Some of His Major Themes
The part ofConrad never lost his patriotism, but he also never lost his sense of loneliness––his early experience of exile and the loss of close family ties. The contrast between the fact of loneliness and the need for community seems to have become his dominant pre-occupation; they are the themes of his work. They are also reflected in the two phases of his career (his life at sea, and his life as an author). From 1875 till 1894 he lived at sea in the close ties of a ship’s crew, but this was balanced against what is an emblem of loneliness–– a ship on a long voyage over the sea. For the rest of his career, his life as a writer was one of lonely dedication to his art without popular appreciation (until the success of Chance in 1914)
to which Conrad belonged was at that time ruled by Poland ; and when he was only five, the government compelled his family to shift to Russia where his father could be kept under watch. Conrad’s mother died during this exile, and his father died a few years later, after returning to Russia . As an only child, Joseph was left at twelve an orphan, under the guardianship of his maternal uncle. Poland
Two other qualities distinguish him. The first of these is his cosmopolitan awareness. Conrad was more cosmopolitan even than Henry James. As a seaman, he learnt to know men of many nations in
Asia as well as in Europe. As a writer he was a European rather a Pole or an Englishman, although it was to English traditions that he eventually gave his deepest loyalties.
His other distinguishing quality is his intentness. This word is meant to signify something different from the quality of concentration so often found in the work of great novelists. In Conrad, indeed, we may feel less of that concentration of art which we find in certain other novelists, in the sense that he gives us a less consistent minuteness of observation of human behaviour. What he gives us instead is the sensation of a ceaseless watchfulness.
A Preoccupation with Moral Ordeal
Conrad’s preoccupation with moral ordeal shows itself in his treatment of characters. He does not use the analytic method of Henry James, whose characters unfold in a process of discovery; nor does he exhibit the rich gallery of types of Dickens or Balm. Conrad deals in styles rather than types, the style denoting the individual’s behaviour in the face of the ordeal. An early story, The Nigger of the Narcissus, illustrates his method.
The Characters of a Negro (Waite) and an Englishman (Donkin)
The story of this novel is about the near-disintegration of the corporate unity of a ship’s crew by two of the seamen––a dying negro named James Waite, and a mutinous Englishman whose name is Donkin, Until the recruitment of these two at Bombay, all has been well with the ship which is called Narcissus. She is a beautiful merchant sailing vessel, the pride of her captain and her crew, although she has certain weaknesses in her design, and her behaviour, under stress in a storm, is unreliable. Waite and Donkin disrupt the unity of the crew and its communal life by their individual egotisms. When it is found that there is something deeply wrong with Waite––though it is not quite clear whether he is really dying or merely pretending to be sick in order to avoid working––the other seamen become magnetized to him in view of his assumption that all considerations should give way to the gravity of his illness. But a mysterious alliance develops between the negro and Donkin who alone regards Waite mockingly as a man pretending to be ill. Such an attitude, instead of offending Waite, cheers him up because he is really dying and really afraid of death; he uses his sickness as a means partly of self-admiration and partly of commanding respect from the rest of the ship’s company, but he would much rather believe himself a shirker with a future than a sick man about to die. Since no one respects Donkin, no one believes his opinion of Waite, but their association forces the rest of the crew to listen to his cunning talk against the officers, against the ship, and against their lot of hard labour with small reward.
Two other Characters––
and Singleton Belfast
Two other characters stand out. One is the quarrelsome, soft-hearted Irish seaman, nicknamed
, who leads the rescue of Jim Waite in a storm and whose attitude to the negro is positively maternal. The other is the oldest seaman on board, Singleton, a simple-minded, silent man of great experience, wholly dedicated to his way of life. He is the only member of the crew to remain untouched by the sinister alliance between Waite and Donkin. Belfast
The Death of the Nigger
Singleton remains an embodiment of truth, while the other seamen become entangled in a confused web of half-truths and lies. The feat of the rescue of Jim Waite during the storm magnetizes the crew still closer to the combination represented by Jim and Donkin, and a mutiny seems imminent. The mutiny is, however, prevented by the coolness of the captain who is able to tackle Donkin and deflate him. The Negro dies within sight of land, in accordance with Singleton’s superstitious prediction, and Donkin gloats over him during his last hours, robbing him of his money in his final moments.
The Ordeal of the Ship and of the Ship’s Crew
The Nigger of the Narcissus was the third of Conrad’s writings (preceded by Almayer’s Folly, 1895, and An Outcast of the Islands. 1896), and with it he felt that his art had come to maturity. This book is indeed a fine achievement and, regarded as a kind of fable, it tells us much of his distinctive vision. The attitude of the crew towards the ship is one of admiration though at the same time they pity the ship’s defects. Their attitude unites them in an emotion the effects of which are to make them disinterested and disciplined. Jim Waite’s self-love, on the other hand divides them from their corporate loyalty which is then further corrupted by Donkin’s self-interested bitterness. The ship, with her inherent weaknesses undergoes the ordeal of the stone and barely survives; the crew undergo their still more dangerous moral ordeal, and they too barely survive it.
The Base Man, and the Man of Integrity
Donkin is the base and destructive matt who cannot rise to the smallest level of moral disinterestedness. He becomes a familiar style of character in Conrad, and so does Singleton who is perfectly simple-minded and simple-hearted and whose integrity is unshakable. But Singleton has his limitation. His moral significance may be universal, but his human capacity is limited to his seamanship. One of Conrad’s convictions seems to be that integrity is rare enough within specific functions. Outside these functions, and in the complex activities we all perform as social animals, human egotism is almost universal and universally damaging. The only defence against it is self-knowledge. The man of imagination, who achieves self-knowledge, is the third of three main styles of characters in Conrad’s work (the other two being represented by Donkin and Singleton).
The Man Who Achieves Self-Knowledge
The third style of character is the chief protagonist of most of Conrad’s finest stories and novels––Lord Jim (1900), Heart of Darkness (1902), The Secret Agent (1907), Under Western Eyes (1911), The Secret Sharer (1912), Victory (1915), and The Shadow-Line (1917). In three of these (namely, Heart of Darkness, The Secret Sharer, and The Shadow-Line), this character is the first-person narrator of the tale. Conrad was strongly in favour of the method of first-person narration. With his sense of experience as ordeal, Conrad felt that his fiction would gain in realistic effect by the presence of a character who could show the effect of the ordeal on himself, either by being himself the person undergoing the ordeal, or by his role as a close observer. In Heart of Darkness he invented a fictional narrator who is a retired English sailor named Marlow and who resembled Conrad himself inn the quality of much of his experience and in the temperament on which that experience worked, but who was distinguished from Conrad both by the Englishness of his character and by the way in which he is himself characterized through the eyes of other observers. The method is evident in Heart of Darkness. This tale, like The Nigger of the Narcissus, had special personal importance for Conrad, since it is based on an experience of his own, when he commanded a river steamer in the
in 1890. Congo
The Method of Narration in “Heart of Darkness”
The story begins on the deck of a yacht at the mouth of the river
Thames: the crew are friends, waiting for the tide to turn so that they can take to the open sea. Marlow is one of their members, and it is he who tells the tale to fill in time but he, his circumstances, and his method of narration, are first sketched by an introductory narrator supposedly present in his audience. Thus the ordeal described’ in the story, although it was Conrad’s own, is set at a distance from the reader because Marlow himself is given distance. At the same time, it has immediacy by the narration of it in Marlow’s own tones, with his personal inflections, hesitations, and particular emphasis. At first it seems that he is telling a candid adventure story: the heart of darkness is merely unexplored Africa to which Marlow as a young man (like Conrad himself) had been drawn by its mystery. But as Marlow draws his listeners more and more into the adventure, it changes its nature from physical exploration to moral exploration. The search for the heart of darkness becomes a search into the human heart represented by Marlow’s search for trader Kurtz. Kurtz, with all Europe in his heredity, had come to Africa with the highest motives for the enlightenment of its ignorant natives, and has ended there as one of the dark deities of the very people he had hoped to redeem. The power of the story issues from its method of narration.
The Styles of Characters in “Nostromo’
The method is characteristic of Nostromo which is generally regarded as the greatest of Conrad’s works. This is one of the most spacious novels in the English language. It cannot be described in such simple terms as The Nigger of Narcissus or Heart of Darkness. It is not told by one narrator, though the first-person narration from time to time occurs in it. Nor can its subject be summarized in terms of Conrad’s three basic styles of character––the base man, the man of simple integrity, and the imaginative man of self-knowledge––though all three are included in its large cast. Its theme is the creation, and then the moral disintegration, of a fictional South American State. The styles of egotism of the characters here extend from the fiery devotion to the republican ideal of the Italian immigrant Viola. to the self-absorption in his personal reputation of Nostromo; from the identification of the Englishman, Charles Gould, with the silver mine on which the society’s wealth is based, to the identification with the social scene and the girl of his desire of the French-educated Martin Decoud, who dies when he finds himself condemned to isolation on a deserted island. The man of self-knowledge is Dr. Monygham, the Irishman, who can never forgive himself for betraying his political associates under torture. The man of simple character is the harbour-master, Captain Mitchell, who in crisis acts with perfect courage and coolness but who is quite unable to see the slightest indications of inner decay in the society, which he has helped to build up, when the outer danger to it has passed away. The base man, the wrecker of ideals, is Sotillo, the commander of the force sent to crush the State, who is diverted from his purpose by his mad greed for the silver which, he wrongly believes, has been sunk in the sea. All these and other individuals have been differentiated by their intense, personal motivations. The silver mine acts first as a symbol and the opportunity for united action, and then destroys subtly the inner loyalties of the characters. The contrast to the corrupting force of the silver is one of the few women of importance in the novel: she is Charles Gould’s wife who is separated from her husband by his total devotion to the interests of the silver mine; but she is powerless to influence the downward course of the society whose degeneration is understood only by herself and her devoted admirer, Dr. Monygham. (Women play a relatively small role in the novels of Conrad).
His Philosophy of Life
Next to Hardy, Conrad is the most pessimistic of English novelists but he does not undermine normal human inspirations for living. It is only that his work, in tales like Youth, does justice to the exhilaration of living and, in a tale such as Typhoon, to the triumph of the human spirit over physical danger. These themes are also included in the large fabric of Nostromo. But that novel and others heighten and intensify response to life because their deep concern with the moral ordeal gives grandeur to his characters even in their defeat. And the characters are not always defeated; in particular, The Secret Agent shows the triumph of the man of self-knowledge (the Assistant Commissioner) over the short-sightedness, corruption, egotism, and fanaticism which converge in this novel to produce a society governed by police tyranny and undermined by nihilism. Conrad offers no recipe for the redemption of society; on the other hand, he strengthens our faith in the final and stern reality of human beings as pre-eminently moral beings.
Influences That Worked upon Conrad’s Mind
Conrad wrote the novel of adventure, and he combined with it the objective spirit of French naturalism. The movement and the method of his psychology, the attention he pays to the various points of view which cross and recross one another round each being, owe something to Henry James. Lastly a background of Slav sensibility, and the spirit of Russian novelists, are seen in the special quality of his perception tithe mysterious and in his philosophy of life. This complex of influences is dominated by a temperament which turns it into a brilliant, rich, and original alloy.
The Wealth, Variety, and Vividness of His Descriptions
Conrad believed that a novelist must draw from all the resources of the arts, whether of colour and shape or of sound. He believed that the work of a novelist should have the bright hues of painting, the solidity of sculpture, the rhythm and harmony of music. And Conrad fully lived up to this belief. The wealth, the vigour, and the glow of Conrad’s descriptions are second to none in literature. The scenes which he calls up are very varied: but their succession naturally finds a centre in the image of the sea. It is from the deck of a ship that we witness the unrolling of the sights of the world; the smiles and furies of the ocean, the shipboard dramas, distant shores, the landscapes and manners of distant continents, and of those English; seaports whither the liners find their way back––all these make up an intensely vivid show which forces itself upon our view. The registering of lights, sounds, colours, odours, and tastes is with Conrad’s characters a constant, automatic activity which is never interrupted by the emotions of life. The novelist who has fixed so many sensations, and found the most proper words to express them, has contributed to broaden the descriptive range of the English language.
The inner Life of the Characters
The Inner life of human beings is equally real to Conrad. However, he does not explore this life with the same spontaneity: some effort in this sphere can be felt. On the one hand, his invention creates figures with firm outlines; and their moral personalities, quite as much as their physical features, strike us with a sure conviction of their elementary truth. On the other hand, , his psychological curiosity’ gives itself scope in slow ruminations, in analyses off dim souls, in complicated and subtle studies, where his intuitive sense of life still stands him in good stead, but where his perception is neither so definite nor so new at when confronted with the material universe. His desire for objectivity often leads him to present the facts of his plots as reflected in one or several minds, the visions of which the reader is to follow and harmonize: and this method gives rise to some uncertainty, though it also gives rise to high and rare effects.
Depiction of Human Suffering
Conrad is a violent, and at times raw, realist. He is also a thinker and a poet. Humour and pathos are to be found in his novels; and, chiefly, an ever-present sense of the mystery of fate, and an implicit, profound ethical element. The mood of his thought is pessimistic; almost all his books lay stress on the numberless varieties of suffering. He has no idealized hero; the weakness of nature everywhere asserts itself. In spite of the efforts of the best people, the fundamental selfishness of man turns him into a wolf. Conrad, as the son of political exiles, and the child of a nationality long persecuted, reveals himself in the pressing suggestion of union, pity, and solidarity which emanates from his work. We see in his novels that mystic spiritualization of the face of life or that of earth, which suddenly casts a glamour of poetry over the outlines of the action or the landscape. To the influences which Conrad’ felt, one more, that of symbolism, should be added; or rather, his temperament found itself naturally attuned to this note as it was to others.
“He has, through a sheer miracle, wrought ill-assorted elements into a strong synthesis; he has, in a learnt language, fashioned an irresistible style, loaded with the nervous impact of stem realities, carried onward by a rhythm which not only multiplies their hard rigour, but bathes it in a meditative music through which the soul catches an undertone of softer harmonies.”