent legacy makes his charade unnecessary. Conrad's final glance focuses on Bunter's superstitious Captain, who has “devils on the brain” according to his sister (120). Unfortunately, except for the narrative complications in “The Tale,” these posthumously published stories give little indication of the literary artistry that produced great short fictions such as “Youth,” “Typhoon,” “Karain,” “Il Conde,” “The Secret Sharer,” and “The Lagoon.”


  1. See Norman Sherry, Conrad: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), 101-2. Subsequently page references will be noted parenthetically in the text.

  2. Joseph Conrad, Tales of Unrest, 56. All citations to Conrad's works pertain to the Canterbury Edition of The Complete Works of Joseph Conrad (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1924). Subsequent page references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  3. Lawrence Graver, Conrad's Short Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), 32. Subsequent page numbers will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  4. Mark Wollaeger, Joseph Conrad and the Fictions of Skepticism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 44-45. Subsequent page numbers will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  5. Nevertheless, the story continues to be read as a Conradian battle of the sexes, although Ruth L. Nadelhaft, Joseph Conrad (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1991), has recently argued that the tale can be interpreted not as representing Conrad's fear of and hostility toward women but as a text showing “compassion and empathy” for the confining roles that women have been traditionally forced to play.

  6. See Milton Chaikin, “Zola and Conrad's ‘The Idiots,’” Studies in Philology 52 (1955): 502-7.

  7. Jocelyn Baines details Conrad's familiarity with Flaubert's works in Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960), 145-48, although he does not specifically mention Bouvard et Pecuchet.

  8. A. T. Tolley, “Conrad's Favorite Story,” Studies in Short Fiction 3 (1966): 314-20, observes that “[o]ne of the chief points of the story is the vulnerability of apparently well-established patterns of thought and behavior” (317).

  9. In Conrad: Almayer's Folly to Under Western Eyes (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980), Daniel R. Schwarz affirms that Kayerts and Carlier “can only function within highly organized bureaucratic structures in which individuality has lost its meaning” (26).

  10. The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, ed. Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies, 5 volumes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983-1996), Volume 1: 386-88, 391-94. Subsequent page numbers will appear parenthetically in the text.

  11. Schwarz argues that “the thrust of the tale is to demonstrate that the basic ingredients of human life are the same; that the natives are not inferior beings; and that, despite differences in customs and the level of civilisation, mankind shares basic goals and dreams” (Ibid., 28).

  12. Michael A. Lucas, “Styles in ‘An Outpost of Progress’ and ‘The Lagoon,’” Conradiana 21 (1989): 203-20, argues that Arsat's guilt “points to the futility and insignificance of human endeavor” (216).

  13. Wollaeger states: “‘The Lagoon’ offers no resolution of the question of belief focused in Diamelen's death: is it retribution for the death of Arsat's brother or only a consequence of tropical disease? The narrative simply stops with a perfunctory reference to ‘a world of illusions,’ but neither the narrator nor Conrad decides which world is illusory—Arsat's or the white man's” (40).

  14. For example, Stephen K. Land in his Conrad and the Paradox of Plot (London: Macmillan, 1984) calls Whalley's selfless motives “pure and worthy” and terms his objective “ideal” (100, 101). For Land, the Captain “is a man of unusual ability marked out for destruction for a single misuse of his talent” (102).

  15. Conrad was so exasperated by reviewers who emphasized Captain Whalley's poignancy that he wrote Edward Garnett (December 22, 1902): “Touching, tender noble [sic], moving … Let us spit!” (Karl and Davies, Collected Letters 2: 468; Conrad's ellipses). But many critics find the Captain's actions admirable in general. For example, Stephen K. Land calls Whalley's selfless motives “pure and worthy” and terms his objective “ideal” (100, 101). For Land, the Captain “is a man of unusual ability marked out for destruction for a single misuse of his talent” (102).

  16. The Captain's vitality, according to William T. Moynihan, “Conrad's ‘The End of the Tether’: A New Reading,” Modern Fiction Studies 4 (1958): 173-77, pertains only to physical strength, not spiritual energy; when age and blindness rob Whalley of his strength, he falls—as hollow as Kurtz and without the majesty of Lear (174). Lawrence Graver, “Critical Confusion and Conrad's ‘The End of the Tether,’” Modern Fiction Studies 9 (1963-1964): 390-93, argues that one may admire Whalley's tenacity or sympathize with his predicament, “but that in no way excuses his lapse into duplicity and cowardice, even if such deception had been originally prompted by love” (392). Sanford Pinsker, “‘The End of the Tether’: Conrad's Death of a Sailsman,” Conradiana 3 (1971-1972):74-76, sees Whalley as a sort of Lord Jim in reverse, clinging “to a past that is every bit as romantic as the one to which Jim aspires—and every bit as fatal” (75). Likewise, Edward W. Said, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), contends that “the central tension of the story is the connection of Whalley's increasing blindness to his increasing sense of honor and fidelity; the blinder he becomes, the more he clings to an outmoded code of action” (116). Attributing Whalley's failure to his blind faith in divine providence, Gloria L. Young, “Chance and the Absurd in Conrad's ‘The End of the Tether’ and ‘Freya of the Seven Isles,’” Conradiana 7 (1975); 253-61, views the Captain's death in a larger context: “man's mythologies, having no relevance to reality, betray him”; believing in a divinely ordered world, Whalley actually lives in “a world of flux and chance” (254). Along similar lines, Daniel R. Schwarz, “‘A Lonely Figure Walking Purposefully: The Significance of Captain Whalley in Conrad's ‘The End of the Tether,’” Conradiana 7 (1975); 165-73, contends that “Whalley's hubris is paradoxically in his faith, in his belief that he lives in space imbued with Divine blessing because God endorses his motives and works His will through him” (169); finally, Paul S. Bruss, “‘The End of the Tether’: Teleological Diminishing in Conrad's Early Metaphor of Navigation,” Studies in Short Fiction 13 (1976): 311-20, views the Captain's blindness as “a metaphor for Whalley's, or even Western man's, spiritual decline” (319).

  17. For example, in Conrad's Short Fiction, Lawrence Graver calls “Falk” a “curious” tale that “lacks the suggestiveness of stories like ‘Heart of Darkness’ and ‘The Shadow-Line’ with which it has so much in common” (104).

  18. Stanton de Voren Hoffman, in Comedy and Form in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad (The Hague: Mouton, 1969): 107-13, considers “Falk” a burlesque comedy that “is anti-problem, anti-experience, anti-initiation, the reflection of a strong and frequently unchecked nihilism” (112). See also Daniel R. Schwarz, “The Significance of the Narrator in Conrad's ‘Falk: A Reminiscence,’” Tennessee Studies in Literature 16 (1971): 103-10; Joel R. Kehler, “The Centrality of the Narrator in Conrad's ‘Falk,’” Conradiana 6, 1 (1974): 19-30; Deirdre David, “Selfhood and Language in ‘The Return’ and ‘Falk,’” Conradiana 8, 2 (1974): 137-47; and William W. Bonney's Thorns and Arabesques (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1980): 19-21.

  19. David, Bonney, Kehler, and Schwarz emphasize the tension between civilization and atavism, but Bonney goes a step farther in contending that Falk never really transcends civilization, and therefore the narrator's optimistic conclusion is ironic (19).

  20. In addition to David, Webster, Bonney, and Kehler, see also Bruce M. Johnson, Conrad's Models of Mind (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971), 52-53, 130-35; Paul Kirschner's Conrad: The Psychologist as Artist (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1968), 267-69; and Tony Tanner's “‘Gnawed Bones’ and ‘Artless Tales’—Eating and Narrative in Conrad,” in Joseph Conrad: A Commemoration, ed. Norman Sherry (London: Macmillan, 1976), 17-36. All of the above discuss “Falk” as a dramatization of Schopenhauer's will to live.

  21. Graver rightly states that “the final pages of ‘To-morrow,’ in which Conrad tries to convince the reader of [Bessie's] misery, are among the most discomforting examples of his ‘adjectival insistence’” (Conrad's Short Fiction, 111).

  22. Graver notes that “for the first time since ‘An Outpost of Progress,’ Conrad uses something like the surprise ending of Maupassant. The result, however, is not sudden, or shocking, or in any way revelatory, but only crudely sentimental. Instead of providing his story with ‘a sting in its tail,’ Conrad ends with a gentle touch of benevolence, asking the reader to believe that Gaspar's great force lives in the simple yet awesome presence of his daughter” (Ibid., 128).

  23. See Diana Culbertson, “‘The Informer’ as Conrad's Little Joke,” Studies in Short Fiction 2.4 (Fall 1974): 430-33.

  24. The historical source for Mr. X's anecdote stems from Ford Madox Ford's story of the Rossetti's family's involvement with anarchist publications. (See Frederick R. Karl, Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives [New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979], 588).

  25. As in The Secret Agent, Conrad reverses the solidarity of the fellowship of the sea in his portrayal of the anarchist “cell.” Without work and faith, the anarchists have nothing to make them loyal to one another. (I am endebted to Debra Romanick for this insight.)

  26. In his pioneering essay, “Adam, Axel, and ‘Il Conde,’” Modern Fiction Studies 1 (1955): 22-25, John Howard Wills discusses the story as a dual allegory of the “Fall or Expulsion from Eden” and “the Ivory Tower myth of the fin de siècle.” Wills affirms that the Count falls from innocence to experience, radically estranged from his illusory life of painless amusement, when forced to confront the “animality” of existence. John V. Hagopian, “The Pathos of ‘Il Conde,’” Studies in Short Fiction 3 (1965): 31-38, disputes Wills's allegorical reading in favor of a view of the Count as “only an upper class J. Alfred Prufrock” who becomes “a pathetic victim” when assaulted by the vigor and vitality he dreads (33). He also emphasizes the narrator's role in providing “an ironic commentary on the decay of the aristocracy and the vulnerability of innocence” (32). Lawrence Graver endorses Hagopian's argument, branding the story as “one of the most artful of Conrad's potboilers” (Conrad's Short Fiction 144). Taking Hagopian's emphasis on the narrator one step farther, Daniel R. Schwarz, “The Self-Deceiving Narrator of Conrad's ‘II Conde,’” Studies in Short Fiction 6 (1969): 187-93, questions the objectivity of the teller of the tale, who empathizes with the Count, with whom he has much in common. According to Schwarz, the narrator is narrow, limited, and even imperceptive (187-88). Like the Count, the narrator is an “overcivilized aesthete” haunted by “repressed instincts and passions” (Schwarz, 190). Moreover, the Camorra who robs the Count and terrorizes him into fleeing Naples objectifies the suppressed self beneath the veneer of cultivated values (Schwarz 191). But the “unreliable narrator,” Schwarz contends, never recognizes the Camorra as the Count's alter-ego, nor does he realize that he and the Count are secret sharers of the same conventional sensibility (193). Along similar lines, Ernest Carter, “Classical Allusion as the Clue to Meaning in Conrad's ‘Il Conde,’” Conradiana 3 (1971-72); 55-62, argues that Conrad's story dramatizes the Count's “self-judgment and self-punishment.” Carter believes that Conrad foreshadows the Count's meeting with the Camorra in the opening scene in which the narrator and the Count admire the statue of the Resting Hermes. (The ancient Greek god's association with thievery and music has ironic repercussions in the robbery scene near the concert, where the Count loses his illusory contentment and discovers his invalid existence.) Finally, in two essays published in the same issue of Conradiana 7 (1975), Douglas A. Hughes, “Conrad's ‘Il Conde’: A Deucedly Queer Story,” 17-25, and Theo Steinman, “Il Conde's Uncensored Story,” 83-86, analyze the Count's version of the robbery as a distortion of the truth, fabricated by the self-censoring Count to conceal his homosexual involvement with the Camorra.

  27. Bruce M. Johnson, Conrad's Models of Mind, 177-204, deals with the story in relation to Victory and The Rescue. Joel R. Kehler, “‘The Planter of Malata’: Renouard's Sinking Star of Knowledge,” Conradiana 8 (1976): 148-62, views “Planter” as a quasi-allegorical quest for knowledge in a world in which truth is unattainable. Owen Knowles, “Conrad and Merimee: The Legend of Venus in ‘The Planter of Malata,’” Conradiana 11 (1979); 177-84, denigrates the tale as an interesting and problematical failure, yet he demonstrates the influence of Merimee and also documents the parallel scenario of an unwritten play, The Predecessor, concocted by Conrad's would-be collaborator, Stephen Crane. In contrast to the above, Juliet McLauchlan, “Conrad's Heart of Emptiness: ‘The Planter of Malata,’” Conradiana 18 (1986); 180-92, does discuss the novella on its own terms, as she attempts to rehabilitate its lackluster reputation as a miniature version of Victory. But she ignores the comic dimensions of the story in her effort to invest Renouard's and Felicia's shallowness and the planter's illusory enchantment with greater meaning than the text warrants.

  28. Bernard C. Meyer, Joseph Conrad: A Psychoanalytic Biography (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967), is correct in terming characters such as Renouard “two-dimensional caricatures resembling personages in fairy tales of characters in a morality play” (233).

  29. Frederick R. Karl, Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives, refers to Conrad's “The Partner” as “one of his worst” stories and notes that the early 10,000-word tale was composed in a relatively quick ten days (691).

  30. Graver, for example, calls the story one of Conrad's “least demanding works,” one of his “simple pieces of no narrative complexity” (Conrad's Short Fiction, 94). He also refers to the tale derisively as a “dismal fabrication” (198). Zdzislaw Najder, in Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1983), terms it “probably the most trivial of [Conrad's] short stories” (383). And Karl, “one of his worst stories” (726).

  31. Jessie Conrad, Joseph Conrad as I Knew Him (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1926), lumps “The Inn of the Two Witches” with “stories Conrad could never find a good word for” (119).

  32. See Paul Franklin Baum, “A Source,” Modern Language Notes 33 (1918): 312-14.

  33. Barbara H. Solomon, “Conrad's Narrative Material in ‘The Inn of the Two Witches,’” Conradiana 7 (1975): 75-82. Solomon concludes that Conrad adapted his source material to his characteristic manner in order to (1) depict a “strained mental state” caused by an event rather than focussing on the event itself; (2) distance the reader from the story and its internal narrator; and (3) ironically subvert the testimony of the internal narrator by means of the framing narrator's detached commentary (80-81).

  34. He even converted “Because of the Dollars” into a two-act play entitled Laughing Anne, in the hope of exploiting its high-strung emotionality.

  35. Paul Kirschner, “Conrad and Maupassant: Moral Solitude and ‘A Smile of Fortune,’” Review of English Literature 8.3 (1966): 62-77.

  36. William Lafferty, “Conrad's ‘A Smile of Fortune’: The Moral Threat of Commerce,” Conradiana 7.1 (1975): 63-74.

  37. Jerome Zuckerman, “‘A Smile of Fortune’: Conrad's Interesting Failure,” Studies in Short Fiction 1.2 (1964): 99-102.

  38. See William W. Bonney, Thorns & Arabesques: Contexts for Conrad's Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 71-77.

  39. In a letter to Edward Garnett (November 5, 1912), Conrad acknowledged that “Freya is pretty rotten. On the other hand the Secret Sharer, between you and me, is it. Eh? No damned tricks with girls there. Eh? Every word fits and there's not a single uncertain note. Luck my boy. Pure luck.” Letters from Joseph Conrad, 1895-1924, ed. Edward Garnett (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1928), 243.

  40. See, in particular, Carl Benson, “Conrad's Two Stories of Initiation,” PMLA 69 (1954): 46-56; Louis H. Leiter, “Echo Structures: Conrad's ‘The Secret Sharer,’” Twentieth Century Literature 5.4 (1960): 159-75; Charles G. Hoffmann, “Point of View in ‘The Secret Sharer,’” College English 23.8 (1962): 651-45; Robert A. Day, “The Rebirth of Leggatt,” Literature and Psychology 13.3 (1963): 74-81; Daniel Curley, “The Writer and the Use of Material: The Case of ‘The Secret Sharer,’” Modern Fiction Studies 13.2 (1967): 179-94; Gloria R. Dussinger, “‘The Secret Sharer’: Conrad's Psychological Study,” Texas Studies in Language and Literature 10.4 (1969): 559-608; Mary-Lou Schenck, “Seamanship in Conrad's ‘The Secret Sharer,’” Criticism 15.1 (1973): 1-15; Terry Otten, “The Fall and After in ‘The Secret Sharer,’” Southern Humanities Review 12.3 (1978): 221-30; Joan E. Steiner, “Conrad's ‘The Secret Sharer’: Complexities of the Doubling Relationship,” Conradiana 12.3 (1980): 173-86.

  41. See, for example, Porter Williams, Jr., “The Matter of Conscience in Conrad's ‘The Secret Sharer,’” PMLA 79.5 (1964): 626-30; J. D. O'Hara, “Unlearned Lessons in ‘The Secret Sharer,’” College English 26.6 (1965): 444-50; Robert D. Wyatt, “Joseph Conrad's ‘The Secret Sharer’: Point of View and Mistaken Identities,” Conradiana 5.1 (1973): 12-26; H. M. Daleski, “‘The Secret Sharer’: Questions of Command,” Critical Quarterly 17.1 (1975): 268-79; Frank B. Evans, “The Nautical Metaphor in ‘The Secret Sharer,’” Conradiana 7.1 (1975): 3-16; and David Eggenschwiler, “Narcissus in ‘The Secret Sharer’: A Secondary Point of View,” Conradiana 11.1 (1979): 23-40.

  42. The narrator admits that even though he gave the Northman the wrong course as a test to see whether he was telling the truth, “‘it proves nothing. … I believe—no, I don't believe. I don't know. At the time I was certain. … I don't know whether I have done stern retribution—or murder; … I don't know. I shall never know’” (80). But this ironic realization is partly muted when the woman throws her arms around the narrator's neck: “She knew his passion for truth” (81). Conrad's final paragraph partly regains the intensity of incertitude: “‘I shall never know,’ he repeated, sternly, disengaged himself, pressed her hands to his lips, and went out” (81). For an extended treatment of “The Tale” as a dramatization of epistemological uncertainty, see Jakob Lothe, 72-86. Lothe relates the narrative complexity of the text and the emphasis on incertitude in the ending to Conrad's pervasive skepticism, yet argues that these elements contribute to the creation of “a modernist text offering conflicting interpretive possibilities” (86).

  43. Zdzislaw Najder, Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1983), notes that “Prince Roman” derives from the memoirs of Thaddeus Bobrowski, Conrad's uncle, and that Pinker, Conrad's agent, had trouble placing it with a literary magazine (366-67).

Celia M. Kingsbury (essay date spring 2000)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4942

SOURCE: Kingsbury, Celia M. “‘The Novelty of Real Feelings’: Restraint and Duty in Conrad's ‘The Return.’” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 32, no. 1 (spring 2000): 31-40.

[In the following essay, Kingsbury investigates the role of self-restraint in “The Return.”]

Alvan Hervey, protagonist of Conrad's 1897 story “The Return,” tells his estranged wife that “Self-restraint is everything in life.”1 And in much of Conrad's work, restraint is the key to personal decency and social stability. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow reminds us that Kurtz's lack of restraint functions as a primary factor in his downfall. But restraint itself becomes the key to Hervey's downfall. Crushed when he discovers that his wife of five years has almost left him for a poet and editor with large teeth, a “rank outsider” of “no class at all” (147-48), Hervey thinks only of maintaining appearances, a criticism Marlow levels at the manager who accompanies him on his search for Kurtz. Preserving appearances, Marlow tells us, is “his restraint.”2 Hervey, like the manager and unlike Marlow, misapplies the concept of restraint3 (74). He chooses and marries his wife without emotion because he believes emotion is not appropriate to his status. His wife's pedigree and bearing determine his choice. We are told that he “thought of her as a well-bred girl”(128). Bound by his misinterpretation of restraint, Hervey cannot go beyond public understanding of love. In his description of Hervey's courtship and marriage, Conrad carefully avoids any mention of “real feelings.” Hervey “declare[s] himself in love” (120) because “it is very well understood that every man falls in love once in his life” (119) and he always does what is expected. At no time does he express warmth for “the girl,” who is never named. Love is a “poetical fiction” (120) not an emotion, a thing to be feared “more than fire, war, or mortal disease” (120).

Written four years before Victoria's death and the ascension of Edward VII to the throne, “The Return” deals with the demise of an upper middle class marriage bound up in the social conventions of the late Victorian period. The subject matter, while unusual for Conrad, still allows us a glimpse of that ubiquitous conflict between truth and lies, between principles and inner strength. And what better place to locate such a conflict than in this bastion of middle class propriety, the Victorian marriage? Caught on the cusp of a social transition, Alvan Hervey's marriage looks backward toward an older era for its foundations, while looking ahead in its thoroughly modern facade—a fashionable West End home and literarily inclined friends. Within four years of “The Return”'s completion, less than a year into the new century, that modern era would be ushered in with Victoria's death, and much of England would express concern about its future. According to his biographer, Leon Edel, Henry James, whom Conrad had met shortly before writing “The Return,” was distressed by the Queen's death. Victoria, he believed, had been a “safe and motherly old middle-class queen” who in her later years “thr[ew] her good fat weight into the scales of general decency.”4 Samuel Hynes also speaks of the sense of anxiety experienced by Victorians at the loss of their Queen. Victoria's reign had been a period of colonial expansion and of economic security, of materialism, which we see in “The Return.” Hynes observes that on the death of Victoria, Edwardians experienced “anxiety and apprehension for what that New Age might bring; deep depression at the late decline of High Victorian idealism.”5 It is that High Victorian idealism, embodied in the institution of marriage, which Conrad examines in “The Return.”

Victorian idealism, located here in Victorian morality, is well known for its hypocrisy. Walter E. Houghton, in a chapter devoted to this question in The Victorian Frame of Mind, considers three factors, “conformity, moral pretension, and evasion,” which he calls “the hallmarks of Victorian hypocrisy.”6 First, the Victorians sought conformity at all costs. Second, they were not as well behaved as they claimed to be, and finally, they refused to see the truth if it did not conform to their ideas of what was correct, or of what should be (394-95). Houghton argues that the Victorians “lived in a period of much higher standards of conduct—too high for human nature. As men were required to … accept the moral ideals of earnestness, enthusiasm, and sexual purity, the gap between profession and practice, or between profession and the genuine character, widened to an unusual extent” (404-05). Earnestness, enthusiasm, to an appropriate degree, and sexual purity are all ideals which Alvan Hervey accepts, and thus the gap between profession and character, or in his case, perhaps the overlap of the two, becomes crucial to the story's outcome. In his depiction of Hervey, his pretensions, pomposities, and hypocrisies, Conrad exposes the failures of Victorian morality, and in doing so, looks ahead to the turbulence of the Edwardian age which culminates in the apocalypse of the Great War.

Often neglected among Conrad's stories, “The Return” still receives some notice, if only in reference to its divergence from much of Conrad's other work, or in reference to its shortcomings.7 The story is almost Jamesian, perhaps a reflection of their recent meeting, and it does venture into an area not entirely familiar to Conrad, that is the middle class suburb and its domestic accouterments. Zdzisław Najder points out that Garnett most likely suggested the idea for the story,8 but the distaste for bourgeois morality and materialism reflected in the story is purely Conrad's. Conrad wrote of the story repeatedly in letters to Garnett. Almost all reveal Conrad's frustration with the story, but many also reveal at least some of Conrad's intentions in creating a character like Alvan Hervey. “My dear fellow what I aimed at,” Conrad writes Garnett on September 29, 1897, “was just to produce the effect of cold water in every one of my man's speeches. … I wanted to produce the effect of insincerity, or artificiality. … I wanted the reader to see him think and then to hear him speak—and shudder.”9 Later writing to Garnett about the possibility of Chapman & Hall publishing “The Return” at Christmastime, Conrad jokes in parentheses, “I nearly fell off my chair in a fit of laughter. Can't you imagine the story read by the domestic hearthstone in the season of festivity?”10 While Meyer and Moser argue that “The Return” reflects Conrad's problems with relationships, perhaps his own sexual dysfunction,11 rather than the desire to debunk bourgeois conventions which he expresses in his letters, the story itself suggests otherwise, as we shall see.

Aside from its content, “The Return” is also faulted at times for its craftsmanship. Conrad himself expressed mixed feelings about it, some perhaps defensive. In a letter to Unwin about its publication in Tales of Unrest, Conrad says, ““The Return” is not a tale for puppy dogs nor for maids of thirteen. I am not in the least ashamed of it.”12 One of the problematic elements of the story is its tone, which Ted Billy, in his analysis of “The Return,” calls in places, “corrosive satire,” and other critics refer to as simply irony.13 But as Billy aptly points out, the tone is not consistently satirical, especially at the story's conclusion (180). And yet “The Return” has much to offer. While Conrad might have been out of his element in his portrayal of the Herveys, he did understand the concepts of duty and restraint and the adverse effects blind reliance on them can produce.

In the Author's Note written for Tales of Unrest, Conrad expresses his doubts about “The Return.” Writing long after the defensive letter to Unwin, he calls the story a “left-handed production,” (x) and goes on to describe being seized by a “material impression” when rereading the story, an impression of sitting in the rain under a “large and expensive umbrella. … In the general uproar,” he explains, “one could hear every individual drop strike on the stout and distended silk” (x). Conrad did not intend this remark to be read as praise for “The Return,” and in the context of his other work, perhaps it isn't. We do not relish being pelted with rain which literally falls in this story as a deadening mist, a more typical Conradian touch. But with each one of “The Return’s” worrisome splats, we are forced into Hervey's umbrellaed world in a way which compels us to see what we might ordinarily miss. In his Author's Note, Conrad reveals an important element involved in the way the story works—that is its impressionism. “The story consists for the most part,” he says, “of physical impressions; impressions of sound and sight, railway station, streets, … reflections in mirrors and so on, rendered as if for their own sake and combined with a sublimated description of a desirable middle- class town-residence which somehow manages to produce a sinister effect” (x). This is not the Conrad of “seas and continents and islands,”14 but “The Return,” through these impressions, and through its biting tone, conveys to us the dark side of restraint, the problem of relying solely on the opinions of others, and the hazards of sublimating “real feelings.” The physical impressions may indeed be rendered for their own sake because they constitute the reality of Alvan Hervey's life. Here, style and theme overlap; Hervey's superficiality is what we are to see and fear, to shudder at.

Two of these physical impressions, set against the description of the Hervey's London neighborhood and their suburban home, form the locus of the story. The first, in the train station, locates Hervey in the new world of middle class commuters. When he emerges from the fashionable West-End station, Hervey emerges with a horde of other men, identically dressed, “almost as if they had been wearing a uniform” (118). They are. This is the impeccably tailored uniform of the proper gentleman. Hervey, and they are all Herveys, mirror-images of him, would no sooner violate this dress code than he would dance on the pavement in the rain. But these men are alike in other ways as well. Hervey and his colleagues share the same demeanor, a kind of composed expression of indifference, of emotional objectivity, of separateness. These are men whose “indifferent faces … somehow suggested kinship, like the faces of a band of brothers who through prudence, dignity, disgust, or foresight would resolutely ignore each other …” (118). Alone in their conventionality, they wear “the same stare, concentrated and empty, satisfied and unthinking” (119). While he may ignore the presence of the others on the train, each man is well aware of the social force implied in the daily ritual of dressing, speaking, eating, and working in tandem, of being part of a herd. In his description of the men as they disperse, Conrad continues to rely on images of superficiality, located this time in motion which almost calls to mind the movement of insects. Emerging into the street, the men “scattered in all directions, walking away fast from one another with the hurried air of men fleeing from something compromising; from familiarity or confidences; from something suspected and concealed—like truth or pestilence” (119). Foreshadowing Hervey's desire to conceal the truth of his wife's betrayal, this passage also reveals Conrad's lack of respect for Hervey's superficiality, for what Ted Billy calls his “status in the workaday world” (178).

But Hervey's conventionality and Conrad's ridicule do not stop after Hervey separates from the pack. As he walks to his newly-built home, among other newly-built homes, the neighborhood itself becomes a reflection of his superficiality, of his restricted existence. Even the trees which line the streets are “tame-looking” and grow in “respectable captivity behind iron railings” (123). At home in his beautifully appointed residence, Hervey steps into the dressing room which is lined with mirrors. Here, in the second of the defining physical images Conrad lays before us, all the repetitions we see are literally Hervey. The mirrors, mounted on wardrobe doors and at his wife's dressing table, “multipl[y] his image into a crowd of gentlemanly and slavish imitators, who [are] dressed exactly like himself; [have] the same restrained and rare gestures … and [have] just such appearances of life and feeling as he thought it dignified and safe for any man to manifest” (124). Just like the men who ride the commuter train with Hervey, his own mirror images betray no emotion, no recognition; they exemplify restraint. And because the mirrors reflect at various angles, Hervey's doubles are fragmented versions of himself, at least as it appears on the surface. Hervey is in a “convincing illusion of a room” (125), a carnival fun-house which is about to become a house of horrors. When he reads the farewell letter his wife has left on her dressing table, all the images reflect “wild eyes” which he feels are spying on his “pain and his humiliation” (129). These are the self-appointed enforcers of Hervey's moral code who allow no room for folly or for emotion. Because his wife's actions cannot be explained by logic, Hervey cannot fit them, as he cannot fit the initial sight of the unexplained envelope, into his scheme of things.

Hervey's first “emotion” is anger at losing something that had “been so much his property” (135). His actions, stamping his feet and tearing the letter into tiny pieces, suggest a childlike response to loss, but his anger immediately turns ugly. Unable to cry because men do not cry, Hervey realizes that not only do foreign men cry, they resort to murder, which under the circumstances may be condoned in other societies. Violence is perfectly justified, Hervey believes, if only it were a part of social convention. But English law does not permit outraged husbands to murder their wives, and Hervey finally wishes that his wife had simply died. Appropriate responses to death are included in his moral code and he longs for the comfort of those carefully orchestrated feelings, he longs for his old life, “that sane and gratifying existence untroubled by too much love or by too much regret” (129). The intrusive letter has made this life impossible. Hervey's rage, which continues to grow, reveals the danger of living as he does, a life of unquestioned restraint, of living according to “the gospel of the beastly bourgeois.”15 Remembering his earlier walk home, Hervey wonders about the lives of other people, his Doppelgängers, who live behind the walls of the other houses in his neighborhood. The middle-class residence, which should be a source of comfort and safety, becomes now a place of walls which may be hiding “abominations—meditated crimes” (135). The residence, its “closed doors and curtained windows,” (135) becomes emblematic of Victorian hypocrisy, the location of all the evils which cannot be spoken of in public. Hervey thinks with horror of the “grim, impenetrable silence of miles of walls concealing passions, misery, thoughts of crime” (136, italics mine).16

Conrad continues, once Mrs. Hervey returns, to link the closed Victorian dwelling to violence and concealment, and to Hervey's search for comfort in the complicity of his “band of brothers.” Still in the mirrored dressing room, Hervey advances toward his wife, and while he does not openly admit that he may have very nearly killed her, he understands that the “violence of the short tumult within him had been such as could well have shattered all creation” (145). Again the house and all the other identical houses on his block immediately become connected with his action. Hervey has come within a hair's breadth of murder and nothing in the physical world has changed, the house “had not fallen. And right and left all the innumerable dwellings, standing shoulder to shoulder, had resisted the shock of his passion, had presented, unmoved, to the loneliness of his trouble, the grim silence of walls, the impenetrable and polished discretion of closed doors and curtained windows” (145, italics mine). Functioning in the same way as the mirrored images of Hervey himself, the houses ultimately condemn him with their unforgiving rigidity. The houses, like the iron railings that hold the trees in captivity, become prisons, even for one who sees himself as a “severe guardian of formulas” (156). Conrad finally ties together the mirror images of Hervey and the houses which mirror the Herveys' as Hervey continues to admonish his wife. He gestures and

three exact replicas of his face, of his clothes, of his dull severity, of his solemn grief, repeated the wide gesture that in its comprehensive sweep indicated an infinity of moral sweetness, embraced the walls, the hangings, the whole house, all the crowd of houses outside, all the flimsy and inscrutable graves of the living, with their doors numbered like the doors of prison-cells, and as impenetrable as the granite of tombstones.

(156, italics mine)

The irony of this passage is lost on Hervey, and here perhaps we see one of Conrad's lapses in tone, but the connection between Hervey, the crowd on the train, and the multitude of houses becomes clear. All are inextricably bound by Victorian convention and by Victorian hypocrisy.

Images of the house as a tombstone or prison among many tombstones or prisons, both of men and the truth, continue as the Herveys descend to the dining room in a charade to keep the servants from suspecting anything wrong. In one of the story's most satiric moments, Hervey congratulates himself on his decision to go through with dinner. “It seemed to him necessary,” he explains, “that deception should begin at home” (170). Once again the idea of secrecy is “discreet like a grave,” and the walls are “faithful walls that would stand forever between the shamelessness of facts and the indignation of mankind” (170). But even when the servants leave the room, Hervey continues his deception for the walls themselves. Unwilling to betray himself to the very room they dine in, which, like his reflections and the neighborhood, has become an antagonist, he “remain[s] carefully natural, industriously hungry, … as though he had wanted to cheat the black oak sideboard, the heavy curtains, the stiff-backed chairs into the belief of an unstained happiness” (170).

In this dinner scene, which seems to Hervey, and perhaps to the reader, to go on forever, are echoes of later fiction, including that of Conrad's collaborator, Ford Madox Ford. In Ford's The Good Soldier, narrator John Dowell, while much less judgmental, reflects Hervey's love of convention. But Dowell views the world with the late Edwardian's cynicism even though, like Hervey, he might wish to see the world as a place of clearly defined values. In Dowell's world, deception most certainly begins at home and the structure of this deception becomes painfully apparent at the dinner table. The Ashburnhams and the Dowells dine together for nine seasons at Nauheim and never once reveal the nature of the entangled relationships which exist, or don't exist, behind locked bedroom doors. But one of the crucial scenes of the novel also occurs at the dinner table. John Dowell learns one evening that Nancy Rufford, whom he wants to marry, is leaving the next day for India to be with her father. What Dowell does not know is that Nancy is being shipped off to thwart an affair with Teddy Ashburnham. Teddy, who is madly and inappropriately in love with Nancy, at this news, “went on eating his pheasant.” Dowell wonders why he has not been warned of this eventuality, but believes that it “was only English manners—some sort of delicacy that I had not got the hang of.”17 In both “The Return” and The Good Soldier, the dinner table serves, like the rows of uniform houses, to illustrate the ultimate sacrifice ill-placed restraint demands. John Dowell wonders if, instead of behaving so impeccably, “it would have been better in the eyes of God if they had all attempted to gouge out each other's eyes with carving knives. But they were ‘good people’” (270). Such violence does occur to Alvan Hervey, as we have seen, but the conventions of “good people,” not a concern for human suffering, demand his restraint. In Hervey's mind, human suffering only belongs to “the ignoble herd that feels, suffers, fails, errs—but has no distinct value in the world except as a moral contrast to the prosperity of the elect” (171).

Combining physical impressions with this kind of satirical tone does produce a sinister effect. Living in “the perfect security, as of an invincible ignorance” (152-53), Hervey does not evoke our sympathy. At every step, his reliance on the rules condemns him, and while we understand his condemnation, he never does. Hervey chooses his wife because she is “well connected, well educated and intelligent” (119-20). In another moment of irony, we are told that among her other “charms,” Hervey's intended “had not a thought of her own in her head” (120). But this is a mistake on Hervey's part, because he also knows that she is bored in her parents' home where she cannot exercise her “individuality” (120). During the five years of their marriage, Hervey thinks her philanthropical work exercises that individuality, but the poet/editor finds a void in her personality which his attention fills. Longing for affection which Hervey cannot and does not wish to offer, Mrs. Hervey bolts, at least temporarily. Her sense of duty to her husband finally renders her unable to carry out the elopement and compels her to permanently abandon her needs and her individuality which Hervey now rejects.

Among critics who compare “The Return” with the later World War I story, “The Tale,” Jeremy Hawthorn also places part of the blame for Mrs. Hervey's defection on her husband's lack of emotion,18 as does Ruth Nadelhaft in her feminist analysis of the story. When his wife returns home, Hervey self-righteously asks her, “Did you want me to write absurd verses; to sit and look at you for hours—to talk to you about your soul? You ought to have known I wasn't that sort. … I had something better to do” (148). Each has disastrously mistaken the other's intentions because their moral code does not allow for the “novelty of real feelings, … that know nothing of creed, class, or education” (131). While Hervey deplores the possibility that he will never know his wife's intentions again because her life has now become one of lies (172), in his outrage at her behavior, he celebrates the lie repeatedly. Before his wife returns, Hervey looks toward lies to “sustain life, to make it supportable, to make it fair” (134). Marlow, who knows the difference between restraint based on inner strength and restraint based on principles alone, detests lies, believes that “[t]here is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies” (82). Hervey, on the other hand equates failing to conform with death. “If you don't conform to the highest standards,” he tells his wife, “you are no one—it's a kind of death” (157). When his wife fails to conform, to live the lie, their marriage does in fact die. Hervey's neurosis, a word Hawthorn also uses (265), grows out of this conflict between the public persona and the private self. Because Hervey's world is one of surfaces without depth, his public persona has become his private self, profession and character have become one. Hervey's surface becomes fragmented, as we see in the mirrored dressing room, and since his surface is his substance, he cannot cope. Like Marlow who understands that “principles [alone] won't do,” Hervey does learn that “morality is not a method of happiness” (183). Lacking Marlow's inner strength, however, Hervey is shattered by this revelation.19 Seeing himself as “an exiled forlorn figure in a realm of ungovernable, of unrestrained folly,” where “[n]othing could be foreseen, foretold—guarded against,” (159-60) Hervey leaves the room, and his wife, never to return.

Not a story for puppy dogs, the subtlety, the beauty of “The Return” lies in the juxtaposition of bland surface impressions and biting irony. On the surface, “The Return” may appear to turn Conradian values, that is the respect for restraint and duty, upside down, in its irony to ridicule them, but what Conrad actually ridicules here is excess and invincible ignorance. Alvan Hervey is no Kurtz, at least not yet, but he is no Marlow either. Hervey embodies the worst of an age, the worst of a culture which Conrad saw clearly. Through Hervey's blindness and inflexibility, Conrad shows us the real danger of middle-class conformity—his stated goal in writing “The Return.” Hervey is to be for us, perhaps, another kind of horror.


  1. Joseph Conrad, “The Return,” Tales of Unrest (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1923), 155. All further quotations from the story are cited in the text.

  2. Joseph Conrad, “Heart of Darkness,” Youth (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1923), 106. Further references to the story are cited in the text.

  3. Ruth Nadelhaft calls Hervey's comments on self-restraint “almost a parody of Marlow's commitment to ‘restraint’ and ‘work’ as the means of staving off anxiety and capitulation in the face of an indifferent universe” (Joseph Conrad [Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1991], 74).

  4. Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1985), 540, 539.

  5. Samuel Hynes, The Edwardian Turn of Mind (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), 15-16. All further quotations from Hynes are cited in the text.

  6. Walter E. Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 395. Further references to this book are given in the text.

  7. Leo Gurko, who calls all five of the stories in Tales of Unrest “flabbily mediocre,” is among the harshest critics of “The Return” in Joseph Conrad: Giant in Exile (London: Frederick Muller Limited, 1965), 241. Lawrence Graver also looks at the story's shortcomings, its “lifeless dialogue, … unconvincing setting, and tiresome characters,” all of which in his view render the story “extravagantly self-indulgent.” (Conrad's Short Fiction [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969], 36).

    Other brief treatments of “The Return” include those of Dwight Purdy who examines the story in terms of its biblical allusions (Joseph Conrad's Bible [Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984], 64-65), and Edward Said, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966).

  8. Zdzisław Najder, Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle (New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1992), 208. Conrad's reactions against what Ian Watt refers to as “the complacency, insularity,and philistinism of English bourgeois society” (Conrad in the Nineteenth Century [Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979], 23), are well chronicled, although many critics look elsewhere for the focus of “The Return.” John Palmer does not deny the “social irony” in the story, but does maintain that the story's focus is the “Jamesian psycho-moral difficulties of its protagonist” (Joseph Conrad's Fiction: A Study in Literary Growth (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1968), 102.

  9. The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, edited by Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies, 5 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983-96), 1: 387. The italics are Conrad's.

  10. 11 October 1897, Collected Letters, 1: 394.

  11. See Thomas Moser's Joseph Conrad: Achievement and Decline (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957), 71-78, and Bernard Meyer's Joseph Conrad: A Psychoanalytic Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967).

  12. 7 January 1898, Collected Letters, 2: 11.

  13. The quotation is from Ted Billy, A Wilderness of Words: Closure and Disclosure in Conrad's Short Fiction (Lubbock, Texas: Texas Tech University Press, 1997), 149. All further quotations from this book will be cited in the text. Daniel Schwarz calls “The Return” “Conrad's fullest satire of people in the urban wasteland until The Secret Agent” in Conrad: Almayer's Folly to Under Western Eyes (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980), 31. Dale Kramer also considers tone in his examination of “The Return.” He argues that “[i]ts single tone is that of contempt, most frequently conveyed in an ironic manner.” (“Conrad's Experiments with Language and Narrative in ‘The Return’” Studies in Short Fiction 25.1 (1988): 3.

  14. Joseph Conrad, “The Tale,” Tales of Hearsay (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1926), 61.

  15. Conrad to Edward Garnett, 11 October 1897, Collected Letters, 1: 393.

  16. This passage (and two others quoted below) echoes many in Heart of Darkness in which Marlow refers to lurking or concealed evils, such as the moment when, realizing Kurtz is near death, he defends Kurtz to the manager. Marlow thinks that “it seemed to me as if I also were buried in a vast grave full of unspeakable secrets. I felt an intolerable weight oppressing my breast, the smell of the damp earth, the unseen presence of victorious corruption, the darkness of an impenetrable night. …” (138, italics mine).

  17. Joseph Conrad, The Good Soldier (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 220, 221. Further references will be cited in text.

  18. Jeremy Hawthorn, Joseph Conrad: Narrative Technique and Ideological Commitment (London:Edward Arnold, 1990) 265. Further references to Hawthorn's work will be cited in the text. Najder also notes similarities between “The Tale” and “The Return” (418).

  19. Dale Kramer is one of the few critics who believes Hervey “come[s]to terms with the need to achieve contact with something genuine” (7). Ruth Nadelhaft argues, and I agree, that Hervey's departure at the end of the story “constitutes cowardice on his part” (76). As we have seen, he cannot “stand” the uncertainty of his wife's behavior and prefers to retreat rather than put himself at the mercy of “real feelings” which are not governed by the rules. Deirdre David, who sees the story as a three act play, also acknowledges that Hervey does not change “from the way he had been at the beginning” (“Selfhood and Language in ‘The Return’ and ‘Falk,’” Conradiana 8.2 [1976]: 142). While Conrad himself says in a letter to Garnett, “Another man goes out than the man who came in. T'other fellow is dead,” we might speculate that he too sees the formation of a Kurtz-like hollowness (24 January 1898, Collected Letters, 2: 27). As Nadelhaft argues, Hervey's words lead us toward “the thoughts that must have animated Kurtz, in Heart of Darkness, when he justifies to himself his departure from the empty injunctions of his Western morality” (74). Given the absence of the proverbial policeman on the corner, we might imagine Hervey, once his disillusionment sets in, to be Kurtz.

Brian W. Shaffer (essay date fall 2000)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5645

SOURCE: Shaffer, Brian W. “Swept from the Sea: Trauma and Otherness in Conrad's ‘Amy Foster.’” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 32, no. 3 (fall 2000): 163-76.

[In the following essay, Shaffer views “Amy Foster” as a story about the trauma of emigration and culture shock.]

“[Conrad] thought of civilized … life as a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths.”1

When not entirely overlooked by scholars, Joseph Conrad's story “Amy Foster” (1901, 1903)2 has been treated either as a gloss on the author's marriage and his literary reception by English readers, or, in Albert Guerard's words, as “a generalized comment on the lonely, uncomprehended, absurd human destiny,” in which the castaway protagonist plays the role of an “Everyman.”3 What has not been adequately appreciated is the degree to which the story stands as a meditation on trauma generally4 and on the traumatic nature of emigration in particular, an experience dear to Conrad's heart. Indeed, the central event of the narrative, which occurs “off-camera”—the wreck of a German ship carrying Central European immigrants to America—stands as a metaphor for geographical, cultural, and linguistic displacement, for “the supreme disaster of loneliness and despair” glossed in the story's closing words. While other of Conrad's fictions may come to mind before “Amy Foster” for treating traumatic experience—the indigenous Congolese in Heart of Darkness and Winnie Verloc in The Secret Agent are perfect examples—this story, which had the working titles “A Husband” and “A Castaway,”5 is suffused with traumatic incidents of “culture shock” as few if any other of Conrad's fictions are.

The story's central character is Yanko Goorall, a “Sclavonian” peasant “mountaineer” from “the eastern range of the Carpathians” (147), who is washed ashore upon the Kentish coast of England, in an area not far from where Conrad himself, in 1898, took up residence. The tale's central traumatic episode is the violent shipwreck of which Yanko is the sole survivor, when another ship rams Yanko's vessel on a blind night. Yet this is only one of the tale's four separate yet related traumas, even as it stands as a metaphor for all of them. These others include the trauma of being separated from family and homeland by bogus “Emigration Agencies,” by “scoundrels” in league with “local usurers” who take “poor ignorant people's homesteads” in exchange for passage (147); the trauma of a terrifying sea-voyage in the dark ship's interior followed by the shipwreck itself; the trauma of a hostile reception by the uncomprehending and incomprehensible English; and, finally, the trauma of abandonment by spouse (and offspring) when the protagonist is deathly ill. Moreover, the story stands as a meditation on Otherness—particularly, on the potentially traumatic experience of radical alterity and on the potentially violent results of simplistic, binary thinking. No other Conrad text links otherness and traumatic experience so completely or poignantly.

Before pursuing the story's treatment of trauma any further, it will first be useful to gloss a number of the theories and clinical studies of trauma now and then in circulation. Interestingly, “[a]lthough pathologies have been recognized for centuries, the concept began to find its modern form a century ago”6—at about the time Conrad wrote his earliest fictions, among them “Amy Foster.” In his 1920 Beyond the Pleasure Principle, for example, Freud speaks of “[a] condition [that] has long been known and described which occurs after … railway disasters and other accidents involving a risk to life”: “traumatic neurosis.”7

In Post-traumatic Culture: Injury and Interpretation in the Nineties Kirby Farrell observes that, clinically speaking, “trauma is an acute injury,” that “[t]he term comes from the Greek word for a wound, and [that] the analogy to a physical wound has influenced thinking about psychological trauma.”8 According to the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, the core experience of trauma is one of “intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and threat of annihilation.”9 In Trauma and Recovery Judith L. Herman elaborates:

Traumatic events generally involve threats to life or bodily integrity, or a close personal encounter with violence and death. They confront human beings with the extremities of helplessness and terror, and evoke the responses of catastrophe.10

For Herman, “the salient characteristic of the traumatic event is its power to inspire helplessness and terror.”11 For Robert Jay Lifton, who studied the victims of Hiroshima, the Holocaust, and other man-made catastrophes, traumatic events necessarily involve threats to one's very survival: the survivor is “one who has encountered, been exposed to, or witnessed death, [yet] has himself or herself remained alive.” What needs to be emphasized about traumatic experience, Lifton adds, is that the survivor experiences “a jarring awareness of the fact of death” and has been “disturbingly confronted with his own mortality.”12 Following traumatic incidents, survivors often experience Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, “a state of neurological hyperarousal” that leaves victims “vulnerable to distress that may emerge long after the crisis is past,”13 and that expresses itself in depressive withdrawal and numbing or in derangement and “berserking.”14

In one of the most comprehensive and compelling recent clinical studies of trauma, and one central to my reading of “Amy Foster,” Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma, Ronnie Janoff-Bulman broadens and deepens our theoretical grasp of this phenomenon. “Traumatic life events,” she argues, “involve reactions at life's extremes.”15 But rather than emphasize the mortal threat itself, Janoff-Bulman emphasizes traumatic experience's “injury” to the “victim's inner world.”16 Whether the trauma is caused intentionally by others or merely accidentally by an “act of God,” traumatic incidents invariably involve a threat to what she terms the victim's “assumptive world”: to his or her belief that the world is benevolent and meaningful and that the self is worthy.17 These “[c]ore assumptions are shattered by traumatic experience,” she continues, and

[s]uddenly the victim's inner world is pervaded by thoughts and images representing malevolence, meaninglessness, and self-abasement. They are face to face with a dangerous universe, made all the more frightening by their total lack of psychological preparation.18

Farrell, who approaches trauma not as a clinician but as a literary and cultural critic, adds that trauma must be viewed as a “cultural trope” and a “clinical concept”; that it involves an “interpretive process” as well as its core “physical distress.” The “injury,” Farrell insists, always “entails interpretation of the injury.” [emphasis in original]19

In “Amy Foster,” Conrad is aware of this psychocultural dimension of trauma, even if Yanko, his fictional victim, is not. Yanko's first traumatic experience is to be separated from his family and home in Central Europe, to be tricked into emigration. It is not clear, however, that he ever becomes aware that he has been deceived. We learn that people all over his region sold their homes and land in order to pay for transit to America; indeed, Yanko's father sells livestock and land to pay his son's way across the ocean. However, the conventional wisdom ran, “once there, you had three dollars a day, and if you were clever you could find places where true gold could be picked from the ground” (144). Kennedy, the “country doctor” (135) who tells the tale to the story's unnamed narrator, comments on the “bargaining away of the paternal cow for the mirage of true gold far away,” and then adds, in an unwitting pun, that only those “who had some money could be taken” (144). While Yanko may not understand what is happening to him, he does register the separation from familiar people and places and the loss of control typical of traumatic experiences: “[H]e had been hustled together with many others on board an emigrant ship lying at the mouth of the Elbe, too bewildered to take note of his surroundings, too weary to see anything, too anxious to care. They were driven below into the tween-deck and battened down …” (141). He then travels “a long, long time on the iron track,” only to be transferred to a “steam machine” (142; notice that these disoriented descriptions of train and ship travel suggest Yanko's disorienting experience). To add insult to injury, Yanko is “separated from his [sole] companion” on the voyage, which resonates with what we can only imagine was a painful separation from family and homeland earlier.

Farrell reminds us that “[t]he core experience of trauma is violence,”20 and the core trauma of the story is, of course, the deadly shipwreck itself. Conrad's text hints at the ill-fated voyage to come when Yanko's descent into the ship's hold at the journey's start is figured as his encoffinment: “[W]hen he descended into the bottom of that ship his heart seemed to melt suddenly within him” (143).

It was very large, very cold, damp and sombre, with places in the manner of wooden boxes where people had to sleep one above another. … People groaned, children cried, water dripped, lights went out, the walls of the place creaked, and everything was being shaken. … He had lost touch with his only companion. … An awful sickness overcame him, even to the point of making him neglect his prayers … It seemed always to be night in that place.


Yanko is forced to remain “battened down below” in darkness for “four days” (149), and experiences “intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and threat of annihilation”21—all components of trauma—even before the occurrence of the shipwreck itself. Freud views the “factor of surprise, of fright” as primary to trauma; and, to be sure, Yanko “has run into danger without being prepared for it.”22

The “threat of annihilation” becomes explicit, however, when the two ships collide; indeed, Yanko at this point fears that he is “no longer in this world” (140). Subsequently, he responds to the trauma in the two disparate ways typical of victims: with numbing and forgetting, on the one hand, and with derangement and reliving the event (abreaction), on the other. As Herman observes, “[t]he conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.”23 On the first score we read, “Afterwards, there seemed to come for him a period of blank ignorance, at any rate as to facts” (144); “The man himself, even when he learned to speak intelligibly, could tell us very little” (149). On the second score we read that, after making it ashore, Yanko threw “himself violently about in the dark, rolling on some dirty sacks, and biting his fists with rage, cold, hunger, amazement, and despair” (147). When the ship went down it was “death without any sort of fuss,” as “the wind … prevented [even] the loudest outcries [of the other victims] from reaching the shore” (Yanko, by contrast, was forced to endure them) (148). Yanko was the “only living soul” to escape “from that disaster” (149), which he achieved by grasping a hencoop that, miraculously, floated ashore. Inside the hencoop, a figuration of the doomed ship itself, Yanko discovered eleven drowned ducks—reinforcing the point that all aboard the ship should have been, as indeed all but Yanko were, “dead ducks.”24

Herman notes that “[t]raumatic events produce profound and lasting changes in physiological arousal, emotion, cognition, and memory,”25 and indeed Yanko, hailing from the mountains and therefore having little experience of the sea, is incapable of thinking of the sea in the same way again after the traumatic shipwreck. For example, Yanko is later described as having “farreaching eyes, that only seemed to flinch and lose their amazing power before the immensity of the sea” (154): “Only the memory of the sea frightened him, with that vague terror that is left by a bad dream” (156).

“Amy Foster” repeatedly links the trauma of the violent shipwreck with the trauma of cultural, geographical, and linguistic displacement. For example, Yanko, in the doomed ship, felt “bitterly as he lay in his emigrant bunk his utter loneliness” (144). And Kennedy, speaking of the suffering of the shipwreck victims, remarks:

Often the castaways were only saved from drowning to die miserably from starvation on a barren coast; others suffered violent death or else slavery, passing through years of precarious existence with people to whom their strangeness was an object of suspicion, dislike, or fear. … It is indeed hard upon a man to find himself a lost stranger, helpless, incomprehensible, and of a mysterious origin, in some obscure corner of the earth.


In “Amy Foster,” then, the shipwreck becomes a metaphor for the trauma of “culture shock.”

To make matters still worse, Yanko is received by the English of the small town onto whose shores he washes up with instant and automatic “hostility” (156)—and still more violence—in a reception powerfully reminiscent of that of the “wretch” in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,26 surely the greatest novelistic study of trauma and otherness in English literature. Like Frankenstein's monster, not only is Yanko incapable of communicating with anyone (“It was as if these had been the faces of people from the other world—dead people—he used to tell me years afterwards” [152]), but the village adults chase and even attempt to beat him, the children throw stones at him, and he is reduced to the status of an animal, hiding in a

pig-pound by the side of the road … six miles, as the crow flies, from the sea. Of these experiences he was unwilling to speak: they seemed to have seared into his soul a sombre sort of wonder and indignation.


Moreover, Yanko is shut up in a farmer's “wood-lodge,” which “presented the horrible aspect of a dungeon” (149)—and which doubtless could not help but remind him of his four-day encoffinment in the ship's dark hold only days earlier. The villagers justify their cruel treatment of this newcomer by figuring him as an invading “it,” “a miry creature” (146), “an escaped” and “troublesome lunatic” (146), “a wandering and probably dangerous maniac” (146-47), a “wild animal” (150), “a woodland creature” (139), a “madman” and a “deplorable being” (150)—as anything and everything but an innocent human victim of a shipwreck beyond his control.

Yanko's hostile reception by the English only exacerbates the trauma of the shipwreck, as “a hostile or negative response may compound the damage and aggravate the traumatic syndrome.”27 As Herman observes, “the survivor's feelings of fear, distrust, and isolation may be compounded by the incomprehension or frank hostility of those” to whom he turns for help.28 For Janoff-Bulman, moreover,

[i]n the immediate aftermath of traumatic events, victims experience the terror of their own vulnerability. The confrontation with real or potential injury or death breaks the barrier of complacency and resistance in our assumptive worlds, and a profound psychological crisis is induced. What generally begins as a threat to victims' physical integrity becomes an overwhelming threat to their psychological integrity as well.29

That Yanko, upon arriving on English soil, is treated as a “cunning” (150) and nefarious Other, and that this imposed alterity further traumatizes him, is made clear. At one point, for example, he is depicted

lying on his back upon a straw pallet; they had given him a couple of horse-blankets, and he seemed to have spent the remainder of his strength in the exertion of cleaning himself. … [H]is glittering, restless black eyes reminded me of a wild bird caught in a snare.


At another, Kennedy describes the castaway's existence as “overshadowed, oppressed, by the everyday material appearances, as if by the visions of a nightmare” (153).

That the English villagers persist in viewing the world in such starkly binary terms—all people are either native or foreign, friend or foe—is itself heavily ironized in the text; indeed, the villagers are depicted as unimaginative, cruel, racist, and parochial in the extreme. They are repeatedly shown to fit that which they see into predetermined schemas: to see what they want and expect to see rather than what is there. Anything even initially “incomprehensible,” “different,” “strange,” or “queer” is deemed potentially evil, a nefarious threat to village order and security. As Fredric Jameson, in a discussion of the ethics of binary oppositions in The Political Unconscious, explains:

Evil thus … continues to characterize whatever is radically different from me, whatever by virtue of precisely that difference seems to constitute a real and urgent threat to my own existence. So from the earliest times, the stranger from another tribe, the “barbarian” who speaks an incomprehensible language and follows “outlandish” customs [and] behind whose apparently human features a malignant and preternatural intelligence is thought to lurk [has been one] of the archetypal figures of the Other, about whom the essential point to be made is not so much that he is feared because he is evil; rather, he is evil because he is Other, alien, different, strange, unclean, and unfamiliar.30

Failing to connect this “horrid-looking” man's (145) appearance in England with the sinking of a ship nearby, the villagers are capable of viewing Yanko only as “a hairy sort of gipsy fellow” (145) with “restless black eyes” (150), “long black hair” and a “swarthy complexion” (155)—as an “unclean” and dangerous foreign presence deserving only of hostility or worse.31

At a number of points Conrad subtly turns the tables of the “self-other” opposition used against Yanko by the villagers and reveals these villagers to be the tale's true barbarians, just as Shelley does in Frankenstein a century earlier. As Keith Carabine observes, “through the prism of Yanko's startled perceptions” Conrad achieves a “reversal of roles and the wresting of the reader's imaginative sympathies.” As “in The Secret Agent,” Carabine continues, “the narration of “Amy Foster” is calculated to shock his English reading public into a recognition of the limitations of their social codes [and] of their insularity. …”32 Time and again the story beats us over the head with English myopia, cruelty, and the failure of imagination: Smith, a farmer, imprisons Yanko, who is addressing him (not in English, of course) as “gracious lord,” never asking “himself whether the man might not be perishing with cold and hunger” (146-47); Yanko is dismayed “at finding all the men angry and all the women fierce,” and notes that “[t]he children in his country were not taught to throw stones at those who asked for compassion” (149). “He wondered what made [the villagers] so hard-hearted and their children so bold” (152), and, with the exception of Amy Foster, the sole villager to take pity on him, sees the others as having “faces that were as closed, as mysterious, and as mute as the faces of the dead …” (153). Given the evidence, then, I believe Bertrand Russell was only half right to assert that the “two things that seem most to occupy Conrad's imagination” are “loneliness” and the “fear of what is strange.”33 For it is the “fear of what is strange” itself, and not any “strange” thing, that is the target of “Amy Foster.”34 As in The Secret Agent, it is English provinciality rather than any foreign danger that is held up to scrutiny (in this connection, Amy herself would appear to be an early version of Winnie Verloc).

Yanko's long, resonating string of abandonments and separations—from his original family and homeland, from his companion on the disastrous sea voyage, and from his wife and son in the “undiscovered country” (140)—constitute the fourth and final trauma that he must endure. That Amy, his only adult tie to this stubbornly foreign land, deserts him when he is ill triggers the traumatic experience that finally undermines his resolve to live. As Myrtle Hooper writes, for Yanko “Amy is a source of ontological security greater even than Kennedy.”35 In this connection, Herman explains that “traumatized people” feel

utterly abandoned, utterly alone, cast out of the human and divine systems of care and protection that sustain life. … When trust is lost, traumatized people feel that they belong more to the dead than to the living.36

For this reason, “[t]rauma impels people both to withdraw from close relationships and to seek them desperately. … The traumatized person therefore frequently alternates between isolation and anxious clinging to others.”37

This insight nicely explains Amy's appeal to Yanko, who is “seduced by the divine quality of her pity” (157), as well as his anxious clinging to her. As Herman observes,

[t]he survivor who is often in terror of being left alone craves the simple presence of a sympathetic person. Having once experienced the sense of total isolation, the survivor is intensely aware of the fragility of all human connections in the face of danger. [He] needs clear and explicit assurances that [he] will not be abandoned once again.38

Although Yanko does not find gold on the streets of America, as he had hoped, he does believe that he has found his “bit of true gold” in Amy's heart, “a golden heart” because it is “soft to people's misery” (156). And this is why her desertion of him is so threatening to his survival, at least in psychological terms. As Janoff-Bulman puts it,

[a]lthough threats to survival are most apparent when the possibility of serious physical injury or death are present, such threats may also be engendered in events that entail abandonment and separation. Real or threatened abandonment may mean personal annihilation. … Certainly, the more dependent one person is on another, the more likely abandonment will strike fundamental fears about survival.39

Yanko gains marginal acceptance in the community; Amy and Yanko marry; they have a son. But soon there is word of “domestic differences” between the two, and one day

[h]is wife … snatched the child out of his arms … as he sat on the doorstep crooning to it a song such as mothers sing to babies in his mountains. She seemed to think he was doing it some harm.


Kennedy then wonders “whether his difference, his strangeness, were not penetrating with repulsion that dull nature they had begun by irresistibly attracting” (159), and whether “the memory of all the talk against the man that had been dinned into her ears” (160) was not at last influencing her feelings.

When Yanko becomes feverish (due to “lung trouble” or “heart-failure” [159, 162], we are never sure which), he addresses Amy in his mother tongue, which she chooses to interpret now not as a foreign language at all but as the ravings of a potentially violent madman (160).40 In febrile desperation Yanko asks Amy for water, which only increases her “unreasonable terror” of “that man she could not understand” (160), following which she grabs the child and leaves the house for good. “And it was I,” Kennedy remarks, “who found him lying face down and his body in a puddle.” Revealingly, Conrad here links Yanko's traumatic experience of abandonment with his watery shipwreck trauma.41 Amy was “gone,” Yanko later tells Kennedy; “I had only asked for water—only for a little water.” “She had left [Yanko]—sick—helpless—thirsty,” Kennedy sums up (161).42 Ironically, the villagers earlier worry that, if left to his own devices, Yanko might “ill-use women” (158) (“these foreigners,” Amy Foster's father contends, “behave very queerly to women sometimes” [157]); yet it is Amy who abandons him on his deathbed. At the very least, as Hooper concludes, “it is clear that Amy's abandonment precipitates Yanko's death.”43

Although Guerard has good reason to speculate that “Amy Foster, with her stolid inert mind and treacherous tenderness to suffering, may be a direct expression of Conrad's misogyny,”44 and while Hooper persuasively argues that “[t]he real ‘other’ in Kennedy's story is not Yanko, but Amy,” and that “it is her opposition of silence to this narrative that makes her so,”45 I believe that Conrad's tale views Amy's problem as pertaining less to her gender than to her nationality. After all, none of the Englishmen in “Amy Foster” come off any better than she; and English men as well as women are depicted as tribal, xenophobic, and susceptible to tragedies “arising from irreconcilable differences and from that fear of the Incomprehensible that hangs over all our heads …” (137). That Yanko dies of heart trouble is true in one sense, then, even if not in the sense that the sympathetic if blind Kennedy imagines.46

Even before Yanko is abandoned, however, he enters what Kennedy deems a “state of depression” (159), which for Janoff-Bulman is “a common psychological response in the aftermath of victimization.”47 Janoff-Bulman adds that “profound disillusionment … often outlasts a victim's fear and anxiety,“as “[v]ictims experience the loss of old, deep, positive views of the world and themselves.”48 Indeed, Kennedy reports, “[t]o me” Yanko “appeared to have grown less springy of step, heavier in body, less keen of eye.” Perhaps, the Doctor reasons, “the net of fate had been drawn closer round him already” (158), as Yanko now “looked upon the sea with indifferent, unseeing eyes” (159) (even the sea ceases to frighten him, a sure sign that he has become all but indifferent to his own fate).49

“Amy Foster,” then, concerns not only what Jocelyn Baines calls “the essential isolation and loneliness of the individual,”50 or what Conrad, in a letter explaining his tale, calls “the essential difference of the races”51; these are matters of concern to many if not most of Conrad's fictions. More to the point, the story details the traumatic experience of a “peculiar and indelible” foreignness, of being culturally Other, a “cast-away … like a man transplanted into another planet” (155). Being “cast out mysteriously by the sea to perish in the supreme disaster of loneliness and despair” (162), Yanko must endure a series of traumatic hardships, all man-made, which renders his tale, following Frankenstein, one of the most complex and nuanced treatments of traumatic otherness in postromantic fiction. If “Amy Foster” achieved nothing else, it represented and explored trauma and its relation to alterity long before our bloody present century made this critical task obvious, necessary, and even inescapable.52


  1. Bertrand Russell, “Joseph Conrad.” In Portraits from Memory and Other Essays. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956, 87.

  2. All references to “Amy Foster” are to Joseph Conrad, Typhoon and Other Stories. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1992, 135-62.

  3. Albert J. Guerard, Conrad the Novelist. New York: Atheneum, 1958, 50. For excellent essays on “Amy Foster” that treat genetic and biographical matters, see Richard Herndon, “The Genesis of Conrad's ‘Amy Foster’,” Studies in Philology 58 (1960), 549-66, and Gail Fraser, “Conrad's Revisions to ‘Amy Foster’,” Conradiana 20 (1988), 181-93. For convincing treatments of the narratological complexities of Conrad's tale, see Robert J. Andreach, “The Two Narrators of ‘Amy Foster’,” Studies in Short Fiction 2 (1965), 262-69, and Myrtle Hooper, “‘Oh, I Hope He Won't Talk’: Narrative and Silence in ‘Amy Foster’,” The Conradian 21 (1996), 51-64.

  4. The sole exception to this rule is Sue Finkelstein, “Hope and Betrayal: A Psychoanalytic Reading of ‘Amy Foster’,” Conradiana 32 (2000), 20-30. But while I, like Finkelstein, address the “trauma-related themes” (20) of the story, viewing it as a reflection of “Conrad's trauma legacy” (26), I am more interested in exploring Yanko's trauma as an expression of the author's “culture shock” upon arriving on English soil, while she is more interested in entertaining “a reading of ‘Amy Foster’ which stresses the theme of the object world shattered by radical discontinuity such as Conrad experienced as he passed into his uncle's care” (26).

  5. See Joseph Conrad, Collected Letters, Volume 2: 1898-1902. Ed. Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, 300.

  6. Kirby Farrell, Post-traumatic Culture: Injury and Interpretation in the Nineties. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, 7.

  7. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle. New York: Norton, 1961, 6. Freud likens traumatic neurosis to hysteria but views the former as surpassing the latter “in its strongly marked signs of subjective ailment … as well as in the evidence it gives of a far more comprehensive general enfeeblement and disturbance of the mental capacities” (6). For numerous insights on Freud's view of trauma, see Cathy Caruth, ed., Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

  8. Farrell, 5.

  9. Judith L. Herman, Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books, 1992, 33.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Ibid., 34.

  12. Cited in Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma. New York: The Free Press, 1992, 56, 57.

  13. Farrell, 6.

  14. Ibid., 7. In essence, Farrell concludes, “[t]rauma is a ‘mindblowing’ experience that destroys a conventional mind-set and compels … a new worldview …” (19-20).

  15. Jannoff-Bulman, 4.

  16. Ibid., 52.

  17. Ibid., 6.

  18. Ibid., 63.

  19. Farrell, 7, 12, 14.

  20. Ibid., 14.

  21. Ibid., 5.

  22. Freud, 6.

  23. Herman, 1.

  24. Presumably, this situation would make “survivor's guilt” particularly difficult for Yanko to evade. As Herman puts it, “[f]eelings of guilt are especially severe when the survivor has been a witness to the suffering or death of other people. To be spared oneself … creates a severe burden of conscience” (54).

  25. Ibid., 34.

  26. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985.

  27. Herman, 61.

  28. Ibid., 62.

  29. Janoff-Bulman, 61.

  30. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981, 115.

  31. The story's opening paragraph glimpses a Martello tower (135), a subtle reminder of the xenophobic orientation of the population, as such towers were built all over coastal Britain in the first decade of the nineteenth century in order to ward off foreign, and particularly French, invasion.

  32. Keith Carabine, “‘Irreconcilable Differences’: England as an ‘Undiscovered Country’ in Conrad's ‘Amy Foster’.” In The Ends of the Earth: 1876-1918. Ed. Simon Gatrell. London and Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Ashfield Press, 1992, 196.

  33. Russell, 88.

  34. For an ingenious reading of “Amy Foster” as a colonialist story in reverse, see Richard Ruppel, “Yanko Goorall in the Heart of Darkness: ‘Amy Foster’ as a Colonialist Text,” Conradiana 28 (1996), 126-32.

  35. Hooper, 60.

  36. Herman, 52.

  37. Ibid., 56.

  38. Ibid., 61-62.

  39. Janoff-Bulman, 58-59. Ironically, Amy's abandonment of Yanko has its roots in her sympathetic feelings for him, in her intertwined “[p]assions of love and fear” (159). Her sympathy is depicted as arising out of her lack of imagination and intelligence, coupled with her physical attraction to the castaway (Kennedy and Amy alone “could see his very real beauty” [157]). Initially, she sees the suffering Yanko in the figure of a helpess animal (and “she was tender to every living creature” [138]), and her dullness, stupidity, passivity, and the “inertness of her mind,” so “safe from all the surprises of imagination” (137), are seen by Kennedy as leading her to fall in love: “She fell in love silently, obstinately—perhaps helplessly. It came slowly, but when it came it worked like a powerful spell; it was love as the Ancients understood it: an irresistible and fateful impulse—a possession!” (139)

  40. Frederick R. Karl notes that Yanko's otherness comes to take on a largely linguistic orientation in Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives: A Biography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979, 515). Yanko is heard to cry “piercingly strange words in the night” (145); to babble “aloud in a voice that was enough to make one die of fright” (145). He is said to instill “a strangely penetrating power into the most familiar English words, as if they had been the words of an unearthly language” (144); and his speech sounds “so disturbing, so passionate, and so bizarre” (159). Indeed, Amy claims to abandon him for this very reason: “He keeps on saying something—I don't know what” (160); “I can't understand what he says to [the baby]” (160); “Oh, I hope he won't talk …” (160). For more on this, see Hooper, who convincingly argues that “the threat Yanko poses to the villagers is most acute in its impact upon language and hence upon meaning” (60).

  41. Notice too that this event mirrors the episode in which Yanko saves Swaffer's grandchild from drowning in a shallow pond (154). Tellingly, Conrad repeatedly associates water with death and traumatic displacement in this story.

  42. Amy's abandonment of Yanko is presaged in the text at three points. First, the opening paragraph of the story glosses a “dilapidated windmill” (135), perhaps a reference to Amy's quixotic nature, to her decaying idealism. Second, the misfortunes of Amy's father are said to date from “his runaway marriage with the cook of his widowed father” (137). Third, when Mrs. Smith's bird is “attacked by the cat,” and “shrieked for help in human accents,” Amy “ran out into the yard stopping her ears, and did not prevent the crime” (138).

  43. Hooper, 61.

  44. Guerard, 49.

  45. Hooper, 64. In her brilliant feminist reading of this story, Hooper goes on to argue that “Amy's positioning as wife and mother renders her more alien to Kennedy than Yanko is. If such positioning serves to objectify her, it also helps to explain the complex of inarticulacy in which she is located, and by extension the naming of the story ‘Amy Foster’” (64). For an elaboration of this thesis, see Hooper (60).

  46. I call Kennedy “blind” because, though sympathetic to Yanko, he fails to understand the castaway and imagines, crassly, that Yanko's dying is perhaps all “for the best” (162). As John Batchelor puts it in The Life of Joseph Conrad (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994, 123), Kennedy is sympathetic toward Yanko, yet “he is as much mystified by Yanko as anyone else, thus intensifying our perception of his loneliness.” Andreach holds that “[a]t the center of Kennedy's narrative is a mystery which he cannot comprehend, and one should read his entire narrative as his groping attempt to decipher it. … The great irony of ‘Amy Foster’ is that Yanko's heart failure was not the cause of his death; it was the failure of the hearts of all those with whom he associated, including Dr. Kennedy, who, certifying heart failure, cannot see the real cause” (262, 269). And Hooper argues that Kennedy is “guilty at the least of a crucial failure of perception and insight; at the worst of dereliction of duty. … The impression Kennedy is attempting to ‘fit’ into his story is Amy's dereliction of duty, not his own” (61, 62). For this reason I disagree with Carabine's positive assessment of Kennedy as “a Marlovian figure” (188). Only one English villager, Swaffer, seems to understand Yanko's true situation, and he is branded by all in the village as an “eccentric” for sitting “up as late as ten o'clock at night to read books” (151).

  47. Janoff-Bulman, 71.

  48. Ibid., 70, 71.

  49. For more on post-traumatic depression, see Robert J. Lifton, The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979, Chapter 14, “Depression—Static Protest”; and see Caruth.

  50. Jocelyn Baines, Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960, 267.

  51. Quoted in Carabine, 187.

  52. I would like to thank Jennifer Brady for her insightful comments on an earlier draft of this essay. I would also like to thank Rhodes College for awarding me a Faculty Development Endowment Grant, which aided in the completion of this essay.

John Lutz (essay date fall 2000)

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SOURCE: Lutz, John. “Centaurs and Other Savages: Patriarchy, Hunger, and Fetishism in ‘Falk.’” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 32, no. 3 (fall 2000): 177-93.

[In the following essay, Lutz contends that “Falk” illustrates Conrad's belief that under the competitive, ruthless capitalistic system, bourgeois class conventions are illusions and will inevitably break down into anarchy and savagery.]

—He was a born monopolist.1

Taking note of the thematic connection that Conrad draws between a culture's habits of cooking and eating and their moral/psychological condition, Tony Tanner suggests that the basic symbolic opposition in “Falk” consists of a contrast between the civilization, order and sanity represented by the bourgeois existence aboard the Diana and the savagery, disorder and irrationality signified by Falk's cannibalism on the Borgmester Dahl. Viewing the confrontation between the stable Hermann and the nomadic Falk as “the core situation [and] central paradigm”2 of the tale, Tanner notes the extent to which Conrad deploys the thematic opposition between savagery and civilization in order to disrupt the apparently clear boundary between these two realms. For Tanner, despite the initial antagonism between these two spheres of human activity, “all the main characters are involved in different kinds of hunger, different kinds of devouring and assimilating” in ways that consistently suggest significant links between human biological activities, that is to say, eating, hunger and sexual activity, and economic ones, i.e., business deals, bargains, trading and diplomacy.3 In Conrad's complex treatment of the civilization/savagery paradigm, no clear dichotomy emerges; rather, the central concern of the narrative proves to be “the uses and abuses of power” whether that power be economic, linguistic or purely physical in nature.4 Drawing upon this perception, Tanner comes to the conclusion that “Falk” is an examination of what happens “when established ways of holding man/men together ‘break down.’”5 In other words, “Falk,” in its attention to the collapse of social convention in the face of various kinds of “elemental forces and desires,” comments upon the ever present danger of moral disintegration immanent in any form of social organization.

However, for all its insight, Tanner's essay fails to plumb the social and economic depths of this merely apparent opposition between civilization and savagery and elucidate how the very narrative structure of the tale works to undermine any clear distinction between the depraved, degenerate world of cannibalism and the respectable, advanced world of bourgeois capitalism. Rather than bringing these contrasting realms together only in order to “dissolve the dangerous habit of dualistic (i.e. oppositional) thinking,”6 Conrad's narrative demonstrates the dialectical unity of these opposites with the purpose of revealing the irrational/contradictory forces operating at the heart of late nineteenth/early twentieth-century capitalism. The bourgeois ideology which the narrator shares with the characters in his tale serves as the primary object of criticism in the narrative. The thin veneer of respectability and moral decency conceals the more fundamental motives of profit and individual gain which drive the activities of the bourgeois class, motives that provide the main focus of the story by revealing themselves through the actions of all of the male characters. Although Falk himself appears to deviate from normative behavior in the consumption of human flesh, on a metaphorical level, his behavior remains entirely consistent with the competitive logic of monopoly capitalism. Indeed, the fragmentation both of the social and the human body emerges as a constitutive feature of bourgeois existence and finds expression through forms of desire driven by the hidden mechanisms of fetishism and patriarchal domination. Falk's cannibalism and his business as sole operator of tugboats in the port, his transgression of “civilized” codes of moral obligation and his activities within the sphere of the bourgeois world are thus hardly separate, but profoundly continuous. As Tanner suggests, “Falk” explores the disintegration of the moral bonds of sympathetic identification that tend to bring human beings together in a community; however, that breakdown emerges as an endemic feature of bourgeois capitalism, not as a consequence of a regression to primitive savagery. In its examination of bourgeois ideology, “Falk” suggests that the very social conventions which the bourgeois class have of holding their society together are themselves illusions that function to conceal the progressive breakdown of moral bonds produced by capitalist social relations and the replacement of those bonds of sympathy by economic ones driven by brutal exploitation and ruthless competition.

Although most criticism of “Falk” would concede that Falk is driven by motives which spring from some form of self-interest, few critics would grant that these motives have their origin in the socio-economic structure of patriarchal capitalism. Most criticism falls into a Darwinian and Freudian explanation of Falk's nature or explains his actions with reference to Rousseau's myth of the “noble savage” or Schopenhauer's “will to live.”7 Perhaps the foremost proponent of a Darwinian reading of “Falk” (and of Conrad's work as a whole) is Redmond O'Hanlon.8 O'Hanlon argues that “Conrad's picture of the world is Darwinian in its overall perspective, experimental intention and its particular details”9 and focuses on Falk's attraction to Hermann's niece as part of the process of natural sexual selection. The attention which the narrator pays to her physical attributes is taken as evidence that she is the proper Darwinian mate for Falk.10 For O'Hanlon, Falk is Darwin's archetypal male11 whose struggle for a mate is absolutely central to his characterization.12 However, in Falk's attempt to procure Hermann's niece for marriage, there are no real obstacles except his own incapacity to ask Hermann for her. In response to O'Hanlon's claim, one can legitimately wonder with whom Falk is supposed to be struggling. Although he believes for a short period of time that the narrator is his rival, he remains the only real suitor in the story. Furthermore, Falk doesn't “win” her in a struggle with other males; rather, he acquires her in a series of conversations which are described in terms of the conventional bargaining that attends a business transaction. Although the narrative clearly makes use of imagery derived from Darwinian concepts, in the description of Falk's pursuit of Hermann's niece, sexual selection provides merely the most obvious and superficial reading of Falk's relationship to his environment. The same holds true for the use of Schopenhauer, whose account of the will's reification in nature from natural laws to human beings is clearly made use of in the narrator's explanation of Falk's behavior. However, the more fundamental elements that constitute the representation of Falk's character relate to the prevailing norms of patriarchal and capitalist social relations which eliminate moral obligations from human affairs and reduce women to the status of commodities. These norms serve to (re)produce the fetishizing of women's bodies that is implicit in the narrator's misogynistic description of Hermann's niece and invite a suggestive comparison to Falk's dismemberment of his fellow shipmates aboard the Borgmester Dahl. Far from suggesting that Falk's courtship of Hermann's niece represents a return to civilization from savagery or that his consumption of human flesh “drives him straight towards love and redemption,”13 the narrative calls attention to the common identity of cannibalism and the laws of patriarchal capitalism. Although Falk may aspire to the bourgeois ideal and the stability of the middle-class home, the activities and social relationships which constitute bourgeois existence are directly implicated in forms of dismemberment, exploitation, and psychic deprivation implicit in commodity consumption and the fetishizing of women's bodies. Rather than revealing some kind of sexual selection or redemption at work, the narrative comments ironically upon the savagery endemic to patriarchal capitalism: the niece, once acquired, will provide Falk with a means of attaining the ideal middle-class family, an acquisition essential for the reproduction of capitalist social relations and Falk's monopoly in the port.

In this regard, the intertwining imagery of biological and economic spheres of activity proves to be central to the criticism of patriarchy in the narrative. Rather than having an exclusively determining relationship upon the social world, in “Falk,” instinctual drives inhabit the economic structures of capitalism and are given ideational content by the patriarchal values of the bourgeois world. The forms of hunger, consumption, and fetishism described throughout the story take their social content from the imperatives of competition, exploitation, and egoism which underwrite the apparent stability of bourgeois existence. The key mechanism linking biological structures to economic ones in the text is fetishism: the pervasive use of vague terminology linking Falk to unseen elemental forces converts social dynamics into natural ones granting them an independent life of their own separate from the agency of human beings. In the process, social relationships are mystified and take on the form of inevitable, irresistible laws of nature. Furthermore, just as Falk is described as driven by a blind force of nature, so can capitalism be viewed as driven by a blind, incessant impulse to consume human labor and life in the pursuit of capital. In some sense, Falk himself can be read as the revealed driving force behind capitalist accumulation, a consumer of human flesh obliged to follow an irrational impulse to survive, expand, and propagate himself regardless of the (moral) cost. In “Falk,” nature is more a social construction than a natural one, a figure which represents the hidden conditions (and contradictions) of middle class existence. In the text's attention to the mechanism of fetishism, the distinction between biology and economics collapses, and Falk's existence proves to be the hidden reality—indeed, the very well-spring—of Hermann's orderly, comfortable existence on board the Diana.

Implicated himself in this competitive world of commerce, the narrator remains unable to develop a critical distance from the social forces which dominate his consciousness. However, the very language in which he describes his experiences provides symptomatic indications of a repression of his awareness of these forces, a political unconscious,14 if you will, that reveals itself in his attitudes and responses both to Falk and Hermann. Suggesting that the most significant insights in the narrative derive from the psychological response of the narrator to Falk's actions, Joel R. Kehler sees the young captain as a conventional representative of the middle class whose “detachment is a distancing device, a defense-mechanism” which “betrays an unconscious preoccupation with mechanism, suffering, disease and death.”15 When trapped in the harbor, the narrator finds that Falk's unseen influence has preceded him and begins to suspect “a hidden mechanism behind what is happening to him.”16

In the distinction between the narrator's perspective and the perspective produced by the text, this mechanism reveals itself as the inner workings and competitive logic of monopoly capitalism. While the narrator understands Falk as a “noble savage” or in terms of an indomitable “will to live,” the narrative presents his underlying motivations as driven by commerce and competition. This distinction extends to Falk's pursuit of Hermann's niece. As Ted Billy aptly summarizes it: “Conrad does not share the narrator's myopic, idyllic view of Falk's courtship of Hermann's niece as an arcadian romance. Rather, he translates their affair into an ironic commercial transaction in which each partner obtains a satisfactory financial settlement.”17 Significantly, the two partners in this transaction are not Falk and Hermann's niece, but Falk and Hermann, an exchange that suggests that Hermann is a proprietor of much more than the cargo in the hold of his ship. Hermann owns his niece as much as the other goods on board his ship and sells her when she becomes a financial liability.

Not only applicable to Hermann's niece, the social relations which transform women into domestic laborers clearly apply to his wife as well, who appears early in the narrative in a suggestive passage that links domestic servitude to the broader forces of capitalist exploitation:

Mrs. Hermann, an engaging, stout housewife, wore on board baggy blue dresses with white dots. When, as happened once or twice, I caught her at an elegant little wash-tub rubbing hard on white collars, baby's socks, and Hermann's summer neck-ties, she would blush in girlish confusion, and raising her wet hands greet me from afar with many friendly nods. Her sleeves would be rolled up to the elbows, and the gold hoop of her wedding ring glittered among the soap-suds.


The link between her marital status and her subordinate role as a laboring housewife is made explicit by the description of her wedding ring glittering among the soap-suds. The narrator's attitude towards Hermann's wife is registered in the language that he uses to describe the encounter: her blush and “girlish confusion” suggest both the embarrassed awareness of her subordinate role in the relationship and the narrator's unspoken acceptance of a natural connection between domestic labor and the institution of bourgeois marriage. Furthermore, this labor is implicitly linked to the production of capital: in reproducing the patriarchal family structure through domestic labor, Hermann's wife reproduces a set of social relations in which her continuing exploitation serves as a contributing element in Hermann's prosperity. The “gold hoop” of her wedding ring not only serves as a metaphor for her domination, but also signifies the connection between unpaid labor and the creation of profit, the magnitude of which is always calculated in relation to value of that universal standard, gold itself. Emerging from the dirty soap-suds, the gold ring, (i.e. capital) appears in immediate proximity to the exploitative labor that produces it.

Not only subtly expressed in this episode, the underlying exploitative character of bourgeois marriage finds expression in frequent references to clothing that suggest concealed mechanisms at work beneath the appearance of middle-class respectability. In one such reference, the family laundry is described in grotesque imagery that implies the functioning of hidden forces beneath the deceptively calm appearance of stability:

… [O]nce a fortnight the family washing was exhibited in force. It covered the poop entirely. The afternoon breeze would incite to a weird and flabby activity all that crowded mass of clothing, with its vague suggestions of drowned, mutilated and flattened humanity. Trunks without heads waved at you arms without hands; legs without feet kicked fantastically with collapsible flourishes; and there were long white garments that, taking the wind fairly through their neck openings edged with lace, became for a moment violently distended as by the passage of obese and invisible bodies.


Presenting an illustration of chaos and a suggestion of disruptive forces on board the Diana, the family washing provides a series of images that call attention to a hidden connection between that “dismantled corpse of a ship” (231) where Falk consumes human flesh and the haven from the “corrupt world” (168) where Hermann presides over his family. The actual dismemberment which takes place on board the Borgmester Dahl finds symptomatic expression in the vague hints of “mutilated and flattened humanity” which emerge in the description of the laundry. Furthermore, the fetishizing of social relations which conceals the origin of value in labor finds expression in the parody of childbirth in the latter part of the description. As fetishized bodies whose unpaid labor reproduces the patriarchal social relations in which they subsist, the women on board the Diana find representation as empty dresses: the women have ceased to be subjects and become fetishized symbols which appear as a “natural” source of wealth. The empty dresses “violently distended by the passage of obese and invisible bodies” perform in a grotesque parody of labor whose animating secret, described as an irresistible force, is labor, that is to say, the domestic chores and childrearing that provide a source of value for the man who exploits them.

Furthermore, the mechanism by which domestic labor becomes mystified in the consciousness of the narrator is laid bare in the exaggerated importance which he attributes to their sewing. When he first visits the Diana, he finds “the two women sewing face to face under the open skylight” (175), but later on in a passage which conveys yet another description of the niece's physical attributes, her sewing becomes the expression of a universal force of nature:

… I looked at the girl's marvellous, at her wonderful, at her regal hair, plaited tight into that one astonishing and maidenly tress. Whenever she moved her well-shaped head it would stir stiffly to and fro on her back. The thin cotton sleeve fitted the irreproachable roundness of her arm like a skin; and her very dress, stretched on her bust, seemed to palpitate like a living tissue with the strength of vitality animating her body. How good her complexion was, the outline of her soft cheek and the small convoluted conch of her rosy ear! To pull her needle she kept the little finger apart from the others; it seemed waste of power to see her sewing—eternally sewing—with that industrious and precise movement of her arm, going on eternally upon all the oceans, under all the skies, in innumerable harbours.


The sexually charged imagery of the passage, in tandem with the narrator's obsessive attention to her hair, clothing, skin, and other body parts, clearly indicate that she is little more than an idealized sexual object for him. The description of her “maidenly tress” stirring “stiffly to and fro on her back” and dress palpitating like “a living tissue” are obviously phallic and indicate the degree to which she represents an object for consumption both for Falk and the narrator. Significantly, the fetishizing of her body takes place in unison with an idealization of her labor that inflates it into a cosmic principle. Not simply a sign of her domestic duties, her sewing is universalized to represent a process going “on eternally upon all the oceans, under all the skies, in innumerable harbours.” The narrator's perception that the niece's sewing constitutes a “waste of power” is symptomatic of his failure to recognize the pivotal role that her labor plays in the economy of Hermann's family. What this idealization of domestic labor suggests is a mystification of social relationships, a fetishizing of the inequitable, exploitative process endemic to patriarchal capitalism which transforms an historically contingent social relationship into a force operating independently of human volition. In this passage, the niece's sexual vitality appears in an apparently transhistorical connection to the domestic labor she performs. From the narrator's perspective, these two characteristics are virtually indistinguishable, a point of view which enables him to evade looking closely at the ethical implications of her servitude aboard the ship and his own role in procuring her for Falk. Although any suggestion of disturbing, irrational elements in this process are notably absent from the narrator's description, his over-idealization both of the niece and the significance of her work remains highly suspect.

Further evidence of the extent to which Hermann's niece becomes a fetish signifying both her status as a sexual object and her social status in production appears in the numerous passages where her natural attributes are directly compared to wealth. In one passage, the narrator calls explicit attention to how irrelevant her personality figures in his estimation of her value:

She might have been witty, intelligent, and kind to an exceptional degree. I don't know, and this is not to the point. All I know is that she was built on a magnificent scale. Built is the only word. She was constructed, she was erected, as it were, with a regal lavishness.


The narrator perceives the niece not as a subject invested with consciousness (although he admits to the possibility that she has a personality), but as a reified object, a “thing” that possesses attributes based on some unnamed, mystified process of production. The precise nature of this process is left unexplored. In his description, she appears as an object that has been built or constructed like a commodity invested with value. However, his account never arrives at any substantive analysis of how she acquired this value: she simply appears as a natural source of abundance and value. His idealization of her body never moves beyond her appearance and continues on the following page where her association with wealth becomes even more explicit:

But what magnificent hair she had! Abundant, long, thick, of a tawny colour. It had the sheen of precious metals … and her blue eyes were so pale that she appeared to look at the world with the empty white candour of a statue. You could not call her good-looking. It was something much more impressive. The simplicity of her apparel, the opulence of her form, her imposing stature, and the extraordinary sense of vigorous life that seemed to emanate from her like a perfume exhaled by a flower, made her beautiful with a beauty of a rustic and olympian order.


Aside from the obsessive attention to her hair, the narrator's language constructs a representation in which the niece herself possesses attributes that suggest that she is a source of monetary value. Through the narrator's objectification of the niece, we are given indirectly a meditation upon the nature of value and an analysis of the mechanism of commodity fetishism by which money becomes regarded as an “object of universal need attended by fear and respect, desire and disgust.”18 Indeed, in its obsessive concern with the question of value, the narrative continually disrupts the binary opposition between fear and respect implicit in the characterization of Falk and Hermann and betrays a profound anxiety concerning power and domination. Desire and disgust simultaneously inhabit the same spheres of social activity and attend the appropriation of the same objects. While the narrator's relation to the niece appears to operate on the level of utter abjection before her beauty, his language reveals his underlying motivation in constructing his tale: the very telling of the story is an act of appropriation invested with a desire that is at root an abjection before the supernatural power of money, an abjection attended by a desire to possess that power itself. Thus, it is no coincidence that her hair takes on the “sheen of precious metals,” i.e., gold or silver, that her very form is described as “opulent” and that her visage denotes the “empty white candour of a statue.” For the narrator, the niece possesses no subjectivity; she is an empty signifier, a presence and an absence representing nothing more than desire itself. Like money, she signifies both all values and none.

In his unconscious preoccupation with the question of value, the narrator “misunderstands” it; he mystifies it in the idealized figure of Hermann's niece in a way that construes the relationship between commodities and money as natural. Further evidence of this misrecognition appears in imagery linking labor and value that suggests a connection between work and violence. As Falk is appropriating the Diana against the will of her captain, the niece is also experiencing violence linked to her childrearing duties:

The flood of light brought out the opulence of her form and the vigour of her youth in a glorifying way. She went by perfectly motionless and as if lost in meditation; only the hem of her skirt stirred in the draught; the sun rays broke on her sleek tawny hair; that bald-headed ruffian, Nicholas, was whacking her on the shoulder. I saw his tiny fat arm rise and fall in a workmanlike manner.


The metaphorical rape of the ship by Falk is accompanied by a depiction of abuse suffered at the hands of one of the children that she cares for. The imagery of the passage links violence, labor, and value in terms that suggest the hidden structures of economic oppression and exploitation that underwrite both patriarchy and capitalism. In this passage, the objective forces involved in the creation of value reveal themselves as mechanisms of domination.

Indeed, the mechanism of commodity fetishism whereby the laws of commerce appear as objective laws of nature extends to the social relation in which women exist under patriarchal capitalism, a relation in which their subjection compels them to occupy a position as a commodity exchanged on the market like any other. That women occupy this position is evident in Hermann's attitude towards his niece. Not only does he feel no obligation towards her for taking care of his children, but he is also disturbed by the prospect of having to pay for her passage home when he returns to Germany with his family. When the prospect of marrying Falk seems to disappear, Hermann feels no sympathy for her. Rather, he sees her as a financial liability:

There was nobody to look after the children. He struck his umbrella on the deck. She would be like that for months. Fancy carrying all the way home, second class, a perfectly useless girl who is crying all the time.


The niece's status as a commodity is clearly evident in Hermann's attitude: now that she no longer has any use-value, he wishes to dispose of her in any way possible. Despite his apparent horror at Falk's cannibalism, his only real fear is that Falk might ask for a dowry, a fear that the narrator lays to rest as he bargains with Hermann in order to get Falk to tow his ship out of the port:

“Falk's in a corner. He will take her off your hands in one thin frock just as she came to you. And after ten years' service it isn't a bad bargain,” I added.

Far from taking offence, he resumed his air of civic virtue.


In his decision to give his niece to Falk, filial obligations play no role whatsoever. His “civic virtue” proves to be merely an appearance, an imaginary set of abstractions that exist in contradiction with the real laws that govern bourgeois capitalism.

Furthermore, the manner in which the narrator presents the issue to Hermann suggests his awareness of this contradiction and explains his need to idealize the niece and Falk's union as high romance. This idealization allows him to repress any understanding of the true nature of the exchange; however, the constant anxiety and uneasiness which punctuates his narrative testifies to a bifurcation in his consciousness that reflects the split between a fictional community imposed upon capitalist society as a whole in the form of universal principles of equality and justice and the ruthless competition and systematic domination which reveal the absence of any real community or set of mutual obligations under capitalism. Further evidence of the narrator's practical understanding of the primacy of the laws of commerce is provided in the mock card game which he plays with Falk to conceal the real nature of the bargain from Schomberg and the other patrons at the bar. As the narrator describes it:

We were not gambling, but it was a game; a game in which I felt I held the winning cards. The stake, roughly speaking, was the success of the voyage—for me; and he, I apprehended, had nothing to lose. Our intimacy matured rapidly, and before many words had been exchanged I perceived that the excellent Hermann had been making use of me.


Not only does their “intimacy” develop purely on the basis of what they are trying to get from each other, but what goes unmentioned is the fact that Falk's stake in the game is Hermann's niece. Furthermore, the “respectable” Hermann has been playing the game from the beginning. He helps the narrator and invites him on board his ship in order to put pressure on Falk to ask for his niece. The narrator is aware that Falk could “have the girl for the asking” (210), but plays upon Falk's fear of losing her by manipulating Falk's perception that he has influence with Hermann. What the narrator presents as the final irony of the transaction, i.e., that “there was a tale still going about the town of a certain Falk, owner of a tug, who had won his wife at cards from the captain of an English ship” (235), proves not to be an irony at all. The niece is a “stake” in a game where she occupies a position as a commodity. Once again, she appears in comparison to money and is bartered and sold like any other “thing” on the market.

Furthermore, the imagery which pervades the narrator's description of the sea provides yet another instance of an objectification of the laws of commerce into the laws of nature. Fleeing his financial concerns, the narrator takes refuge on Hermann's ship after his cash reserves have been stolen. His thoughts lead from a consideration of the injustices of the world to a personification of the sea as the source of these inequities:

From such reflections I was glad to make my escape on board that Breman Diana. There apparently no whisper of the world's inequities had ever penetrated. And yet she lived upon the wide sea: and the sea tragic and comic, the sea with its horrors and its peculiar scandals, the sea peopled by men and ruled by iron necessity is indubitably a part of the world. But that patriarchal old tub, like some saintly retreat, echoed nothing of it. She was world-proof. Her venerable innocence apparently had put a restraint on the roaring lusts of the sea. And yet I have known the sea too long to believe in its respect for decency. An elemental force is ruthlessly frank. It may, of course, have been Hermann's skillful seamanship, but to me it looked as if the allied oceans had refrained from smashing these high bulwarks, unshipping the lumpy rudder, frightening the children, and generally opening this family's eyes out of sheer reticence. It looked like reticence. The ruthless disclosure was, in the end, left for a man to make; a man strong and elemental enough and driven to unveil some secrets of the sea by the power of a simple and elemental desire.


The world that the young captain is fleeing from is the world of commerce: the sea functions as a figure for this world. His insistence upon the ship's freedom from inequity is belied by the patriarchal domination that emerges elsewhere in the narrative. Once again, the split between the imaginary obligations constructed in the bourgeois imagination, that is to say, the ideals of equality, liberty, and justice denoted by the reference to “decency,” and the actual economic relationships that bind people together is registered in the unstable boundary between the Diana and the corrosive, inequitable forces represented by the sea. The “elemental forces” associated with the “roaring lusts of the sea” and Falk's “simple and elemental desire” are primarily economic ones. Unlike in Lord Jim, where the sea functions as a strategy of containment, as a “non-place” that, in reality, “has long since been reorganized into a capitalist world system without empty places,”19 in “Falk,” this strategy breaks down and the exclusion of considerations of moral obligation by the objective laws of capitalist production and commerce requires a relocation of these (moral) values to the idealized middle-class existence on board the Diana. Given the narrator's tendency to objectify the social relationships that constitute his world, the “laws of iron necessity” driving both Falk and the sea must be more properly understood as economic laws that, through the mechanism of commodity fetishism, appear to the narrator as laws of nature. The narrator's need to construct a world where decency and mutual obligations beyond commerce hold uncontested sway finds expression in his evocation of the ship's “purity” and in his existential despair over “the childish comedy of disease and sorrow” which exists as an “abominably real blot upon that ideal state” on board the ship. The contrast between the reality of the world and the ideality of life on Hermann's ship could hardly be more stark or explicit. The narrator understands this “abominably real blot” upon the purity of bourgeois existence as an ineradicable characteristic of nature; however, the ambiguity of his language in tandem with the intensity of his anxiety show this characteristic to be the very foundation of bourgeois life. His idealization of the Diana (and Hermann's niece) is a fantasy, a classic instance of repression in which the unacknowledgable truth is associated with dirt and the idealized illusion with purity.

A further link between the forces of nature and the forces of commerce can be found in the portrait of Falk himself. As an elemental force, Falk is remarkably adept in his understanding of monopoly. The narrator indicates that even though Falk may have never heard the word “monopoly,” he has “a clear perception of the thing itself” (177), a characterization that suggests both that his understanding of capitalism is instinctual, and, by inference, that the laws of competition and commodity exchange spring from the instinctual disposition of human beings. Not only are Falk's business transactions unambiguously compared to his cannibalism, i.e., “he extracted his pound and a half of flesh from each of [the] merchant-skippers with an inflexible sort of indifference” (177), but Falk himself appears in the narrator's account as a kind of half-man, half-machine prowling the waters of the port:

It seems absurd to compare a tugboat skipper to a centaur: but he reminded me somehow of an engraving in a little book I had as a boy, which represented centaurs at a stream, and there was one especially, in the foreground, prancing bow and arrows in hand, with regular severe features and an immense curled wavy beard, flowing down his breast. Falk's face reminded me of that centaur. Besides, he was a composite creature. Not a man-horse, it is true, but a man-boat.


Although the passage clearly evokes connotations linked to primordial savagery, Falk is not half beast and half man, but half man, half machine. For Leo Gurko, “the boat replaces the horse as the medium for the vitality of nature,”20 but it is actually the mechanisms of production that replace the vitality of nature. More a harbinger of the modern cyborg than the savage past, Falk is inseparable from the machine with which he plies his trade. He has become part of the machinery of the impersonal system of capitalism, a fact that provides an explanation for his bottomless hunger. Objectified himself even as he seeks to appropriate wealth, Falk suffers from a profound psychic deprivation that has its source in the absence of moral and emotional ties with other human beings.

His isolation is not a choice, but an inevitable consequence of the objective social relations in which he subsists. When he is on board the tugboat, the narrator sees “nothing below the waist but the 'thwart-ship white lines of the bridge screens,” an image that leads his “eye to the sharp white lines of the bows cleaving the muddy water of the river” (178). Below the waist he is all boat: a steam engine takes the place of sexual organs. The phallic imagery in the description foregrounds not Falk's sexual impulses, but the means of production by which he maintains his dominance in the port. Here, sexual reproduction and capitalist production are combined in a single image: the irrational force driving his instinct for survival merges with the irrational forces driving monopoly capitalism. Like the centaur, Falk is a hunter; however, his prey is other human beings and his social position the historically specific role of predatory capitalist. Imagery suggesting Falk's position as a monopoly capitalist appears in numerous places throughout the narrative. Described variously as a “born monopolist”(231), “a wary old carp in a pond” (181), or as an “arbitrary spirit”(180), Falk operates without any obligations to anyone. The way he tows ships with “unfeeling haste, as if to execution”(180) finds an explanation in the truisms uttered by Schomberg that “[t]ime's money”(185) and “there's no such thing as a friend in business” (186). Indeed, to the narrator, the word “quarrelsome” is inapplicable to his difficulty with Falk, since “[n]atural forces are not quarrelsome” (205). Falk functions entirely without sympathy or compassion and is therefore an apt figure to represent the impersonal forces of capitalism. He is the very incarnation of egotistical calculation.

However, Falk's approach to business is not without profound psychological consequences that are registered in the consistent evocation of hunger that attends the narrator's descriptions of him. This hunger not only applies to Falk, but is linked to the entire ensemble of capitalist social relations. In the midst of his troubles with Falk, the narrator has a bad meal in Schomberg's inn. His reflections upon the poor quality of the table-d'hôte chops that Schomberg serves him provide a thematic link to Falk's cannibalism and the execrable dinner on the Thames where the narrator begins his tale. Several of the seaman eating at the river-hostelry also complain of hunger as they too struggle with chops that recall “scorched lumps of flesh at a fire of sticks in the company of other good fellows” (165). Evocations of primitive savagery attend the meal and not only provide the impetus for the narrator to begin his tale, but give an indication of the moral/psychological condition prevailing in London as much as Bangkok. The party of men loosely connected with the sea share a bad meal in a restaurant adjacent to the primary tributary of commerce in the Western world. The obvious comparison between their bad meal and the one Falk makes of his shipmates is highly significant, for it suggests a continuity between his practices and theirs, a common moral condition linked to the brutal exploitation and cutthroat competition endemic to capitalism. Each of the sailors at the table is enmeshed in England's imperialist dreams of world domination and empire. In London at the turn of the century, they are literally at the center of such a world and implicated in its “bad cookery” and its degraded moral condition. Significantly, the description of savages sitting around a fire eating roasted flesh includes no women. In keeping with the narrator's need to maintain a realm of ethical obligations in the domestic sphere, women seem simply not to exist in the savage past except as a topic of conversation among men. Realistically speaking, women would be sitting around the fire as well, but the narrator must keep the realm of savagery (commerce) separate from the world of domestic servitude in order to maintain the ideological purity of the imaginary values he associates with it.

The pervasive presence of hunger suggests a profound psychic deprivation engendered by the objective structures and social relations of patriarchal capitalism. Even as they engage in the ruthless competition that characterizes the commercial aspects of life at home and at sea, the men in the tale are perpetually hungry. Falk is as “hungry for the girl, terribly hungry, as he had been terribly hungry for food” on board the Borgmester Dahl. Yet, all of the characters in the tale evince traits of this same hunger. The connection between differing forms of mutilation and dismemberment can be found in the implicit comparison between the physical deprivation which Falk experiences adrift on the crippled steamer and the psychic deprivation endemic to capitalist society. While Falk's hunger results in the literal dismemberment of his fellow sailors, the psychic deprivation produced by capitalist social relations finds indirect representation through a mechanism of fetishism that functions both on an ideological level and a psycho-sexual one. On the one hand, the values of bourgeois existence mystify the social mechanisms which dehumanize individuals and deprive them of objective means of fulfilling their basic human needs. On the other hand, the fetishism of money, by concealing the origin of value in economic domination, produces a consciousness of other human beings as objects which can either satisfy their basic needs or inhibit their fulfillment; that is to say, other human beings appear as either objects of desire or competitors. Falk's cannibalism serves as a metaphor for a fetishizing impulse that inhabits the very structures of capitalism as much as the psyches of individual subjects.

The hunger “worse than hunger”(220) that tortures Falk arises from emotional deprivation and isolation. In short, it is a symptom of his existence in a world without a real community. The society of the Borgmester Dahl appears as the unthinkable Other of the bourgeois existence on board the Diana. Its description could easily pass as a depiction of the psychological consequences of the arbitrary, unfeeling mechanisms of capitalist domination:

The solidarity of the men had gone. They become indifferent to one another … Sometimes whispers of hate were heard passing between the languid skeletons that drifted endlessly to and fro, north and south, east and west, upon that carcase of a ship … the confined space, the close contact, the imminent menace of the waves, seem to draw men together, in spite of madness, suffering and despair. But there was a ship—safe, convenient, roomy: a ship with beds, bedding, knives, forks, comfortable cabins, glass and china, and a complete cook's gallery, pervaded, ruled and possessed by the pitiless spectre of starvation.


Filled with all kinds of commodities incapable of providing for the human needs they were created to supply, the ship describes the psychic deprivation and emotional hunger engendered by the absence of solidarity in human affairs. Furthermore, the uselessness of the commodities on board testifies to one of the central contradictions of capitalist society: while it produces wealth in abundance, it can only do so by creating widespread physical and psychological deprivation. In the description of the ship, this deprivation encompasses all directions on the map creating an impression of suffering, despair, and mutual hatred from which there is no exit. The metaphorical role of the ship as a figure for the moral condition of society explains the curious shifts to the present tense in the passage. The men “become” indifferent to each other, the waves “seem” to draw men together. An event in the past becomes a commentary upon the present and the breakdown of community provides a diagnosis of the ills of capitalism. In the process, another vision of human nature based on an appraisal of human needs emerges as a challenge to the model of instinctual savagery endorsed by the narrator. This vision implies the necessity of community and ethical obligation in meeting the psychological and physical needs of human beings while providing a critique of the logic of domination endemic to patriarchal capitalism that makes it incapable of providing for them.


  1. Joseph Conrad, “Falk: A Reminiscence.” In Typhoon and Other Stories (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 231.

  2. Tony Tanner, “‘Gnawed Bones’ and ‘Artless Tales’—Eating and Narrative in Conrad.” In Joseph Conrad: A Commemoration. Ed. Norman Sherry (London: Macmillan Press, 1976), 20.

  3. Sherry, 22.

  4. Sherry, 23.

  5. Sherry, 30.

  6. Sherry, 18.

  7. A notable exception is Ted Billy's discussion of “Falk” in A Wilderness of Words: Closure and Disclosure in Conrad's Short Fiction (Texas: Texas Tech University Press, 1997), 27-37. As Billy puts it, “the narrative reveals neither a glorification of the outdated myth of ‘the noble savage’ nor an endorsement of Schopenhauer's ‘will to live’ but a depiction of decadent capitalist commerce based on self-delusion” (28). Critics in the Darwinian tradition include: Deirdre David, “Selfhood and Language in ‘The Return’ and ‘Falk,’ Conradiana 8 (1976), 137-147 who views Falk as an “instinctual childlike character” (146), John A. Palmer, Joseph Conrad's Fiction: A Study in Literary Growth (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1968) who describes him as “a man of the senses, subject chiefly to the laws of self-preservation and sexual instinct” (86), and Walter E. Anderson, “‘Falk’: Conrad's Tale of Evolution,” Studies in Short Fiction 25:2 (Spring 1988), 101-8, who sees the tale as a “startling picture of evolutionary emergence” and an “elementary commentary on survival” (104). Critics in the Schopenhauerian tradition include: Bruce Johnson, Conrad's Models of Mind (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971) who sees “Falk” as a story which presents “a view of sympathy antithetical to Schopenhauer's [but] with a tenacity that suggests Schopenhauer was kept firmly in mind throughout the story” (52), Paul L. Wiley, Conrad's Measure of Man (New York: Gordian Press, 1966) for whom “Falk” provides an example of Conrad stripping “away all of the moral and intellectual refinements of civilized man in order to permit the one basic desire for life to exist as a single force”(75), and Paul Kirshner, Conrad: The Psychologist as Artist (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1968) who sees Falk as “virtually a personification of [Schopenhauer's] will to live in its simplest terms” (267).

  8. For O'Hanlon's perspective on “Falk,” see “Knife, Falk and Sexual Selection,” Essays in Criticism: A Quarterly Journal of Literary Criticism 31:2 (April 1981), 127-141. For an extended reading of Lord Jim along these lines see Redmond O'Hanlon, Joseph Conrad and Charles Darwin: The Influence of Scientific Thought on Conrad's Fiction (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1984).

  9. Redmond O'Hanlon, “Knife, Falk and Sexual Selection,” 127.

  10. O'Hanlon, 131.

  11. O'Hanlon, 134.

  12. O'Hanlon, 134.

  13. Leo Gurko, Joseph Conrad: Giant in Exile (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962), 2.

  14. See Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: New York: Cornell University Press, 1981).

  15. Joel R. Kehler. “The Centrality of the Narrator in Conrad's ‘Falk,’” Conradiana 8 (1974), 22.

  16. Kehler, 25.

  17. Ted Billy, A Wilderness of Words, 27.

  18. Etienne Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx (New York: Verso, 1995), 59.

  19. Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 218.

  20. Leo Gurko, Joseph Conrad: Giant in Exile, 67.

Wallace S. Watson (essay date 2001)

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Last Updated on April 2, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11503

SOURCE: Watson, Wallace S. “Misogyny and Homerotic Hints Feminized and Romanticized: Conrad's ‘Amy Foster’ and Kidron's Swept from the Sea.” In Literature/Film Quarterly, 29, no. 3 (2001): 179-95.

[In the following essay, Watson contrasts Conrad's story “Amy Foster” with the 1997 film adaptation Swept from the Sea.]

Beeban Kidron's 1997 film, Swept from the Sea (released as Amy Foster in England) is the third adaptation since 1974 of Joseph Conrad's short story, “Amy Foster,” a bleak tale of alienation, marital misunderstanding, and death set in rural Kent in the late nineteenth century.1 Written in less than two weeks in June 1901, this is one of Conrad's most pessimistic and misogynistic short stories.2 Its tragic themes have attracted some generalized appreciative commentary, but little notice has been taken of its stylistic shortcomings, particularly rhetorical overreaching. Many critics have speculated about the autobiographical implications of the story, particularly the suggestions of strong authorial identification with the main character—a central European exile in England whose wife deserts him just before his death—and the antipathy for women and marriage which are demonstrated here. Surprisingly, “Amy Foster” has not yet been brought into the recent discussion of possibly repressed homoeroticism in Conrad's fiction, in spite of its misogyny and the extreme sympathy and the sensuality with which the male protagonist is presented.

Kidron's 115-minute film is a distinctly woman-centered and romanticized version of Conrad's story. It is generally well acted and visually appealing. One of its more interesting aspects for students of literature and film is its cinematizing of the dramatized narration of the short story. This constitutes a major stratagem in Kidron's transformation of the gender implications of the tale, for the film's story-within-a-story is told not by one man to another, as in Conrad, but to a woman. That female listener makes explicit what the literary source only seems to imply: homoerotic desire on the part of the narrator for the young male protagonist of his tale. Moreover, the female listener in the film eventually inspires the narrator to become reconciled with the protagonist's widow, whom he has earlier harshly blamed for her husband's death. As a result, in the final scene he accepts the widow's transcendent vision of the love she had shared with the protagonist. Thus Kidron's film turns Conrad's depressing and misogynistic tale of female inadequacy and betrayal into a celebration of the transformational power of one woman's empathy and persuasive powers, and another's passionate love.3

Unfortunately, the interesting possibilities of this contemporary cinematic adaptation are pursued in utterly predictable fashion and are spoiled by sentimentality and melodramatic excess. Swept from the Sea fails to develop its distinctive interpretation in convincing or consistent fashion, and it is overwhelmed by ultra-romantic effects. As Peter Matthews writes, with only slight exaggeration, Kidron and co-writer Tim Willocks seem to have “feminized a recalcitrant male author by tapping his heretofore unsuspected potential as a bodice ripper.”


The main narrator of both versions of the tale is a physician named Kennedy. He has developed an intense fascination for a lively and attractive young man from the Carpathian mountains of central Europe, Yanko (Little John) Goorall, who came ashore in Kent after an emigrant ship on which he was sailing to America was sunk during a storm. Yanko was badly treated by most of the natives of this rural area, who took his strange language and gestures for lunacy. But he was befriended by a servant-girl, Amy Foster, and they eventually married. Shortly after the birth of their son, Yanko suffered convulsions during a spell of fever. He started to rave in his native tongue and to behave so threateningly that Amy fled with the baby, leaving her husband to die. As he tells this story, Dr. Kennedy bitterly blames Amy for deserting Yanko in his hour of greatest need, and thereby probably causing his death.

In Conrad's double-framed story, Dr. Kennedy's narrative is spoken to a visiting male friend, a seaman, whose voice we hear initially. This story-telling strategy well illustrates what Scott McCracken has described as the sort of man-to-man “speech-act” that often marginalizes the female in Conrad's fiction (19). The main functions of the unnamed opening narrator of “Amy Foster” seem to be to provide flattering characterizations of the doctor, along with symbolic descriptions of the setting which are apparently intended to add resonance to his tale. This first narrator speaks, thus, of brown fields glowing in the sunset as if they “had sweated out in minute pearls of blood the toil of uncounted plowmen” (108). He praises the “penetrating power” of the mind of Doctor Kennedy, whom he identifies as a widely traveled former naval surgeon and writer of scientific papers on animal and plant specimens (106). In the second half of the story, this initial narrator appears only once, but at a critical juncture, to interject a heavily laden simile about the sea as the doctor looks out of a window and ponders the possibility that Yanko's death might have been caused by Amy's neglect (138).

When Kennedy and his friend first encounter Amy early in the story as the doctor is making rounds in his “dogcart,” the friend asks if she is his patient. Flicking the reins “absently,” the doctor mutters, “Her husband used to be.” This is the deceptively casual beginning of Dr. Kennedy's long narrative, which he is apparently now telling in its entirety for the first time. After several pages devoted to Amy Foster's family background, her life as a servant, and her falling in love “silently, obstinately—perhaps helplessly” (110), Kennedy turns to the story of her former husband, introducing him portentously as “a being lithe, supple and long-limbed, straight like a pine, with something striving upwards in his appearance as though the heart within him had been buoyant.”4 The story of Yanko dominates the rest of Kennedy's narrative—belying the title of the story, which Conrad unaccountably changed to “Amy Foster” after having considered two titles referring to Yanko.5 The doctor put together that story over several years and from a variety of sources—including factual reports and rumors from the locals, his own observations, and many “friendly chat[s]” with the young man. Consistent with that opening description just noted, Kennedy speaks of Yanko with the utmost empathy—for example, as a “soft and passionate adventurer” with “a highly sensitive nature” (118), or as one who had suffered more than anyone else a “simply tragic” fate (113). The doctor's uncommon interest in the young exile is particularly evidenced in his recollection of their “friendly” conversations. Yanko spoke—

with many flashes of white teeth and lively glances of black eyes, at first in a sort of anxious baby-talk, then, as he acquired the language, with great fluency, but always with that singing, soft, and at the same time vibrating intonation that instilled a strangely penetrating power into the sound of the most familiar English words, as if they had been the words of an unearthly language.


As this lyrical passage implies, Kennedy has been especially moved by the younger man's efforts to express himself in his new language. He renders Yanko's impressions and thoughts with considerable subtlety, paying close attention to his point of view and his developing ability to speak English. Thus he speaks of the Berlin train station where Yanko stopped for a short while in his trek westward as “a house of bricks,” the emigrant ship in Hamburg harbor as “the side of a thing like a great house on the water,” and the ship's movement during the storm as “rocking all ways at once all the time.”6 The doctor describes vividly and empathetically Yanko's fear and confusion upon his arrival in a strange land whose name he does not even know, where no Catholic icons are to be seen, and where the baaing of sheep is the only language he recognizes. “Upon my word, I wonder he did not go mad. … Conceive you the kind of an existence overshadowed, oppressed, by the everyday material appearances … as if by the visions of a nightmare” (129).

The doctor who is so fascinated by what he has learned and imagined about Yanko Goorall can spare little sympathy for his young widow, however. His negativity toward Amy Foster is anticipated by the initial narrator, who—on the basis of only a momentary glance—compiles in one sentence a catalogue of complaints about her appearance and nature. Her “squat figure” and her “scanty, dusty brown hair” knotted in the back connote physical unattractiveness; her “dull” face projects mental inferiority and a kind of natural propensity for victimization: it is “red, not with a mantling blush” (several romantic stereotypes of women are compressed into that metaphor) but “as if her flat cheeks had been vigorously slapped.” Kennedy agrees with his guest's remark that she “seems a dull creature” and expands upon her passivity and “inertness of mind.” (107) While he does acknowledge Amy's difficult circumstances, the doctor almost never seems to empathize genuinely with her. He explains that Amy is the child of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy—because of which her father Isaac has been dispossessed by his father and still hates his daughter—and that she was sent at age fifteen to work as a servant on the farm of their neighbors, the Smiths. But Kennedy treats the pathetic young woman with almost obsessive coldness, speaking of her “want of charm,” her hesitancy in speaking, and—repeatedly—her mental dullness. The doctor admits, in clinical terms, that Amy must have had a “certain amount” of imagination, which would have been necessary for her to form that “notion of beauty” essential to love. Nevertheless, he says, it is “an inscrutable mystery” how she acquired “this aptitude.” At another point, he characterizes Amy's falling in love with Yanko as a kind of pagan “possession,” a fear like “the terror of a brute” (107-10). The well-traveled man of science, trained in the study of species, has observed Amy Foster and has found her wanting, on many counts.

Kennedy rarely speaks of Amy after her introduction near the beginning; when he does, it is mainly to criticize her. Thirteen continuous pages in the first half of the 36-page story are devoted exclusively to Yanko's frightening journey across Europe and his mistreatment upon his arrival in England. Amy reappears briefly for an important scene in which she brings bread to Yanko in the Smiths' woodshed. But Kennedy emphasizes that Yanko's resulting love for her was inspired by the unusual circumstances of this meeting, not by any attractive qualities in his future wife: “No wonder that Amy Foster appeared to his eyes with the aureole of an angel of light. … Through this act of impulsive pity he was brought back again within the pale of human relations with his new surroundings. He never forgot it—never.” Moreover, the doctor suggests that Amy's attraction to the young man on this occasion was merely physical: “Through his forlorn condition she had observed that he was good-looking” (124-25). A few pages later, he suggests that Yanko's memory of Amy's compassion might have prevented him from “cutting his throat.” But he immediately backs away from that possibility, concluding that it was surely Yanko's “instinctive love of life” which kept him from such an extreme action, and he chides himself for being such “an old sentimentalist” as to credit Amy for this (129-30).

Kennedy's narrative quickly turns away from these brief and demeaning references to Amy to follow with continuing heavy sympathy more recent events in Yanko's life. We are introduced to the Swaffers, who took Yanko in to work on their farm: old Swaffer, a kindly eccentric with a keen interest in the “outlandish,” and his “severe” and nearly deaf daughter.7 Kennedy admiringly recalls Yanko's rescue of Swaffer's granddaughter from a horsepond, dashing “in long leaps” across the field in which he is plowing—a deed for which he is allowed to eat in the Swaffers' kitchen and start receiving wages. This account makes extraordinary claims for the young man's eyes (the windows to his soul?). He spots the child “through the gap of a gate [seeing] what for anybody else would have been a mere flutter of something white,” with eyes “straight-glancing, quick, far-reaching … that only seemed to flinch and lose their amazing power before the immensity of the sea” (130).


Three-quarters of the way through his story, Kennedy abruptly brings Amy back into focus to speak briefly, and with obvious discomfort, of her engagement and marriage to Yanko. The immediate context for this is a leisurely and affectionate account of the kind of conversation between the two men that apparently took place more than once, as they sat together on the grass overlooking “the immense shimmering of the sea.” Yanko spoke there of having given up his dream of going to America, where he once thought “true gold can be found lying ready and to be got for the trouble of picking it up,” a belief from which the doctor had tried several times to dissuade him. On such occasions, “cocking his hat with a little conquering air, he would defy my wisdom,” says Kennedy: “He had found his bit of true gold. That was Amy Foster's heart” (133).

This fond recollection of intimate, playful male discourse contrasts sharply with the terse and unsympathetic account of the courtship of Yanko and Amy which follows. The doctor speaks primarily about the community's renewed objections to Yanko now that he is planning to marry one of their own. He mentions that Yanko gave Amy a green ribbon, but adds that she probably did not know how to use it. The only image he offers of the couple's “walking out” casts Amy as by far the less attractive of the two. The “finery” which she wears seems distinctly plain, even for this time and place: “gray dress, black feather, stout boots.” (The mention of her “prominent white cotton gloves that caught your eye a hundred yards away” may be an ironic put-down of her pretensions to stylishness.) If Amy has any charming qualities, they are only in the imagination of the attractive young man, “his coat slung picturesquely over one shoulder, pacing by her side, gallant of bearing and casting tender glances upon the girl with the golden heart. I wonder whether he saw how plain she was” (133-35).

Kennedy's account of how Yanko received the Swaffers' permission to marry emphasizes the young man's attractively quaint manners: he had requested the permission in a “curiously feudal” manner. But the marriage itself is presented as a fatal trap for him. The doctor's explanation that old Swaffer gave the couple a cottage in gratitude for Yanko's saving the life of his grandchild modulates into a chilling observation on the after-effect: “Of course, after that no power on earth could prevent them from getting married.” And Kennedy introduces his brief account of their life as husband and wife grimly, as merely a matter of Amy's determination: “Her infatuation endured” (136). Soon after the birth of the child, to which the narrative quickly moves, Kennedy noticed that Yanko had begun to be “less spring of step … less keen of eye … as if the net of fate had been drawn closer round him already.” The cause of this seems to have been Amy's growing sense of alienation from her husband—particularly because he speaks to the baby in his native language. The doctor has listened sympathetically to Yanko's revelations of troubles in their marriage, and the young man's suggestion as to the cause: “Women are funny.” In Kennedy's mind, Amy's incapacity is largely responsible for their troubles: “I wondered whether his difference, his strangeness, were not penetrating with repulsion that dull nature they had begun by irresistibly attracting” (137-38).

In a pivotal scene, the physician breaks off the story momentarily to ponder the possibility that his fascinating patient's death might have been caused literally by his wife's fear and hostility. He gazes out the window at what the unnamed narrator, in his last appearance in the story, describes ponderously as “the frigid splendor of the sea, immense in the haze, as if enclosing all the earth with all the hearts lost among the passions of love and fear.” Kennedy wonders aloud: “Physiologically now … it was possible. It was possible” (138). Then he moves quickly to tell of Yanko's illness and death, in the most sympathetic tones, unambiguously holding Amy accountable.

In recounting his visit to their home during the last night of Yanko's illness, the doctor emphasizes again her “shortsighted … dumb” eyes. He mentions how he “indignantly” accused her of thinking Yanko was shamming sickness and imagined at the time that she was already “meditating a flight up the miry road” (138-39). Early the next morning, Kennedy found the young man in a puddle outside the deserted cottage and brought him inside. Yanko explained bitterly that he had been only asking for water when his wife ran away in terror. Kennedy sums up melodramatically:

She had left him. She had left him—sick—helpless—thirsty. The spear of the hunter had entered his very soul. “Why?” he cried, in the penetrating and indignant voice of a man calling to a responsible Maker. A gust of wind and a swish of rain answered.


The physician makes clear that he lays the responsibility for Yanko's death on Amy, in reporting that he certified the cause of death as “heart failure”: “His heart must have indeed failed him, or else he might have stood this night of storm and exposure, too” (141).

Kennedy does blame himself for not having acted upon his suspicion the previous evening that Amy was on the verge of leaving her dying husband. Moreover, he seems to have felt a twinge of sympathy for her pitiable condition when, the morning after Yanko's death, he saw “stirring behind the dull, blurred glance of those eyes … the specter of the fear which had haunted her” the night before (190). But in concluding the story he returns the blame to Amy Foster, now for having already forgotten her dead husband: “Not a word of him. Never. Is his image as utterly gone from her mind as his lithe and striding figure, his caroling voice are gone from our fields?” (141-42).


Conrad's short story has received little specific critical attention until fairly recently. Albert Guerard briefly pointed to its “moral and ‘cosmic’” symbolism, seeing here “a generalized comment on the lonely, uncomprehended, absurd human destiny” (50). For Jocelyn Baines, “Amy Foster” gives voice to a central theme in Conrad, “the essential isolation and loneliness of the individual” (267). Others have declared the short story “fundamental” to the author's literary corpus and “one of Conrad's finest short stories” (Andreach 262; Graver 105).8 These latter claims seem to be based more on Conrad's apparent intentions in the story than the artistry employed in realizing them. While “Amy Foster” does have its serious themes and powerful dramatic moments, as well as some interesting experimentation in dramatized narration, the story appears to this reader to be straining too hard and awkwardly for its effects. At times the double-narrator structure seems to be managed almost mechanically, in striking contrast to the rich complexities of the superficially similar narrative pattern in Heart of Darkness, written two years earlier. Both of these stylistic deficiencies are obvious in the passage set by the window, cited above. In comparison with other writing Conrad was producing in this extremely fertile period of his young career, the hurriedly written “Amy Foster” is “not a very good story,” as J. I. M. Stewart puts it (19).

Frederick Karl calls “Amy Foster” “essentially a simple story of the heart.”9 However, the story is a good bit more complex than this dismissal suggests. It also may be a “story of the heart” in a more personal sense than Karl apparently intends here. That is, the main significance of the story for students of Conrad may lie in what it reveals about the author at a critical juncture in his life. Most of the published commentary on the story (including Karl's) has in fact focused on its autobiographical significance: Conrad's identification with the protagonist, like himself an exile from central Europe; and the implications of the story for our understanding of the author's attitudes toward women and marriage.

Conrad drew upon his personal observations for both major settings of the story: Yanko's homeland in the Carpathian mountains, which the author visited in his youth, and the Kentish coastal area where he was living when he wrote the tale.10 Moreover, while the story does display some significant literary indebtedness—particularly to Gustave Flaubert's “Un Coeur simple” and Stephen Crane's “The Monster”11—its initial impulse and many of its details were provided by Conrad's close friend, neighbor, and collaborator Ford Madox Hueffer (later Ford), who lived near him at the time the story was written.12

Considering his experience as a former Pole living in England, it is likely that Conrad took a personal interest in two German castaways in Kent that Hueffer told him about—especially their linguistic difficulties—and carried that interest into the writing of the story (even though the author never suffered anything like the deprivations experienced by those exiles, or by Yanko Goorall).13 Conrad had begun to acquire English only at age 21, in 1878, as a Polish- and French-speaking sailor on English ships, and had published his first novel, Almayer's Folly, in English, just six years before writing “Amy Foster” in 1901. Frederick Karl argues that this linguistic emphasis is the most significant autobiographical dimension in “Amy Foster.” Conrad made Yanko “his own,” writes Karl, “not because of the obvious references to foreignness or because of the hostile female character, but for the linguistic crisis [his story] confronts.”14

As Karl's reference to “the hostile female character” suggests, much autobiographical criticism of the short story has pointed to the possible connections between the misogyny exhibited there and Conrad's attitude toward his wife and toward marriage in general. His wife Jessie claimed that the character of Amy was inspired by a servant who worked for the Conrads and who impressed her husband by her “animal-like capacity for sheer uncomplaining endurance.” She also described how, during their honeymoon in Brittany in 1896, Conrad experienced a delirium brought on by high fever and startled her by talking wildly in Polish.15 But “Amy Foster” seems to be a more disturbing comment on Conrad's domestic life than these two anecdotes imply.

The Conrad biographies make clear that the writer had entered into his marriage five years earlier to the “meek and compliant” Jessie George, fifteen years his junior, abruptly and in utterly unromantic fashion.16 His primary motives seem to have been to meet social expectations and to find personal security in his new life as an English novelist. At the time he propsed to Jessie, he claimed he was not going to live long, insisted that they marry within six weeks, and then disappeared for three days. Immediately after their small civil wedding, the couple left England for an extended stay in a small cottage on the coast of Brittany, where they immediately set up the kind of domestic arrangements that would characterize the rest of their lives together: Joseph intently pursuing his profession as author and sharing his most significant thoughts and feelings almost exclusively with male friends, while Jessie, who was unable to provide intellectual companionship, tried to attend to his more practical needs. Within months Joseph was writing to friends of his extreme loneliness. He had made clear when he and Jessie became engaged that he did not want children, apparently because they would compete with him for the motherly attentions he expected from her. He was furious when Jessie became pregnant, kept coldly aloof during Borys's birth in 1899, and left the boy's childhood care entirely up to her.

Amy Foster is one of the most consistently negative representations of a woman anywhere in the Conrad canon, and it is easy to imagine that the conditions of the author's marriage and his feelings about the recent birth of a child had something important to do with this fact. Admittedly, women in most of Conrad's fiction are largely relegated to minor, stereotypical, or symbolic roles. Nevertheless these females are usually treated with sympathetic understanding—from Kurtz's silent and symbolically fecund native woman and his naïvely idealistic Intended in Heart of Darkness; through the ill-used Jewel, Emilia Gould, and Lena (Lord Jim, Nostromo, and Victory); to the assertive and complex Natalie Haldin in Under Western Eyes. But Dr. Kennedy's unrelentingly harsh treatment of the pathetic Amy Foster—as unattractive, stupid, and responsible for her husband's tragic end—is almost obsessive, and there is nothing in the story to suggest that the author intended to distance himself from his narrator's strong disapproval of Amy. As Richard Herndon wrote in concluding his thorough analysis of the many sources of the story, the challenge of interpreting “Amy Foster” autobiographically is not to look for evidence that the author felt isolated and mistreated upon his arrival in England, but instead to determine the “significance for his outlook on love and marriage [of its] tragic domestic plot.”17

Dr. Kennedy's antipathy for Amy Foster and his fascination with the young man who marries her may have even deeper roots in the author's psychology. The text imples that the narrator's interest in Yanko is substantially erotic, and it might be argued that this indicates such desire—strongly repressed—on the part of Conrad. Of course, Dr. Kennedy's misogynistic representation of Amy need not imply erotic desire for Yanko on his part: men who dislike women need not be gay, and gay men need not dislike women. But the doctor's insistent dislike for Amy seems to be based primarily on her inability to appreciate Yanko. Moreover, the language in which Dr. Kennedy speaks of the young man frequently suggests romantic and sexual attraction.

We have noted already the narrator's references to Yanko as attractively virile (“gallant of being” with a “little conquering air,” “lively glances of black eyes,” and “his lithe and striding figure, his caroling voice”) as well as seductively “sensitive” (“soft and passionate,” his voice “singing and soft” with “vibrating intonations”). Both of these aspects of the young man's personality are captured early on in a description of Yanko as “a being lithe, supple and long-limbed” whose “lustrous black eyes” resemble those of “a woodland creature” (111). At one point Kennedy fancies that he and Amy Foster, “alone in all the land” could see Yanko's “very real beauty. He was very good-looking, and most graceful in his bearing” (134). But although Amy was capable of appreciating Yanko's physical beauty, she was not, in the doctor's mind, capable of understanding him fully, and in fact is seen finally as the agent through which the phallic “spear of the hunter” death had destroyed the attractive young man.

What are we to make of the affectionate gaze that Dr. Kennedy casts upon Yanko? Might the author have intended the reader to guess at an erotic attraction that he was unwilling to represent more directly? Conrad certainly suggests such an attraction on the part of Mr. Denver in Lord Jim, the “more than middle-aged bachelor with a reputation for eccentricity” who is bitterly heart-broken when Jim, whom he has described to Marlow as girlish, leaves him abruptly (189). Might “Amy Foster” be added to the evidence which some critics have adduced recently in arguing for the presence of repressed authorial homoerotic desire in Conrad's many portrayals of male-to-male companionship, affection, and even conflict?

Such claims were first advanced in a 1979 essay by Robert Hodges in The Journal of Homosexuality. Hodges recalls Conrad's youthful attachment to “the handsome, virle” Corsican, Dominic Cervoni, and he finds suggestions of homoeroticism in Conrad's adult relationships with Hueffer, Cunninghame Graham, Stephen Crane, and Bertrand Russell (381-82). Hodges argues that Conrad was comfortable in representing homosexual desire in his earlier works, including Lord Jim and what seems to him an equally obvious “love story” in “The Secret Sharer” (383-86).18 And he suggests that Conrad's often noted expressions of homophobia—in the characterizations of Jones in Victory and Mrs. Fyne in The Rescue, along with his renunciation of his association with Roger Casement after the public revelation of Casement's homosexuality—are a function of an increasingly urgent repression of homoerotic sympathies and desire in his later years, the period of his “declining” artistic powers and his public success (382-83, 387-88). Hodges's argument is too brief and superficial to be persuasive. Still, it is surprising that there has not been more explicit and timely response to this provocative piece of critical revisionism.

Richard Ruppel, in 1998, acknowledged Hodges's argument in a thoughtful essay, “Joseph Conrad and the Ghost of Oscar Wilde.” Ruppel discusses hints of homoeroticism throughout the Conrad canon in the context of an argument that the homosexual as “an identifiable type” emerged only in the later nineteenth century, just as Conrad was beginning his career as a writer (19). He concludes that Conrad was undeniably “an early investigator of the homosocial continuum—from the most conventionally acceptable good fellowship to the most taboo homosexual orientation and behavior.”19 But this does not lead him to speculate about the author's own sexual propensities.

Two years earlier, Geoffrey Harpham, in a wide-ranging and theoretically sophisticated analysis of the concept of “mastery” as applied to Conrad's life and works, argued that Conrad's fiction unintentionally reveals homosexual urges as well as sympathies. Harpham complains that traditional humanistic interpretations of Conrad have been inclined to see in Conrad only narratives of heroism or exercises in “narratological craft,” ignoring “the possibility of a fugitive current of libidinal energy … [and] desire flowing between two men” (126). Challenging Tony Tanner's denial of homosexual implications in English and American sea stories, Harpham shows, for instance, how Conrad's memorable account of the initial gathering of the crew in The Nigger of the Narcissus, ostensibly an evocation of “the innocent fellowship of the deck,” can suggest “a floating bathhouse where ribald stories of closeted admirals and gentlemen with secrets circulate freely” (118). Harpham accounts for the hints of homosexuality he finds in Conrad's texts as the unintended effect of his writing in a language he never quite mastered (143 ff.). Had Conrad achieved more mastery of English, he would have been able to censor more effectively “the unmentioned subject, sexual desire, and especially homosexual desire” that escapes through the cracks in his intended meanings (176).

Such speculation invites the reader of “Amy Foster” to ask whether Dr. Kennedy's narrative of Yanko Goorall conceals or suppresses, underneath its complex and self-reflexive surface and its ponderous exclamations about the cosmic significance of the protagonist's sufferings, an attraction for the young man that goes beyond intense sympathy and homosocial bonding? If so, how much does his narrative inadvertently suggest about Conrad's sympathies and perhaps his sexual orientation? Although this is not an appropriate occasion for venturing further into the treacherous waters of such speculation about Conrad's psychosexual nature, this is clearly one aspect of the autobiographical implications of “Amy Foster” that calls for further consideration.


One does not suppose that Beeban Kidron and her co-screenwriter/executive producer Tom Willocks looked into the gender-based Conrad criticism cited above as inspiration for making their film adaptation of “Amy Foster.” Presumably the hints in that text, in addition to Kidron's previous film explorations of unconventional gender territory, were more than enough to motivate the director and writer to present Dr. Kennedy's fascination for Yanko Goorall as homoerotic longing—though that theme is treated with the utmost caution and made explicit only in the final moments of the film.

Starting in the late 1980s, Kidron made for British television over half a dozen dramas and a documentary, most of them focusing on women or on unconventional sexual situations. Antonia and Jane (1991) deals with a long friendship between two women. Used People (1992), Kidron's Hollywood debut, is a comedy about a middle-aged American Jewish woman courted by an Italian man; its impressive cast includes Shirley MacLaine, Kathy Bates, Jessica Tandy, Marcello Mastroianni, and Sylvia Sydney. Kidron's 1993 documentary, Hookers Hustlers Pimps and Their Johns, is said to show “sympathy for outsiders and … fascination with sexual role-play” (James 53). Her best known work prior to the Conrad adaptation was To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995), a Hollywood film with Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and Stockard Channing as three male homosexual cross-dressers who find themselves stranded in a dusty little town somewhere in the American Middle West. To most reviewers the film seemed an overly sanitized attempt to cash in on the success of Australian Stephan Elliot's camp drag queen comedy, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994).20

The casting of Used People and To Wong Foo suggests that Kidron has a knack for attracting excellent actors to her projects. This is the case with Swept from the Sea. Heading the cast as Dr. Kennedy—with a striking resemblance to the middle-aged Joseph Conrad—is the distinguished and openly gay character actor Ian McKellen. Best known for his recent Golden Globe-winning portrayal of the title character in the 1995 Richard III, McKellen has specialized in literary adaptations and in portrayals of writers and artists; in one of his most recent films, Gods and Monsters, he plays homosexual filmmaker James Whale, the maker of Frankenstein. McKellen's portrayal of Dr. Kennedy in Swept from the Sea is thoughtful but pallid; perhaps Kidron was counting too much on his being known as gay to carry his part. As Yanko, the handsome Swiss-born Vincent Pérez (La Reine Margot, Indochine, and Cyrano), demonstrates considerable energy and versatility, and his Russian accent is credible. The role of Amy Foster seems to have been a distinctly new venture for English actress Rachel Weisz, who had recently co-starred with Keanu Reeves in the action film Chain Reaction and played in Noel Coward's Design for Living on the London stage. Weisz plays the part of the love-consumed servant girl generally with impressive restraint, as Peter Matthews describes, “checking her bodily movements and acting with her eyes.” Kathy Bates (Fried Green Tomatoes, Diabolique) is fairly convincing—though at times smug—as Miss Swaffer, here in a much more sympathetic and significant role than in the short story. Zoë Wannamaker, a highly acclaimed stage actress, has some effective moments as Amy's abused and bitter mother.

Kidron's adaptation keeps the basic framework of Conrad's “Amy Foster,” but to vastly different ends. The location is moved from a dreary Kentish coastline to the lovely cliffs and seascapes of Cornwall. Amy is portrayed as a self-reliant and attractive, if somewhat mysterious, child of nature who returns to her dying husband to share with him a moment of transcendental love. Kennedy's misogynistic narration, delivered in the literary text to an entirely supportive male friend, is spoken in the film to a woman who brings the doctor around to her sympathetic view of Amy Foster, after pointing out that his apparently homoerotic love for Yanko has blinded him to Amy's true nature.

The film is at many points visually impressive. A helicopter shot under the opening titles, which sweeps across the bay up to Amy and her son, sets the stage for many appealing travelling and panoramic shots of the cliffs and sea vistas of Cornwall. By contrast, the bleak rural cottages and muddy barnyards are rendered with gritty realism. Furthermore, as Peter Matthews notes, Kidron's experience as a documentarist is evident in her close observations of the lovers' faces and in some impressive deep-focus staging in certain interior scenes.

But the pace of the film is extremely slow, and the script turgid and predictable, as reviewers have pointed out. Stephen Holden complains of the film's “blunt, utterly humorless style with portentously lumpy language and broad acting,” and Matthews of the unsubtle treatment of the rustics as “an undifferentiated mass” of hostility. Edward Guthman finds here a “heavy-handed and portentous” version of a “19th century yarn” of the kind that John Schlesinger parodied with such fun in his Cold Comfort Farm (also with Ian McKellen). Adding an insistently melodramatic dimension throughout is a heavily orchestrated soundtrack by the prolific John Barry, “master of the majestically romantic film” (Holden).21


From the opening shot of Amy and her son on a cliff overlooking the sea, the movie focuses much more consistently and sympathetically on Amy Foster than does Conrad's tale. To be sure, the film vividly dramatizes Yanko's frightening journey from his homeland—beginning with a sequence of folk dancing and loving family good-byes in his native land. However, once Yanko arrives in England (just a few minutes into the film), Amy is brought into and remains in the foreground of the narrative. Furthermore, Rachel Weisz's Amy comes across as a sensuous rustic beauty with none of the dullness of her literary model. Although both her father and Dr. Kennedy characterize her as stupid, she appears to the viewer merely shy and withdrawn. This seems normal enough, considering the hateful treatment she gets from her father and the hard conditions of her life as servant to a tyrannous farm woman with a crude and domineering husband.

Amy is presented as a child of nature, particularly drawn to the sea. One early sequence shows her wading in a lovely stream that opens into the bay, gathering treasure from the water: several old glass buoys hung about with seaweedy rope, through which she (along with the sympathetic camera) gazes at the sun. Her favorite haven from the depressing life into which she has been cast is a secret grotto hid among the seaside cliffs, filled with glass and other sea treasures—shells, stones, coral, driftwood, seaweed—along with odd pieces of furniture.

In this representation of Amy as a virtual sea-creature, Swept from the Sea seems to be associating itself with two recent highly successful women-centered films. One is John Sayles's The Secret of Roan Innish (1994), set on the coast of Donegal, Ireland and evocatively photographed by Haskell Wexler, in which a young girl explores the mysterious legend of a seal-woman who may be her mother. The other is Jane Campion's The Piano (1993), which, as Matthews points out, may have inspired the impressive camera work and water imagery of Swept from the Sea; both Campion's and Kidron's films have “tight-lipped quasi-pagan heroines in touch with primordial nature.” At one point Kidron's film also joins in the recent reassessment of witchcraft as an expression of natural femininity demonized by patriarchy. During the storm in which the emigrant ship is wrecked, Amy is seen dancing in the rain and then delightedly gazing out of the window of her room; Kennedy in voice-over speaks of (and discounts) rumors that Amy's witchcraft caused the storm. Needless to say, in the Conrad story there is no grotto, and no hint of these other interesting mysteries in the characterization of Amy Foster.


One of the most challenging problems for cinematic adapters of Conrad's fiction has been the dramatized characters who are so often the instruments of narration. For example, Conrad's English teacher of languages disappears completely from Razumov, an excellent 1936 French adaptation of Under Western Eyes. Marlow carries virtually no narrative function in Richard Brooks's swashbuckling Lord Jim (1965). A Marlovian voice-over was added—confusingly—only late in post-production of the legendary Apocalypse Now (1979). These and other instances of absent or ineffectual dramatized narrators in the Conrad films underscore what is widely agreed to be the inherent difficulty of employing an in-frame narrator in film. The moment the narrator is no longer seen on the screen, the effect of his or her voice is lost to the more direct impact of the visual imagery. For this reason, it might seem surprising that Kidron's film retains Dr. Kennedy in the central role as narrator. However, this is one of the primary means by which the film seeks to accomplish its radical transformation of the Conrad text.

As we have seen, Kennedy in the short story talks to an unnamed male friend whose main function is to lend credibility and symbolic richness to the doctor's narration. In the film, the doctor tells his story to Miss Swaffer, as he cleans and bandages a nasty ulcerated wound on her leg. The stout, ailing woman is portrayed as kind-hearted and attentive—in contrast to her dour and largely deaf model who is only briefly mentioned in the short story. She is also assertive. Early in the film, she challenges her physician after he curtly dismisses Amy from the sickroom: “Really, doctor, that cruelty was unnecessary.” When she then asks why he hates Amy so much, Kennedy mumbles that the young woman is a “simpleton” and begins to cut away the dead flesh on the wound. Miss Swaffer encourages him to tell her more, remarking, “It would ease my fever … yours too.” This gentle invitation, with its unmistakable tones of late twentieth-century psychotherapeutic talk, is the motivation for Kennedy's narrative, which follows.22

The doctor seeks to answer his patient's criticism by presenting Yanko in the most sympathetic terms, while portraying Amy as unworthy of him and finally responsible for his death, as in Conrad's story. This narrative technique works well for Kennedy's portrayals of Yanko. His empathetic language corresponds to the visualizations—for example, in the brief but moving account of Yanko's difficult journey by train and boat from his homeland and his arrival in England, and in scenes representing the growing friendship between the doctor and the younger man. However, when Kennedy speaks of Amy and of her developing love relationship with Yanko, the cinematic representation works against the verbal narration which ostensibly generates it. Kennedy's cinematized flashbacks are sympathetic, romantic, and often melodramatic, while his words are unenthusiastic when not downright disparaging. The filmmakers seem to have made no effort to keep the visualization of Kennedy's story consistent with his verbalized point of view (as classically accomplished with the multiple narrators in Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon [1951]).

Thus the spectator can only be confused when, after an hour-long, romantic visualization of the Amy-Yanko story up to their marriage, the film returns to the sick room, and we hear again Kennedy's harsh disapproval of Amy. He responds to a sentimental comment by Miss Swaffer (“He found his home in the heart of Amy Foster, and she found hers in him”) with a scowl and a caustic remark: “She did not take care for him.” His patient's response to that—“You cannot imagine how much she took care for him”—sets up Kennedy's account of the final part of his story: Yanko's illness and delirium, Amy's flight into the night storm with the child, and Yanko's death. Again the cinematic flashback largely contradicts Kennedy's verbal condemnation of Amy's behavior. The spectator is invited by the flashback to feel strongly for the terrified young woman as her sick husband raves in a foreign tongue, breaks a bottle of medicine on the stone floor, and lurches toward the baby's crib. And her retreat into the stormy night, clutching the infant to her breast, is presented with all the pathos and terror of a D.W. Griffith melodrama.

In Conrad's version of the story, as we have seen, Amy is not present at Yanko's death. There are just the two men, in intimate communication, sharing in a mutual condemnation of the irresponsible women: “She had left him—sick—helpless—thirsty. The spear of the hunter had entered his very soul.” The film (not unexpectedly) has Amy return at this propitious moment, and Yanko dies in her arms, while Kennedy is outside getting his medical bag. With a pained smile, Yanko recognizes Amy, assures her he would change nothing that has happened between them, and reaffirms that she remains his “true gold.” Amy repeats an assurance he has earlier given her, “We are the lucky ones,” and he dies in apparent bliss. Kennedy returns and scolds Amy harshly—“Why did you leave him? … Why did you let him die? … All he wanted was a glass of water.” Her only response is to kiss her dead husband. Cinematically, the film is saying at this point that Kennedy's harsh questions are beside the point, for the love between Amy and Yanko has overcome misunderstanding and death. But such sentiments, proceeding from a visualized flashback ostensibly produced by Dr. Kennedy (even though he was not present to hear Amy and Yanko speak to each other), are inconsistent with his words, both in this scene and in the one that immediately follows, in Miss Swaffer's bedroom: “That brave adventurer who had crossed an impossible gulf in order to love her lay lifeless in her arms. Yet Amy Foster uttered not a word.” The doctor wonders aloud now, in those suggestive words of Conrad's text: “Is his image as utterly gone from her mind as his lithe and striding figure, his caroling voice, are gone from our fields?”

It is apparently this question that convinces Miss Swaffer of what she must have suspected earlier—shrewd therapist that she increasingly seems to be—that she has on her hands a case of repressed homoerotic desire. Her suspicions about this sensitive matter may be more significant than her desire to counter Kennedy's anger at Amy's forgetfulness, when she asks the doctor now whether he in fact remembers his long-dead wife and child. Kennedy's long silence and passive response, “That was many lifetimes ago,” paves the way for Miss Swaffer to ask discreetly her overwhelming question: “Did your own love blind you to hers?” Kennedy seems touched and turns away. Miss Swaffer then remarks sympathetically that the doctor carries “more burdens for all of us than any man should,” implying that one of those burdens must be kept secret. When she then asks him to “take care for” Amy and her child, Kennedy assures her that he will. With Miss Swaffer's newly bandaged leg in the foreground—presumably well on the way to being cured, like Kennedy's unjust attitude toward Amy Foster—the doctor leaves, thanking his patient for “our conversation.” Thus it is only at the end of this final scene with Miss Swaffer, after she has brought him around to her point of view on Amy, that Dr. Kennedy's words begin to catch up, as it were, with the sympathetic view of her that the cinematic version of his narrative has been creating for the previous hour in the film.

Dr. Kennedy's conversion to Miss Swaffer's attitude toward Amy is fully shown only in the next, and final, scene, in which he visits the young widow for a sudden, melodramatic reconciliation. Immediately upon entering the cliff-top cottage, he asks her pardon for having “grievously” wronged her. She responds by asking who will forgive her. He assures her that both he and Yanko have done so. They warmly embrace, and Amy weepily assures Kennedy that she will love her husband “until the end of the world.” The scene then shifts outside for a final panoramic view of the cliffs and the sea, while her child dances for them, Russian style. Dr. Kennedy intones in voice-over: “Looking at them now, I know that Yanko was cast out to sea to perish on this hostile shore. He came across the world to love and be loved by Amy Foster.” Like Amy, he seems now convinced that their enduring love transcends—perhaps even justifies—his death. Such a sentiment is incredible in a man who until moments before in the film has been harshly accusing the woman of fatal neglect of her husband.

This conclusion to the film seems to depend upon a highly questionable premise: that Dr. Kennedy's change of attitude toward Amy Foster is the sudden result of Miss Swaffer's warm-hearted recognition and acceptance of his homoerotic love for Yanko. This is a gross indulgence in sentimentality. To attribute such extremely transformational power to such barely-indicated sexual tolerance severely strains credibility, to say the least. (This glib attribution of healing power to acceptance of unconventional sexuality had been anticipated in Kidron's cross-dressing film To Wong Foo, which several reviewers found, in the words of Richard Corliss, “sappily didactic.”23)

For all of its importance as the apparently intended motivation of Kennedy's sudden change of heart, the homosexual motif in Swept from the Sea is given only the most tentative treatment earlier in the film. There are occasional hints and glances which we might interpret retrospectively as signs of Kennedy's homoerotic interest in Yanko—for example, his carefully controlled discomfort when Yanko talks of his love of Amy. But when the matter is finally brought out into the open at the end it is too little, too late. Roger Ebert speculates that the filmmakers held back on the homoerotic theme out of fear of upsetting viewers who came expecting “a conventional period romance,” and he asserts reasonably that the film would have been “more intriguing” if Kennedy's homosexual attraction for Yanko had been treated more directly.

Certainly, a more daring and less sentimentalized exploration of the homosexual theme might have enabled the film to provide a provocative contemporary “intersection” with the Conrad short story—the kind of a genuinely imaginative cinematic response to a literary text that Dudley Andrew has described in his helpful reconsideration of adaptation studies (422-23). Perhaps it is not quite fair to ask how this film, with its obvious intent to reinterpret Conrad's story for late twentieth-century audiences, might have turned out in the hands of, say, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, were he still alive. But the possibilities are interesting. Fassbinder was noted for his unassuming and candid approach to unconventional gender arrangements and his propensity for balancing irony and sympathy in treating melodramatic material. He probably could have seen a way not only to represent Kennedy's homoerotic longing for Yanko openly, without coyness, but also to ironize the conventionally romantic attitudes toward heterosexual love and marriage which pervade Swept from the Sea.24


The major problem with Kidron's film is that not only Kennedy's homoerotic attraction for Yanko Goorall, but also virtually all the other potentially interesting human relationships (Amy's love for Yanko, her difficult relationships with her parents, and the Swaffers' various interests in Amy and Yanko, for instance) are overwhelmed by a heavy-handedly and at points ludicrously romanticized screenplay as well as overdone visual and musical effects. Peter Matthews complains that “prodigious amounts of thought, care, and technical skill have succeeded in turning Conrad's hard nugget of a yarn into a piece of sumptuous mush.” One might ask where and what that supposed “hard nugget” in the story is. Still this characterization of Kidron's film is accurate, if by mush we mean unconvincing dialogue, unclear construction of characters and their motivations, and simplistic solutions to complex problems. Moreover, the stylistic mix into which these elements are blended—in Dick Pope's camera work and John Barry's music track—is nothing if not sumptuous.

The first encounter between Amy and Yanko is presented with considerable restraint: there are subtle implications in her curious gaze in response to his silent pleading through the kitchen window. There are many similarly understated exchanges between them throughout the film. But the effectiveness of such controlled acting is undercut by anachronistic imitations of 1990s romantic gestures (in a film that is apparently intended as a period piece) and broad-brushed melodramatic effects. For example, in her second encounter with Yanko (when she brings him bread the morning after they first meet) Amy soulfully washes his face, hands, and feet—actions scarcely believable for such a woman in such circumstances. The scene in which Amy and Yanko first go out walking combines improbable dialogue, anachronistic action, and overwhelmingly romantic imagery. As they stroll through lovely meadows, she asks “Is your country beautiful?” to which he responds, bathetically: “Yes, the hearts of the people are strong and good.” They climb to a cliff-top, bathed in the golden light of the late afternoon sun, and gaze at the sea below. The film would have us believe that this is Yanko's first daylight view of the sea, in spite of his having been seen travelling widely about the region earlier.25 Then this ostensibly uneducated peasant woman explains oracularly that Yanko has come from “the sea, the ancient sea, the dark sea, the cruel sea … where all the hearts of the earth that have been lost to love and to fear lie waiting to be reborn.” The viewer can almost see Rachel Weisz wincing at these lines, which are followed by voracious open-mouthed kisses (highly unlikely in a tale of two shy strangers on their first walk together circa 1890) and a cliché long shot of the couple silhouetted against the sunset over romantic theme music.

Amy's secret grotto by the sea is exploited to full melodramatic effect. Oddly, this cave is neither mentioned nor shown until half-way into the film, when Amy takes her lover there to comfort him after he learns from her for the first time—in a highly contrived scene set by a monument to the drowned passengers of the emigrant ship—that his shipmates had all perished. “Don't be sad, my beauty,” she murmurs, and then leads him by the hand through the rocks to her grotto. As they enter, she lights the candles set all about the place with the ballet-like flair of a late twentieth-century flower child preparing her love nest for a romantic tryst. In similar style, she provocatively hides her body behind a thin veil, to which he predictably reacts a moment later with another full-mouthed kiss, in luscious close-up, as the music rises.

The film inflates the melodramatic potential of the romance of Amy and Yanko by introducing several threats from outside (two of them from the thug-like villagers) which are scarcely anticipated in the short story. In the first instance, Amy's embittered father Isaac, along with several other men, attack Yanko when he walks into the village with Amy on his arm. They beat him brutally, and one man drags him into the water and almost drowns him. But Amy manages to break free from the man who has been holding her, fights her father off, and saves her husband defiantly—if somewhat incredibly, given the older men's determination just moments before and their greater strength and numbers.

Another outside threat to the couple's romance comes in the form of the sudden revelation from Amy's mother, Mary, that she is the child not of her supposed father, Isaac, but rather of Isaac's father. In earlier bitter remarks to her daughter on the “madness in the blood” that is “God's trick on women,” Mary had hinted at dark secrets in the family; less shocking than Conrad's representation of the scandal caused by Amy's conception out of wedlock. Kidron now adds a more sordid dimension, redolent of contemporary concerns about child abuse and perhaps even incest. Having heard of her daughter's engagement, Mary Foster rushes into the Smiths' kitchen and histrionically blurts out to Amy, in their hearing: “Isaac is your brother. … Bad you were conceived and bad you will remain!”26

This revelation and condemnation so disturb the young woman that she dashes out of the farmhouse to her grotto, only to discover there that the townsmen have attacked again. They have piled together her furniture and her treasures from the sea and set them ablaze. As she attempts to retrieve some items, the front of her dress catches fire. But Yanko arrives in the nick of time and extinguishes the flame by carrying her to a small pool hollowed out of rock near the entrance. He assures her, “I'm your home now.” The scene closes with a long shot of the couple, seen through the blazing fire—a heavy-handed bit of symbolism presumably meant to suggest the intensity of their passion. Later Amy and Yanko return to that pool in the grotto to consummate their marriage. Behaving for all the world like contemporary honeymooners in a hot tub, they sensuously undress in water mysteriously lit from below—a special effect that elicited guffaws from more than one reviewer.27

Another major romanticizing device in the film is its treatment of the cottage the Swaffers give to the young couple. Conrad's “low, black cottage” is transformed into a rustic but charming tan stone building set on the crest of a cliff with a spectacular view of the sea. When old Swaffer brings the couple there so that he and his daughter can surprise them with this gift, Yanko is almost overcome with gratitude and Amy's love for him. The camera moves in for close-ups of their kisses and caresses as they stand by the window looking out onto the picturesque seascape. Consistent with the positive feelings pervading this scene, the gift seems to be motivated by pure generosity on the part of old Swaffer and his daughter, whom he credits with originating the idea. (As already noted, in the short story the gift is prompted by Yanko's rescue of Swaffer's granddaughter, of which there has been no mention in the film.28) The feel-good tone of the scene is epitomized in the beaming face of the saintly Miss Swaffer, who deflects Amy's expression of gratitude by rolling her wheelchair through the front door asking, in a tone surely not heard until our own time, “Now can we all please go home?”

Such anachronistic dialogue might have worked well in a movie that played itself off Conrad's text more coherently. But Kidron's film does not seem to know whether it wants to be a contemporary re-conception of the short story or a historically credible period adaptation. Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936) and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) demonstrate, in altogether different ways, how Conrad texts (in these instances The Secret Agent and Heart of Darkness) can be transformed radically for modern audiences into compelling cinematic treatments with consistent purposes and styles. Ridley Scott's The Duellists (1977) is a fine example of a film adaptation that scrupulously preserves the historical authenticity of a Conrad novella (“The Duel”), with memorable yet restrained visual effects, even while giving its own contemporary twist to the story's characterization and thematic emphasis.29Swept from the Sea does not come close to realizing either kind of success, although from time to time it reaches in both directions.

Beeban Kidron and her colleagues offer in their adaptation of Conrad's “Amy Foster” at times impressive acting and visualizations. But they handle the technical problems of Kennedy's in-frame narration without apparent awareness of the inconsistencies between its verbal and visual components. They present the potentially significant issue of the doctor's homoerotic interest in Yanko Goorall hesitantly and sentimentally. And they load the heterosexual love story of Yanko and Amy with predictable clichés of ultra-romantic content and style. In this attempt to update a flawed but thematically and autobiographically rich short story, they join the unfortunately large company of filmmakers who have wrestled with Conrad and lost.


  1. The $15 million 1997 film project was directed by Kidron and produced by Kidron, Polly Tapson, and Charles Steel. Gene Moore's filmography lists a 50-minute 1976 Polish television adaptation as well as a 75-minute BBC-TV version of the story (apparently a reading), broadcast in 1974, Omnibus: Joseph Conrad (240-41).

  2. The short story was published in December 1901 in three parts in the Illustrated London News, which Lawrence Graver has pointed out, typically “celebrated empire and royalty.” “Conrad's bitter story of a crazed foreigner destroyed by the cruelty of English townspeople could hardly have been more out of place” (108). In 1903 the story was published in Conrad's Typhoon; And Other Stories.

  3. I am grateful to my student Kimberly Willman for her many insights into the film which she shared during our discussions of her term paper in a recent course on Conrad and film.

  4. 111. In contrast to Conrad's more convoluted narratives, such as Heart of Darkness, Kennedy's story of Yanko Goorall proceeds in mostly chronological order, with a few clearly marked flashbacks and occasional interpretive or philosophical comments as rhetorically weighty as those of his interlocutor.

  5. The provisional titles were “A Castaway” and “The Husband” (Baines 265). Perhaps Conrad was led (consciously or not) to name the story after Amy Foster as compensation for the unusually negative characterization of her, as described below.

  6. 114-16. In this sensitive rendering of Yanko's experience, Dr. Kennedy engages in subtle use of free indirect discourse. However, this does not justify Hugh Epstein characterization of this narrative technique as “Conrad's purest piece of impressionism” (228).

  7. 136. Miss Swaffer, with “the unmoved countenance of the deaf, spoke very seldom, and her lips … astonished one sometimes by a mysteriously ironic curl”; she dresses in black to mourn the accidental death many years ago of her fiancé (128).

  8. More recently, Richard Ruppel has interpreted “Amy Foster” as “a colonialist story in reverse … a parady of the imperialist adventure tale” (“Yanko” 126,131), and Myrtle Hooper, in a feminist reading, has argued that Kennedy projects onto Amy his own failure to fully understand Yanko. Brian Schaeffer and Sue Finkelstein have analyzed the story in light of trauma theory, from differing perspectives. Finkelstein's argument is weakened by her assertion that the story, published in 1901, was written “within a year before [Conrad's] severe psychotic breakdown of 1911” (20).

  9. Reader's Guide 142-43. In Three Lives, Karl asserts that the story “works best at its simplest level” (514).

  10. Richard Herndon, citing Gustav Morf's accounts of those visits (69-70), mentions that Carpathian mountain peasants are called goralians, from which Yanko's last name is presumably derived (156); see “Amy Foster” 133.

  11. Herndon 559-61; Nettles.

  12. Hueffer had described in his The Cinque Ports (1900) and spoken with Conrad about two Germans who had been abused by Kentish villagers because of their strange ways and foreign language; one of them had been shipwrecked near Hueffer's home (163-64). Herndon gives a detailed account of Conrad's indebtedness to Hueffer for “Amy Foster,” correcting Hueffer's claim that Conrad stole the story from him (550-54).

  13. Bertrand Russell, whose friendship with Conrad began in 1913, thought that this “extraordinarily moving story” expressed the “loneliness Conrad had felt among the English” (89). Gail Fraser's 1988 study of Conrad's manuscript changes and later revisions to the story finds a consistent effort to vivify “the author's deepest feelings of loneliness and disorientation” (181).

  14. Three Lives 515. Sanford Pinsker argues that language and silence constitute the central theme of “Amy Foster,” and that the author—“concerned, even obsessed, with the fragile medium of words”—here foreshadows Modernist distrust in the efficacy of language (179).

  15. Herndon, drawing from several sources, including Jessie Conrad, notes these and many other parallels between the Conrads' married life and the short story (551, 563-66). He also notes a possible source for this incident in Conrad's severe illness during his trip to the Congo in 1890, when a native woman brought him water as he lay sick and abandoned (558).

  16. Karl, Three Lives 369. The summary following in this paragraph is based on Baines 169-72; Meyer 117-19; Karl, Three Lives 117-19; and Najder 193-98, 223-24.

  17. 566. Notably problematic marriages are central also to Conrad's short stories “The Idiots” (1896) and “The Return” (1898), as well as the novel The Secret Agent (1907).

  18. Bruce Harkness parodied a homosexual reading of “The Secret Sharer” in his 1965 essay. Lange's discussion of homoeroticism in Lord Jim is cursory.

  19. 36. On the “homosocial continuum,” see Sedgwick 1-5.

  20. The absence of genuine sexuality in Kidron's ostensibly “liberated” To Wong Foo is consistent with the tentative treatment of Kennedy's homosexuality in Swept from the Sea.

  21. Barry was music director for Out of Africa, Born Free, Midnight Cowboy, Shampoo, Body Heat, Dances with Wolves, and The Scarlet Letter, among many other films.

  22. Roger Ebert argues that the film should have eliminated Kennedy as narrator and been told in straightforward fashion. He is particularly disturbed by the fact that Kennedy tells Miss Swaffer things she knows already. Another problem is that Kennedy's narrative often includes details he probably could not have known. But this is true in Conrad's “Amy Foster,” elsewhere in his fiction, and in many another first-person literary narrative.

  23. To Wong Foo wants you to believe, writes Corlis, “that the drag queen, because he is at ease with his ersatz sexuality, is a true liberator: he can teach feminism to women and manners to men.”

  24. In The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972) and Fox and His Friends (1974), Fassbinder shows lesbians and gays as both victims and perpetrators of psychological and sexual exploitation. In In a Year of 13 Moons (1978) a man undergoes a sex-change operation mistakenly thinking this is what the man he loves wants, and is then abused and abandoned by another man with whom s/he falls in love. The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), perhaps Fassbinder's best known film, is among other things an ironic put-down of traditional romantic assumptions about heterosexual love and marriage.

  25. In the short story, Kennedy sets Yanko's first such view of the sea, gazing “lost in an air of wild surprise,” at a presumably much earlier time (113).

  26. There are veiled allusions to Amy's true parentage, readable only in retrospect, in that earlier scene. Mary tells Isaac, “I should have stayed with your father,” and Isaac remarks that he has “no right to tell [Amy] anything.”

  27. Peter Matthews finds this pool scene “the only big laugh” of a film which he finds cannot compare in “goofball revisionism” with Roland Jaffe's Scarlet Letter.

  28. The filmmakers had obviously planned originally to include the child-rescue scene, since there is a reference to it on the deed to the cottage which Yanko signs. But the viewer's glimpse of this is so brief that this reference is not likely to be noticed.

  29. The novella is contained in A Set of Six. See Watson.

Works Cited

Andreach, Robert J. “The Two Narrators of ‘Amy Foster.’” Studies in Short Fiction 2, 3 (1965): 262-69.

Andrew, Dudley. “Adaptation.” Gerald Mast et al. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. 4th Edition. New York: Oxford U P, 1992.

Baines, Jocelyn. Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1960.

Conrad, Joseph. “Amy Foster.” Typhoon and Other Stories. Kent Edition. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1925. Citation of other works by Conrad are to this edition.

Corliss, Richard. “Quel Drag!” Review of To Wong Foo. Time 146, 12 (Sept. 18, 1995).

Ebert, Roger. Review of Swept from the Sea. Chicago Sun-Times. Online.

Epstein, Hugh. ‘“Where He Is Not Wanted’: Impression and Articulation in ‘The Idiots’ and ‘Amy Foster.’” Conradiana 23, 3 (1991): 217-32.

Finkelstein, Sue. “Hope and Betrayal: A Psychoanalytic Reading of ‘Amy Foster.’” Conradiana 32, 1 (2000: 20-30.

Fraser, Gail. “Conrad's Revisions to ‘Amy Foster.’” Conradiana 20, 3 (1988): 181-93.

Graver, Lawrence. Conrad's Short Fiction. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.

Guerard, Albert J. Conrad the Novelist. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1962.

Guthmann, Edward. “‘Swept from the Sea’ is Lush and Moody.” San Francisco Chronicle 23 January 1998. Online.

Harkness, Bruce. “The secret of ‘The secret sharer’ bared.” College English 27, 5 (1965): 55-61.

Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. One of Us: The Mastery of Joseph Conrad. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996.

Herndon, Richard. “The Genesis of Conrad's ‘Amy Foster.’” Studies in Philology 58, 3 (July 1960): 549-56.

Hodges, Robert R. “Deep Fellowship: Homosexuality and Male Bonding in the Life and Fiction of Joseph Conrad.” Journal of Homosexuality 4, 4 (1979): 379-93.

Holden, Stephen. “‘Swept From the Sea’: A Romance in the Rain.” New York Times 23 Jan. 1998. Online. ‹›.

Hooper, Myrtle. “‘Oh, I Hope He Won't Talk’: Narrative and Silence in ‘Amy Foster.’” The Conradian 21 (1996), 51-64.

Hueffer, Ford Madox. The Cinque Ports: A Historical and Descriptive Record. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1900.

James, Nick. Review of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. Sight and Sound 5, 12 (Dec. 1995): 52-53.

Karl, Frederick. Joseph Conrad, The Three Lives: A Biography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.

———. A Reader's Guide to Joseph Conrad. New York: Noonday, 1960.

Lange, Robert J. G. “The Eyes Have It: Homoeroticism in Lord Jim.Philological Papers (West Virginia University) 38 (1992 [1993]): 59-68.

Matthews, Peter. Review of Amy Foster [film]. Sight and Sound 8,5 (May 1998): 40.

McCracken, Scott. “‘A Hard and Absolute Condition of Existence’: Reading Masculinity in Lord Jim.” Michael Roberts, ed. Conrad and Gender (The Conradian Series, ed. Robert Hampson and Gene M. Moore). Atlanta: Rodopi, 1993. 17-37.

Meyer, Bernard C. Joseph Conrad: A Psychoanalytic Biography. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1967.

Morf, Gustave. The Polish Heritage of Joseph Conrad. London: Sampson Low, Marston, 1930.

Moore, Gene M. Conrad on Film. New York: Cambridge U P, 1997.

Najder, Zdzislaw. Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1983.

Nettels, Elsa. “‘Amy Foster’ and Stephen Crane's ‘The Monster.’” Conradiana 15, 3 (1983): 181-90.

Pinsker, Sanford. “‘Amy Foster’: A Reconsideration.” Conradiana 9 (1977), 179-86.

Ruppel, Richard. “Yanko Goorall in the Heart of Darkness: ‘Amy Foster’ as a Colonialist Text.” Conradiana 28, 2 (summer 1996): 126-32.

———. “Joseph Conrad and the Ghost of Oscar Wilde.” The Conradian 23, 1 (spring 1998): 19-36.

Russell, Bertrand. Portraits from Memory and other Essays. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.

Shaffer, Brian W. “Swept from the Sea: Trauma and Otherness in Conrad's ‘Amy Foster.’” Conradiana 32, 3 (fall 2000): 163-76.

Stewart, J. I. M. Joseph Conrad. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1968.

Tanner, Tony. The Oxford Book of Sea Stories. New York: Oxford U P, 1995.

Watson, Wallace. “Intersecting Texts: Conrad's “‘The Duel’ and Ridley Scott's The Duellists.” Conrad's Century: The Past and Future Splendour. Ed. Laura L. Davis. Vol. VII of Conrad: Eastern and Western Perspectives, ed. Wieslaw Krajka. Boulder: Social Science Monographs, and Lublin: Maria Curie-Sklodowski Univ. (distr. Columbia U P), 1998.

Nathalie Martinière (essay date spring 2002)

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SOURCE: Martinière, Nathalie. “Symbolic Space and Narrative Focus: The Cabin in Conrad's Sea Stories.” The Conradian 27, no. 1 (spring 2002): 24-38.

[In the following essay, Martinière explores how the spatial organization of ships affects individuality and community in “The Secret Sharer,” The Shadow-Line, and The Nigger of the “Narcissus.”]

Many of Conrad's novels and short stories deal with the loss of reassuring landmarks that characterized the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. God's “death,” proclaimed by Nietzsche, and Freud's theories, together with political and social upheavals, left people isolated in a universe of instability and doubt. Conrad's sea fictions display a desperate yet lucid desire to preserve or recreate aboard ship a feeling of togetherness that no longer existed elsewhere. This longing is expressed in highly lyrical ways, and the sailors are repeatedly described as members of “the brotherhood of the sea” (The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” 30). But even in ships, the risk of individualism and self-centredness cannot be ignored. Conrad's fiction shows a struggle between two simultaneous types of desire: a desire for supportive togetherness, and a desire to assert the pre-eminence of the self, regardless of the community's best interests.

The structure of his fictions reflects this struggle in two ways: (1) either the group rejects the threat of individualism by rejecting the individual who symbolizes it, ostracizing him and confirming the validity of the community in a common fight against the elements, as in The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” or (2) an individual, usually the captain of the ship and narrator, must overcome his temptation to self-centredness, meaninglessness, and hopelessness, and prove himself up to his task, as in “The Secret Sharer” and The Shadow-Line. In these three fictions, systems of echoes are extremely revealing about Conrad's aims and methods.1 In all three, the fight is legible in spatial terms, and the spatial organization of the ships works as landmark and safeguard. The group can be preserved only because the function of places in ships is highly codified. The strategies developed by characters as well as narrators to fight the dangers represented by the emergence of individualism aboard ship give the cabin a major symbolic function: cabins are characterized as dangerous places where the individual yields either to narcissism or to fits of hysteria and hallucination and is thus tempted to reject and imperil the ideal of togetherness. These strategies, both spatial and linguistic, are coherent from one fiction to another and depend on the role tacitly assigned by the community to cabins, even if their success is somewhat mitigated by the narrators' attitudes and derisory stance.

In ships, crews are confronted with two types of danger: (1) the perils of the sea that directly threaten life, either storms or their direct opposite, total absence of wind, and (2) a threat not to men's lives but to sanity and the ship's social structure. The latter danger may take the form of mutinies, refusal to obey orders, indifference, the captain's self-centredness, or hopelessness; it threatens the preservation of the ship and of the men on board more insidiously than does the sea. In this second case, danger is located in a closed, confined space: the cabin.

The word “cabin” is a generic term that corresponds to extremely different realities reflecting the hierarchical organization aboard ship: the crew lives collectively not in a “cabin” but in the forecastle where privacy does not exist. Work can never be totally forgotten there, as the beginning of The Nigger of the “Narcissus” makes clear: the men are shown constantly bumping onto chain-cables or sitting “against the heel of the bowsprit” (6):

In the forecastle the newcomers, upright and swaying among corded boxes and bundles of bedding, made friends with the old hands …


Men … pushed against one another in the middle of the forecastle. The group swayed, reeled, turning upon itself with the motion of a scrimmage, in a haze of tobacco smoke. All were speaking together, swearing at every second word.


As Wait bitterly complains later, promiscuity is maximal and noise constant (35).

Cabins, reserved for the officers, reveal a higher degree of sophistication, as is made clear in “The Secret Sharer” when the narrator forces the Sephora's skipper to inspect every cubicle:

“Nice little saloon, isn't it?” I remarked, as if noticing for the first time the way his eyes roamed from one closed door to the other … And I did not let him off a single item; mate's room, pantry, storerooms, the very sail-locker which was also under the poop—he had to look into them all.2

Life in the officers' quarters is divided between collective activities—meals taken together in the cuddy, receiving visitors in the saloon, and so on—and private ones. This separation is materialized in systematically closed doors, and the captain's stateroom is the place where he can enjoy total privacy. But what is essential is that it is also the place where captains become fully conscious of the “loneliness of command” (Typhoon, 40) and learn to accept it. (These fictions underline the fact that vital decisions are taken by the captain alone.)

In “The Secret Sharer,” the dangers of loneliness take the form of narcissism and split personality; in The Shadow-Line, they take the form of insanity. In both cases, the cabin is the locus of an ordeal before the young captain's worth is validated. Its status is systematically ambiguous: it should be a refuge, but is in fact a dangerous place where personalities can be destroyed. It is also the place where what is at stake for the narrator is made clear. In “The Secret Sharer,” the captain's “strangeness” (95) to the ship, which is objectified through Leggatt's presence, is eventually overcome; and in The Shadow-Line, the impression of belonging to a “dynasty” suggests to the captain that he is not alone, on a symbolic plane, because he is part of “a composite soul, the soul of command” (53):

It struck me that this quietly staring man whom I was watching, both as if he were myself and somebody else, was not exactly a lonely figure. He had his place in a line of men whom he did not know, of whom he had never heard; but who were fashioned by the same influences, whose souls in relation to their humble life's work had no secrets for him.


The symbolic function of the captain's cabin thus oscillates between two seemingly opposite poles. It stands for loneliness, and for a feeling of togetherness grounded in historical continuity and permanence, the second aspect corresponding to an attempt to overcome the first danger, on the symbolic level. Yet this sense of belonging proves inadequate to fight doubts or individualism and ascertain the new captain's feeling of legitimacy. In The Shadow-Line, this “soul of command” is challenged by the former captain's behaviour and must be reasserted. Significantly, the new captain manages to do so only by staying on deck and shunning the cabin as much as possible.

The function of cabins in ships (either the forecastle or the captain's cabin) is quite different from the function of rooms in a house, as analyzed, for example, by Gaston Bachelard in La Poétique de l'espace. Bachelard's house is a projection of the individual whereas Conrad's ships—“fragment [s] detached from the earth” (The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” 29)—are projections of a highly hierarchical social structure that seems indebted to military or religious models, in which individualism is necessarily perceived as a threat.3 Privacy is necessary for the captain if he wants to make decisions, but it must be minimized.

Fundamentally, when we consider cabins in general (that is, as a place of rest, whatever a man's rank in a ship), what matters more than their material reality is their symbolic value and role. The cabin as a space is not inherently threatening as the sea is; rather, it is a medium that allows the revelation of spiritual or psychological rather than physical dangers.

The cabin when considered a refuge generally indicates a regressive attempt.4 Freudian interpretations and comparisons with the womb/tomb pattern immediately come to mind and are justified. (These have been extensively and convincingly analyzed, in particular by Josiane Paccaud-Huguet.) In all cases, cabins symbolize a greater danger than that posed by the sea because they represent danger from within, either a threat to an individual's sanity or to social coherence. The cabin shelters the enemy within, and it is significant that in The Nigger of the “Narcissus” the axe with which the carpenter nearly cuts the masts, which would destroy the ship's integrity, sits at the entrance to the cabin (59).

Because danger is internal, the main strategy used to fight it is distancing and appears on two levels: the first is physical distancing thanks to spatial oppositions or imprisonment; the second is linguistic distancing through metaphor and derision.

The first alienation strategy is the opposition between the deck and the cabin that exists not only on obvious utilitarian grounds: it is also a metaphor of the struggle to recreate meaning in the fight against the cabin's destructive potential. All sane characters seek refuge on deck at the moment of greatest danger, in dread of the perverting influence of what lurks in the cabin.

In The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” during the storm, “Captain Allistoun never left the deck, as though he had been part of the ship's fittings” (50). In The Shadow-Line, the narrator significantly spends most of his time on the poop (he sleeps and takes his meals there), and every time he is faced with what he calls a “mental shock” in the cabin, he rushes to the deck to overcome it: “The difficulties, the dangers, the problems of a ship at sea must be met on deck” (89). Later, at a crucial moment in the story, Ransome, the steward, prevents him from surrendering to discouragement when he sends him back on deck—where physical danger and the possibility of overcoming it both lie:

Ransome lingered in the cabin as if he had something to do there, but hesitated about doing it. I said suddenly:

“You think I ought to be on deck?”

He answered at once but without any particular emphasis or accent: “I do, sir.”

… I thought that all my feelings had been dulled into complete indifference. But I found it as trying as ever to be on deck.


What he finds “trying,” of course, is to overcome the indifference in which he could find refuge in the cabin and which threatens his facing his responsibilities to his men. In the cabin, he is tempted to turn in on himself; on deck, this is impossible.

Similarly, in “The Secret Sharer,” the only things that protect the captain from insanity are the demands of his command: on deck he “had to make an effort of will to recall [him]self back (from the cabin) to the conditions of the moment” ('Twixt Land and Sea, 126). And Leggatt's influence is only limited because he is confined inside the cabin. Yet, on his departure, the spell is not entirely broken since the captain endangers his ship because of his secret obsession with the young man. His new freedom is due to Leggatt's decision to depart rather than to his own maturation.

The impression also experienced by characters that the cabin shelters more than its actual inhabitants, that there is some uncanny presence that cannot always be clearly identified, is another strategy of alienation. In The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” it is death which appears as Wait's “companion”: “he paraded it unceasingly before us with an affectionate persistence that made its presence indubitable, and at the same time incredible” (36). In The Shadow-Line, the dead captain's ghost seems to be “haunting” Burns, and the narrator in “The Secret Sharer” feels “haunted” by Leggatt ('Twixt Land and Sea, 130). In addition to contributing to atmosphere, this evocation of ghosts and supernatural forces in “The Secret Sharer” and The Shadow-Line works as a lure both for the characters and reader: it enables the characters to preserve a distance from the uncanny, for the danger is then circumscribed (even if unnameable), and thus exteriorized and separated from oneself.

The positive side to this clear-cut and somewhat Manichean distribution of positive and negative influences thus becomes clear, for the cabin is the place in which it is possible to enclose dangers so as to keep them at bay. The very structure of the ship enables the characters and narrator to resist the temptation to give in, either to the elements or to the disintegration of the group, for it enables them to confine it to a closed space, thus as much as possible avoiding spreading its contaminating influence on deck. For instance, the captain of the Narcissus has:

a sick-bay … fitted up in the deck-house. It was a nice little cabin opening on deck, and with two berths. Jimmy's belongings were transported there, and then—notwithstanding his protests—Jimmy himself. … We grieved for him, and were delighted to have him removed from the forecastle. … His little place, with the door ajar on a long hook, was always full of tobacco smoke. We spoke through the crack cheerfully, sometimes abusively, as we passed by, intent on our work. He fascinated us. He would never let doubt die. He overshadowed the ship. Invulnerable in his promise of speedy corruption he trampled on our self-respect.


Of course, Wait's influence is not totally destroyed but, thanks to his confinement to the deck-house, it can be toned down and controlled: men remain at a safe distance from him, and the coherence of the group (“we”) can be reasserted. Thus, the cabin fulfils its role as a prison: it isolates the outsider at the far end of the ship (so much so that his companions later forget him) and preserves the community.

The decision to isolate Wait in a small cabin also underlines the difference between forecastle and cabin, and what they stand for: in the forecastle, the group prevails; in cabins, individualism is allowed full scope. This reflects the fact that Conrad never considers the crew members as individuals—the group must come first. Paradoxically, the forecastle eventually proves to be closer to the deck, symbolically, than to the cabin. However, keeping danger physically imprisoned inside the cabin is not sufficient, since the situation varies with the protagonists concerned. It is easy for the captain, who is all-powerful in his ship, to ostracize James Wait in an isolated cabin; it is less easy for the narrator of The Shadow-Line to confine Mr. Burns to his bed. In both cases they try to escape their solitary confinement: Wait is seen “walking about on deck at night” (46), and Burns manages to come on deck at the climactic moment when rain starts pouring down. The description the narrator gives of his confrontation with Burns at that moment shows clearly that Burns has brought up on deck not only the contaminating danger of hallucinations and fits of panic, but also an image of an individual's regression to a pre-human state, made possible by isolation in the cabin: “I could see It—that Thing! … But I did not hit upon the notion of Mr. Burns issuing out of the companion on all fours till he attempted to stand up, and even then the idea of a bear crossed my mind first” (115).

In “The Secret Sharer” it is even more difficult for the captain to avoid the danger of a split personality caused by Leggatt's presence in his cabin: “I was not wholly alone with my command; for there was a stranger in my cabin. Or rather, I was not completely and wholly with her. Part of me was absent. That mental feeling of being in two places at once affected me physically as if the mood of secrecy had penetrated my very soul” ('Twixt Land and Sea, 125). It is not so much Leggatt's being a murderer, as the temptation of betrayal of the ship's priorities that he reveals in the captain which is at stake, since his presence in the captain's cabin distracts him from the his command and eventually leads him to risk his ship's safety in a perilous and potentially fatal manœuvre. The explanation is that the officers' isolation in a cabin corresponds to the death drive. In the three fictions discussed here, the cabin materializes the individual's isolation from the community and the risks of disintegration he represents for the group.

In The Shadow-Line or “The Secret Sharer,” when the all-powerful captain remains locked inside his cabin, either playing the violin for hours or mesmerized by the image of his “secret self,” the situation becomes serious and danger for the community reaches a peak. In such cases, isolation in the cabin does not help the ship's survival but, on the contrary, threatens it, because the officers' greater physical isolation from one another and the men—especially in the case of a captain—promotes the development of self-centredness, doubt, split personalities, melancholy, and fits of insanity. These dangerous threats to the self are given their full dimension inside cabins.

Physical alienation is thus insufficient, and another strategy—metaphor—is then used to fight the cabin's evil influence. Metaphor underlines the fact that what the cabin contains or stands for cannot be trusted and is dangerous. Usually metaphors unite, pointing out analogies while preserving distances through unexpected associations. In this instance, however, their role is to emphasize distance and point out differences and errors of judgement.

The first important metaphor used to create distance is religious. In The Shadow-Line, the young captain's confidence in quinine is depicted by religious similes and metaphors:

I went into the spare cabin where the medicine chest was kept to prepare two doses. I opened it full of faith as a man opens a miraculous shrine.


Fortunately, I had a good provision of quinine. I should put my trust in that …


But I fully believed that quinine was of very great use indeed.

I believed in it. I pinned my faith to it. It would save the men, the ship, break the spell by its medicinal virtue, make time of no account, the weather but a passing worry, and, like a magic powder working against mysterious malefices, secure the first passage of my first command against the evil powers of calms and pestilence.

(88; italics added)

The comparison between quinine and a magic powder makes it clear that the captain's faith verges on voluntary blindness and that he relies on imaginary forces instead of counting on himself. In a way, his blind faith in quinine can be compared with Burns's belief that the previous captain is responsible for their problems. Power and responsibility are transferred to an exterior force.5

In The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” the situation is apparently not very different and the lexical field is similar. But the role and symbolic value of the cabin are more complex, probably because a whole community is concerned and not a single individual. After the crew has rescued Wait from death in his cabin during the storm, and then restored him to his bed, the men begin to pay homage to him:

But in the evening, in the dog-watches, and even far into the first night-watch, a knot of men could always be seen congregated before Jimmy's cabin … their simple faces lit up by the projected glare of Jimmy's lamp. The little place, repainted white, had, in the night, the brilliance of a silver shrine where a black idol, reclining stiffly under a blanket, blinked its weary eyes and received our homage. Donkin officiated.

(105; italics added)

The elements of a religious service are manifestly present, although they are presented derisively: in the cabin converted into a shrine, Wait is the living idol, and Donkin his priest. Yet, as in The Shadow-Line, this ceremony is dangerous for the community, for Donkin suggests faking illness to avoid work. However, if the men agree to participate in this “cult” because of a shared feeling of guilt, they none the less refrain from giving in to the sham divinity, and when called on deck, go to perform their duty, except the idol and his priest, whose limited grasp on the crew is thus made clear. In the latter instance, the negative influence of Wait and Donkin is neutralized by confinement to the cabin: the men know that they can go there to perform a mock-ceremony, desacralizing their task. This ceremony, in fact, serves the same function as carnival in preserving the community.

Another essential metaphor, used to point out the evil influence of the cabin and the group's resistance to this influence, is that of delivery. Interestingly, this is present in both “The Secret Sharer” and The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” though with significant differences, probably because in both cases the metaphorical choices reflect centres of interest that correspond to some of the author's fundamental preoccupations.

In his essay “The Third Theme in ‘The Secret Sharer,’” James F. White analyses the story along the Jungian lines of what he calls the “fertility theme,” and which can also be characterized as a process of giving birth, the cabin being the womb of the ship from which Leggatt, like a new born baby, is eventually expelled towards “a new destiny” (1989, 229).

Interestingly, this expulsion can be interpreted along two antithetical but not mutually exclusive lines. On the one hand, it seems positive because it means regained freedom for the ship and her captain. It has often been pointed out that the cabin fosters the captain's process of maturation. His desire to stay in his cabin disappears with Leggatt's departure, and he becomes able to experience what he characterizes as “the perfect communion of a seaman with his first command”: “Nothing! no one in the world should stand now between us, throwing a shadow on the way of silent knowledge and mute affection” ('Twixt Land and Sea, 143). In other words, his fascination with Leggatt can be read as a phase of gestation before he can become the ship's “old man” (tellingly, a phrase some people use to refer to their fathers). On the other hand, it also means that the captain took useless and foolish risks, endangering his ship because of fidelity to a fantasy.

The same metaphor appears in The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” but with different results. During the storm the men have to extract Wait from his cabin. The operation is described in evocative terms as the delivery of a nearly stillborn infant (Wait is “a stolen corpse” [71]), a crowbar being used as forceps. Such a metaphorical description of the rescue gives the ship the status of a fertile and lethal female body—a status she also has in “The Secret Sharer.” In this case, the womb/tomb pattern, as analyzed by Paccaud-Huguet, is again obvious. And, as in “The Secret Sharer,” the delivery is possible only at great risk to the mother. The ship's physical integrity is threatened by the necessity of “cut[ting] into” her bowels for a Cæsarean section:

Archie shouted:—“Gi'e me room!” We crouched behind him, guarding our heads, and he struck time after time in the joints of planks. They cracked. Suddenly the crowbar went halfway in through a splintered oblong hole. It must have missed Jimmy's head by less than an inch. Archie withdrew it quickly, and that infamous nigger rushed at the hole, put his lips to it, and whispered “Help” in an almost extinct voice; he pressed his head to it, trying madly to get out through that opening one inch wide and three inches long.

(69; italics added)

Suddenly Jimmy's head and shoulders appeared. He stuck halfway, and with rolling eyes foamed at our feet.

(70; italics added)

If the metaphor is similar in both stories, it is interesting to notice that the results differ: most critics consider that the positive side prevails in “The Secret Sharer,” since the young captain is freed from temptation and reaches a stage of communion with his ship;6 whereas in The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” Wait continues to pester his mates, and his delivery from the bowels of the ship means neither a new birth nor recovered health for him but rather the continuation of his demoralizing influence. Thus, the same metaphorical network is thus used for different purposes. In one case, giving birth really means a new life, both for Leggatt and his “other self.” In the other, there is only a parody of birth, emphasizing the fact that the men believe that Wait is a sham. For, contrary to the young captain in “The Secret Sharer,” they cannot put their trust in the operation they are performing or in what it will produce. Hence the narrator's consistently derisive tone in his metaphorical presentation of Wait's delivery or of his becoming an “idol” that the men worship: to him, metaphors are a way of showing that the men are not dupes, and that they are aware of the situation's carnivalesque function and accept it. Group coherence is eventually preserved thanks to Wait's ostracism and his implicitly double identification as idol and scapegoat.

More than his imprisonment in the cabin, derisive metaphors isolate him from the group and neutralize his influence. They enable the narrator to assess the preservation of the group thanks to the exclusion of the troublemaker—on both a linguistic and a material level. In this case, the analogy inherent in metaphors is invalidated by their derisive tone and carnivalesque status. Yet, derision is also used to signal that what is described in a very dramatized manner must not be taken at face value, because the situation is ambiguous: elements of comedy suggest that the symbolic meaning of the stories must be reconsidered.7 And, in the end, the narrators suggest that traditional methods of preserving the group are no longer valid.

In “The Secret Sharer,” for example, the captain's confrontation with his “other self” is dramatized as an experience of revelation. On the other hand, Leggatt's obligation to hide in the cabin provides examples of comedy, such as the recurrent scenes with the steward, or the scene in which Leggatt has to hide in the closet or the bath, which remind one of the vaudeville trio of wife, husband, and lover, and thus somewhat deflating the dramatic and metaphysical impact.

The cabin's structure thus makes it possible to point out the temptation of over-dramatization in the stories because glamour is constantly debunked: in “The Secret Sharer,” the narrator presents his relationship with Leggatt as simultaneously the most important and dangerous experience in his life and as light comedy. In The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” Wait's cabin is dangerous for group coherence, but the men all know that their idol is a false god—so the danger is probably not so great, and their victory not so impressive. Eventually, layers of contradictory (and yet complementary) meanings are systematically superimposed in the cabin.

Conrad suggests that individuals willingly put a gloss on their experience in order to stress their feeling of togetherness or to assess their moral victory over danger. They create their own collective myth—not only in fighting the elements (that is no longer enough), but also in fighting the new danger of individualism threatening society, which the structure of the ship only enables them to master by imprisoning its influence in the cabin.

Significantly, the narrators' position on this mythmaking is ambiguous. They take part in it and accept it, but they also present it for what it is: a fiction that must be recognized as such. Like Conrad himself (though on the different subject of Poland), his narrators might say: “je trouve que rien ne m'est permis hormis la fidélité a une cause absolument perdue, a une idée sans avénir” [I find I am allowed nothing but fidelity to an absolutely lost cause, to an idea without a future] (to R. B. Cunninghame Graham, 2 August 1899, CL2 159-60). Similarly, Conrad's narrators assert the necessity to “pin one's faith” (The Shadow-Line, 88) to a fiction of togetherness for practical reasons, though they are not taken in and tell the reader so. What is notable is that both steps are materialized spatially through the image of the cabin.

Cabins in these fictions have an important creative potential. Significantly, it is where doubt and danger are encapsulated that the desire for language is revealed since the cabin is the place where the interpretative process is born. Eventually, what is revealed in the cabin is that the ultimate way to oppose the collapse of traditional landmarks and to put a distance between oneself and the dissolution of meaning lies in the restructuring process of narration.

This is particularly obvious in “The Secret Sharer” where the necessity to conceal Leggatt in his cabin offers the captain the possibilities of secret transgression and narcissistic fascination, and also works as a revelation of the cabin's hidden potential, as it reveals the advantage of a spatial organization that enables Leggatt to remain hidden behind the coats: “The mysterious arrival had discovered the advantage of this particular shape” ('Twixt Land and Sea, 105). From that moment, the narrator revels in the situation's dramatic potential: his cabin, where he hides the fugitive, is transformed into a sort of artist's studio where he turns a narcissistic impulse into an æsthetic analysis of the figure of the double and of mirror-images. The figure of the Doppelgänger is thus rich not only with moral and philosophical questions but also with artistic possibilities, and the cabin becomes the locus of æsthetic variations on the same motif:

I saw him far back there, sitting rigidly on the low stool, his bare feet close together, his arms folded, his head hanging on his breast—and perfectly still.


it was the other I saw, in a grey sleeping-suit, seated on a low stool, his bare feet close together, his arms folded, … his dark head bowed on his chest.


he reclined on the floor, his legs bent, his head sustained on one elbow. At others I would find him on the campstool, sitting in his grey sleeping-suit and with his cropped dark hair like a patient, unmoved convict.


The young narrator's capacity to summon exactly the same image when speaking with Captain Archbold (117) is an interesting sign both of his fascination with Leggatt and of his capacity to give new meaning to Leggatt's presence in his cabin: in the second quotation above, Leggatt has become his mental creation. And the repetition of the same description, in exactly the same words, also turns the visual presence into words and inscribes the mirror-effect into the text. (Paragraphs now mirror one another with only slight changes, corresponding, as it were, to the imperceptible movements of the model.)

Here, the narrator literally re-presents the origin of his creative process. He retrospectively indicates to the reader that the story as a literary production was born in the cabin, not simply for obvious diegetic reasons, Leggatt being stuck there, but because it is the place where he himself began to mature as an artist, became conscious of it, and realized that it was the only way left for him to restore meaning. It is significant that Leggatt and the captain only communicate with their eyes or in whispers. Regression to a state where one feels identical to another corresponds to a pre-linguistic stage: the captain overcomes this regressive temptation through action, and the narrator does so through narration.

But the process goes further, because the young captain also wishes to be seen in this situation ('Twixt Land and Sea, 103, 105, 115: “Anybody would have taken him for me”), both as artist and as part of the picture he has created. For that matter, the constant danger of the steward's discovering them is certainly mixed with pleasure at the idea that their carefully contrived mirror-effects might have been seen, and his insistence on his fear of being discovered sounds, to a certain extent, like an expression of his secret, unavowed desire for a public. In the cabin, the young man also becomes aware of the artistic potential of self-exhibition, which he then exploits in a textual mode as narrator. Hence the repeated choice of first-person narratives in which “I” is at the same time spectator, actor, and re-creator.

The cabin is thus a place of revelation of one's hidden and dangerous impulses, of double-ness, and of one's creative potential, born from one's temptations. Writing a fiction eventually proves an effective way to remedy the collapse of meaning and the growing influence of doubt. Even if it seems paradoxical, fiction turns out to be a mode of protection in an unstable universe.

Finally, the motif of the cabin plays a coherent role in these texts for it seems to be a means for Conrad to tackle his major preoccupations, both those concerned with the rise of individualism and with the strategies that could enable him to fight meaninglessness, despair, and the dissolution of traditional structures, even if only through writing fiction. It is logical, then, that the cabin should be the place of revelation of the ultimate possibility to reorganize what has fallen apart, and to restore meaning and order through narration.


  1. Although the cabin recurs as a motif throughout Conrad's fictions, this study is limited to these three stories because the system of echoes between them is remarkably coherent. Where necessary, I refer to other stories, in particular Typhoon.

  2. 'Twixt Land and Sea, 120-21. In Chance, the description of the cabins reveals that the officers' accommodation can sometimes be “magnificent” (265).

  3. Hence Captain Beard's declaration in “Youth” (9) that “a sailor has no business with a wife” and the ship-keeper's outraged sneering in Chance: “A girl! What did he [the captain] want with a girl? Bringing her on board and showing her round the cabin! That was really a little bit too much. Captain Anthony ought to have known better” (267). Women are a perceived threat to the sacred “brotherhood of the sea.” A further threat is the presence of men (Donkin, especially) who refer to the social organization ashore and tend to adopt individualistic attitudes. In The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” the narrator insists that they threaten the merchant service.

  4. In Typhoon, the men who seek refuge under the bridge during the tempest behave childishly, “like so many sick kids” (54), and MacWhirr also considers the chart-room as a resting-place and takes comfort in its familiar organization (every object has a precise place, doors must be kept locked, etc.). But this is possible only because MacWhirr is so unsophisticated intellectually: even though the typhoon “had broken in upon the orderly arrangement of his privacy” (85), the presence of a mere towel in the right place is enough to reassure him and overcome his feeling of isolation and discouragement, as a transitional object would reassure a child who is separated from his mother.

  5. In Typhoon, MacWhirr is sarcastically compared to “a booted and misshapen pagan burning incense before the oracle of a Joss” (84; italics added). He also “pin[s] [his] faith” to an object, the barometer, which is supposed to reveal the truth about the situation, and which tells him no more than what he already knows.

  6. See, for instance, Guerard (1958) for a classic statement of this. More recent critics would include Dilworth (1977), Steiner (1980), Ressler (1984), Dawson (1990), and Thomas (1995).

  7. See Eggenschwiler (1979) for a discussion of this topic.

Works Cited

Bachelard, Gaston. La Poétique de l'espace. 1957. Reprint, Paris: Quadrige/PUF, 1984.

Carabine, Keith. Introduction to Sea Stories: Typhoon, Falk, The Shadow-Line, vii-xxxviii. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 1998.

Conrad, Joseph. The Nigger of the “Narcissus.” London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1945.

———. 'Twixt Land and Sea: Three Tales. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1947.

———. The Shadow-Line: A Confession. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1950.

Dilworth, Thomas R. “Conrad's Secret Sharer at the Gate of Hell.” Conradiana 9:3 (1977): 203-17.

Eggenschwiler, David. “Narcissus in ‘The Secret Sharer’: A Secondary Point of View.” Conradiana 11:1 (1979): 23-40.

Guerard, Albert J. Conrad the Novelist. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Hawthorn, Jeremy. Introduction to The Shadow-Line, vii-xxv. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Paccaud-Huguet, Josiane. “Reading Shadows into Lines: Conrad with Lacan.” The Conradian 22:1-2 (1997): 147-77.

Ressler, Steve. “Conrad's ‘The Secret Sharer’: Affirmation of Action.” Conradiana 16:3 (1984): 195-214.

Steiner, Joan E. “Conrad's ‘The Secret Sharer’: Complexities of the Doubling Relationship.” Conradiana 12:3 (1980): 173-86.

Thomas, Mark Ellis. “Doubling and Difference in Conrad: ‘The Secret Sharer,’ Lord Jim, and The Shadow-Line.Conradiana 27:3 (1995): 222-34.

White, James F. “The Third Theme in ‘The Secret Sharer.’” Conradiana 21:1 (1989): 37-46.

Robert Hampson (essay date fall 2002)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5158

SOURCE: Hampson, Robert. “‘Because of the Dollars’ and the Already Written.” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 34, nos. 1-2 (fall 2002): 95-106.

[In the following essay, Hampson finds parallels between “Because of the Dollars” and Victory.]

In May 1912 Conrad began work on what he intended to be a short story. It was called “Dollars,” and Augustus/Gustavus Berg was its central character. Conrad worked steadily on the story, and, in October, he announced to his agent, J. B. Pinker, that “Dollars” was not to be a short story after all but a full-length novel. He sent Pinker an outline of the plot for use in discussions with American publishers.

It has a typical Malay setting—an unconventional man and a girl on an island under peculiar circumstances to whom enters a gang of three ruffians also of a rather unconventional sort—this intrusion producing certain psychological developments and effects.1

By December 1913, Conrad had decided to change the name of the central character from Berg to Heyst, and he had added the subtitle “An Island Story.” In July 1914 copy of the completed novel was sent to New York for serialization in Munsey's Magazine. Victory appeared in book form in America in March 1915 and in Britain in September 1915.

Before the final “long haul” on the manuscript of Victory in the first half of 1914, Conrad had taken time out from the novel to work on two related shorter fictions: “The Planter of Malata,” which he finished on 14 December 1913 and “Because of the Dollars,” which he started as soon as he completed “The Planter of Malata” and finished on 8 January 1914.2 The reference to “Dollars” in the title perhaps suggests that Conrad has returned to the story which he had originally set out to tell when he started what was to become Victory. Like Victory it is set in the Malay archipelago. Like Victory it involves a European, living in retirement, visited by a group of “ruffians,” who are surprised to find a woman living with him. Like Victory it involves the woman's self-sacrifice for the central male character—although the central male character, in this writing, is not the man she lives with. “Because of the Dollars” offers a permutation of the narrative elements of Victory. In the first place, as part of this permutation, the central male character is not the man Anne lives with but Davidson. Davidson moves from the role of spectator in Victory to become the narrative focus in “Dollars” [“Because of the Dollars”]. Secondly, in the character of Laughing Anne, Conrad presents what Lena might have become if she had survived to spend more years in the archipelago: after being dropped by “Pearler Harry,” she has passed through a series of relationships and has declined to her present partner, Bamtz. Bamtz's position has some similarities with Heyst's, but Bamtz himself is far from being Heyst-like: “Davidson shuddered at any human creature being brought so low as to have to thank God for the favors or affection of a Bamtz” (WT [With the Tides] 184).

One effect of the intertextual relationship between the two works is to deepen the character of Davidson. In Victory, Davidson is an important but peripheral figure. He is Heyst's main means of contact with the outside world; he diverts the route of the Sissie “along the Java Sea and back again” (V, 33) in order to run north of Samburan “to see what was going on” (V, 28); and he brings back the story of events on Samburan at the end of the novel. Davidson is “a good, simple fellow,” but also a man of “fine feeling” (V, 29). “The good Davidson” (V, 36) is repeatedly described as “sensitive” (V, 42) and “humane”(V, 52). His response to Mrs. Schomberg's story of Lena causes the narrator to exclaim at “[t]he capacity for sympathy in these stout, placid men” (V, 43). Later, his care not to intrude upon Heyst's privacy amuses the narrator with its “wonderful delicacy”(V, 52). The start of “Because of the Dollars” re-introduces the “good” (WT, 170) Davidson, “[t]he sympathetic stout man” with the “scrupulously delicate soul”(WT, 171). The narrative that follows demonstrates those qualities of sympathy, humanity, and delicacy in operation.3

In Victory, Conrad had returned to the European maritime community of the Malay archipelago that had featured in Lord Jim. As in Lord Jim, this is an oral community, a community which is constructed through gossip.4 This community also provides the setting for “Because of the Dollars.” The story of Davidson and Laughing Anne is told by Hollis to the primary narrator in the tiffin-room of“a great Eastern port.” At the outset of his narration, Hollis describes this oral community as “a bachelor crowd; in spirit anyhow, if not absolutely in fact” (WT, 175). The story that follows, however, not only involves the married man Davidson but also, through Anne, makes clear what Hollis means by calling this community a “bachelor crowd” in spirit rather than “absolutely in fact.” Through Anne—as with Lena and the women of Zangiacomo's orchestra—Conrad gestures towards one aspect of the sexual life of this community.5 The most obvious contrast here is with Lingard: after his disastrous (and unconsummated) relationship with Mrs. Travers, he apparently confines his relations with women to adopting them as daughters. Thus Mrs. Almayer was disappointed to find herself married off to Almayer rather than becoming the wife of “the victorious Rajah” (AF, 22). “Because of the Dollars,” like Victory, foregrounds the sexual life of this expatriate crowd. Or, to take a different perspective, in these two works—through Anne, Lena and the women's orchestra—Conrad registers for the first time the world of European women adventures in the archipelago, a concealed history of impermanent sexual liaisons, fear of desertion, and prostitution.

In both works, the reader's attitude towards these women is guided to some extent by Davidson's responses to them, and Davidson, as we have seen, is a “sensitive” (V, 42), “humane man” (V, 52), with a strong “capacity for sympathy” (V, 43). Hollis's narration, however, displays similar qualities and plays a similar role. At one point, for example, he focalises his narration through Anne:

“[S]he prided herself on her loyalty to the successive partners of her dismal adventures. She had never played any tricks in her life. She was a pal worth having. But men did get tired. They did not understand women.”

(WT, 185)

There is a certain complexity about a male narrator putting these words into the mouth or mind of a woman as part of a dialogue between males. Andrew Michael Roberts has drawn attention to the male circulation of knowledge in Conrad's work and to the competition between men over their understanding of women.6 I want to focus instead on the way in which the reader's response is also guided by a contrast set up between Anne and Mrs Davidson. Anne, like Lena, is obviously “not what they call a good girl” (V, 198), but she is “a pal worth having.” Mrs Davidson, on the other hand, who “seemed to be the heaven-born mate for Davidson” (WT, 175), is described by Hollis as being “under the superficial aspect of vapid sweetness,” “obstinate” and “ungenerous” (WT, 176). As the narrative proceeds, these judgments are borne out: the “fallen” woman reveals her goodness; the conventionally good woman reveals her narrowness and lack of generosity.


In one sense, then, the “already written” of my title refers to this relationship between the novel Conrad was working on and the short story which developed from it as a recoding of some of the narrative elements he was working with in the novel. It marks the realization of an alternative narrative possibility contained within the germ for Victory. However, the “already written” goes beyond this particular intertextual relationship (as Cedric Watts has shown) to an engagement with all of Conrad's prior Malay fiction. Thus, the opening paragraph introduces the location for the act of narration that follows by reference to “the Harbour Office of a great Eastern port” (WT, 169). In Lord Jim, Marlow first sets eyes on Jim in front of the steps of the “harbour office” (LJ, 36) of “an Eastern port” (LJ, 28). The Master Attendant, Captain Elliott, is based on Captain Ellis, the harbormaster at Singapore. The same Master Attendant, Captain Elliott, also appeared in “The End of the Tether”(1902), where Captain Whalley's perambulations had mapped out, topographically and chronologically, what is quite clearly the harbor area of Singapore. He was to appear again, under his own name, Ellis, in The Shadow-Line (written in 1915), where the narrator leaves his ship “in an Eastern port” (4) and alternates between the Harbour Office and the Officers' Sailors' Home, until the Master Attendant puts his first command in his way.

The unnamed primary narrator introduces the narrator of Davidson's story as “Hollis, the fellow who had so many adventures and had known so many queer people in that part of the (more or less) gorgeous East in the days of his youth” (WT, 169). Hollis, too, of course, is familiar to Conrad's readers as one of the group of gunrunners in “Karain.” After recalling the “gorgeous spectacle” (TU [Tales of Unrest], 7) of Karain's world, the narrator of that story recounts how “young Hollis” (TU, 20), through an act of sympathetic magic, exorcised Karain's ghost.7 Not quite “many adventures” but one adventure at least, and an adventure that referred back to (without disclosing) some earlier romantic involvement of Hollis's. That one adventure serves now to underwrite the reality of the many untold adventures alluded to here. As in Lord Jim and Victory, the tales that are told gesture towards an infinitely larger world of lost and untold stories, while the introduction of transtextual characters plays with the reader's sense of their ontological status, suggesting that they are personalities rather than fictional characters.8

Hollis's introduction of Bamtz has a similar effect. Hollis refers to Bamtz's “long black beard” and then recalls “[t]he grave Abdullah, the great trader of Sambir, unable to repress signs of astonishment and admiration at the first sight of that imposing beard” (WT, 177). He goes on: “And it's very well known that Bamtz lived on Abdullah off and on for several years” (WT, 177). Bamtz is given reality by reference to stories of his parasitism on Abdullah which are not repeated. Again, however, the untold stories are underwritten by reference to the already written. That description of Abdullah as “the great trader of Sambir” simultaneously evokes and represses the memory of the wasted lives of Almayer, Willems and Lingard in Conrad's first two novels. The opening chapter of Almayer's Folly had set up the contrast between Almayer's “fallen fortunes” and the “prosperity,” as evidenced by his house and godowns, of “Abdulla bin Selim, the great trader of Sambir” (AF, 15), while An Outcast of the Islands had revealed how that situation had come about. “Because of the Dollars” thus features a whole range of transtextual characters making cameo appearances who draw with them their earlier fictional roles and the realized worlds of their earlier fictional appearances.


Davidson's ship's owner is referred to both in Victory and in “Because of the Dollars.” In Victory he is described as “small and wizened” with “a face like an ancient lemon” (V, 30). In “Because of the Dollars,” he is described as “a portly Chinaman resembling a mandarin in a picture book, with goggles and thin drooping mustaches, and as dignified as only a Celestial knows how to be” (WT, 170). Although his appearance has changed radically between the two texts, in both cases he gestures towards that Chinese presence in the archipelago that is marginalized in Conrad's earlier fiction. They are most prominent in the form of the Chinese coolies on board the Nan-Shan in “Typhoon.” They are pervasive in the Macassar of An Outcast of the Islands as servants in the Sunda Hotel; billiard markers; tellers in Hudig's office; shipowners; serangs and pirates. They are present as shop owners in Patusan and as silent servants in Schomberg's various hotels. In Victory, however, that background gradually comes to the fore in the person of Wang. In the first place, Wang's career produces a catalogue of Chinese roles in the archipelago through his transition from miner to cultivator, from coolie labour to entrepreneur, as he cultivates his patch of ground and markets his produce to Heyst. Secondly, in the course of the narrative, we see, through Wang, the triumph of the disregarded Chinese over the Europeans. In a noticeable reversal of colonial positions, Wang annexes the ground next to his hut and turns it over to cultivation, but he also “annexes” both Heyst's keys and his gun (V, 180, 314). Wang is instrumental in the defeat of the intruders, and, at the end, when all the Europeans are dead, it is Wang and his Alfuro wife who remain in possession of the Diamond Bay settlement.

In “Because of the Dollars,” the Chinese shipowner represents not the culture of mainland China but the Nonya culture of peninsular Malaya. This, however, is occluded by that textualizing reference to “a mandarin in a picturebook” (WT, 170). This, in turn, is part of a series of textualizing references. Thus Davidson tries to comfort his wife and assuage her fears by assuring her that “there were no Java-sea pirates nowadays except in boys' books” (WT, 174), while Mrs. Davidson herself is compared to “a girlish head out of a keepsake” (171). In these three instances, we are dealing with a different form of the “already written,” what might be called “textualization.”

As various historians and critics have pointed out, piracy is a recurrent trope in European writing of the Malay archipelago.9 Tarling, for example, observes that the term “piracy” was used fairly freely to cover a range of activities: trade disputes involving Malay “states”; quarrels between or within Malay “states”; even “empires” established by Malays (such as Acheh and Brunei).10 Where Malay states “gained authority over lesser states, forced their trade to pay taxes, or to come to a central port,” such attempts at revenue collection were often labeled piracy.11 Consider, for example, relations with Acheh, where accusations of piracy derived from the European refusal to recognize the “imperial” claims of Acheh—“the claims of Acheh over its dependencies, which members of the Sultan's family, anxious for revenue, tried to enforce.”12 Similarly, the Sulu attacks on the Philippines—which were part of a continuing struggle between Sulus and Spain since the sixteenth century and took place in the context of Spanish claims on the Sultan of Sulu's territories—were labeled piracy, while Spanish attacks on the Sulus were not.13 In general, what was being demonized by the label of “piracy” was indigenous agency which posed competition or resistance—or even just independent activity.14 It was obviously in the interests of the mercantile community of the Straits Settlements, for example, to make allegations of piracy: “For the merchants were anxious to ensure the breakdown of larger and more exacting forms of native government.”15 By this means they also gained naval backing for their own trading transactions.16

Conrad had, of course, included Malay pirates in Almayer's Folly and An Outcast of the Islands. Mrs. Almayer was originally part of a “boatload of [Sulu] pirates” (AF, 10), whom Lingard had fought and slain, while Babalatchi is introduced into An Outcast as “a vagabond of the seas, a true Orang Laut,” who lived “by rapine and plunder of coasts and ships” (OI, 51-2). He had been a leader of “the Sulu rovers” and had subsequently served under Omar, “the leader of the Brunei rovers” (OI, 52). He frequently expresses his nostalgia for the good old days of “throat-cutting, kidnapping, slave-dealing, and fire-raising” (OI, 152), before Brooke and the Royal Navy attacked the settlements on Borneo. However, rather than just repeating this trope, Conrad problematizes it through Lingard's ambiguous status. A survey of Lingard's career, for example, describes him as living for years “beyond the pale of civilized laws” (OI, 235). The ambivalences present in that formulation are explored further in The Rescue. Travers, in particular, sees him not as “the Rajah Laut” but as “a fellow deep in with pirates” (Re, 160). Carter too views him with suspicion: he sums up Lingard's activities (with obvious piratical overtones) as “stopping boats, kidnapping gentlemen” (Re, 183). And, indeed, Lingard's involvement in Wajo politics has led him into an alliance with the marauding communities of the “notorious” Illanun.17 At the same time, however, there is also a more sustained attempt in The Rescue to understand “piracy” from the Malay perspective, as a result of which what the Europeans call “piracy” is seen as part of a larger cultural practice with a political dimension that relates to both local Malay politics and resistance to European imperialism.18

Davidson, however, refers specifically to “Java-sea pirates … in boys' books” (WT, 174). What he has in mind, no doubt, is something like John C. Hutcheson's The Penang Pirate (1886). Despite its title, Penang does not feature in the story, although pirates do. It tells of the journey of the Hankow Lin, a merchant ship with a cargo of tea and silk, from the Pearl River, twelve miles below Canton, back to England via the Sunda Straits—i.e., between Java and Sumatra. The opening dialogue between two members of the crew, Bill Martens and Jem Backstay, establishes the problem: “a fine ship and a valuable cargo to get home safe to old h'England with a short crew, and a lot o' murderin,' blood-suckin' pirates all over the h'Indian seas” (9). The problem is further complicated by the presence on board ship of a Malay crew, who behave suspiciously from the start and, when the ship reaches the Sunda Straits, try to take over the ship. At the same time, by prearrangement, the Hankow Lin is attacked by a ship belonging to the pirates “who were reported to haunt the channel way and rendezvous in the neighborhood” (46). The Captain, however, has anticipated the danger and has a surprise ready for the pirates: the cabin is full of Royal Naval men armed with “Snider rifles,” while the mysterious packages on deck prove to be Armstrong guns. After the slaughter of most of the Malay sailors and the “Chinese pirates,” the Hankow Lin heads for Singapore with its prisoners for execution before going on to the East India Dock in London. Interestingly, the “Chinese pirates” are not just Chinese. The pirate schooner is “crowded with yellow Malays” (61); in addition, it also contains “numbers of Chinese, some of the black natives of Borneo and New Guinea, Portuguese desperadoes, and such ferocious-looking ruffians as herd together in Eastern seas” (81); and it is commanded by “a Portuguese renegade” (67). The story thus presents the triumph of English sailors, the English navy and English technology over the heterogeneous population of the archipelago. It also, of course, expresses anxiety in the face of that heterogeneity. In this context, one interesting element on board the Hankow Lin is the black American cook, imaginatively named “Snowball.” He plays an active part in the fighting, but always as a comic element, never quite as a full member of the ship's crew. The novel thus recognizes that “nonwhites” can also be “one of us,” but uses this strategy of separation and “humor” as a way of containing the anxiety this presence generates.

In “Because of the Dollars,” Mrs Davidson expresses the same kind of anxiety as is embodied in The Penang Pirate. The story itself, however, locates the danger not in “the Other” but in the kind of European flotsam and jetsam that Stevenson had written about in The Ebb Tide. As others have pointed out, The Ebb Tide bears some resemblances to Victory. If we return to the terms of Conrad's outline to Pinker, The Ebb Tide too involves “an unconventional man … on an island under peculiar circumstances to whom enters a gang of three ruffians also of a rather unconventional sort.” In Stevenson's case, the “gang of three ruffians” consists of an English gentleman, Herrick; “an American who called himself Brown,” who was “a master mariner in some disgrace”; and a “bad-hearted cockney clerk” named Huish. These three, who at the start of the novel are “on the beach”—jobless, homeless, and entertaining local sailors as a way of begging for food—are given the chance to master a schooner, whose captain and officers have died of smallpox. Instead of this being an opportunity for them to redeem themselves by a display of courage and manly skills in the face of whatever trials the voyage puts in their way (as it might have been in a boy's book), Stevenson's trio sees it as a chance to steal the ship.19 As with Lingard, Stevenson and Conrad problematize the figure of the English adventurer, associating him with piracy and criminality rather than with heroism and manliness as in boy's fiction.

The second half of the novel continues this subversion of adventure stereotypes. In the second half of the novel, Stevenson's trio arrive at a mysterious island where they are met by another English gentleman, Attwater. Attwater immediately plays on the class differences between Herrick and Huish, recognizing Herrick as another “university man” and putting Huish down with “silken brutality,” regarding him as “Whitechapel carrion.” The bonding attempted here and the role of class in the dynamics of the situation anticipates Victory. Rather than the English working together, Stevenson (like Conrad) shows how the class conflicts of metropolitan society are acted out in the colonial arena. Both novels also emphasize colonial exploitation of resources. In Victory the Tropical Belt Coal Company has failed and Heyst has sent away the coolie labor force. In The Ebb Tide, Attwater has lost twenty-nine of the thirty-three inhabitants of the island to smallpox: these turn out to be his labor force of pearl divers. Attwater here represents Stevenson's critique of South Sea missions, which were notoriously run as ruthless businesses.20 (Thus the crew of the Farallone are eventually forcibly “re-trained” to replace the dead pearl-divers.) Where Conrad's trio in Victory have designs on Heyst's non-existent wealth, Stevenson's trio plan to seize Attwater's safe with its apparent content of pearls.21 In both cases, this can be read as a critical variation on the acquisition of wealth in adventure fiction. As Linda Dryden puts it (in her discussion of Henty's fiction): “His boy heroes discover manhood and resourcefulness in the Empire whilst acquiring untold riches plundered from the annexed lands.”22 By these standards, The Ebb Tide is a deeply disconcerting novel; as already noted, the three Europeans fallen on hard times do not redeem themselves through the opportunity put in their way. Herrick, in particular, though he is differentiated from his companions by his sense of responsibility on board the ship and the traces of some moral feelings, and though his gentlemanly background gives him some of the makings of the English hero, is too weak to ever be seen as a hero. Attwater, for his part, while he has the gentlemanly status, the Christian religion and such manly skills as being a fine shot that one would expect to find in an adventure hero, manifests these as a silkily brutal snobbishness, a religious megalomania and ruthlessness that make him a strong character but not of the sort in which “British readers” could “invest their hopes and values.”23 As Andrea White observes, “[I]n Stevenson's island fiction, there are no heroes … in fact, opportunistic rascals and flotsam in various states of degeneration, having come out from England for various nefarious purposes, abound in this fiction, and bring only disaster and disease to the native population.”24

“Because of the Dollars” continues this subversion of adventure stereotypes. In the first place, the threat to Davidson comes not from “Java pirates” or any of the local peoples but from opportunistic and criminal European adventurers. Secondly, Davidson's rout of the trio of ruffians who have their eyes on his cargo of withdrawn dollars is not an unalloyed success: as he realizes, the ruse by which he saves himself betrays Anne and causes her death. Thirdly, the tone of the story is very far from being celebratory or triumphalist: it traces the fading of Anne's silvery laugh through the “desolation” of her life, it recounts the damaging of Davidson's smile, and it intimates the likely martyrdom of the boy for whom both have made so many sacrifices. Finally, the story of the dollars is contained by and subordinated to the story of Davidson's unhappy marriage. This bleak domestic narrative performs the final de-romanticizing (and feminizing) of the potentially manly story of the foiling of the attempted theft of a cargo of dollars.


  1. Joseph Conrad to J. B. Pinker, 7 October 1912 (Berg Collection, New York Public Library).

  2. “The Planter of Malata,” published in the Metropolitan Magazine (New York), June-July 1914; “Because of the Dollars,” published in the Metropolitan Magazine (New York), September 1914; both collected in Within the Tides (1915).

  3. The one incident that it is difficult to reconcile with this asserted “scrupulous delicacy” is his treatment of his wife, when he returns home with Anne's son, Tony. “He simply stated that the boy was an orphan, the child of some people to whom he, Davidson, was under the greatest obligation … Some day he would tell her more, he said …” (WT, 207).

  4. See Greaney, Hampson, Cross-Cultural Encounters; Spacks, Gossip; and Gordon.

  5. Lord Jim touches on another aspect: the narrative of exploitation and desertion of local women. See Mongia, 1-16. Lord Jim and Victory, in different ways, touch on a third aspect. Consider Jones's comment to Heyst: “Something has driven you out—the originality of your ideas, perhaps. Or your tastes.”(V, 378).

  6. See Roberts, “Secret Agents” 89-104; “The Gaze and the Dummy: Sexual Politics in Conrad's The Arrow of Gold” in Joseph Conrad: Critical Assessments, ed. Keith Carabine, 4 vols. (Robertsbridge, Sussex: Helm, 1992), III, 528-50; Conrad and Masculinity (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000).

  7. For a discussion of this act, see Bonney, 22-4; Conroy, 1-16; and Hampson, Sir James Frazer.

  8. Thomas Docherty suggest that the use of transtextual characters plays with the ontological status of characters in fiction: “the illusion is thus created that what seemed to operate at the epistemological level of character now begins to operate as if it were at the ontological level of personality.” See Alterities, 48-9.

  9. See, in particular, Pappas, and Tarling.

  10. “British Policy in the Malay Peninsula and Archipelago 1824-1871,” 14.

  11. “British Policy in the Malay Peninsula and Archipelago 1824-1871,” 14.

  12. “British Policy in the Malay Peninsula and Archipelago 1824-1871,” 132.

  13. For the Sulu, see Warren, The Sulu Zone 1768-1898: The Dynamics of External Trade, Slavery and Ethnicity in the Transformation of a Southeast Asian Maritime State (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1981). In Worldly Goods, Lisa Jardine draws attention to European maritime practices from the Renaissance onwards as a necessary context for European accusations of piracy by others. She notes, for example, the attitude of the Portuguese after da Gama had opened the Indian Ocean to European trade: “since there were only ‘infidels’ in the region, they were entitled to seize the trade they desired by force, in the name of Christendom” (WG, 368).

  14. Warren draws attention to a sarcastic letter by William Lingard to the Makassarsch Handelsblad (4 January 1876), in which he criticizes Dutch “laxness” towards piracy, by citing the trading activities of his own ships. See “Joseph Conrad's Fiction,” 21-34, 27.

  15. “British Policy in the Malay Peninsula and Archipelago 1824-1871,” 15.

  16. Tarling draws attention to the journalism of John Dalton in the Singapore Chronicle in the 1820s. Dalton's attacks on the Bugis for piracy were clearly designed to elicit naval support for the Singapore merchants. See Piracy and Politics, 113-4.

  17. Piracy and Politics, 9.

  18. For a fuller account of this, see Hampson, Chapters 1 and 8.

  19. They cite the example of Hays and Pease, who are also mentioned in Lord Jim as prototypes for Gentleman Brown. As Cedric Watts has noted, William Hayes was a sea-captain, Ben Pease was a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. Both were well-known pirates in the South Seas, and both died in the 1870s. See Watts, 365-6.

  20. See Edmond.

  21. There are further parallels between the two works. For example, Attwater, like Jones, hates women. The surprising female presence on the island, “a plump and pretty young woman,” who merits only a few sentences in the narrative, has been married off by Attwater to one of his other servants. As he puts it, she was “too pretty,” and “A man never knows when he may be inclined to be a fool about women.” Unlike Heyst, Attwater is “a fine shot” (Heyst, by contrast, is “unarmed” and “not a shooting man”) and he triumphs easily over the three new arrivals.

  22. Dryden, 38.

  23. Storry and Childs, 18.

  24. White, 197.

Works Cited

Bonney, William W. Thorns & Arabesques: Contexts for Conrad's Fiction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Conrad, Joseph. Almayer's Folly. London: J. M. Dent, 1923.

———. Lord Jim. London: J. M. Dent, 1949.

———. Lord Jim. ed. Cedric Watts and Robert Hampson (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), 365-6; cited as Watts.

———. The Rescue. London: J. M. Dent, 1924.

———. Victory. London: J. M. Dent, 1949.

———. Within the Tides. London: J. M. Dent, 1949.

Conroy, Mark. “Ghost-Writing (in) “Karain.” The Conradian 18.2 (Autumn 1994), 1-16.

Docherty, Thomas. Alterities: Criticism, History, Representation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 48-9.

Dryden, Linda. Joseph Conrad and the Imperial Romance. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Edmond, Rod. Representing the South Pacific: Colonial Discourse from Cook to Gauguin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Gordon, Jan B. Gossip and Subversion in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1996.

Greaney, Michael. “Conrad's Storytellers.” Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Lancaster, 1998.

Hampson, Robert. Cross-Cultural Encounters in Conrad's Malay Fiction. New York: Palgrave, 2000; cited as Hampson.

———. “Frazer, Conrad and the ‘truth of primitive passion.’” in Robert Fraser (ed.), Sir James Frazer and the Literary Imagination (New York: St Martin's Press, 1990), 172-91.

Mongia, Padmini. “Ghosts of the Gothic: Spectral Women and Colonized Spaces in Lord Jim” in Andrew Michael Roberts, ed., Conrad and Gender. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1993.

Pappas, P. A. “The Hallucination of the Malay Archipelago: Critical Contexts for Joseph Conrad's Asian Fiction.” Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Essex, 1997.

Roberts, Andrew Michael. “Secret Agents and Secret Objects: Action, Passivity, and Gender in Chance.” The Conradian, 17.2, 89-104.

———. “The Gaze and the Dummy: Sexual Politics in Conrad's The Arrow of Gold” in Joseph Conrad: Critical Assessments, ed. Keith Carabine, 4 vols. Roberts-bridge, Sussex: Helm, 1992. III, 528-50.

———. Conrad and Masculinity. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. Gossip. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.

Storry, Mike, and Peter Childs, British Cultural Identities. London: Routledge, 1997.

Tarling, Nicholas. “British Policy in the Malay Peninsula and Archipelago 1824-1871,” Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 30, pt. 3 (October 1957).

———. Piracy and Politics in the Malay World: A Study of British Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century South East Asia. Melbourne: F. W. Cheshire, 1963.

Warren, James Frances. The Sulu Zone 1768-1898: The Dynamics of External Trade, Slavery and Ethnicity in the Transformation of a Southeast Asian Maritime State. Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1981.

———. “Joseph Conrad's Fiction as Southeast Asian History: Trade and Politics in East Borneo in the Late Nineteenth Century.” The Brunei Museum Journal (1977), 21-34.

White, Andrea. Joseph Conrad and the Adventure Tradition: Constructing and Deconstructing the Imperial Subject. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Further Reading

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Batchelor, John. The Life of Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1993, 368 p.

Biography of Conrad, examining the complex Conradian relationship of life and art through the study of archival materials, personal letters, and his published works.


Adams, David. “‘Remorse and Power’: Conrad's Karain and the Queen.” Modern Fiction Studies 47, no. 4 (winter 2001): 721-52

Examines the role of remorse in “Karain: A Memory” and provides a specific historical model for the gilt coin in the story.

Finkelstein, Sue. “Hope and Betrayal: A Psychoanalytic Reading of ‘Amy Foster.’” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 32, no. 1 (spring 2000): 20-30.

Delineates autobiographical aspects of “Amy Foster” and provides a psychoanalytic interpretation of Conrad's story.

Fraser, Gail. “Conrad's Revisions to ‘Amy Foster.’” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 20, no. 3 (1988): 181-94.

Maintains that Conrad's revisions to “Amy Foster” function to universalize the feelings of loneliness and dislocation at the heart of the story.

Hamner, Robert. “The Enigma of Arrival in ‘An Outpost of Progress.’” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 33, no. 3 (fall 2001): 171-87.

Appraises the critical reaction to “An Outpost of Progress.”

Lucas, Michael A. “Styles in ‘An Outpost of Progress’ and ‘The Lagoon.’” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 21, no. 3 (1989): 203-20.

Offers a stylistic comparison of “An Outpost of Progress” and “The Lagoon.”

Ruppel, Richard. “Yanko Goorall in The Heart of Darkness: ‘Amy Foster’ as Colonialist Text.” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 28, no. 2 (1996): 126-32.

Discusses “Amy Foster” as Conrad's last piece of colonialist fiction.

Spittles, Brian. Joseph Conrad: Text and Context. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992, 198 p.

Places Conrad's work within its autobiographical, cultural, and sociohistorical context.

Swisher, Clarice, ed. Readings on Joseph Conrad. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998, 192 p.

Collection of critical essays.

Watson, Wallace. “Intersecting Texts: Conrad's ‘The Duel’ and Ridley Scott's The Duelists.” Conrad's Century: The Past and Future Spendour, edited by Laura L. Davis, pp. 227-48. Boulder: Social Science Monographs, 1998.

Views “The Duel” and Ridley Scott's cinematic adaptation, The Duelists, as “intersecting texts.”

Watt, Ian P. Essays on Conrad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 214 p.

Thematic and stylistic analysis of Conrad's stories and novels.

Watts, Cedric T. “Transactions and Transtextualities: ‘The Lagoon,’ ‘Because of the Dollars,’ ‘The Warrior's Soul’ and ‘Christmas Day at Sea.’” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 34, nos. 1-2 (fall 2002): 15-30.

Contends that “the theme of transactions and the procedures of transtextuality are interlinked” in “The Lagoon,” “Because of the Dollars,” “The Warrior's Soul,” and “Christmas Day at Sea.”

Additional coverage of Conrad's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 26; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 2; British Writers, Vol. 6; British Writers: The Classics, Vol. 1; British Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 2; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1890-1914; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 131; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 60; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 10, 34, 98, 156; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists;DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels; Exploring Short Stories; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 1; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vols. 2, 16; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 1, 12 Short Story Criticism, Vol. 9; Something About the Author, Vol. 27; Twayne's English Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism,Vols. 1, 6, 13, 25, 43, 57; World Literature and Its Times, Ed. 4; and World Literature Criticism.

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