It is tempting but potentially incorrect to see Victory as a melodramatic morality play in which good battles evil and love wins in the end. For one thing, all the kind and compassionate characters are killed by story’s end. If death is “the wages of sin,” then Joseph Conrad seems to be suggesting that death is the wages of virtue and loyalty as well—hardly the makings of a very convincing morality play. Conrad is a master of relating ambiguous motives and moral choices. In other stories, such as Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1900), The Secret Agent (1907), and The Secret Sharer (1910), the propriety of an action is all too often based on one’s point of view, and Conrad’s narrative techniques frequently make the moral parameters of an event very unclear.
In Victory, for example, much of Heyst’s story is told by, or at least seen through, the eyes of Davidson. This distancing technique, whereby one slowly learns the truth of a story, makes it impossible to read Victory as a simple commentary on love, embodied in Lena and represented by the otherwise ineffectual Heyst. These two are present in a world that is dominated by scoundrels such as Ricardo and Schomberg, brutes such as Pedro, and irredeemably sinister figures such as “plain Mr. Jones.” A sentimental and allegorical reading will render meaning, but that meaning will not admit the moral complexities that Conrad builds into the novel through the characterization of his protagonist, Axel Heyst.
Those complexities are best represented in Heyst’s relationship not so much with his father as with his father’s ideas. The younger Heyst has been “passing through life without suffering . . . invulnerable because elusive,” having made himself strictly a spectator, an astute but aloof observer of the human scene. Surely, this is Conrad’s Heyst, and, despite a critical tradition to the contrary, this Heyst is no Christ figure; if anything, he is more of an Antichrist, a person convinced after the fiasco of his involvement with Morrison that “all action is bound to be harmful . . . devilish. That is why this world is evil upon the whole.” He will tell the stunned Davidson, who could never fathom the real reason behind Heyst’s beliefs, “now I have done with observation, too.”
When Conrad reveals how much the elder Heyst’s ideas shaped his son, his point becomes clear. Heyst’s father had been “the most uneasy soul that civilization had ever fashioned to its ends of disillusion and regret . . . unhappy in a way unknown to mediocre souls,” the narrator reveals early on, and Heyst himself will later confess to Lena, “after listening to him, I could not take my soul down into the street to fight there. I started off to wander about, an independent spectator—if that is possible.” This is the very point Conrad is making; this isolated observation is not possible. Heyst, self-described as “a man of universal scorn and unbelief,” is, rather than a positive foil to Jones’s evil, very much the same kind of character as Jones, for both imagine that there is no worthwhile human action. The only difference is, instead of taking advantage of...
(The entire section is 819 words.)