1. ALMAYER’S FOLLY (1895)
An Original and Convincing Work
Almayer’s Folly is a somewhat sombre tale. It departs altogether from the conventional happy ending, as well as from many other conventions of the novelist’s art.But it is distinctly powerful and distinctly original. It is written with evident knowledge of the life which it portrays-the life of a solitary European in one of the remote Dutch possessions in the East. Nor is it less convincing as a work of art because the author has not over-coloured either his scenery or his character-drawing. He makes no direct appeal to our sympathies on behalf of Almayer, the white man who has gone through ail the bitter experiences of a life-long exile among an inferior race, and who, amid all his struggles and reverses, has been cheered up by the hope of returning some day to his far-off home in Holland with wealth sufficient to secure his ease and comfort. But though there are no sentimental appeals to us on Almayer’s behalf, the deterioration of character consequent upon his life of semi-barbarism is faithfully and effectively presented; and it is impossible not to feel a deep pity for the man and even a certain respect for his character.
An Impressive Tragedy
Almayer’s marriage with a native woman may have degraded him, but it has never turned him into a brute, and even the savage to whom he has given his name knows that she can mock him without fear of the punishment which she dreads. He may have become drunken and dishonest according to the western standards of honesty, but his love for his beautiful half-caste daughter saves him from being despised by the reader. It is for the sake of this daughter that he has remained in. an obscure and disgraceful exile. It is to secure wealth for her that he has broken the laws and, sad to say, it is through her that the tragedy of his life overwhelms him: The beautiful girl, educated as a Christian among white people, is the child of her mother as well as of her father, and in the end it is the savage strain in her character and nature that wins, and leads her to give up the comparative civilization of her father’s house for the squalid luxury of a Malayan harem. The whole story is told with a reticence and self-restraint which only serve to make the tragedy even more impressive.
The Man, the Wife, and the Daughter
In this story of the loves and hates, the intrigues and counter-plots of Dutch, Malay, and Arab traders on an eastern river––the Pantai, in
Borneo––Conrad broke new ground. The central figure of the book, the dreamy and unpractical Dutchman Almayer, is a pitiable creature, whose sorrows are ultimately buried in gin and opium. His Malay wife (the curse of his existence) and his attractive but semi-savage daughter Nina––who, with all old servant Ali and sundry other retainers, compose the uncomfortable, household-arrests the reader’s attention. The love of Nina for her wild Malay suitor, Dain, and the revolt of her half-tamed nature from the restraint of civilization, are well depicted, though in a style which suffers from exuberance, so that at times one feels almost suffocated by its convolutions. In spite of several crudities and awkwardnesses, Almayer’s Folly is a genuine piece of work.
The Chief Elements of Interest in the Book
Almayer’s Folly is undoubtedly a serious and valuable contribution to literature. The idea is not only original, but the subtle development of the central and ruling motive is splendidly conceived and carried out. The gradual sapping of Almayer’s moral and mental powers, the unequal contest going on in his mind between the essential selfishness of a weak moral nature and the affection for his daughter Nina, born of a Malay wife whom he married for the dreams of avarice which she was expected to realize for him; the sudden gust of passionate uprising against fate––which shows the dignity there is even in the ruins of a man––before his hopes sink in the: night of absolute despair are only equalled by the same masterly portrayal of Nina in whose breast there slumbered, despite her education and early training among her father’s people, the ineradicable instincts of the Malay mother, which assert their racial strength and bring about the overthrow of the white man. Civilization had not shown its good side to her, and was only the more despised and detested by the contrast with the bravery and vigorous manhood of the Malay lover for whom Nina abandoned her loving European father.
The Scenery, Atmosphere, etc.
In the novelty of its colour, in the daring originality of its dramatic force, in the fresh disclosure of new scenes and characters, and in the noble and imaginative handling of life’s greatness and littleness, Almayer’s Folly shows its author’s creative power. In the scenery and the atmosphere the hand of the artist reveals itself. The sombre and languid air of a semi civilized life is most skillfully conveyed. The dreamy river, its islands and reed banks, the thunder-storms, the thirst for the gains of civilization, and the contempt for its restraint, are vividly impressed on our imagination. All the leading characters in the book––Almayer, his wife, his daughter, and the daughter’s native lover––are well-drawn, and the parting between father and daughter has a pathetic naturalness about it, unspoiled by any straining after effect. Here is, however, an adverse comment on this book: “Almayer’s Folly is a dreary record of the still more dreary existence of a solitary Dutchman doomed to vegetate in a small village in
Borneo. The only European in the place, he pits his wits against those of the astute Arab dealers, much to the advantage of the latter. His is a life of bitter disappointment. The half-caste wife he marries turns out a bad bargain; his only daughter leaves him for a native lover, and he sinks into the depths of opium degradation. The life is monotonous and sordid, and the recital thereof is almost as wearisome, unrelieved by one touch of pathos or gleam of humour. Altogether the book is as dull as it well could be.”
2. THE NIGGER OF NARCISSUS (1897)
An Uneventful Voyage
The Nigger of the Narcissus is no tale, but merely an account of the uneventful voyage of a ship called the “Narcissus” from
to the Bombay Thames. One of the ship’s crew is an intelligent negro named James Wait. This man lies in his bunk most of the voyage; and at last he dies and is buried at sea. This is positively all the story in the book. There is no plot, no villainy, no heroism, and apart from a storm, a death, and a burial,. no incident. The only female in the book is the ship herself which Conrad describes lovingly and with an intimate knowledge of seamanship.
The Power of Characterization
The strength of this novel lies in its characterization and its individual scenes. There is hardly any character among the crew of the ship who does not stand out with vivid and life-like presentment; we know them all as ‘though we too had partaken in the lengthy voyage, and had laughed and grumbled at all their idiosyncrasies and failings. Old Singleton, the Nestor of this company, with his immense knowledge and his impressive taciturnity blue-eyed Archie with his red whiskers;
with his touching fidelity to the negro; Mr. Baker, the chief mate with his grunts and Belfast
his sovereign common sense; little Captain Allistoun as hard as nails and with a will tempered like the finest steel; Donkin, the wastrel and outcast of metropolitan life, shifty, indolent, and sly; and the negro James Wait himself with his mysterious authority, and his racking cough––with all these we become familiar before the voyage ends. They are not a pleasant lot altogether, yet they are very human––big children in their petulant moods, and heroes in times of crisis. Conrad looks at the crew of the “Narcissus” as if he had lived with them, and he makes us know them and, if not exactly love them, at least respect them as only a shipmate could. The unfortunate Nigger is to the “Narcissus” even as was the man who shot the albatross to the companions of the Ancient Mariner. He is a hindrance, a curse a reproach. Yet he fascinates them; and an almost insane devotion to him overcomes them when they try to deal with his harassing ways.
Description of the Sea and the Storm
On the voyage a storm is encountered. It takes very many pages to describe, but the reader follows the description breathlessly and feels as if a storm had never been described before. In fact there are many scenes of the kind which only a man who knew the sea well and was aware of its changing aspects and beautiful metamorphoes, could describe. It is for these, perhaps, that some readers will delight in this book; and indeed, as a moving panorama of the phases of the ocean, the book is admirable.
The Appeal of this Book
As has been said above, nothing particular happens in the story. There is a big storm, some dissatisfaction among the crew which never ripens into anything like a mutiny, and the least admirable of the men dies and is thrown into the sea. That is all. Yet there is in this story, which sounds so simple, a freshness, a reality, and a peculiar interest which raise the book far above the ordinary level of the tales of the sea. The value of the book lies in the telling, and not in the events of the tale. It is the character of men, the strangeness of the sea, the irony and pathos of it all that hold our attention.
3. LORD JIM (1900)
A Powerful Story
The story of Lora Jim is powerfully enthralling. Its central idea is splendidly conceived and ably carried out; while for background there is the ever-shifting panorama of the great
Pacific Ocean varied by the picturesque islands of the Indian Ocean. No one talks, unless it be to discuss Lord Jim; there is no conversation; the book has all the effect of an impassioned monologue delivered amid the eternal and kindly-neutral forces of sky and sea.
A promising young Englishman, son of a priest, becomes a chief mate of a ship called the “
” before he has been tested by experience of the hardships of life at sea. He dreams of heroic deeds, but when the real crisis comes, he is seized by panic, and he deserts the sinking ship with the other officers, leaving the eight hundred sleeping pilgrim-passengers to their fate. The ship, by some miracle, keeps afloat, and is towed to the Patna by a French warship; and its officers are disgraced. The issue of Jim’s honour is for him beyond the decision of any court of inquiry. Another chance must come to let him prove himself to be the hero of his own romantic imagination. He tries to make a fresh start, but the story of his disgrace follows him everywhere. Finally, he accepts the position of a trader in a remote Malay village where as adviser, he is loved, trusted, and admired by a savage tribe. By courage and self-sacrifice, he feels he has mastered his fate and made amends for his previous act of cowardice. Unfortunately his people attribute supernatural powers to him. But when he allows a band of pirates to go free after an attack on the village, the pirates abuse his generosity and kill the young son of Chief Dorian, his own closest friend. Instantly his prestige is gone. He is regarded as a devil who has brought about this dire misfortune. He refuses to fight for his life, leaves the girl he loves, and gives himself up to be shot by the aged Dorian. Suez
A Gallery of Sketches and Characters
This is a long book, written almost without a pause and with a concentration of purpose, a grasp of material, and a deep energy which make it a great performance.-In the more intense passages Conrad shows the pregnant brevity of a master of form. His great effects are the simple revelations of his own insight; we recall the indication of tragedy in Jim’s unfinished letter, the few words of dialogue between Jim and the girl before he leaves her. There is a whole gallery of sketches and portraits, duly subordinated, almost perfect of their kinds. Such are the skipper of the “
”, the trader Stein, the treacherous Cornelius, the Malay steersmen who give evidence at the inquiry, and the amusing Brierly. All these are strictly relevant, and they form part of a whole greatly conceived and finely executed. Patna
The Universality of Jim
“Lord Jim is a searching study of the cowardice of a man who was not a coward. A moment of great trial came to Jim when he was a mate of a steamer. He failed. For years he lived dully, never forgetting this failure; and then came an opportunity to retrieve, and he took it That IS the story, in barest outline, which Conrad has lavished his energy upon, omitting not the minutest title of evidence in Jim’s favour; omitting nothing in Jim’s disfavour; reproducing every shaft of light that played upon Jim from all sides; and giving us, too, the wonderful bizarre situation of the drama: the mysterious tropical sea; the odd parti-coloured life of the eastern port with its natives, its captains, and its traders; and, later, the inner life of the tiny State in the Malay peninsula where Jim worked out his salvation. That the book is of the sea and the East is in a certain way an accident: its application to life, to all of us, is in no way diminished by this fact. For Jim stands for the universal; he has something in common with us all. Jim’s trial and subsequent penance typify the trials and penances of all men.”
A Spiritual History
Conrad’s descriptions are vivid and wonderfully true. His knowledge of the sea and of sailors is amazing; but, apart from all these, he is giving us in Lord Jim the dramatic history of an uncomprehended and tortured soul––the foul of a dreamer rising, under affliction, to ever higher flights of altruism and self-sacrifice.
A Romanticist and Sentimentalist
The book is all Jim––there is nothing else in it that counts. He is a romanticist, and a sentimentalist, a sailor made of fine stuff, who had all his life been expecting the worst and doing the best in his imagination. But the worst came in an unexpected way and he found-himself a coward, thus losing his opportunity. The act of cowardice ever afterwards pursued him. In the end he goes out of his way to seek a bullet so that with his last consciousness he may feel that he is no coward; and so “he goes away from a living woman to celebrate his pitiless wedding with a shadowy ideal of conduct.”
4. NOSTRUMO (1904)
The scene of this tale of a silver min, a buried treasure, and revolutions is a South American republic. The silver mine was a government concession* forced upon an English family living in Costaguana. Charles Gould, the last of the family, brings foreign capital, builds a railroad, takes the state politicians on his unofficial pay-roll, and converts the family white elephant into valuable property. The political party out of power dislikes the reign of law and order which follows and starts a revolution in a desperate attempt to gain possession of the mine which is now the “treasure house of the world”. Silver enough to buy a kingdom is waiting shipment at the wharf, and to prevent its being captured by the invaders, Charles Gould decides to hide the ingots on one of he islands at the entrance of the harbour. The man chosen for this enterprise is Nostromo, an Italian sailor, foreman of the wharf. Nostromo has come to Costaguana to make his fortune, and up to now his fortune has been his good reputation. He feels proud of the fact that he is well spoken of He is the hero of the populace of Italians and natives, and he has the confidence and esteem of the English and Spanish residents and officials. To his romantic imagination the task now assigned to him will be the most famous and dangerous adventure of his life. His boat is nearly wrecked in the night by the steamer bringing the attacking soldiers, but he succeeds in getting to the land and burying the treasure. When he returns, the rebels are in possession, and he fords himself a political fugitive and penniless. It is assumed by the Gould family that the silver has been lost at sea; and Nostromo realizes that the buried treasure is now his secret alone. Charles Gould saves the Gould concession by presenting the winning argument of tons of dynamite ready to blow up the silver mountain in case of attack. Nostromo is entrusted with the dangerous mission of getting help from the government troops. He makes a spectacular dash from the town on an engine up the mountain, over the mountain on horse-back to the capital, and returns with the soldiers by sea in time to save the day. Nostromo visits his treasure island at night, and carries away the silver ingots, which he disposes of in distant ports. A light-house is built on the island, and Nostromo arranges with his old friend, Viola, to be the keeper. Nostromo loves Giselle, Viola’s younger daughter, but is betrothed to the older daughter, Linda. As soon as he has removed a fortune from the buried treasure, he hopes to run away with Giselle. He cannot resist coming to the light-house at night to see his sweetheart, and is shot by Viola who mistakes him for an intruder. The once “incorruptible” Nostromo dies a thief, and the inevitable curse of the buried treasure is thus fulfilled.
Such in brief is the main plot of the novel, but it is not merely the story of Nostromo and his life; it rather includes the stories of all concerned with the silver mine. Conrad’s power of realizing the intricacies and entanglements of both character and incident is nowhere better seen than here in this amazing creation of a
. South American State
A Blurred Impression
While parts of Nostromo have an absorbing interest, the impression is not preserved when the book is viewed in its entirety. There are in it many pages of a wearisome nature; vital situations hang fire while the author indulges in characteristic digressions; details absorb the position of outline which becomes impossibly blurred; the story which held our attention by its vigour and its wide human interest, becomes narrowed to some small personal issue and the spell is broken. We have long accounts of revolutions and revolutionary motives. The drama of Nostromo and his friends, the Violas, is in reality an important theme, but it is overwhelmed by other matters. The reader feels that an author of Conrad’s genius, in order to introduce Nostromo’s case, should not have asked us to accompany him, backwards and forwards, through such a labyrinth of South American politics and into the careers of so many persons. Conrad’s retrospective habit has always been a little difficult to, follow; but in this book there are moments when we feel puzzled as to whether the past or the present is being described.
The Fading of the Original Interest of the Story
Had Conrad possessed the selective gift, this book might well have proved a masterpiece. The initial conception of Charles Gould, solely dominated by the idea which had been his father’s undoing, is fine. The Gould concession, the San Tome, silver mine of Sulaco, had been forced upon Gould senior by the intrigues of a venal South American republic. It had haunted him, preyed upon him, and killed him. To his son, it had revealed itself under another guise; it was at once his revenge, his triumph, and his divinity. To the woman who had shared his love, his aspirations, his ambitions, it became the cruellest of rivals; it broke her heart, though she said nothing. The San Tome mine became an important asset in the politics of Costaguana, and in these politics we find ourselves entangled. Gradually the attraction with which the Goulds had inspired us fades; they fall into the background, and are absorbed in the crowd. Other issues begin to dominate, and the original interest disappears. Yet, in some strange way, this original conception of the mine dominated by the spirit of a treasure hidden in the earth endures through the person of Nostromo who now steps into foreground––Nostromo, the factotum of the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, indeed, of all the European population of Sulaco.
The Portrayal of the Minor Characters
Conrad shows an extraordinary power in dealing with the minor characters in this book. Don Jose Avellanos, Don Pepe, Martin Decoud, Dr. Monygham, Giorgio Viola are drawn with wonderful insight and with an elaboration which makes each figure a careful study and a human document. The author is not content with giving us each man as he is; he goes far into the past, showing us the hidden springs which have gone to the moulding and making of the man of today. This method, while giving a remarkable individuality to each person, greatly hampers the progress of the story. But it is characteristic of the author. We must accept him as he is. Curiously enough, in his handling of the most important figures he is less successful. An admirable portrait of Nostromo in the early stages of his career is presented to us, but the strange, unexpected change in the man, his deterioration under the influence of the hidden treasure, is not adequately dealt with. We are told of the facts but are hardly allowed to watch the subtle working of the spell. And a similar criticism may be applied to Charles Gould whose youthful years, hopes, and ideals are so carefully narrated, but whose personality is allowed to fade as the story progresses. But perhaps our greatest regret lies in the failure of interest in Mrs. Gould after the first half of the book. Conrad’s inability or disinclination to concern himself with the delineation of feminine nature is well known. It seemed as if on this occasion he might transcend this limitation. And, indeed, in Mrs. Gould as we first meet her he gives a very beautiful and lovable picture. But it is only a sketch. It is never permitted to develop.
Some of the Faults
Conrad has an imaginative force which at times can only be paralleled among the greatest; he has a profound sense of drama, and the logic of events which common people would call fate; and he has a style which is often careless and involved but which has moments of superb inspiration. On the other hand, this author is burdened with the wealth of the equipment. A small talent finds it easy to be lucid and orderly; but Conrad, seeing his characters before him with such tremendous clearness, and entering into their loves and hates with such gusto, does not know where to begin or to end their tale. The characters crowd upon him, demanding that each have his story told with the same patient realism, till the great motive is so overlaid with minor dramas that it loses much of its appeal.
Although the construction of Nostromo is topsy-turvy, beginning in the middle and finishing at the start, its story is of surpassing interest. The author has flung around his work the mystery of a cloud-covered sea and high, remote mountains. All his characters, in spite of the close realism of his method, are envisaged with the glamour of romance. No one is perfunctorily treated; each is a living man or woman, adequately understood and drawn with firm strokes. The most elaborate study is Nostromo who missed being a masterpiece because of his again and again becoming a puppet in the development of another tale. Mrs. Gould is an exquisite figure, the good angel of a troubled time. But the greatest achievements are in the minor personages.
5. THE SECRET AGENT (1907)
A Revelation of Human Life
The Secret Agent tells the sordid story of underground intrigue and crime among some of the foreigners who make
their refuge. It is such a story as in the hands of nine British novelists would have been a mere hash of old improbable plots, sensational incidents, and crude character-drawing. In the hands of Conrad it becomes not only a masterly revelation of some unfamiliar aspects of London––the foreign anarchists, the average capable but limited police official, the high Russian bureaucrat, the great politician behind the scenes, the respectable London woman engaged in a shady trade, and so on––but a revelation of all human life itself, its impossible mixture of triviality and dignity, of striving and frustration, of beauty and vulgarity, of meanness and terror and unheroic tragedy. London
Verloc, a spy in the pay of the Russian Embassy, who has dodged along comfortably for years without doing much, is suddenly sent for at the Embassy, and told by his new masters that he must do something for his money, and it is suggested that he should instigate some crime which will rouse British opinion and the
police. In terror of losing his job, he finally procures an infernal machine, and incites his wife’s brother, a half-witted lad, to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. The lad stumbles and blows himself to pieces, and the whole story, by a trifling accident, comes into the possession of the authorities. Before they can do anything, however, Verloc’s wife discovers what has happened, murders him in a fit of frenzy and then, fleeing from justice, is robbed and deserted by a scoundrel to whom she had turned for help. She then throws herself from a cross-channel steamer into the sea. London
The Truth About Human Nature
That is all, so far as the plot goes. But no outline can convey the impression of absolute truth, of profound and comprehensive knowledge of human nature that the reader gets from the book. To take only two instances, no one who has any knowledge of even the outside of anarchism can fail to be delighted with this portrayal of some typical anarchists as they are to be met with in life, and not as they are wildly imagined by writers of popular fiction; and no one who has had anything to do with policemen can fail to recognize the searching truth with which the character of that admirable type, Chief Inspector Heat, is described. And the other characters are etched with the same calm, unwavering, unemotional precision. The Secret Agent is the work of a great writer.
Conrad’s Art in this Novel
The imaginative force of The Secret Agent is terrible. It is the first book in which Conrad has put
into his magic crucible. The soul of London is not easily transmuted into literature, and few novelists have managed to achieve the required alchemy of vision. The realists have all failed. Since Dickens, no novelist has caught the obscure haunting grotesquerie of London . Now Conrad has caught it, and caught it as wonderfully as he caught the magic of the Malay forest and the magic of the sea. He stirs and mixes London into his characters, although they are nearly all alien anarchists. You feel its fat, foul, heavy, mysterious presence behind these strange dim folk who move like fish in a dingy aquarium. Verloc, the foreign spy, and his wife, and the idiot boy, and the sensual Ossipon, and the horrible old Professor, are all alive. The murder of Verloc is one of the most intensely dramatic murders in fiction. Its imaginative realism is amazing. Conrad’s pictorial gift is diabolical. He makes you see the whole scene. The moment of the crime is intolerably visible. You see Verloc seeing the shadow of the arm with the clenched hand holding the carving-knife. You think out the plan of defence which he thinks out. You feel that there was no time for him to move, although there was time for him to think. You hear the ticking which is not the ticking of the clock, for the clock has stopped, and you shudder when you realize with Mrs. Verloc that it is the sound of the drops of blood falling on the floor-cloth. But the most ghastly piece of pictorial imagination is Verloc’s round hat on the floor which rocks slightly on its crown in the wind of Mrs. Verloc’s flight. That is a stroke of genius. It is the fine art of murder in fiction. London
6. UNDER WESTERN EYES (1911)
The Russian Character
This novel ranks with the best work that Conrad produced. Keen and merciless in exposure and extremely searching in analysis, this novel is a psychological study of remarkable penetration. The book startles us by its amazing truth and by the intimate knowledge of the human heart which it reveals in its varied and masterly characterization. The story of Under Western Eyes is told by an English professor living at
and having some intimate knowledge of the Russian community-which inhabits a quarter of that town. The significance of the title lies, of course, in the novelty of the imaginative narrator. The Russian character can only be dimly understood by the western mind. Acute and intelligent observers of Geneva have frequently warned the western people of the complexity and the problem of comprehending the Russian temperament. Conrad expresses the riddle in terms of personalities, and while he makes it extremely lucid, he does not make it any easier to solve. The Professor is made to disavow at the outset any intention of providing a key to the mystery. “I confess”, he says, “that I have no comprehension of the Russian character”. The most the Professor can do is to make it clear why he does not understand. Russia
The Portrayal of the Characters
Conrad described this book as “the sustained energy of a mood having its origin in a crime”. Fate intervenes in the life of Kirylo Razumov, a young Russian student without any political bias, when Haldin enters his room. Haldin has just “removed” a Minister of State by means of a well-aimed bomb. Haldin had not attracted notice, and therefore was able to escape from the scene of the assassination. He comes to Razumov whom he thinks to be perfectly trustworthy. Razumov first tries to help Haldin but afterwards betrays him to the authorities. Perhaps the finest part of the book is devoted to the betrayal of Haldin who is reposing trustfully in Haldin’s bed. And the only result of it all is that Razumov is convinced that he is himself suspected by the government. Caught thus in the web of suspicion, he consents to go as a government spy to
where there is a notorious colony of Russian conspirators. Here, as chance would have it, he meets Haldin’s mother and sister, who consider him a hero because he is believed by them to have been Haldin’s associate and helper. On all hands he is greeted warmly though as somewhat of an enigma. He cannot hide the bitterness of his animosity or the gnawing of the remorse which has been fully roused by contact with Miss Haldin. She is presented as a beautiful and strong girl whose trust in Razumov is unlimited. Slowly, under the awakening of his conscience, this life of falsehood grows impossible to him. It is not till all chances of his ever being discovered have ended and till he has felt that he is falling in love with Miss Haldin and that his love would be returned, that he resolves to confess. The end of the book is tragedy, not of an exalted but of a pitiful kind. The novel is, as Conrad truly said, “the sustained energy of a mood”, and as such, all other figures are subsidiary to the main one and, in spite of their force, appear somehow insubstantial. Geneva
Conrad also wrote a number of short stories of which two may here be considered.
7. HEART OF DARKNESS (1902)
Heart of Darkness is an impression, taken from life, of the conquest by the European whites of a certain portion of
Africa, an impression in particular of the civilizing methods of a great European trading company face to face with the negro. In this story, human life, both black and white, is presented as an unusually serious affair. Conrad’s art here lies in his catching of the infinite shades of the white man’s uneasy, disconcerted, and fantastic relations with the exploited barbarism of Africa; it lies in the acutest analysis of the deterioration of the white man’s morale, when he is let loose from European restraints and planted down in the tropics as an emissary of light, armed to the teeth, to make profits in his trade with the subject races. The weirdness, the brilliance, the psychological truth of this masterly analysis of two Continents in conflict, of the deep gulf between the white man’s system and the black man’s comprehension of its results is conveyed to us through a rapidly moving narrative. The stillness of the sombre African forests, the glare of sunshine, the feeling of dawn, of noon, of night on the tropical rivers, the isolation of the unnerved, degenerating whites, the helpless bewilderment of the unhappy savages in the grasp of their greedy conquerors––all this has most vividly been depicted. There is no intention in the story, no prejudice one way or the other; it is simply a piece of art, fascinating and remorseless, and the artist is intent on presenting his sensations in that sequence whereby the meaning of the meaninglessness of the white man in uncivilized Africa can be felt in its really significant aspects.
8. TYPHOON (1903)
Typhoon is one of the most elaborate storm-pieces in English literature. The story is nothing but an account of a cargo steamer caught in a typhoon in the
China Sea with a subordinate study of her master, Captain MacWhirr, and of his behaviour in new and staggering circumstances. The story might be described as “a sonata of ships, and storms, and breaking waves”. One of the finest passages is that which describes the engine-room and its occupants when the storm is at its height. The story contains, indeed, the most amazing description of the utter madness of the sea when tormented by a force almost as great as itself. And yet there is no apparent straining after effect. Of course, there is the intention to give us the effect of something superhuman or infinitely inhuman. But there are different ways of achieving such an effect. Conrad does it in the most simple manner. He makes us feel the horror of it all and the terrible, appalling beauty of the wonderful sea. But it is not only a description of the elements at war with each other that we get in this story. There is slowly developed a magnificent picture of a man––not a magnificent man except when he fights the typhoon, and all for love of the ship, and because he is a man and a captain.
“The course of the terrific storm is followed with a cumulative and crashing power; it is, indeed, the typhoon itself which is the vital personality of the story; it is against that implacable monster that the battle is waged in turmoil and darkness. Conrad has the rare faculty of investing, with a mind of savage personality, forces which are subject to the unknown and invisible force which is at the heart of the world.”