Conrad's novels and stories transmute the adventures of his early life and evoke a godless universe rich in ambiguity. In his fiction, aimed at both an immediate and a lasting public, modernist experiments coexist with plot devices of popular romance, and unforgettable phrases emerge from vague description. A writer of high artistic ambition who compared himself to Gustave Flaubert and Ivan Turgenev, Conrad wrote fiction that challenged readers and critics alike. His great achievement, and the impetus behind his experimentation with language and form, is his probing analysis of human character under psychological and moral strain. Concerned, as he explains in A Personal Record (1912), that "the ethical view of the universe involves us at last in so many cruel and absurd contradictions ... that I have come to suspect that the aim of creation cannot be ethical at all," Conrad nonetheless, as Carl D. Bennett notes, wrestles as few modern writers have done with "the ethical dimension of human existence." He explores the obsessive pursuit of goals (material and idealistic), the illusions and limitations that obscure reality and thwart action, and confrontations with natural and human obstacles. He is fascinated by mental states associated with isolation, ambition, moral failure, and the fear of death. His memorable characters, from Kurtz and Marlow in "Heart of Darkness" (1899) to Heyst and Lena in Victory: An Island Tale (1915), display weaknesses ranging from egoism and self-deception to hypocrisy and betrayal, yet demonstrate a spectrum of virtues, from love and loyalty to altruism and solidarity. Conrad's fictions are often structured by a decision and its consequences or by a voyage, literal or figurative. His central characters approach or resist a crucial decision, increased self-knowledge, or deeper insight into an enigmatic person or situation. Paired characters, symbols, allusions to myth and literature, manipulations of time sequence, and single or multiple narrators help him probe individual experiences and link them to public events and the human condition.
The life of Joseph Conrad--a native of the Polish Ukraine who grew up under Russian rule, spoke fluent French, and became a major modern author in English--is as rich and complex as his writing. His fiction and his two autobiographical sketches, The Mirror of the Sea: Memories and Impressions (1906) and A Personal Record, offer valuable, if not fully reliable, information, and he remains enigmatic in the best biographies, those by Jocelyn Baines, Frederick R. Karl, Zdzislaw Najder, and Jeffrey Meyers. Karl identifies the "three lives" of his subject: an unsettled Polish-Russian childhood, an adventurous young adulthood as a French and British merchant seaman, and a troubled maturity as the British novelist Joseph Conrad, whose subjects derive from his young-adult experience but whose themes are rooted also in his childhood.
Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski (called Konrad in homage to two heroic characters in patriotic poems by Adam Mickiewicz) was born 3 December 1857 in or near Berdichev, now in Ukraine but then in an area that had been Russian since the late-eighteenth-century partitioning of Poland. The families of both parents, Apollo Korzeniowski and Ewa Bobrowska, were landed gentry devoted to the cause of freeing from its occupiers a Poland that no longer existed as a state. While many Polish nationalists lived in western European exile, Conrad's father, a failed farmer, moved to Warsaw to participate in the plans for the ill-fated Polish insurrection of January 1863. Korzeniowski was imprisoned in 1861 and later deported, along with his wife and their four-year-old son, to Vologda, northeast of Moscow. After the family moved south, to Chernikov, near Kiev, his mother died of tuberculosis in 1865. Four years later his father died of tuberculosis in Kraków and was buried a patriotic hero. Orphaned at eleven, Conrad was taken in by a family friend, then by his grandmother, and in 1873 by his devoted uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski, whose correspondence with his nephew provides a rich source of biographical information about Conrad.
Though he left Poland at sixteen, Conrad retained an obvious accent, Slavic gestures and dress, and a lifestyle appropriate to a Polish country gentleman. In only one late story, "Prince Roman" (1911), did he write overtly about Poland, calling it "that country which demands to be loved as no country has ever been loved ... with the unextinguishable fire of a hopeless passion." Political issues shape several of Conrad's novels and one story collection, A Set of Six (1908), and the values that pervade his fiction--heroic resistance, grace in defeat, and individualism refined by loyalty to larger causes--reflect a time when, writes Gérard Jean-Aubry, he "unconsciously was trained in a secret and inflexible fidelity to ideals divorced from hope." Conrad's boyhood nurtured modernist attitudes as well, including alienation, rejection of bourgeois values, and pessimism about political reform and the human condition.
Conrad received an erratic education from schools and tutors, but literature attracted him. "I don't know what would have become of me," he wrote in Notes on Life and Letters (1921), "if I had not been a reading boy." His favorite writers included William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Miguel de Cervantes, James Fenimore Cooper, and Frederick Marryat. To his readings he traced his impulsive determination, formed at fourteen, to become a seaman, and in October 1874 he left for Marseilles. After training as a sailor and traveling to the West Indies, in 1878 he was ill and in debt. He shot himself in an apparent suicide attempt, which he passed off as a dueling incident.
Unqualified for regular nautical employment without French citizenship, twenty-year-old Konrad Korzeniowski tried his luck in England, which had the world's largest merchant fleet. After early training, including a voyage to Constantinople, in 1879 he began a three-year apprenticeship that took him to Australia and Asia on two clipper ships. During his fifteen years as a British sailor he weathered natural calamities, poor health, a short temper, and poor treatment by superiors. Nonetheless, working hard at his English and at his examinations, he earned the rank of second mate in 1880, first mate in 1884, a master's certificate and British citizenship in 1886, and the command of a small ship in 1888. Lodging in London between voyages, he began a lasting friendship with Adolf Krieger, a partner in a firm of shipping agents who provided loans and other assistance. In 1886 Conrad unsuccessfully submitted his first English story, "The Black Mate," to a magazine contest on "My Experiences as a Sailor."
Among the young officer's voyages of the early 1880s to and from southeast Asia, those best known to readers of Conrad's short fiction involve the disintegration and demise by fire of the antiquated ship Palestine, which provided the basis for"Youth" (1898), and a severe storm and the difficult death of an American seaman suffered on the Narcissus. When an 1887 back injury postponed his return to England, he remained in the East. As chief mate on the steamer Vidar and as captain of the sailing bark Otaga, he transported goods within the East Indies and made excursions to Bangkok, Mauritius, and Australia. As a novelist he would find the Eastern seas his richest resource for fiction. The trying experiences of his first command inspired "The Secret Sharer" (1910) and The Shadow-Line: A Confession (1917), while stops on Sumatra, Borneo, and other islands brought contact with the character types who would populate his Eastern novels and stories.
Returning to England in 1889, Conrad expected to receive command of a larger ship, but British sailing ships were reduced by half between 1875 and 1894 as steamships, which were faster and more efficient and required smaller crews, took over international trade. A fascination with central Africa, traced to a childhood curiosity about a blank space on a map, led him to seek work in the Congo (now Zaire), then controlled by King Leopold II of Belgium. A three-year appointment as captain of a steamboat was arranged for him by his friend Krieger and his novelist aunt, Marguerite Poradowska, a resident of Brussels. His experiences in the Congo in 1890, recorded in his first English diary and in letters to his aunt, would inspire his greatest novella, "Heart of Darkness." After a month-long voyage along the West African coast, he took a small ship to Matadi, the farthest navigable port on the lower Congo River. For the next stage of his journey, a 230-mile overland trek to Léopoldville, his diary recorded hot days, cold nights, mosquitoes, menacing drums, and encounters with corpses and graves. In Léopoldville he encountered a supercilious manager and the news that his ship, the Florida, needed extensive repairs. A voyage upriver to Stanley Falls on the decrepit Roi des Belges included a crew of African cannibals and the death of a white merchant. Upon his return to Léopoldville, ill with malaria and dysentery, he resigned, his health and nerves permanently impaired.
"It may be said that Africa killed Conrad the sailor and strengthened Conrad the novelist," wrote Jean-Aubry. Between 1890 and 1896 he made the transition to a life of authorship and English domesticity. He worked at sea one more time, now as chief mate J. Conrad of the Torrens, a sailing ship carrying passengers to Australia. Its second voyage, in 1893, introduced him to two educated Britons who encouraged his writing: Edward Sanderson, who would succeed his father as headmaster of Elstree preparatory school, and novelist John Galsworthy. In October 1894 Conrad's manuscript of Almayer's Folly: A Story of an Eastern River (1895), begun in 1888, was accepted by Unwin upon the recommendation of the renowned editor Edward Garnett, henceforth Conrad's friend and supporter. On 24 March 1896, after the publication of his second novel, An Outcast of the Islands, Conrad married Jessie George, a young, pleasant typist with little education. They set off for a six-month stay on the Brittany coast, where he began a novel, "The Rescuer," and wrote stories for magazines.
Conrad's first two novels, which imitate Flaubert's realism, introduce several of his thematic concerns. Set on Borneo, each relates the obsessions, moral corruption, and declining fortunes of an isolated Dutch trader. In both novels jungle and river settings leave a more powerful impression than characters. Reviewers found the novels depressing but compared their exotic settings favorably to those of Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson. H. G. Wells commented, "Only greatness could make books of which the detailed workmanship was so copiously bad, so well worth reading, so convincing, and stimulating."
Conrad earned a meager seventy pounds from the sale of his first books. Short fiction, suitable for magazines and for republication in book form, offered better opportunities for remuneration. Between 1896 and 1897 he wrote six short works, experimenting with subjects and techniques. Five were included in Tales of Unrest (1898), while the longest, The Nigger of the "Narcissus": A Tale of the Sea (1897), was republished separately. The unifying themes of the tales, moral blindness and the destructive pursuit of dreams, recall those of the early novels. Tales of Unrest, published in an edition of three thousand, was well reviewed and helped earn Conrad a fifty-pound award from the Academy magazine.
The first of the Tales of Unrest , "The Idiots" (published in the "decadent" Savoy magazine in 1896), borrows from Maupassant its subject, structure, and compression. After encountering four idiot children in a Breton village, the narrator learns enough to relate their story omnisciently. Farmer Jean-Pierre Bacadou's marriage to Susan produces these four children incapable of human response, and the angry farmer abuses his wife. One night she confesses to her mother that she has murdered her husband, then flees. Imagining herself pursued by her husband's ghost, she plunges into the ocean. This slight story sympathetically portrays the descent into madness of two peasants.
Conrad's next three contributions to Tales of Unrest are of enduring quality. In an author's note for the collection he described "An Outpost of Progress," set in an unidentified remote trading post in Africa, as "the lightest part of the loot I carried off from Central Africa." Serialized in Cosmopolis, it narrates first the arrival and settling in of the "perfectly insignificant and incapable" white traders Kayerts and Carlier, then their physical, psychological, and moral degeneration as they become implicated in a trade of black servants for ivory and suffer illness and near starvation. In the powerful climax a dispute over a store of sugar leads to a fight that ends when Kayerts shoots Carlier in what he believes is self-defense. A few hours later, wrapped in a symbolic fog as the company ship approaches, Kayerts commits suicide by hanging himself from a cross over a predecessor's grave. Entering the minds of both white and native characters, passing judgments on people incapable of functioning without supervision and on those who make pious remarks about "suffering and sacrifice," and imitating Flaubert's ironic satire of bourgeois stupidity as well as Kipling's ironic descriptions of interactions between colonials and natives, "An Outpost of Progress"blends disparate elements into a disturbing portrait of degeneration.
The other two successful stories have southeast Asian settings. "The Lagoon," published in Cornhill Magazine, opens in a jungle, where an unnamed white man visits a Malay living by a stagnant lagoon. From a reminiscence by the Malay, Arsat, the visitor learns a guilty secret: while abducting his intended wife from a rajah's house, Arsat permitted the brutal murder of his own brother. After Arsat tells his story, his wife dies, and though he hopes now to avenge his brother, Conrad's omniscient narrator reflects that Arsat lives in "the darkness of a world of illusions." "The Lagoon" successfully uses its white listener to draw western readers into its eastern world.
More complex is the second Malay story, "Karain: A Memory." With Garnett's assistance it appeared in the prestigious Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. In its six sections the participant-narrator, a former captain who anticipates Conrad's Charlie Marlow, builds up a portrait of a native chief who, like Arsat, reveals a guilty secret. Karain appears first in theatrical glory as the respected ruler of a bay community on Mindanao but later reveals his private side. When the narrator returns after an absence, his boat is visited by a terrified Karain. The chief recounts a youthful quest for revenge undertaken with his friend Matara. When the two men found Matara's missing sister and the white man with whom she had fled, Karain shot his friend to save the woman's life. Now haunted by Matara's spirit, the chief begs his white friends for a charm. A young British ship's officer ceremonially presents him with a sixpence coined for Queen Victoria's 1887 jubilee, and Karain, relieved, returns to his people. If the charm scene flatters the queen and treats the native condescendingly, it also depicts a gesture of friendship. The impact of "Karain: A Memory" is enhanced by the narrator's reflections about his own storytelling and by an epilogue that takes place in London, where a companion wonders if this bustling life is as "real" as Karain's.
Completing Tales of Unrest, though rejected by magazines, "The Return" may be Conrad's worst story. An effective opening describes the arrival at a suburban train station of middle-class Alvan Hervey; then the story reviews with ironic detachment the five-year marital history of the Herveys, who think well of themselves but merely "skimmed over the surface of life." Hervey enters his sumptuous home and arrives in the drawing room, where a letter informs him that his wife has left with another man. "The Return" follows the self-centered Hervey's reactions: anger, humiliation, sadness, and rationalization. To his surprise his wife returns, and after a long and unconvincing dialogue the self-righteous Hervey concludes that his happiness cannot be restored and leaves. Conrad explained in his author's note that he experimented with a type of "virtuosity" and used "physical impressions" of ordinary objects in order "somehow [to] produce a sinister effect."
In 1897 Conrad also published a major novella, The Nigger of the "Narcissus," in the New Review. (In the United States it was published separately as The Children of the Sea .) Founded on memories of his 1884 voyage from Bombay to Britain, this first of Conrad's sea tales uses the ship, in the tradition of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Herman Melville, as a microcosm of human life. The "nigger" of the title, as Conrad explained in a 1914 foreword, is less an individual than "the centre of the ship's collective psychology and the pivot of the action," like the Ancient Mariner's albatross. The opening scenes of arrival on board and roll call introduce a multinational crew. Suddenly the mysterious American James Wait, with his black skin and "deep, ringing voice," makes an operatic entrance on the dark deck. He appears at first "calm, cool, towering, superb," and physically powerful. After relating the orderly departure of the ship, chapter 2 shows how Wait uses his illness and impending death to manipulate and disturb his fellow seamen. He becomes verbally abusive, insists on (but resents) special attention, and "lord[s] over us with a ... pitiless assertion of his sublime privilege" as a dying man. In chapter 3, near the Cape of Good Hope, a terrible storm washes clear the decks, turns the ship on its side, and draws the crew together as a heroic community that keeps the ship afloat and rescues Wait. Becalmed near the equator and short of food, the crew in chapter 4 again takes interest in Wait. In a rapid sequence of brief scenes he receives two threatening visits, is ordered to remain in bed by the captain, and serves as the pretext for a brief revolt. The crew's visits to Wait continue in chapter 5 as the black man, his frame hollow and his voice a mere croak, fiercely denies his death even as it occurs. After his burial at sea the winds rise and allow the sailors to reach London.
A dense narrative of action, The Nigger of the "Narcissus" is complex in characterization, description, symbolism, and point of view. The crew, uncertain whether the black man is faking illness or actually dying, project onto him their attitudes toward death. Each major character is both individualized and universalized by his shipboard role and by his relationship to Wait. Old Singleton, the forty-five-year veteran and the helmsman who clings to the wheel through the thirty hours of the storm, represents a passing, dedicated generation, "inarticulate and indispensable." His age keeps him aloof from Wait's fate: "You can't help him; die he must." By contrast, Donkin represents the worst of the younger generation as the articulate but lazy man "that knows all about his rights, but that knows nothing of courage, of endurance, ... of the unspoken loyalty that knits together a ship's company." Complaining and cursing, inciting rebellion and throwing a heavy object at the captain, Donkin is a villain. For him Wait's fate is something to manipulate for personal gain. Secondary figures reveal other human possibilities: the conscientious cook, who degenerates into fanaticism when he tries to bully Wait into repentance; the blustering Irishman Belfast, who treats Wait with devoted kindness; and the godlike Captain Allistoun, who has the courage during the storm to keep the ship's masts in place and who, though considerate of the dying Wait, refuses to endanger the ship and its crew for his sake.
Like the main characters, the settings and events are both particularized and symbolic. Contrasts of light and dark, sunlight and shadow, and black and white have ambiguous connotations, prefiguring"Heart of Darkness," from the white flower from which the ship takes its name, to the white eyes and teeth that stand out against the obscurity of the black man's skin, to the black storm clouds that spew white hail. Tense moments in the storm are vividly described and personified: the sea is "as mischievous and discomposing as a madman with an axe," and the ship rises "as though she had torn herself out from a deadly grasp."
Of The Nigger of the "Narcissus" Conrad stated in 1914, "It is the book by which, not as a novelist perhaps, but as an artist striving for the utmost sincerity of expression, I am willing to stand or fall." His high opinion has been sustained by many readers. Criticism has focused on the shifting point of view, the question of whether Conrad equates Wait's black skin with evil, and the story's psychological and mythic significance. The point of view, alternating between omniscience and the "we" of a participant sailor, reflects the shifting mentality of the crew; at the end a lone "I" reflects, "Haven't we, together and upon the immortal sea, wrung out a meaning from our sinful lives?"
As he finished The Nigger of the "Narcissus," Conrad explained in 1914, "I understood that I had done with the sea, and that henceforth I had to be a writer." He immediately wrote a preface to the novella "to express the spirit in which I was entering on the tasks of my new life." This preface, an epilogue in the New Review excluded from the book but published separately as The Art of Fiction (1902), is a classic manifesto of critical theory that incorporates ideals of Romanticism, Victorian realism, and modernism. The artist's aim is truth: to reveal, looking within himself, the "enduring and essential" reality behind the surface of experience. The artist appeals to human beings through their feelings--of wonder, of mystery, of pity, of "fellowship with all creation"--but indirectly, by way of their senses. "My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see." The artist must see clearly and depict honestly the "passing phase of life" that he selects, both its surface and its "inspiring secret." When art succeeds, it makes people more alert to life around them and to the human condition. The preface, though dismissed by some critics as vague, has helped others appreciate the purposes of his experimentation.
The task Conrad set for himself required considerable effort, as he found the act of writing slow, tedious, and frustrating. Conrad based his fictions on facts, his memories supplemented by reading and research. Getting started was difficult, and on an average day, struggling with the English language and his emotional involvement, he produced only around three hundred words. "I had to work like a coal miner in his pit, quarrying all my English sentences out of a dark night," he once told Garnett. When inspiration failed he suffered deep depression. His artistic aims made style important, and he reminded novelist Hugh Clifford in a 9 October 1899 letter that carelessness with language distorts truth, since "things 'as they are' exist in words." Influenced by the Polish language, Conrad's style was heavy with adjectives, parallel constructions, and abstract nouns used for rhetorical effect. The English language challenged but rewarded him: "If I had not known English," he told Hugh Walpole in 1918, "I wouldn't have written a line for print in my life."
By 1899 the forty-one-year-old author of four books and reluctant father of a son, Borys (born January 1898), was settled into his new life. He benefited from literary friendships of mutual respect. The American novelist Henry James responded to a gift of An Outcast of the Islands with an invitation, and James recognized the merits of Conrad's best fictions despite finding his pessimism uncongenial. The young American novelist and journalist Stephen Crane asked to meet with Conrad, and the two encouraged each other until Crane's untimely death in 1900. Conrad's friendship was also sought by R. B. Cunninghame Graham, an idealistic Scottish aristocrat, South American traveler, and writer of history books and short stories, who received some of Conrad's philosophical letters. Especially important for Conrad was the support of Ford Madox Hueffer, later known as Ford Madox Ford. From 1898 to 1904 Conrad helped Hueffer become a marketable writer by collaborating on two novels and a novella of slight merit, while Hueffer offered Conrad story ideas, suggestions for his English style, and practical help. In October 1898 Hueffer sublet to the Conrads Pent Farm, near his home at Aldington in Kent, southeast of London, an area where Conrad would live for most of his life.
Between 1899 and 1902 publisher William Blackwood, tolerating delays and demands for cash, serialized in Blackwood's and published as books the stories for Youth: A Narrative, and Two Other Stories (1902), including "Heart of Darkness" and "The End of the Tether"and the novel Lord Jim: A Tale (1900), once intended for the 1902 collection. Among the tales, which narrate adventures of seamen in youth, maturity, and old age, respectively, the first two (like much of Lord Jim) are told as reminiscences of Charlie Marlow, Conrad's famous alter ego narrator. Youth: A Narrative, and Two Other Stories, dedicated to Jessie Conrad and published in an edition of 3,150 copies, was well received by reviewers and is Conrad's most important collection of short fiction.
"Youth: A Narrative" modifies the memory/commentary structure of "Karain: A Memory" by presenting the reminiscences of an Englishman capable of reflecting upon his experiences. After an opening in which the frame narrator presents a group of former seamen--"a director of companies, an accountant, a lawyer, Marlow, and myself"--Charlie Marlow, a forty-two-year-old recalling nostalgically but with ironic distance his first voyage to the East at age twenty, begins speaking. For him it was one of "those voyages that ... might stand for a symbol of existence," a case in which, despite one's best efforts, "You simply can do nothing." Marlow's account of the disaster-plagued final passage of the aging Judea, carrying a cargo of coal intended for Bangkok, is based on Conrad's experiences on the doomed Palestine from 1881 to 1883. As Marlow reminisces about ship and men encountering storms and a collision, fighting a smoldering fire, and suffering burns in a terrifying explosion, he reveals his personality by repeating the "do or die" slogan painted on the Judea and by commenting about the courage and enthusiasm, pride and pleasure, of being young: "O youth! The strength of it, the faith of it, the imagination of it!" Even after watching the burning vessel sink, the young second mate Marlow finds fresh delights--his first command, of a small lifeboat, and his first glimpse of an Asian port, "the East of the ancient navigators, so old, so mysterious, resplendent and sombre."
Using the same storyteller and structure, Conrad achieved a far darker impact with his masterwork of short fiction."Heart of Darkness" was written rapidly in February 1899, appeared in three parts in Blackwood's, and was immediately recognized as "the high water mark of the author's talent" by Garnett. The frame narrator of "Youth" introduces the same auditors, now on board a Thames cruiser awaiting the tide at dusk, but here he describes both Marlow, who "resembled an idol," and the setting, which reminds him of the great English explorers. Marlow's association is different: "this also has been one of the dark places of the earth." Anticipating the roles that he and Kurtz play in Africa, Marlow imagines two ancient Romans in Britain: the "commander of a trireme" who avoids contact with the wilderness and a young settler experiencing in a savage setting "the fascination of the abomination." Marlow reflects ambiguously on modern imperialism: "The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing.... What redeems it is the idea only ... and an unselfish belief in the idea."
Marlow's account of his Congo journey, adapted from Conrad's experiences in 1890, presents a corrupt system destructive to Europeans and Africans and redeemed by no ideals. Whereas in "Youth" Marlow keeps separate his youthful reactions and mature perceptions, in "Heart of Darkness" he relives his experiences as he speaks, struggling to comprehend them: "to him," explains the frame narrator, "the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale." The narrative is replete with surrealistic encounters, beginning with the company's shadowy headquarters in Brussels, where two women knit black wool and a doctor studies human skulls and predicts madness.
Marlow's first stop in the Congo, at the company station, establishes a pattern for his African experiences. After he, to his dismay and horror, encounters a chain gang of emaciated black workers and a grove of trees where natives lie dying, he meets an obsessively neat white chief accountant who tells him about Kurtz, the manager of the inner station who "sends in as much ivory as all the others put together." At each subsequent stage of his journey--a two-hundred-mile overland trek; a frustrating stay at the central station, where Marlow must repair his wrecked steamboat; the boat trip upriver ("Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world"); and the arrival at the inner station--the pattern is repeated. The Africans, including a man beaten for causing a fire, a crew of cannibals who show restraint by not consuming their masters, and a helmsman killed by an arrow, behave and suffer in ways that Marlow cannot understand yet seem to him to be fellow human beings. The European colonists--the self-important manager of the central station, the ivory-seeking "faithless pilgrims," the Russian devotee in motley--are self-centered eccentrics who, though alien to Marlow, build up his image of the infamous Kurtz, with whom Marlow becomes increasingly fascinated.
The figure of Kurtz is central to the third section of the novella. He is a paradox: highly educated, destined for high position, and the envy of other managers, Kurtz now acquires his ivory by terrorizing a community of Africans who worship him. Noticing that Kurtz's station is surrounded by posts topped with human heads, Marlow concludes, "Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts." When Kurtz does appear he is near death. His tall, emaciated frame is carried on a stretcher to Marlow's boat by threatening men with spears, and he is mourned by a native woman, described as "savage and superb." A few days later, having raved about his "immense plans" for his ivory and his "Intended" wife, he cries out, "The horror! The horror!" These words comprehend the savage jungle, his own moral degeneration, and Western colonial rapacity. A native boy then announces, "Mistah Kurtz--he dead," later T. S. Eliot's epigraph for a poem about spiritual emptiness, "The Hollow Men" (1925).
Idealistic yet consumed by greed and ambition, charismatic yet insane, the enigmatic Kurtz, a mythic figure reminiscent of Prometheus and Faust, intrigues Conrad's critics. For Marlow, Kurtz sinks into an "impenetrable darkness," yet he is superior to other colonists, because he lived by convictions and died speaking "an affirmation, a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats." For critic Ian Watt, Kurtz's fate symbolizes European imperialism--its subversion, through abuse of power, of those qualities of which Western civilization is most proud.
Marlow, as a character and a narrator, is also a puzzle. The novella is Marlow's journey: he learns more about himself than about Kurtz. Entranced by the wilderness and by Kurtz, Marlow feels that only his self-restraint and devotion to work protect him from going over the edge. He embodies Western morality and humanity, qualities that Kurtz lost in the jungle. For critic Albert J. Guerard, Marlow's jungle voyage reflects the archetypal hero's journey to self-discovery in a dreamlike world where he confronts his suppressed double, or "shadow." Karl, who identifies Kurtz with the id and the desire in individuals and civilizations for unrestrained power, sees in Marlow the rational side of human nature that confronts and restrains these impulses. Critics have puzzled over Marlow's decision, in a portentous final scene in Brussels, to lie to Kurtz's pale and elegant "Intended" by telling her, because the truth is "too dark altogether," that Kurtz's last words were "your name." For feminists Marlow's lie shows condescension, while Karl believes that the lie helps Marlow preserve his own illusions about Kurtz. Others see Marlow's lie as a humane act that distances him from Kurtz's merciless absolutes of good and evil.
Critical understanding of Marlow is bound up also with responses to Conrad's style, imagery, and atmosphere in "Heart of Darkness." The Manchester Guardian reviewer was impressed by Conrad's style, but poet and novelist John Masefield noted that the "stately and brilliant prose ... gives one a curious impression of remoteness and aloofness from its subject." F. R. Leavis admires Conrad's precise descriptions and "sinister and fantastic 'atmosphere'" but criticizes as morally irresponsible his vague philosophizing about the unspeakable. Other critics consider his verbal ambiguities appropriate to a dream journey.
Conrad's stands on social, racial, and gender issues were debated from the start. The Manchester Guardian noted that while the novella does not directly attack imperialism, "cheap ideals, platitudes of civilization are shrivelled up in the heat of such experiences." More recently, Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe --author of an alternative fictional portrayal of colonization, Things Fall Apart (1958)--has concluded that Conrad "was a thoroughgoing racist" who uses "Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor." West Indian novelist V. S. Naipaul explicitly adapted motifs from "Heart of Darkness" for A Bend in the River (1979), set in postcolonial Zaire, and filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, in Apocalypse Now (1979), drew from Conrad's novella symbols that indict a modern evil, America's involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia.
"The End of the Tether," the final novella in Youth, was published in Blackwood's in 1902. Eschewing the grand themes and participant-narrator of its companion pieces, the tale omnisciently relates the final voyage of sixty-seven-year-old Captain Whalley, a once-virtuous and heroic seaman whose poverty and financial commitment to his daughter lead him into moral decline through a series of deceptions. Concealing his poverty, first from a friend and then from Massy, the owner of the steamboat Sofala, Whalley gains command of the boat. But he demands so much help of his Asian assistant that the jealous first mate, Stern, calls Massy's attention to another deception, that the captain is going blind. Taking advantage of Whalley's disability, the owner arranges a shipwreck for the insurance money. As the ship founders, Whalley recognizes what he has lost: "... even his own past of honour, of truth, of just pride, was gone. All his spotless life was fallen into the abyss." Whalley wants to bring Massy to justice, but his desire to help his daughter with a share of the insurance money overcomes his scruples, and he decides to "cling to his deception with a fierce determination to carry it out to the end" by going down with the ship. Conrad portrays the captain's moral deterioration, but he creates enough sympathy for Whalley that eventually Conrad himself saw the captain as heroic. Though the story became overly long to meet a publishing commitment, Conrad's characterization of Whalley, which was admired by James, ranks with Thomas Hardy's study of moral decline in The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886).
Conrad extended techniques from his short fiction for his first major novel, Lord Jim, which uses the participant-narrator Marlow and embedded reminiscences and time shifts to build its mosaic portrait of a young man tormented by shame at his failure to live up to his ideals. Characters are tested also in Typhoon and Other Stories (1903). The novella Typhoon , first published in Pall Mall Magazine in 1901 and published separately in 1902, centers on Captain McWhirr. Unlike Marlow and Jim, the captain is "faithful to facts, which alone his consciousness reflected," having "just enough imagination to carry him through each successive day." As he guides the steamship Nan-Shan to the Chinese coast, carrying home two hundred indentured Chinese workers, McWhirr confronts two challenges beyond his experience: a ferocious typhoon and a fight belowdecks among the Chinese. Finding his shipboard manual unhelpful, the literal-minded captain refuses to divert the ship's course and gives orders to head directly into the storm. Amid the "immoderate wrath" of the "passionate sea," the ship is severely damaged, the officers are nearly swept from the deck, the Chinese workers fight as their money and belongings scatter, and the captain's orderly cabin is devastated. Aided by the competent chief engineer Rout, the skeptical first mate Jukes (the second mate goes mad), and a courageous boatswain, the captain stays stubbornly in control, and his ship narrowly survives two assaults by the typhoon. McWhirr, whose motto is "you don't find everything in books," deals with the melee by having the scattered money collected. Later, the captain has the money distributed fairly among the Chinese.
Typhoon creates the immediacy of experience that Conrad advocated in his 1897 preface. Memorable are not only its portrait of McWhirr but also its vivid, fast-paced narration of the storm, the fight, and the heroic struggles of the officers to fulfill their tasks amid darkness and chaos. The novella's framing chapters quote letters home to introduce the main characters and later allow them to interpret their experiences. McWhirr's final letter to his wife resembles a ship's log entry and barely mentions the storm, while Chief Mate Jukes's letter demonstrates a grudging respect for his captain: "I think that he got out of it very well for such a stupid man."
In the long story called "Falk: A Reminiscence," Conrad returns to east Asia. At a gathering of former seamen, a mature storyteller recalls an episode from his youth, when he befriended Hermann, the German captain of the Diana. When the Dane or Norwegian Falk, the taciturn and disagreeable owner of a tugboat, suddenly decided to tow the Diana out of the harbor but refused to tow the narrator's ship, his motive proved to be his love for Hermann's niece, a blond "built on a magnificent scale." Reassured that the narrator is no rival, Falk revealed his secret to Hermann's family: that once on a stranded ship he survived by murder and cannibalism. Falk, like the legendary Flying Dutchman, met with sympathy, and the girl agreed to be his salvation. The story was first published in Typhoon .
An English coastal village setting, compact plots, and well-drawn female characters unite the other two stories in the Typhoon collection. "Amy Foster," serialized in the Illustrated London News (1901), resembles "The Idiots."A narrator visits Colebrook, meets a "dull creature," and learns her history as told by the local doctor, an outsider who notes that "she had enough imagination to fall in love." The object of her affections was a stranger washed up on shore, the lone survivor among a shipload of central European immigrants. Unable to communicate and odd in his habits, Yanko Goorall was beaten and imprisoned, but after he saved a child from drowning he found work, was given a cottage, and married the kindly servant Amy Foster. But Amy feared his strangeness, and when an illness made him delirious, she fled with their child and left him to die. Conrad, himself an immigrant of unusual habits married to a wife of limited intellect, uses the doctor to present both protagonists sympathetically. In "To-Morrow," first published in Pall Mall Magazine (1902), retired Captain Hagberd has waited for his son Harry to return to Colebrook from the sea and marry his blind neighbor's daughter, Bessie Carvill. But when the son, a self-centered adventurer, visits briefly, the captain fails to recognize him and drives him away. Bessie retreats in despair to "her stuffy little inferno of a cottage," and Hagberd expects Harry to return "tomorrow." This story was adapted as Conrad's first play, One Day More (produced 1905, published 1917).
Reviewers were enthusiastic about the Typhoon collection. "Not even Kipling," declared the Times Literary Supplement , "has quite the same power of intense vividness." Yet Conrad remained troubled: he endured attacks of depression and of malarial gout, and Jessie suffered a serious knee injury in 1904 from which she never fully recovered. A second son, named John Alexander after Galsworthy, was born in 1906. Two moves, to Bedfordshire in 1907 and a farmhouse in Aldington, Kent, in 1909, proved unsatisfactory. Professionally Conrad was more fortunate. He received two awards: £300 from the Royal Literary Fund in 1902 and £500 from the Royal Bounty Fund in 1905. Having alienated Blackwood with demands for money, in 1900 he acquired a literary agent and devoted supporter, James Brand Pinker. Meanwhile, Conrad helped Hueffer write and revise two weak novels--The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story (1901), a political satire using science fiction, and Romance: A Novel (1903), a West Indies adventure tale imitative of Stevenson--and a novella about a repentant undetected criminal, The Nature of a Crime (serialized 1909). Ford gave Conrad story ideas about anarchists and, as editor of the English Review, encouraged him to dictate his reminiscences, collected as The Mirror of the Sea and A Personal Record.
Between 1904 and 1914, the middle phase of his writing career, Conrad extended his reputation and range with five ambitious novels and three story collections. The Eastern nautical settings and isolated individuals of his early works gave way to Western settings and human relationships connected with wider issues, especially political and social problems. Largest in scope of his works is the novel Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard (1904), whose complex plot using multiple narrators and time shifts centers on a South American revolution and a silver mine, which, like the ivory in "Heart of Darkness," corrupts the major characters. Conrad next wrote two novels about spies. Espionage fiction, popular before World War I, suited his moral concerns and ironic view of humanity. The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (1907), based on a failed terrorist attack in 1894, portrays the destruction of a family within the sordid London underworld of anarchists. In Under Western Eyes (1911), also founded on fact, Conrad tried to capture violence, betrayals, and the expiation of guilt in Russian and Swiss settings. Conrad's ironic political-psychological novels were generally considered sordid by contemporaries and reactionary by Marxists, but they inspired George Orwell, Graham Greene, John le Carré, and Alfred Hitchcock.
Political and social problems receive similarly sympathetic and ironic treatments, though with less experimentation, in A Set of Six . To his publisher Conrad described these stories, originally published with illustrations, as "simply entertaining," but his epigraph quotes a French nursery rhyme about helpless marionettes. Reviewers generally recognized the merits of the volume, but many modern critics find its plot contrivances and the conversational tone of most of the stories less attractive.
"Gaspar Ruiz: A Romantic Tale," a twelve-chapter story first published in Pall Mall Magazine (1906), shares its South American setting with Nostromo. After noting, "A revolutionary war raises many strange characters out of ... obscurity," the British narrator learns about such a hero from an 1830s conflict in Chile. The aging General Santierra tells his British guests that as a revolutionary lieutenant he encountered some imprisoned deserters condemned to execution. Among them was the powerful but simple Ruiz, a victim of abductions by rival armies. In a series of dramatic episodes Ruiz survived the execution, was sheltered by royalists, rescued Santierra and others during an earthquake, and married a young royalist, Emilia. He became a successful revolutionary fighter, then a renegade leader of Indian tribes. During an attempted rescue of his kidnapped wife and daughter he deployed his strong body as a launcher for artillery shells, causing his own death and Emilia's suicide. Santierra finishes his reminiscence and introduces his heiress, Ruiz's grown daughter. The frame narrator muses about a man "who perished through his own strength: the strength of his body, of his simplicity--of his love." Though Conrad considered this a sentimental "magazine fake," "Gaspar Ruiz" evokes sympathy for common people suffering from war.
"The Brute: An Indignant Tale" is a weak story written for a newspaper, the Daily Chronicle, in 1906. It relates a discussion over drinks about The Apse Family, an unpredictable ship that kills one person on each voyage and is finally wrecked through an officer's carelessness. Humorous in tone, "The Brute" fits A Set of Six because the insensitive ship owners are of higher social standing than the ship's victims.
Each of two short political stories in A Set of Six, both published in Harper's in 1906, features a narrator whose hobby relates to its theme. "An Anarchist: A Desperate Tale" is recounted by a butterfly collector whose specimen search takes him to a South American island estate, "a penal settlement for condemned cattle," owned by a meat-extracting company. Resembling the doomed butterflies and cattle is the boat mechanic Paul, the story's "anarchist," whose experiences show that "a little thing may bring about the undoing of a man." For an anarchistic comment at a drunken party in Paris, Paul was imprisoned; unemployable when released and implicated in a bank robbery, he was deported to a penal colony and escaped during a mutiny by committing murder. With this past Paul rejects the narrator's offer of a passage home. He is now truly an anarchist, no longer fit for civilized society.
A committed anarchist appears in the companion story, "The Informer: An Ironic Tale." Referred by a friend who "collects acquaintances," the well-dressed revolutionary Mr. X visits the narrator, a "quiet and peaceable product of civilization," to discuss a shared hobby, collecting Chinese bronzes and porcelain. The visitor announces that "there's no amendment to be got out of mankind except by terror and violence" and disdains bourgeois "amateur" terrorists. "Even in England, where you have some common sense, a demagogue has only to shout loud enough and long enough to find some backing in the very class he is shouting at," comments Mr. X. As an example he tells an anecdote about the children of an official who opened their London house to a revolutionary group and wrote pamphlets for them, oblivious to the manufacture of explosives in the upper story. When a faked police raid exposed as an informer the boyfriend of the hostess, she reverted to the values of her class by retreating to an Italian convent.
"Il Conde: A Pathetic Tale,"first published in Cassell's Magazine in 1908, deals with class conflict. A northern European count meets the narrator in the Naples museum among the bronzes from Pompeii, "whose delicate perfection has been preserved for us by the catastrophic fury of a volcano." Driven south by poor health, the count is a dignified gentleman whose "whole existence had been correct, well ordered, and conventional, undisturbed by startling events." Returning from a ten-day trip, the narrator hears from the dejected count about a devastating experience that occurred during his brief absence. When the count attended an evening concert a moody young Italian confronted him in an alley with a knife at his belly. The count gave up his purse and watch but refused to surrender his rings and expected to be stabbed. Taking flight instead, the attacker, the leader of a criminal student organization, later warned the count, "you are not done with me yet." His composure shattered, the count returns north, though his poor health dooms him. "Il Conde" is a well-crafted story. The count is so movingly characterized that the reader shares his terror during the attack, which is ironically juxtaposed with nearby music and activity.
Conrad's least appreciated major novella, "The Duel: A Military Tale," which concludes A Set of Six, was serialized in Pall Mall Magazine (1908) and appeared separately as The Point of Honor: A Military Tale in 1908. Elaborating on a newspaper anecdote, Conrad tracks the sixteen-year interaction between two officers who "to the surprise and admiration of their fellows, ... pursued a private contest through the years of universal carnage." Introduced as lieutenants in part 1, the young cavalrymen are both war heroes obsessed with personal honor but otherwise opposites. Feraud, a southerner from the working class, is short and dark, temperamental, aggressive, and fiercely devoted to Napoleon. D'Hubert, an aristocratic northerner from Picardy, is tall, blue-eyed and light-haired, courteous but haughty, and image conscious. Offended by D'Hubert in a trivial incident that neither ever makes public, Feraud insists upon a duel, a spontaneous sword fight that leaves him injured. In part 2, as the imperial armies conquer Europe and the two officers are promoted to captain and colonel, three more duels take place, escalating from swords to cavalry sabers to sabers on horseback. Each time Feraud is the instigator and D'Hubert the reluctant but honor-bound fellow combatant. In part 3 the retreat of the Grand Army from Russia cools the quarrel: each duelist saves the other's life and gains the rank of general. After the battle of Waterloo and the restoration of the monarchy, a convalescent D'Hubert, engaged to marry a neighbor, saves Feraud from execution.
When in part 4 Feraud insists upon another duel, France is at peace and Napoleon in his final exile. The forcibly retired Feraud is not remotely equivalent in rank to the commanding general D'Hubert, and his motive is simply hatred, while D'Hubert, with everything to lose, accepts the challenge as fate. The confrontation is absurd: two aging, battle-scarred soldiers with pistols play a deadly game of hide-and-seek in a forest. After strategy and luck allow D'Hubert to evade Feraud's shots, the victor leaves the loser to live on in disgrace and returns home to his family, a distraught fiancée, and a stable life.
Fast-paced and suspenseful, sympathetic to both protagonists yet steeped in irony, the omnisciently narrated tale is thematically rich. Conrad captured, as he intended, "the spirit of an Epoch": the passionate devotion to glory of the armies of Napoleon, "whose career had the quality of a duel against the whole of Europe." The fanatical upstart Feraud resembles the emperor, with D'Hubert more like Napoleon's royalist enemies in France and elsewhere in Europe, warriors who created lasting peace by their victory at Waterloo. The story also warns against the consequences of European alliances and arms buildups of the early twentieth century. More broadly, The Duel depicts two approaches to war and to life: the single-minded Feraud, incapable of growth, is an ideal fighter, while D'Hubert begins as an arrogant young warrior and matures into a leader and lover. The final duel is his great test: "... if true courage consists in going out to meet an odious danger from which our body, soul, and heart recoil together, General D'Hubert had the opportunity to practise it for the first time in his life." Garnett considered The Duel "a perfect whole" and "worthy of Turgenev," but many critics find it slight or banal. Ridley Scott's motion picture The Duellists (1977) movingly evokes the settings and the protagonists.
Between 1910 and 1913 Conrad's fortunes slowly improved, and his works finally reached a wide public. In 1909 conflicts with Hueffer brought an end to their collaboration, and in 1910 his debts to Pinker produced a quarrel between the two men. In January 1910, after completing Under Western Eyes, Conrad suffered a nervous breakdown that disabled him for three months. A move to a comfortable home, Capel House in Ashford, Kent, improved his spirits, as did the award of a civil list pension of £100 per year in 1911 and new friendships. Novelist André Gide prepared French translations of Conrad's fiction; philosopher Bertrand Russell admired in Conrad "the boring down into things to get to the very bottom below the apparent facts"; and fellow Polish immigrant Joseph Retinger rekindled Conrad's interest in his native land. In 1909 Conrad met Capt. Carlos Marris, veteran of twenty-one years in Malaya, who told the novelist that British sailors enjoyed his work, prompting him, as he explained to Pinker, to write some "more of the stories they like."
Conrad's three new stories of Eastern seas, collected for 'Twixt Land and Sea: Tales (1912) after appearing with illustrations in magazines, are unified not only geographically but also in theme: in each a young captain faces challenges for which his background has not prepared him. Response to the serials was so positive that Dent published thirty-five hundred copies of the book in its first printing. Reviews of the volume were enthusiastic.
"The Secret Sharer: An Episode from the Coast," serialized in Harper's in 1910, draws upon Conrad's first captaincy. Its first-person protagonist is a young captain on his first command. Alone on deck on the first night of the voyage, his ship anchored in the Gulf of Siam near Bangkok, the captain feels himself a stranger, unfamiliar with the ship and alienated from its crew, and wonders "how far I should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one's own personality every man sets up for himself secretly." Noticing a ladder not pulled up, the captain discovers clinging to its end a naked stranger. Leggatt, the strong, bold intruder who uncannily resembles the captain in appearance and background, explains that he is an escaped prisoner from a nearby ship, the Sephora. During a courageous repair effort, which saved the ship in a dangerous storm, he killed an obnoxious sailor who attacked him. The captain for several tense days shelters his double in his cabin and risks discovery. Paradoxically, the narrator's devotion to Leggatt alienates the captain from his crew, yet allows him to demonstrate courage and build confidence. To help his companion escape, the captain brings his ship dangerously close to the Cambodian island of Koh-Ring. Guided in his rescue maneuvers by a floating hat abandoned by Leggatt, the captain takes his ship to sea and imagines his "second self" as a "free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny."
Simple on the surface, "The Secret Sharer"has elicited nearly as many interpretations as "Heart of Darkness." Some readers wonder if the captain merely imagines his guest. As a symbol Leggatt may be either an evil counterpart or a better self to the captain. Guerard and others view the escaped murderer as an embodiment of irrational impulses that must be exorcised before the captain is ready to command. Leavis admires the story's affirmation, through both protagonists, of "moral conviction that is strong and courageous enough to ... defy law and codified morality and justice." When "The Secret Sharer" is read as an initiation story, however, Leggatt may represent something the captain must either overcome or assimilate into himself. "The Secret Sharer," however interpreted, is Conrad's best short story. The author, attributing his achievement to "pure luck," told Garnett in November 1912, "Every word fits and there's not a single uncertain note."
In the two long stories published with "The Secret Sharer," young captains are tested by love. A sexual betrayal, linked with unsavory business dealings, defines the captain who narrates "A Smile of Fortune: A Harbour Story,"first published in London Magazine in 1910. On a tropical island he obtains a cargo of sugar and supplies through negotiations with the shady Jacobus brothers. He meets Alice, the sensual daughter of one brother. Passive, moody, and rude, Alice lives in a walled garden with a dark pool, where the narrator develops for her a strong attraction that repels him. Escaping, he hauls a cargo of potatoes to a port where a famine brings high prices, his "smile of fortune," but he fails to mature in this weak story.
Enriched by mythic symbolism, "Freya of the Seven Isles: A Story of Shallow Waters" is a successful love story based on an actual incident. Published in 1912 in the American Metropolitan Magazine and in London Magazine, the story is narrated by an observant friend of the protagonists. The heroine, daughter of a Danish colonist named Nelson, has long golden hair and "health, strength, and what I might call unconscious self-confidence." She loves Englishman Jasper Allen, the proud young captain of his own trading brig, the Bonito, from which he watches his beloved through binoculars. To spare her father Freya postpones her elopement with Jasper until her twenty-first birthday and fends off, using Richard Wagner's music and physical force, Captain Heemskirk, a brutal Dutchman who commands the gunboat Neptun. The jealous Heemskirk abuses his colonial powers to accuse Jasper of gunrunning and to seize his brig and tow it onto a reef. This drives the young captain to madness and Freya to illness and death.
The last two novels of Conrad's middle period, despite their complexity, enjoyed great popularity. Both Chance: A Tale in Two Parts (1913), serialized in the New York Herald in 1912, and Victory: An Island Tale feature settings at least partially of the sea, romantic plots that the reader must piece together from accounts by witnesses, and well-drawn female characters who suffer cruel exploitation and offer loving devotion to male rescuers. The narrator of Chance is Marlow, now detached and moralistic like the narrators of "Freya of the Seven Isles." Victory centers on the intellectual recluse Axel Heyst, who overcomes his fear of human feelings to rescue a young woman whom he later proves unable to protect.
The sea, exotic settings, love, and violence also shape Conrad's next story collection, Within the Tides: Tales (1915). He gave each story its own "special mood" and "special tone," as he tried "several ways of telling a tale"--some used also in Victory. Two stories treat innocent characters confronted by satanic forces. In "The Partner," first published in Harper's in 1911, a narrator, using four sources of information, pieces together for a hotel audience the truth behind the wreck of the Sagamore, whose captain allegedly committed suicide. The reality is unsavory: a greedy businessman hoping with a partner to raise money for a patent-medicine scheme conspired to sink the Sagamore , but as the ship was going down the first mate robbed and murdered the well-meaning captain. The conspirators were thwarted, however: their share of the insurance money was insufficient to launch their patent-medicine firm. "The Inn of Two Witches: A Find," first published in 1913 in Pall Mall Magazine and Metropolitan Magazine , is allegedly reconstructed from an 1850s manuscript describing an incident during the Napoleonic Wars. Creating an eerie, Poesque atmosphere, the modern narrator relates how the manuscript's author--Byrne, a British naval officer suspicious about the fate of his courier, Tom--arrives at an inn near the Spanish coast run by two old women. Byrne feels uneasy in his bedroom, where he seems to hear warnings from young Tom. He discovers Tom's body in a closet, escapes the sudden descent of his bed's canopy, and is rescued by British troops as he flees. Though the story resembles Wilkie Collins's "A Terribly Strange Bed" (1852), Conrad claimed a historical source.
Closer to Conrad's novels are two other tales in Within the Tides, both published in Metropolitan Magazine in 1914. "Because of the Dollars" ("Laughing Anne" in the magazine) is set in the Malay Archipelago. Captain Davidson, who reappears in Victory, is a "really good man" entrusted with a cargo of old dollars to be turned in for new ones. After a woman known as Laughing Anne warns the captain that her lover and his unsavory associates plan to steal the dollars and murder him, the captain saves himself, but she is murdered in revenge. The remorseful Davidson takes Anne's young son home and is abandoned by his suspicious wife. Years later, as his child becomes a missionary, Davidson faces a lonely old age "because of those old dollars." Conrad later turned the story into a play, Laughing Anne (1923), which was never produced.
In the long final story of the volume, "The Planter of Malata," scientific adventurer Geoffrey Renouard is, like Heyst in Victory, a recluse on an island, located near a city (probably Sydney) in the antipodes. When Felicia Moorsom arrives, seeking the fiancé she had abandoned, Renouard falls deeply in love. To forestall her departure he withholds from her the information that her fiancé, his former assistant, is dead. When she learns the truth Felicia rebuffs Renouard and departs, and he later swims out into the ocean, "beyond the confines of life ... his eyes fixed on a star." Both characters are complex and well drawn. Tall and red-haired, Felicia is a strong, sexually appealing woman, but she is self-absorbed and wants to exercise power over others. To Renouard she is a misbegotten Venus: "only, O Divinity, it isn't your body, it is your soul that is made of foam." Renouard, in contrast, is a consummate romantic. Captivated by Felicia into a fatal obsession that compromises "the last shred of his rectitude," he sustains by sheer force of will his fantasy of keeping her with him.
Within the Tides was published by Dent and in the United States by Doubleday, Page, with an author's note in which Conrad describes his aesthetic values: a "romantic feeling of reality ... disciplined by a sense of personal responsibility and a recognition of the hard facts of experience." Treating subjects "outside the general run of everyday experience," he said, increased his sense of obligation to truthfulness. Within the Tides, the last story collection of Conrad's lifetime, is often linked by critics to his weaker late novels, but its characters and themes are similar to Chance and Victory.
In July 1914, undisturbed by the fateful assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the Conrads and the Retingers set out for Poland. While they were visiting Kraków, Britain declared war on Austria, which controlled the city. The Conrads spent two months in hiding before receiving permission to leave for Vienna and proceed to still-neutral Italy and back to England. World War I interfered with his writing: "I have been affected mentally and physically more profoundly than I thought it possible," he wrote on 27 February 1916 to a friend, John Quinn. His son Borys joined an artillery unit in France, Hueffer volunteered and was injured by gas, and in 1916 Conrad worked as an inspector of ships in the Royal Navy. He also became infatuated with an American journalist named Jane Anderson, a woman with a history of seducing important men. Whether or not Conrad and Anderson were lovers, as his biographer Meyers argues, Conrad was energized by this romantic episode. Also, in 1918, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, Poland finally received its independence.
During the war Conrad wrote a few stories and a novella, and after 1917 he dictated four more novels. Of these late works, only the novella The Shadow-Line: A Confession was on a par with his masterpieces. First published in 1916-1917 in the English Review and the Metropolitan Magazine , it appeared as a book in 1917. For a Britain appalled by suffering and death in the trenches, Conrad offered this dedication: "To Borys, and all others who like himself have crossed in early youth the shadow line of their generation." Like "The Secret Sharer," The Shadow-Line is a first-person retrospective account of a young captain's coming of age through his first command. But the later work, following more closely events associated with Conrad's first captaincy, avoids obvious symbolism. The first three chapters in The Shadow-Line reveal the narrator's character before he is tested at sea. The dissatisfied young man impulsively resigns as first mate of a ship and checks in at a sailor's home, where he meets two contrasting seamen who recall for readers Singleton and Donkin of The Nigger of the "Narcissus." The wise Captain Giles helps him obtain the command of a ship, and the arrogant Hamilton is denied the position he covets. The narrator's lethargy gives way to enthusiasm when he travels to Bangkok and sees his ship. On board he is filled with wonder: "In that community I stood, like a king in his country, in a class by myself." Yet he soon faces two serious problems: an envious chief mate obsessed with the previous captain's irresponsible behavior and death and a fever among crew members that delays their departure. When the ship departs the captain feels not elation but "weariness after an inglorious fight." He can depend only on one man: Ransome, an experienced mate whose heart condition has reduced him to the position of cook.
In the last three chapters the young captain is tested and suffers. Within a day after the ship sets sail, as it nears the island of Koh-Ring and the latitude where the old captain's body was buried at sea, two parallel natural forces, which the superstitious chief mate, Burns, attributes to the old captain's spirit, bring stagnation: a total calm in the ocean and a fever that spreads rapidly because the old captain secretly sold the ship's quinine. Only the young captain and Ransome escape infection. When the weather changes, a threatening darkness envelops the becalmed ship, whose pathetic crew somehow manages to haul up the mainsail. The chief mate urges the captain to challenge the spirit of his predecessor. When a breeze finally arises, only the captain and the fragile Ransome remain on deck to unfurl the sails. Their efforts allow the ship to return to port and obtain desperately needed medical assistance.
The title of The Shadow-Line refers both to a latitude that the becalmed ship cannot cross and to the transition each person makes from youth into youthful maturity. After his initial pride at his unforeseen appointment and his rediscovery of his devotion to the sea and ships--"the test of manliness, of temperament, of courage and fidelity--and of love"--the captain blames himself for not checking the quinine and falls into despair and a sort of madness. Yet he fulfills his responsibilities and responds calmly to challenges from the crew, the ship, and natural forces. His companions, the insecure and distraught chief mate and the confident though weakened Ransome, symbolize aspects of the captain's personality, as do the stagnant sea and crew. The captain's sense of guilt, the forces that overwhelm the ship and leave him almost alone, and the mature narrative voice invoke "The Ancient Mariner" and the legend of the Flying Dutchman. The stillness and darkness that overtake the ship also suggest to the captain primordial chaos and the creation of the world, "the formidable Work of the Seven Days into which mankind seems to have blundered unbidden." At the end of The Shadow-Line the captain has learned how dependent he is on his crew, yet he must release his faithful Ransome, as his own captain once freed him.
Well received by reviewers, The Shadow-Line is among Conrad's best works. Though some critics find the opening chapters slow and awkwardly structured, others consider them suitable to the captain's uncertainties. When comparisons, invited by Conrad, are made with "The Secret Sharer," most critics prefer the former for its modernist symbolism, while a few find the latter story richer, its commitment to communal values recalling The Nigger of the "Narcissus."
Also completed during the Great War were Conrad's last two stories, which with two earlier tales were published posthumously, following Conrad's intentions, as Tales of Hearsay (1925). First came "The Black Mate," written for London Magazine in 1908, using the title of his 1886 magazine contest story, which was probably lost. Chief Mate Bunter, whose hair color changes from black to white during a voyage, tells his spiritualist captain that he was terrified by a ghost. To the tale's narrator the mate later recounts what actually happened: after facing age discrimination, he dyed his hair black to earn a berth, lost the dye in a storm, and invented the ghost story. "The Black Mate" is typical Conrad in using a reminiscence to reveal the truth behind an incomplete report of events.
Historical subjects and themes inform the three later stories in Tales of Hearsay. "Prince Roman"was published in the Oxford and Cambridge Review in 1911 and in the Metropolitan Magazine as "The Aristocrat" in 1912. Conrad's only story set in Poland relates the life of a war hero from the nobility, a friend of the author's grandfather. The narrator reviews the career of a hero, Prince Roman, whom he met as a child. In 1831, in despair after the death of his beloved young wife, Roman anonymously joins a rebellion as a noncommissioned officer. Captured by the Russians, the prince turns down an opportunity to excuse his participation. "I joined the national rising from conviction," he insists; the price is twenty-five years in the Siberian mines and broken health. Related in its heroic subject is "The Warrior's Soul," first published in Land and Water in 1917. An aging Russian officer, Tomassov, relates his experiences from the Napoleonic wars. While serving as a Russian diplomat in Paris he was warned by a Frenchman, De Castel, of an impending arrest of diplomats; in gratitude the Russian offered that "if ever I have an opportunity ... you may command my life." Tomassov must fulfill his promise during the retreat of the French from Moscow when De Castel, a weary, disfigured prisoner of war, persuades a reluctant Tomassov to show "the soul of a warrior" and shoot him.
Though Conrad's last short story, "The Tale," first published in The Strand in 1917, also involves a morally repugnant decision, its fictional art sets it above the others in Tales of Hearsay . In a dialogue between two characters, a man enters a dark room and speaks to a reclining woman, revealing that he is home on leave for a few days. "Tell me a tale," she asks, and he relates a nocturnal episode from the early months of World War I, based on Conrad's brief stint as an inspector of ships. The commander of a British ship looking out for enemy submarines sees an object that could have contained fuel for a submarine. Retreating in the fog to a small bay, he encounters a concealed ship. After its Scandinavian captain fails to persuade him that he is not transporting contraband, the British captain orders the ship to leave the bay and deliberately suggests a course that causes it to wreck on the rocky coast. The narrator, admitting that the captain's experience is his own, muses that he shall never know whether this action was justified retribution or murder. Modern critics acknowledge the power of "The Tale," Conrad's only story with a woman as the audience, but disagree about its morality. Does Conrad condone murder when patriotic duty requires it, or is the captain's choice a typical Conradian dilemma in which a character must make an impossible decision and bear its consequences?
Conrad's last four novels revive his favorite themes. The Arrow of Gold: A Story Between Two Notes (1919), set in the 1870s amid French weapons smugglers, draws on the author's youth in Marseilles and his involvement with Jane Anderson. The Rescue: A Romance of the Shallows (1920), begun twenty years earlier and completed at the instigation of an American publisher, centers on the betrayal of a friend by Tom Lingard, the employer of the protagonists of Almayer's Folly and An Outcast of the Islands. Conrad's last completed novel, The Rover (1923), as well as the novel he left unfinished at his death, Suspense: A Napoleonic Novel (1925), return to familiar settings. Some features of The Rover, especially the spare descriptions of Mediterranean landscapes, influenced Ernest Hemingway. Suspense is a weak novel, though projected as an ambitious rival to Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace (1863-1869). It is concerned with "the state of suspense in which all classes live here from the highest to the lowest, as to what may happen next."
The last decade of Conrad's life was his most successful professionally, and he recognized the irony of his celebrity status, which allowed his later works to appear in large editions and earn far more money than his best writings. He issued a collected American edition of his works in 1921 and a deluxe British edition in 1922; sold manuscripts and film rights; wrote a silent-film scenario, "The Strong Man," based on "Gaspar Ruiz," and a play based on The Secret Agent (1921); and settled in 1919 in a stately old residence, Oswalds, in Bishopsbourne, near Canterbury. In 1920 he made a new friend, the adventurer T. E. Lawrence, and in 1922 suffered the death of his close friend and agent Pinker.
The American publisher Frank Doubleday persuaded Conrad to travel across the Atlantic in 1923. Highlights of this stressful trip included travel through New England and a lecture in New York City to a select audience, whom he moved to tears by reading from Victory. He declined a knighthood in 1924 along with offers of honorary degrees from several British universities; he never received the one award he coveted, the Nobel Prize. On 3 August 1924, at age sixty-six, Conrad died of a heart attack. A Catholic funeral was arranged on 7 August at St. Thomas's Catholic Church, Canterbury, by his wife, who was too crippled to attend. On the granite tombstone was carved a quotation from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596): "Sleep after toyle, port after stormie seas, / Ease after warre, death after life does greatly please."
Assessing Conrad's career, critics and biographers of the 1950s and 1960s identified three stages: apprenticeship, achievement, and decline. More-recent studies hold that his fiction matured as he elaborated and explored means of artistic expression for a few central concerns, among them patterns shaping his personal experiences, his widening ethical awareness, a political philosophy of organicism, the effects of his fiction on readers, and moral awareness and responsible action. Neither his seriousness of purpose nor his commitment to his art ever declined.
Conrad contributed to English literature a dozen undisputed classics of long and short fiction among outwardly similar works with few claims to permanence. His insights into human experience and his literary craft are as evident in his stories as in his novels. Unique in his writings are not only an unusual style, traceable to his native Polish, but also a range of features that resist classification. Conrad is romantic in his idealism and pessimism, his exceptional characters (men of action or reflection), and such symbolic motifs as personified nature and doubles. Like nineteenth-century realists, Conrad is committed to truth, interested in the effects of literature on readers, and concerned with characters and situations that are both individual and of wider significance. Impressionism shapes his descriptive style, while modernism manifests itself, though less in the stories than in the novels, in his complex and ambiguous themes and symbols and in his manipulations of time, point of view, and genre. A major British modernist, Conrad had few direct imitators but passed along a rich artistic legacy.
From: Brown, Monika. "Joseph Conrad." British Short-Fiction Writers, 1880-1914: The Romantic Tradition, edited by William F. Naufftus, Gale, 1995. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 156.