Victory: A Island Talen

by Joseph Conrad

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Characters Discussed

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Baron Axel Heyst

Baron Axel Heyst, a man who has deliberately attempted to stand aloof from life, an effort that has made him a pathetic man if not a tragic one. He is innately and fastidiously virtuous, but by detaching himself from the entanglements and consequences of experience he has made himself incapable of coping with evil. Consequently, when he is forced to defend Lena, the only person he has ever dared or tried to love, he fails miserably and destroys himself. He is characterized aptly by epithets: His apparent willingness to drift forever within a “magic circle” in the East Indies earns him the name “Enchanted Heyst”; his naïve optimism, the “Utopist”; his attempt to establish organized trade in the islands, “the Enemy”; his isolated retirement on Samburan, “the Hermit”; and his alleged exploitation of Morrison, his former partner, “the Spider.” After Lena dies as the result of a wound inflicted by Mr. Jones, Heyst sets fire to his bungalow and burns himself and her body.


Lena, the new name Heyst gives to Alma, a young entertainer in Zangiacomo’s orchestra, after he meets her while she is performing at Wilhelm Schomberg’s hotel in Sourabaya. He quixotically thinks that the new name symbolizes her break with her sordid past. It is to Lena that the “victory” of the title applies. Realizing that Heyst is completely incapable of meeting evil with action, she resolves, out of love and gratitude, to save him, if necessary by committing murder. She is a foil to Heyst in that she has been forced since childhood to confront and resist the evil in life, and she is prepared, instinctively, to challenge and defeat it. Mr. Jones shoots Lena when he finds her and Martin Ricardo together in Heyst’s bungalow.

Mr. Jones

Mr. Jones, “a gentleman at large” who embodies the evil intelligence and calculating wickedness that threaten and finally destroy Heyst. Outlawed by his perversity from the genteel society of which he was once a member, Jones travels with two companions among the outpost islands and obtains his living through gambling, theft, and murder. After shooting Lena and Martin Ricardo, Jones falls from a wharf and drowns.

Martin Ricardo

Martin Ricardo, Mr. Jones’s henchman. Although he is dedicated to performing dirty work for Jones, whom he considers a gentleman, he does not conform to his leader’s misogynist principles. Characterized as a cat, he symbolizes instinctive savagery. Believing that Ricardo has betrayed him by concealing the fact of Lena’s presence in Heyst’s bungalow, Jones shoots him after fatally wounding Lena.


Pedro, the third of the evil trio threatening the lives of Heyst and Lena on Samburan. Symbolizing brute force, this apelike creature, formerly an alligator hunter in Colombia, has attached himself to Jones out of gratitude for having spared his wretched life. Wang shoots him with a pistol stolen from Heyst.

Wilhelm Schomberg

Wilhelm Schomberg, the brutal owner of a hotel in Sourabaya. His obsessive hatred for Heyst increases after Heyst carries off Lena, whom Schomberg had desired for himself. To get rid of Jones and Ricardo, who have been operating a gambling den in his hotel, Schomberg sends them to Samburan in search of a treasure Heyst is supposed to keep hidden on the island. His hope is that Jones and his followers will kill the man he hates.

Mrs. Schomberg

Mrs. Schomberg, who is still in love with her brutish husband, even though he has reduced her to a condition of domestic servitude and spiritual degradation. To keep him for herself, she helps Lena escape with Heyst.


Wang, the inscrutable Chinese houseboy...

(This entire section contains 830 words.)

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who deserts Heyst after seeing Ricardo’s attempt to attack Lena. Before his flight to a native village on the other side of the island, Wang takes Heyst’s gun; thus, Heyst and Lena are left defenseless, at the mercy of Mr. Jones and his henchmen.


Morrison, Heyst’s former business partner in maintaining a coaling station on Samburan. After Morrison died in England, Schomberg circulated reports that Heyst had cheated his partner. Except for Lena, Morrison was the only person with whom Heyst had ever become involved. In return for a loan at a time of need, he had secured Heyst’s appointment as a manager of the Tropical Belt Coal Company, now liquidated.

Captain Davidson

Captain Davidson, the skipper of a trading vessel. He is in the habit of sailing his schooner close to Samburan so that Heyst will not be completely isolated. He appears shortly after Mr. Jones has shot Lena. Later, he explains to the authorities the violent affair that for Lena and Heyst ended in a spiritual victory snatched from circumstances of physical defeat and death.


Zangiacomo, the leader of the ladies’ orchestra in which Lena performs. His wife arouses Heyst’s sympathy for Lena by pinching her.

Julius Tesman

Julius Tesman, a partner of Tesman Brothers. He backs Heyst in the coal company venture.


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Whatever happens in Victory, readers must admit that it contains a memorable cast. The central figure is Axel Heyst, a Swedish Count, and the son of a disenchanted philosopher whose pessimistic books discourage involvement in life. The elder Heyst, whose influence hangs over his son's actions, much as his portrait hangs in Heyst's bungalow, appears to have espoused a philosophy modeled on Arthur Schopenhauer's intellectual pessimism. Perhaps more relevant to a discussion of the younger Heyst is the presence of several parallels between Heyst and Hamlet. Both Hamlet and Heyst are Scandinavian in heritage, both are aristocrats, both are greatly influenced by a father's spirit, and both are brooding and philosophical personalities whose characteristic stance is a detachment from action and involvement in human life.

The parallels extend further. Heyst's sympathetic actions toward Morrison and Lena lead him away from his isolation from humanity and involve him with others, much as Hamlet's acts of kindness and his feeling for Ophelia take him away from his brooding on revenge. Heyst's immediate failure to act decisively when Lena and he are threatened is also Hamlet-like, and his suicide after Lena's death reaffirms parallels with Hamlet, whose methods of avenging his father turn out to be self-destructive.

In Heyst, Conrad seems to have written a study about the attractions of withdrawal from humanity and the tragedies attendant on such isolation. Heyst's interest in others—even his affection for his late father and his anger over Schom berg's calumny—shows that his nature is a warm one and that he does feel concern for humanity. In fact, Heyst's sympathetic interest in others—in Morrison, in Lena, even in Captain Davidson—contradicts the philosophic point of view he learned from his father. It is clear that had Heyst been more involved with life, and more concerned about marrying Lena and beginning a family life on Samburan, he would probably have enjoyed a more satisfying and fulfilling existence. At the same time, his story would have been less tragic and probably less interesting.

In portraying his other tragic protagonist, Lena, Conrad seems to have attempted to place a self-sacrificing and romantically inclined woman at the center of his tragic novel, just as he had done, to some extent, in his portrait of Winnie Verloc in The Secret Agent (1907; see separate entry). Although a contemporary novelist might have made Lena less sexually innocent, Conrad gives her wisdom and shrewdness about the ways of the world, and even ardent feminist critics should admire her determination to escape both from the tyranny of Mrs. Zangiacomo and from the threatened domination of the lecherous Schomberg.

Although it might arouse contempt in feminist readers, Lena's longing for Heyst's love is based in part on her belief that social validation for her as a woman requires her to win the love of a morally admirable man—and Heyst is a Swedish count, besides. Moreover, Lena's view of life has been conditioned by nineteenth century romantic and sentimental attitudes. However, she feels a genuine gratitude and affection for Heyst, without fully understanding his reluctance to make a commitment to her. Aside from self-sacrifice, readers should find her conduct admirable, both in her resistance to Ricardo's attempted rape and in her use of her feminine allure to persuade him to lend her the knife. Had she prudently fled to the forest, as a conventional nineteenth century melodrama heroine might have done, she would have survived—but her role in the story would not be the material of tragedy.

Conrad's secondary characters are a memorable crew of rogues and victims, with the exception of Davidson and perhaps of Wang. The lecherous hotel manager, Schomberg, is a thoroughly believable petty scoundrel, who has brutally abused his wife and who nurtures a malicious hatred of Heyst for rescuing Lena from the fate Schomberg had planned for her. Schomberg's malice toward Heyst is thoroughly irrational but absolutely credible. Heyst is not merely a man who aided Lena, but is in his own way a heroic person who lives by high and disinterested principles. Indeed Heyst embodies values that Schomberg rejects, so Schomberg's desire to see Heyst destroyed is rooted in jealousy and resentment. Ironically, Schomberg's designs are often frustrated by the cunning of his ill-treated wife.

Conrad's trio of predators and bandits, Mr. Jones, Martin Ricardo, and Pedro are a well conceived and threatening crew. Unfortunately, their importance as symbolism for Conrad seems to have been as great as their interest as characters. At one point in the narrative, Conrad, through Heyst, explicitly explains to the reader that Jones represents intellectual malice, Ricardo is a figure of self-serving and sensual gratifications, and Pedro symbolizes brute strength without intelligence. Although Conrad shows so little interest in Pedro as to leave him in the background and have him killed by Wang, the other two characters hold our attention.

To some degree, Mr. Jones is an enigmatic figure. His antipathy for women prevents him from having any close emotional or sensual attachments, although he seems to relish the companionship and assistance of Ricardo. When he discovers Ricardo has betrayed him by concealing the presence of Lena, Jones's reaction becomes almost psychopathic. This violent reaction, as well as Jones's curious sympathy for and interest in Heyst, suggests that Jones is a homosexual, and this idea is supported by an occasional oblique reference in the novel.

The besetting flaw of Mr. Jones is arrogance, however, arising from his origin as an English gentleman, which has given Jones a contempt for anyone below his class; and it also stems from his rejection of the unwritten code of the English gentleman, which Jones has decided is foolish. It is probably Jones who truly practices the philosophy espoused by Heyst's father, the view of life which considers human involvements to be foolish. In fact, Jones tends to divide the world into the "tame" who live by some sort of civilized restraints, and the "wild" people who, like himself and Ricardo, take whatever they can get.

Yet even Jones cannot fully escape his emotional attachment to Ricardo. A curious feature in Conrad's portrayal of Jones is Jones's cadaverous appearance and his propensity for pretending to be ill and infirm; these traits appear to be symbols of what Conrad considers Jones's inner sickness. At any rate, it is clear that Jones is a sadist who enjoys playing with his victims, for his announced plan is to force Heyst into a card game and win Heyst's money slowly, forcing Heyst to struggle against his position as a victim.

Although Jones is a fascinating character, his performance in the final section of the novel is somewhat disappointing. Davidson hints that his death by drowning may have been a suicide, but the matter remains ambiguous. Indeed, Davidson may be protecting Heyst's reputation, if Heyst had thrown Jones into the ocean. On the other hand, a suicide by Jones would serve Conrad's symbolic purposes well, since, in Conrad's view, characters without attachments to others—like Decoud in Nostromo (1904; see separate entry)—are likely to destroy themselves.

Ricardo is a different kind of scoundrel from Jones, being primarily concerned with the gratification of his sensual nature. Although Ricardo follows Jones with servility because of his respect for the upper class, his relationship with Jones is filled with love-hate ambivalence, and these emerge in Jones's emotional courtship of Lena. In fact, transported by his dreams of lechery and his infatuation with Lena, Ricardo proposes to kill not only Heyst but Jones, both of whom are of the hated gentleman class.

Part of Ricardo's infatuation with Lena seems to result from their both belonging to the English lower classes; but his admiration and longing are stirred by her pluckiness and her cleverness, which Ricardo mistakenly believes is a mirror of his own. Ricardo's surrender to lust for Lena seems to result from his repression of his desires for a woman while traveling with Jones. Conrad increases the credibility of Ricardo's action by allowing Ricardo to grovel in front of Lena and to stroke her foot and ankle, suggesting the surrender to a fetish. Although not a villain like Jones with a grand and cosmic vision of evil, Ricardo is certainly a thoroughly believable portrait of human depravity.

The minor characters are less interesting. Although Heyst believes that Wang may be a scoundrel, his behavior is explained by Conrad on the grounds of self-interest. Wang's mysterious comings and going seem at times to reinforce stereotypes about the inscrutable "Oriental" behavior, and the character should have been more fully developed. Wang's use of Heyst's revolver to kill Pedro seems an afterthought on Conrad's part.

Finally, Captain Davidson is another of Conrad's reliable and disinterested narrators, and his presence in the novel is mainly employed to describe the fate of Heyst and Jones at the end. However, Davidson does like Heyst and feels some concern about his fate. Although less developed than Conrad's most famous narrator figure, Marlow, Davidson plays a significantly ironic role in arriving at the island just too late to save Lena.




Critical Essays