Victory: A Island Talen

by Joseph Conrad

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Places Discussed

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Samburan (sahm-BEWR-ahn). Also known as Round Island, one of the thousands of small islands in the Malaysian archipelago, on which Baron Axel Heyst establishes the center of his Tropical Belt Coal Company. At its height, his company has offices in London and Amsterdam. After the death of Heyst’s partner, the only person remaining in Heyst’s house is his Chinese servant, Wang. On the side of the island opposite the house is a native village.

Although Heyst finds island life fascinating, he is generally disenchanted with it, even though he rarely feels lonely. He often sits in the main room of his house, under a picture of his father—a misanthrope and famous writer—and reflects.

Into this deserted wilderness Heyst brings Alma (whom he renames Lena), a women he has rescued from an obsessive-compulsive hotel owner at the nearest civilized island, three days journey by boat. In his sitting room, Heyst assures Lena that nothing can break in on them there.

Schomberg’s Hotel

Schomberg’s Hotel. Hotel in Sourabaya owned by Wilhelm Schomberg, who is obsessed with controlling Lena, one of the eighteen women in his hotel concert hall. Desperate to escape the hotel, Lena persuades Heyst to take her with him after a concert.

Other residents of the hotel include two very suspicious characters, Mr. Jones and Martin Ricardo, who gamble in the hotel’s shabby gaming room. These desperadoes brag to Schomberg about their adventures in Bangkok, Manila, Colombia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. When these men tell Schomberg they intend to stay at the hotel for a month, he shows displeasure and is threatened by Jones. Nevertheless, Schomberg persuades the men to attempt to retrieve Lena and get revenge on Heyst by telling them a false story about a fortune that Heyst has hidden on the island.

Wang’s hut

Wang’s hut. Walled quarters of Heyst’s servant Wang, who retires to his hut at night and contentedly tends his vegetable garden by day. Heyst never enters the hut or its grounds. After Wang takes a village woman for a wife, she never emerges from this island of sanity, except to flee with Wang to her home village on the opposite side of the island when the desperadoes land on the island. The path to the woman’s village is strewn with logs on the trail as a warning to the outside world to keep away.

Heyst’s house

Heyst’s house. After Lena is shot by the invading desperadoes, Heyst takes her to his bed to die as his house catches fire. There Heyst apparently chooses to die with Lena, who is happy finally to be loved and free from Schomberg. Heyst, too, is finally free from a life of scorn. The lovers are both reduced to ashes, but ashes are as pure as their love. The island, too, is now purified from the influx of civilization. In this there may be victory.

Literary Techniques

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Critics have debated over whether Victory is too schematized or allegorical in its conception. Although the story is credible as realism, if one accepts the reality of the villains, it has also been attacked as lacking sufficient realism. Without reviewing the different arguments here, it may be noted that Conrad employs a narrative of surface realism which contains obviously symbolic overtones.

In its moderate realism, the novel is reminiscent of Conrad's earlier Malayan stories, but the use of names and situations that contain a literary resonance is obvious. Axel, for instance (according to Robert Hampson's "Introduction" to the Penguin edition), Heyst's first name, appears to have been taken from the...

(This entire section contains 863 words.)

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hero of thefin de siecle symbolist drama Axel by Villiers de Isle Adam, a work of late French romantic aestheticism that Conrad was acquainted with. Other characters in the narrative have been given symbolic significance as well, with Heyst being compared to the brooding Hamlet or the reclusive Prospero in Shakespeare, Lena being seen as analogous to Shakespeare's Miranda; and the villains being compared to Satanic figures.

Perhaps the concern for allegory and symbolism has been pushed too far. More interesting from a technical point of view is Conrad's use of differing points of view, as his narrative focus gives the reader a privileged glimpse of the minds of many characters—now Heyst's thoughts, then Lena's, and later the scoundrel Ricardo's. In fact, Conrad describes the mind of nearly every major character at one point or another.
Nevertheless, the features which tend to make the novel attractive to the reader may remain the most controversial, particularly Conrad's use of a melodramatic sequence of events to bring the story of Heyst and Lena to a dramatic conclusion. Like Lord Jim (1900; see separate entry), the novel depends in part on the presence of melodrama to create interest; unlike popular melodramas, however, there is a rather ambiguous triumph of good over evil, and certainly no conventional happy ending, with Lena's death from a bullet fired by Jones followed by the grief-filled suicide of Heyst.

Conrad's technical management of the melodrama in Part IV has struck such critics as Albert Guerard in Conrad the Novelist (1958) as awkward and unconvincing. In fact, several of the events of the ending are likely to raise questions of credibility. (1) To begin with, although Heyst is a thinker rather than man of action, he is a man of the world with considerable experience of travel in dangerous country. Many readers are likely to wonder why such a man would have only one firearm for protection at his retreat on Samburan, and why this revolver could be stolen so easily by Wang, the Chinese servant. (2) Heyst's relationship with Wang seems oddly developed. Although Wang may be concerned with self-preservation and protecting his wife, could Heyst not persuade Wang to stay around, by the offer of more money? After all, Heyst believes correctly that Wang has stolen his revolver, so Heyst can assume that Wang is armed and a possible source of help. (3) Recognizing his peril, why does Heyst not try to flee with Lena to the jungle? (4) After telling Lena to leave and hide in the jungle, and going to meet Mr. Jones, why does Heyst fail to take the opportunity to overpower Jones and take his revolver, especially after Jones becomes disconcerted over the news that Ricardo has concealed the fact that Heyst has a woman present?

Aside from Heyst's odd actions, which may perhaps be defended on the grounds that Heyst is a complex man who commits himself to action only when his course is clear, Mr. Jones's actions are also puzzling. (1) Jones seems to believe in the tales of Heyst's hidden treasure, but he fails to do any homework, accepting Ricardo's stories which are based on the Schomberg's gossip. Yet Schomberg is a man for whom Jones feels the utmost contempt. (2) Again, with Heyst unarmed and at his mercy, why does Jones take the time to discuss philosophical issues, before killing him? (3) And when Jones learns of Ricardo's perfidy in concealing the presence of Lena, why does Jones immediately set out to shoot Ricardo as a disloyal subordinate? Some of these questions again may be answered on the grounds that Jones is both a homosexual with a pathological hatred of women and a sadist who wants to keep Heyst in his power for as long as possible. (Moreover, Jones, as a gentleman, feels a kinship with Heyst, although Jones professes to despise the class that has expelled him.) But Jones's decision to kill Ricardo seems to be compounded not only of anger over being betrayed, but based on a belief that Ricardo has set up the robbery of Heyst because of his desire to take Heyst's woman as well as Heyst's rumored money.

Although the final section of Victory may be defended, and although the novel's resolution is sufficiently tragic to please all but the most exacting disciples of Conrad's tragic vision, it must be conceded that some of the concluding events lack credibility. Possibly, Conrad's struggle to complete the novel over a long period of three years may have compelled him to settle for a hastily contrived ending.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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Much of the interest in the novel concerns the philosophical attitudes of Axel Heyst and his desire to withdraw from human involvement. Readers might analyze Heyst's feelings about human life, and the extent to which his attitudes are dependent on the philosophical attitudes of his father.

Another area for opening discussion could be the status of Lena, who is about to be made a victim of Schomberg or some other man of means early in the novel, before she is rescued by Heyst. Later Lena again becomes a possession to be battled over because of Ricardo's lust for her. Another question regarding Lena is her complex relationship with Heyst. Is Heyst in love with her at first? What are the terms on which he expects her to live with him on Samburan? Whey does Heyst not act more decisively in response to Lena's affection?

Yet another area of discussion might concern Lena's self-image and her desire to sacrifice herself for Heyst. In the light of contemporary feminist attitudes, what might readers think of Lena's self-sacrificial intentions?

1. What leads Heyst to the island of Samburan as a retreat from the world? What influence does Heyst's father play in Heyst's life and philosophic outlook?

2. How did Heyst feel about his father? Do Heyst's feelings for his father's memory contradict the philosophy that Heyst learned form his father? Why or why not?

3. What leads Heyst to befriend Morrison? To what degree, if any, is Heyst responsible for Morrison's tragic death? Was there any practical basis for Morrison's scheme of mining coal on an island in the Dutch East Indies?

4. Why does Schomberg hate Axel Heyst, even before Heyst befriends Lena and takes her out of Schomberg's power? What is the defining trait of Schomberg's character?

5. To what extent is a malicious gossip like Schomberg a source of evil? To what degree is Schomberg responsible for the subsequent tragedy of Heyst and Lena?

6. Why does Heyst fail to respond to Lena's initial overtures offering affection and love? How is Heyst deficient in his knowledge of women?

7. What must contemporary readers decide about Lena's desire to sacrifice herself in an attempt to save Heyst from the predatory trio led by Mr. Jones? Is winning Heyst's love a sufficient victory for Lena for her sacrifice?

8. What might a contemporary feminist comment about Lena's attitudes? To what degree is Lena's view of life conditioned by the cliches of nineteenth century romanticism?

9. If Heyst is a man of the world and accustomed to living a solitary life, why is his existence on Samburan so unwary and unprotected? Why does Heyst make it easy for anyone, including Wang, to steal his revolver? Why does Heyst lack other weapons?

10. If Heyst is an experienced wanderer, why is he so surprised by the arrival of Mr. Jones, Ricardo, and Pedro? Even though he does not have a hidden treasure, could he not have been more concerned about possible robbers?

11. Why does Heyst vacillate so much when faced with the threat of Mr. Jones and Martin Ricardo?

12. What motivates Mr. Jones in his general behavior? Why does he rob Heyst for sport?

13. Why does Jones dislike women so greatly? Does Conrad provide evidence implying that Jones is a homosexual? Was Conrad prevented by the literary taboos of his time from being more explicit?

14. What parallels and contrasts are there between Jones and Ricardo? Between Jones and Heyst?

15. What occurrences in the final sequence of events involving Heyst, Jones, Ricardo, and Lena seem difficult to give credence to? Why does Heyst fail to attack Jones when he has the chance? Why does Jones try to shoot Ricardo?

16. Is Ricardo's fascination with Lena credible? Is Ricardo serious when he talks of killing both Jones and Heyst and making Lena his partner in a career of adventure?

17. Is Captain Davidson's sudden arrival during the crisis credible? Would Davidson leave Heyst alone on the island with Jones after Lena's death?

18. Why does Conrad leave the final events of the tragedy narrated by Davidson somewhat unclear? Did Jones commit suicide, or did Heyst throw him into the ocean?

19. What is our judgment of Heyst's suicide? Who, if anyone, gained a "victory" in this novel?

20. What is Conrad's final judgment if any about the nature of isolation as opposed to involvement with human society? How does this point of view emerge from the story of Heyst?

Social Concerns

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Although at one time Victory was less highly regarded than some of Joseph Conrad's more famous novels, its stature as a work of art has increased over the years, as many readers have come to identify in some ways with the detachment and alienation of the central character, Axel Heyst. Despite complaints from some critics about Conrad's use of melodrama and some lapses from realism, the novel continues to exercise a certain fascination for many readers.

A major social concern of the novel is the nature of Heyst's attempt to live a life of detachment and philosophical isolation, somewhat like the tragic count in Conrad's short story "Il Conde" (1907; see separate entry). Is it possible to live such a life of solitude, apart from the sufferings of humanity? And if it is possible to do so, is such a choice morally defensible? What makes Heyst attractive to readers is in fact his sympathy and kindness toward Morrison and Lena, the two decent people whom he befriends.

Another significant social concern of the novel is the apparent ease by which destructive and parasitical people such as Mr. Jones and Ricardo move around the world. Although they are confidence men, swindlers, thieves, and have committed murders, they use their mobility, their arts, and the bribery of authorities to live an itinerant but fairly prosperous existence in the less developed areas of the world. As menaces to decent social life, this pair are even more potent symbols than the arrogant young Neapolitan robber of "Il Conde."

Yet another social concern of the novel is the status of a lower class woman without friends or connections in the early part of the twentieth century. Lena's existence in the traveling orchestra is perilous and unpleasant because Mrs. Zangiacomo resents her as a potential rival. She is in danger of falling under the dominance of Schomberg, a brutal and tyrannical husband to Mrs. Schomberg, simply because she needs a protector. Although she finds a kind, though not very worldly, protector in Heyst, she is menaced by the attentions of Ricardo. The status of an attractive young woman as potential victim is certainly a major social theme of the novel.

Finally, a lesser theme is suggested by the role played by Wang, Heyst's Chinese servant. A shrewd employee, Wang has no deep loyalty to Heyst and takes a self-protective approach to Heyst's problems. But Wang's attitudes have been created by the behavior of European imperialists who have a history of exploiting Asians as workers and servants. Once again, Conrad offers some oblique criticism of imperialism.

Literary Precedents

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As has been noted, many literary precedents besides sea fiction and French realism have been suggested for Victory. Among works which may have contributed to the novel's symbolism are Shakespeare's Hamlet (1601) and The Tempest (1612), the biblical story of Adam and Eve in Eden, and John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667; the epigraph on Conrad's original tide was a quotation from Comus, Milton's youthful masque about a young woman's temptation). Lena's name for herself, "Alma," is Latin for "the soul," and Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene (1590-1596) devotes a lengthy allegorical passage to describing the "House of Alma." However, it seems unlikely that Conrad was directly influenced by Spenser. In fact, the symbolic meaning of "alma" would not have been difficult for Conrad to discover.

These sources, suggested by various scholars, are cited by Robert Hampson in his "Introduction" and "Notes" to the Penguin edition (1989) of Victory. Even less plausible than the influence of Spenser is the suggestion of the influence of Greek legends about Troy. As Hampson notes, Lena has been compared to Helen of Troy (whose full name was Helena, and who was "kidnapped" by an attractive prince from an unattractive husband). However, the New Testament is the source of allusions and quotations for Conrad in the story. More than once Conrad himself presses parallels between Lena and Mary Magdalen in the Christian gospels: Magdalen was a fallen woman who redeems herself by her devotion to Jesus; Lena, although more innocent than Magdalen, seeks to redeem her tarnished life by her devotion to the virtuous Heyst.

Some descriptions used by Conrad have been discovered to have parallels in Guy de Maupassant's story, "The Sisters Rondolis." Another de Maupassant story suggested as a source is "As Strong as Death," which describes a complex love affair. As biographical studies have shown, Conrad was a devoted reader of de Maupassant, and a disciple of de Maupassant's own literary model, Gustave Flaubert. Anatole France, another favorite author of Conrad's, has been cited as one source of Lena, particularly his story "The Red Lily." The portrayal of Heyst's father has been traced to a source in Anatole France's A Literary Life.

Some less literary sources for Victory have also been suggested. Material about the islands and their peoples was available to Conrad in such historical works as Rodney Mundy's Narrative of Events in Borneo and Celebes (1848) and A. R. Wallace's The Malay Archipelago (1869).


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Rather surprisingly, Victory was almost immediately viewed as worthy material for a stage adaptation. Although Conrad gave some thought to collaborating with the proposed adaptor, MacDonald Hastings, he eventually decided against it, being occupied with other projects. Although Conrad did not consider Hastings's early efforts especially faithful to his work, he consented to the adaptation mainly for commercial reasons. Conrad later showed renewed interest in Hastings's stage adaptation and made suggestions for revision. He also took an interest in the casting, but it was not until 1919 that the play was performed with Sir Henry Irving in the cast. Surprisingly, the play was a moderate commercial success, but apparently Conrad's failing health prevented him from seeing a performance. There was also a silent film version in 1919 with Wallace Beery and Lon Chaney, Sr.; this film is known today only to film historians and archivists, but since it was two hours in length, it apparently dealt with much of Conrad's original plot.

In 1920, Conrad adapted one of Victory's companion stories, "Because of the Dollars," into a forty-five-minute play, The Laughing Anne, but could not place it with a theater. However, the story, under the title of Laughing Anne, was eventually turned into a forgettable English motion picture with Margaret Lockwood in 1953. This technicolor film was predictably marketed as a Far Eastern adventure epic, but Lockwood, memorable as a delectable ingenue in Alfred Hitchcock's 1938 classic The Lady Vanishes, was well past the prime of her youthful beauty and near the point of moving on to matronly roles in British television comedy.

Victory in its incarnation as a novel has been adapted for sound films at least twice. The first version appeared in 1930 in the stone age of the talking films and has been virtually forgotten. More importantly, however, the novel was adapted for an ambitious version in a 1940 film with Fredric March, Betty Field, and Cedric Hardwicke. Under the guidance of the distinguished American director John Cromwell, the film displayed some dramatic values, and it benefited from a strong cast. Unfortunately, the motion picture censorship of the period did not permit this version to treat the sexual aspects of the novel with candor and realism. Much of the novel's surface action, after all, revolves around the attempted seduction of Lena by Schomberg and later Ricardo's attempted rape of Lena as well as his continuing lust for her. These matters require franker presentation than the standards of 1940 allowed. Consequently, the motion picture is a lesser entry in the canon of competent performances by Fredric March who was a cinematic presence of considerable stature from the 1930s through the 1960s. The picture has also been rated as a lesser work in the distinguished career of John Cromwell, whose films included Of Human Bondage (1934) and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1939)


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Gillon, Adam. The Eternal Solitary: A Study of Joseph Conrad. New York: Bookman Associates, 1960. Explores the key role that isolation played in Conrad’s life and work. Presents Victory as a melodrama that effectively discusses, in symbolic terms, the nature of solitude and its consequences.

Johnson, Bruce. Conrad’s Models of Mind. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971. Explores Conrad’s continual readjustment of his fictions to fit changing philosophical models of human behavior and motivation. Discusses the way Victory reassesses the individual’s need for human solidarity and community.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Joseph Conrad: A Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991. A highly readable critical biography. Discusses Victory as Conrad’s most misunderstood, underrated, and controversial novel, its theme being the failure of love in an idyllic setting.

Moser, Thomas. “Conrad’s ‘Later Affirmation.’” In Conrad: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Marvin Mudrick. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966. Explores the role chance plays in later novels, particularly Victory, and how it makes the novels’ apparent affirmations more evasive.

Sherry, Norman, ed. Conrad: The Critical Heritage. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973. An impressive collection of the responses of the time to Conrad’s work, the section devoted to Victory gives insight into Conrad’s critical reputation and the novel’s reception in the midst of World War I.


Critical Essays