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Joseph Conrad


Joseph Conrad

British writer
original name Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski

born Dec. 3, 1857, Berdichev, Ukraine, Russian Empire [now Berdychiv, Ukraine]
died Aug. 3, 1924, Canterbury, Kent, Eng.

English novelist and short-story writer of Polish descent, whose works include the novels Lord Jim (1900), Nostromo (1904), and The Secret Agent (1907) and the short story “Heart of Darkness” (1902). During his lifetime Conrad was admired for the richness of his prose and his renderings of dangerous life at sea and in exotic places. But his initial reputation as a masterful teller of colourful adventures of the sea masked his fascination with the individual when faced with nature’s invariable unconcern, man’s frequent malevolence, and his inner battles with good and evil. To Conrad, the sea meant above all the tragedy of loneliness. A writer of complex skill and striking insight, but above all of an intensely personal vision, he has been increasingly regarded as one of the greatest English novelists.

Conrad’s father, Apollo Nalęcz Korzeniowski, a poet and an ardent Polish patriot, was one of the organizers of the committee that went on in 1863 to direct the Polish insurrection against Russian rule. He was arrested in late 1861 and was sent into exile at Vologda in northern Russia. His wife and four-year-old son followed him there, and the harsh climate hastened his wife’s death from tuberculosis in 1865. In A Personal Record Conrad relates that his first introduction to the English language was at the age of eight, when his father was translating the works of Shakespeare and Victor Hugo in order to support the household. In those solitary years with his father he read the works of Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Dickens, and William Makepeace Thackeray in Polish and French. Apollo was ill with tuberculosis and died in Cracow in 1869. Responsibility for the boy was assumed by his maternal uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski, a lawyer, who provided his nephew with advice, admonition, financial help, and love. He sent Conrad to school at Cracow and then to Switzerland, but the boy was bored by school and yearned to go to sea. In 1874 Conrad left for Marseille with the intention of going to sea.

Bobrowski made him an allowance of 2,000 francs a year and put him in touch with a merchant named Delestang, in whose ships Conrad sailed in the French merchant service. His first voyage, on the Mont-Blanc to Martinique, was as a passenger; on her next voyage he sailed as an apprentice. In July 1876 he again sailed to the West Indies, as a steward on the Saint-Antoine. On this voyage Conrad seems to have taken part in some unlawful enterprise, probably gunrunning, and to have sailed along the coast of Venezuela, memories of which were to find a place in Nostromo. The first mate of the vessel, a Corsican named Dominic Cervoni, was the model for the hero of that novel and was to play a picturesque role in Conrad’s life and work.

Conrad became heavily enmeshed in debt upon returning to Marseille and apparently unsuccessfully attempted to commit suicide. As a sailor in the French merchant navy he was liable to conscription when he came of age, so after his recovery he signed on in April 1878 as a deckhand on a British freighter bound for Constantinople with a cargo of coal. After the return journey his ship landed him at Lowestoft, Eng., in June 1878. It was Conrad’s first English landfall, and he spoke only a few words of the language of which he was to become a recognized master. Conrad remained in England, and in the following October he shipped as an ordinary seaman aboard a wool clipper on the London–Sydney run.

Conrad was to serve 16 years in the British merchant navy. In June 1880 he passed his examination as second mate, and in April 1881 he joined the Palestine, a bark of 425 tons. This move proved to be an important event in his life; it took him to the Far East for the first time, and it was also a continuously troubled voyage, which provided him with literary material that he would use later. Beset by gales, accidentally rammed by a steamer, and deserted by a sizable portion of her crew, the Palestine nevertheless had made it as far as the East Indies when her cargo of coal caught fire and the crew had to take to the lifeboats; Conrad’s initial landing in the East, on an island off Sumatra, took place only after a 13 1/2-hour voyage in an open boat. In 1898 Conrad published his account of his experiences on the Palestine, with only slight alterations, as the short story “Youth,” a remarkable tale of a young officer’s first command.

He returned to London by passenger steamer, and in September 1883 he shipped as mate on the Riversdale, leaving her at Madras to join the Narcissus at Bombay. This voyage gave him material for his novel The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” the story of an egocentric black sailor’s deterioration and death aboard ship. At about this time Conrad began writing his earliest known letters in the English language. In between subsequent voyages Conrad studied for his first mate’s certificate, and in 1886 two notable events occurred: he became a British subject in August, and three months later he obtained his master mariner’s certificate.

In February 1887 he sailed as first mate on the Highland Forest, bound for Semarang, Java. Her captain was John McWhirr, whom he later immortalized under the same name as the heroic, unimaginative captain of the steamer Nan Shan in Typhoon. He then joined the Vidar, a locally owned steamship trading among the islands of the southeast Asian archipelago. During the five or six voyages he made in four and a half months, Conrad was discovering and exploring the world he was to re-create in his first novels, Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands, and Lord Jim, as well as several short stories.

After leaving the Vidar Conrad unexpectedly obtained his first command, on the Otago, sailing from Bangkok, an experience out of which he was to make his stories “The Shadow-Line” and “Falk.” He took over the Otago in unpropitious circumstances. The captain Conrad replaced had died at sea, and by the time the ship reached Singapore, a voyage of 800 miles (1,300 km) that took three weeks because of lack of wind, the whole ship’s company, except Conrad and the cook, was down with fever. Conrad then discovered to his dismay that his predecessor had sold almost all the ship’s supply of quinine.

Back in London in the summer of 1889, Conrad took rooms near the Thames and, while waiting for a command, began to write Almayer’s Folly. The task was interrupted by the strangest and probably the most important of his adventures. As a child in Poland, he had stuck his finger on the centre of the map of Africa and said, “When I grow up I shall go there.” In 1889 the Congo Free State was four years old as a political entity and already notorious as a sphere of imperialistic exploitation. Conrad’s childhood dream took positive shape in the ambition to command a Congo River steamboat. Using what influence he could, he went to Brussels and secured an appointment. What he saw, did, and felt in the Congo are largely recorded in “Heart of Darkness,” his most famous, finest, and most enigmatic story, the title of which signifies not only the heart of Africa, the dark continent, but also the heart of evil—everything that is corrupt, nihilistic, malign—and perhaps the heart of man. The story is central to Conrad’s work and vision, and it is difficult not to think of his Congo experiences as traumatic. He may have exaggerated when he said, “Before the Congo I was a mere animal,” but in a real sense the dying Kurtz’s cry, “The horror! The horror!” was Conrad’s. He suffered psychological, spiritual, even metaphysical shock in the Congo, and his physical health was also damaged; for the rest of his life, he was racked by recurrent fever and gout.

Conrad was in the Congo for four months, returning to England in January 1891. He made several more voyages as a first mate, but by 1894, when his guardian Tadeusz Bobrowski died, his sea life was over. In the spring of 1894 Conrad sent Almayer’s Folly to the London publisher Fisher Unwin, and the book was published in April 1895. It was as the author of this novel that Conrad adopted the name by which he is known: he had learned from long experience that the name Korzeniowski was impossible on British lips.

Unwin’s manuscript reader, the critic Edward Garnett, urged Conrad to begin a second novel, and so Almayer’s Folly was followed in 1896 by An Outcast of the Islands, which repeats the theme of a foolish and blindly superficial character meeting the tragic consequences of his own failings in a tropical region far from the company of his fellow Europeans. These two novels provoked a misunderstanding of Conrad’s talents and purpose which dogged him the rest of his life. Set in the Malayan archipelago, they caused him to be labeled a writer of exotic tales, a reputation which a series of novels and short stories about the sea—The Nigger of the “Narcissus” (1897), Lord Jim (1900), Youth (1902), Typhoon (1902), and others—seemed only to confirm. But words of his own about the “Narcissus” give the real reason for his choice of settings: “the problem . . . is not a problem of the sea, it is merely a problem that has risen on board a ship where the conditions of complete isolation from all land entanglements make it stand out with a particular force and colouring.” This is equally true of his other works; the latter part of Lord Jim takes place in a jungle village not because the emotional and moral problems that interest Conrad are those peculiar to jungle villages, but because there Jim’s feelings of guilt, responsibility, and insecurity—feelings common to mankind—work themselves out with a logic and inevitability that are enforced by his isolation. It is this purpose, rather than a taste for the outlandish, that distinguishes Conrad’s work from that of many novelists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. They, for the most part, were concerned to widen the scope of the novel, to act, in Balzac’s phrase, as the natural historians of society; Conrad instead aimed at the isolation and concentration of tragedy.

In 1895 Conrad married the 22-year-old Jessie George, by whom he had two sons. He thereafter resided mainly in the southeast corner of England, where his life as an author was plagued by poor health, near poverty, and difficulties of temperament. It was not until 1910, after he had written what are now considered his finest novels—Lord Jim (1900), Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907), and Under Western Eyes (1911), the last being three novels of political intrigue and romance—that his financial situation became relatively secure. He was awarded a Civil List pension of £100, and the American collector John Quinn began to buy his manuscripts—for what now seem ludicrously low prices. His novel Chance was successfully serialized in the New York Herald in 1912, and his novel Victory, published in 1915, was no less successful. Though hampered by rheumatism, Conrad continued to write for the remaining years of his life. In April 1924 he refused an offer of knighthood from Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, and he died shortly thereafter.

In his own time Conrad was praised for his power to depict life at sea and in the tropics and for his works’ qualities of “romance”—a word used basically to denote his power of using an elaborate prose style to cast a film of illusory splendour over somewhat sordid events. His reputation diminished after his death, and a revival of interest in his work later directed attention to different qualities and to different books than his contemporaries had emphasized.

An account of the themes of some of these books should indicate where modern critics lay emphasis. Nostromo (1904), a story of revolution, politics, and financial manipulation in a South American republic, centres, for all its close-packed incidents, upon one idea—the corruption of the characters by the ambitions that they set before themselves, ambitions concerned with silver, which forms the republic’s wealth and which is the central symbol around which the novel is organized. The ambitions range from simple greed to idealistic desires for reform and justice. All lead to moral disaster, and the nobler the ambition the greater its possessor’s self-disgust as he realizes his plight.

“Heart of Darkness,” which follows closely the actual events of Conrad’s Congo journey, tells of the narrator’s fascination by a mysterious white man, Kurtz, who, by his eloquence and hypnotic personality, dominates the brutal tribesmen around him. Full of contempt for the greedy traders who exploit the natives, the narrator cannot deny the power of this figure of evil who calls forth from him something approaching reluctant loyalty. The Secret Agent (1907), a sustained essay in the ironic and one of Conrad’s finest works, deals with the equivocal world of anarchists, police, politicians, and agents provocateurs in London. Victory describes the unsuccessful attempts of a detached, nihilistic observer of life to protect himself and his hapless female companion from the murderous machinations of a trio of rogues on an isolated island.

Conrad’s view of life is indeed deeply pessimistic. In every idealism are the seeds of corruption, and the most honourable men find their unquestioned standards totally inadequate to defend themselves against the assaults of evil. It is significant that Conrad repeats again and again situations in which such men are obliged to admit emotional kinship with those whom they have expected only to despise. This well-nigh despairing vision gains much of its force from the feeling that Conrad accepted it reluctantly, rather than with morbid enjoyment.

Conrad’s influence on later novelists has been profound both because of his masterly technical innovations and because of the vision of humanity expressed through them. He is the novelist of man in extreme situations. “Those who read me,” he wrote in his preface to A Personal Record, “know my conviction that the world, the temporal world, rests on a few very simple ideas; so simple that they must be as old as the hills. It rests, notably, among others, on the idea of Fidelity.” For Conrad fidelity is the barrier man erects against nothingness, against corruption, against the evil that is all about him, insidious, waiting to engulf him, and that in some sense is within him unacknowledged. But what happens when fidelity is submerged, the barrier broken down, and the evil without is acknowledged by the evil within? At his greatest, that is Conrad’s theme. Feminist and postcolonialist readings of Modernist works have focused on Conrad and have confirmed his centrality to Modernism and to the general understanding of it.




Lord Jim

Joseph Conrad
1857 -1924

Based on an actual maritime scandal, Lord Jim tells how Jim himself, a handsome young mate in a steamship carrying pilgrims, is disgraced by deserting the vessel when he thinks that it is about to sink. Later, he endeavors to start a new life among a remote Malay community in Sumatra, and for a while enjoys well-earned glory as "Lord" Jim. Eventually, however, disaster ambushes both Jim and hiscommunity.
This novel resembles a boys' adventure story: a dashing British hero, perils at sea, exotic travels, leadership of a community in the tropics, a beautiful female companion, warfare, and (for a time) victory. Charles Marlow is the sophisticated intermediate narrator who offers philosophical and psychological reflections on Jim's nature as well as his general significance.Combining a sophisticated philosophical awareness with vivid descriptions, the novel is a probing assessment of the significance of human life. With the adventurous subject matter, Conrad recalled nineteenth-century master Stevenson, while his kaleidoscopic analytical techniques anticipated modernism and even postmodernism. Variously affirmative and skeptical, he was "ahead of his time" in his love of ambiguity and paradox. Lord Jim influenced Scott Fitzgerald, Orson Welles, and Albert Cam us; it remains cogent today.





Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad
1857 -1924

Based on Joseph Conrad's own venture into Africa in 1890, Heart of Darkness is the best of his shorter novels and is the most brilliant of all his works. Eloquent, audacious, experimental, recessive, satiric, yet deeply humane, since its serialization in 1899 it has continued to provoke controversy and reward analysis. Charles Marlow, one of Conrad's "transtextual" characters (for he appears also in Youth, Lord Jim, and Chance), tells a group of British friends about his journey into a part of central Africa identifiable as the "Congo Free State," which was then the private property of Leopold II, King of the Belgians. Marlow recalls the absurdities and atrocities which he witnessed: a French warship shelling the continent, the cruel treatment of enslaved black laborers, and the remorseless rapacity of the white colonialists who are impelled by the desire for profits from ivory. He looks forward to meeting Mr. Kurtz, the greatly talented and idealistic European trader; but, when he reaches the dying adventurer, he finds that the idealist has become deranged and depraved. Virtually a savage god, Kurtz sums up his view of Africans in the phrase "Exterminate all the brutes!" The "heart of darkness," we learn, is not simply the jungle at the center of the "Dark Continent"; it is also the corrupt heart of Kurtz, and it may even be European imperialism itself." All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz," and London is depicted as the center of brooding gloom. Written when imperialism was "politically correct" this brilliantly anti-imperialist and largely anti-racist work shows Conrad at the peak of his powers as a challenging innovator in ideas and techniques. Heart of Darkness has proved immensely influential, and numerous adaptations include the movie Apocalypse Now.




Type of work: Novella
Author: Joseph Conrad (Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, 1857-1924)
Type of plot: Symbolic romance
Time of plot: Late nineteenth century
Locale: The Belgian Congo
First published: 1902


Both an adventure story and the account of a philosophical and moral quest, this tale takes the reader on a symbolic journey into the blackness central to the heart and soul of man. A vagueness at its core has detracted little from the story's power and continued popularity.


Principal Characters

Marlow, the narrator and impartial observer of the action, who becomes the central figure when the story is interpreted psychologically. He makes a trip into the center of Africa which becomes, symbolically, a journey toward the essential meaning of life. After talking with Kurtz, with whom he identifies himself, he is able to see deeply into his own being.
Mr. Kurtz, manager of an inland trading station in the Belgian Congo. After having arrived in the Congo with high ideals and a self-imposed mission to civilize the natives, he is instead converted by them to savagery. His awareness of his downfall and his conviction that evil is at the heart of everything is revealed in a long talk which he has with Marlow.
The District Manager, an avowed enemy of Mr. Kurtz. His only interest is in collecting as much ivory as possible, and he is totally unaware of the central darkness.
A Russian Traveler, an admirer and disciple of Mr. Kurtz, but one who thought Kurtz lived before his time.
Kurtz's Fiancee, whom Marlow allows to retain her belief in Kurtz's goodness and power.


The Story

A group of men were sitting on the deck of the cruising yawl, The Nellie, anchored one calm evening in the Thames estuary. One of the seamen, Marlow, began reflecting that the Thames area had been, at the time of the invading Romans, one of the dark and barbarous areas of the earth. Dwelling on this theme, he then began to tell a story of the blackest, most barbarous area of the earth that he had experienced.
Through his aunt's connections, Marlow had once secured a billet as commander of a river steamer for one of the trading companies with interests in the Belgian Congo. When he went to Belgium to learn more about the job, he found that few of the officials of the company expected him to return alive. In Brussels, he also heard of the distinguished Mr. Kurtz, the powerful and intelligent man who was educating the natives and at the same time sending back record shipments of ivory.
The mysterious figure of Mr. Kurtz fascinated Marlow. In spite of the ominous hints that he gathered from various company officials, he became more and more curious about what awaited him in the Congo. During his journey, as he passed along the African coast, he reflected that the wilderness and the unknown seemed to seep right out to the sea. Many of the trading posts and stations the ship passed were dilapidated and looked barbaric. Finally, Marlow arrived at the seat of the government at the mouth of the river. Again, he heard of the great distinction and power of Mr. Kurtz who had an enormous reputation because of his plans to enlighten the natives and his success in gaining their confidence. Marlow also saw natives working in the hot sun until they collapsed and died. Marlow had to wait impatiently for ten days at the government site because his work would not begin until he reached the district manager's station, two hundred miles up the river. At last, the expedition left for the district station.
Marlow arrived at the district station to find that the river steamer had sunk a few days earlier. He met the district manager, a man whose only ability seemed to be the ability to survive. The district manager, unconcerned with the fate of the natives, was interested only in getting out of the country; he felt that Mr. Kurtz's new methods were ruining the whole district. The district manager also reported that he had not heard from Kurtz for quite some time but had received disquieting rumors about his failing health.
Although he was handicapped by a lack of rivets, Marlow spent months supervising repairs to the antiquated river steamer. He also overheard a conversation which revealed that the district manager was Kurtz's implacable enemy, who hoped that the climate would do away with his rival.
The steamer was finally ready for use, and Mariow, along with the district manager, sailed to visit Kurtz at the inner station far up the river. The journey was difficult and perilous; the water was shallow; there were frequent fogs. Just as they arrived within a few miles of Kurtz's station, natives attacked the vessel with spears and arrows. Marlow's helmsman, a faithful native, was killed by a long spear when he learned from his window to fire at the savages. Marlow finally blew the steamboat whistle, and the sound frightened the natives away. The district manager was sure that Kurtz had lost control over the blacks. When they docked, they met an enthusiastic Russian traveler who told them that Kurtz was gravely ill.
While the district manager visited Kurtz, the Russian told Marlow that the sick man had become corrupted by the very natives he had hoped to enlighten. He still had power over the natives, but instead of his changing them, they had debased him into an atavistic savage. Kurtz attended native rituals, had killed frequently in order to get ivory, and had hung heads as decorations outside his hut. Later Marlow met Kurtz and found that the man had, indeed, been corrupted by the evil at the center of experience. Marlow learned from the Russian that Kurtz had ordered the natives to attack the steamer, thinking that, if they did so, the white men would run away and leave Kurtz to die among his fellow savages in the wilderness. Talking to Marlow, Kurtz showed his awareness of how uncivilized he had become and how his plans to educate the natives had been reversed. He gave Marlow a packet of letters for his fiancee in Belgium and the manuscript of an article, written sometime earlier, in which he urged efforts to educate the natives.
The district manager and Marlow took Kurtz, now on a stretcher, to the river steamer to take him back home. The district manager contended that the area was now ruined for collecting ivory. Full of despair and the realization that devouring evil was at the heart of everything, Kurtz died while the steamer was temporarily stopped for repairs.
Marlow returned to civilization. About a year later, he went to Belgium to see Kurtz's fiancee. She still thought of Kurtz as the splendid and powerful man who had gone to Africa with a mission, and she still believed in his goodness and power. When she asked Marlow what Kurtz's last words had been, Marlow lied and told her that Kurtz had asked for her at the end. In reality, Kurtz, who had seen all experience, had in his final words testified to the horror of it all. This horror was not something, Marlow felt, that civilized ladies could, or should, understand.


Critical Evaluation

In one sense, Heart of Darkness is a compelling adventure tale of a journey into the blackest heart of the Belgian Congo. The story presents attacks by the natives, descriptions of the jungle and the river, and characterizations of white men who, sometimes with ideals and sometimes simply for profit, invade the jungles to bring out ivory. The journey into the heart of the Congo, however, is also a symbolic journey into the blackness central to the heart and soul of man, a journey deep into primeval passion, superstition, and lust. Those who, like the district manager, undertake this journey simply to rob the natives of ivory, without any awareness of the importance of the central darkness, can survive. Similarly, Marlow, who is only an observer, never centrally involved, can survive to tell the tale; but those who, like Kurtz, are aware of the darkness, who hope with conscious intelligence and a humane concern for all mankind to bring light into the darkness, are doomed, are themselves swallowed up by the darkness and evil they had hoped to penetrate. Conrad manages to make his point, a realization of the evil at the center of human experience, without ever breaking the closely knit pattern of his narrative or losing the compelling atmospheric and psychological force of the tale. The wealth of natural symbols, the clear development of character, and the sheer fascination of the story make this a novella that has been frequently praised and frequently read ever since its publication in 1902. Heart of Darkness is, in both style and insight, a masterful work.
Christened Josef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski by his Polish parents, Joseph Conrad was able to write of the sea and sailing from firsthand knowledge. He left the cold climate of Poland early in his life to travel to the warmer regions of the Mediterranean, where he became a sailor. He traveled a great deal: to the West Indies, Latin America, Africa. Eventually, he settled in England and perfected a remarkably subtle yet powerful literary style in his adopted language.
Criticism of Conrad's work in general and Heart of Darkness in particular has been both extensive and varied. Many critics concern themselves with Conrad's style; others focus on the biographical aspects of his fiction; some see the works as social commentaries; some are students of Conrad's explorations into human psychology; many are interested in the brooding, shadowy symbolism that hovers over all the works. E. M. Forster censured him as a vague and elusive writer who never quite clearly discloses the philosophy that lies behind his tales. Such a judgment, however, ignores Conrad's intentions as a writer of fiction. Partiv as Conrad's mouthpiece, the narrator ofHeart of Darkness states in the first few pages of the novel:

The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of the cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of those misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.

The mention of the narrator brings up one of the most complex and intriguing features of Heart of Darkness: its carefully executed and elaborately conceived handling of point of view. Readers can detect that the novella is in truth two narratives, inexorably woven together by Conrad's masterful craftsmanship. The outer frame of the story—the immediate setting—involves the unnamed narrator, who is apparently the only one on the Nellie profoundly affected by Marlow's tale, but it is the inner story that constitutes the bulk of the novella. Marlow narrates, and the others listen passively. The narrator's closing words show his feeling at the conclusion of Mar-low's recounting of the events in the Congo:

Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha. Nobody moved for a time. "We have lost the first of the ebb," said the Director suddenly. I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.

Since Marlow's narrative is a tale devoted primarily to a journey to the mysterious dark continent (the literal heart of darkness, Africa), a superficial view of the tale is simply that it is essentially an elaborate story involving confrontation with exotic natives, treacherous dangers of the jungle, brutal savagery, and even cannibalism. Such a view, however, ignores larger meanings with which the work is implicitly concerned: namely, social and cultural implications; psychological workings of the cultivated European left to the uncivilized wilderness; and the richly colored fabric of symbolism that emerges slowly but inevitably from beneath the surface.
Heart of Darkness can also be examined for its social and cultural implications. It is fairly obvious that a perverted version of the "White Man's Burden" was the philosophy adopted by the ivory hunters at the Inner Station. Kurtz's "Exterminate the brutes!" shows the way a white man can exploit the helpless savage. The futile shelling from the gunboat into the jungle is also vividly portrayed as a useless, brutal, and absurd act perpetrated against a weaker, more uncivilized culture than the one that nurtured Kurtz.
Here the psychological phenomena of Marlow's tale emerge. Kurtz, a man relieved of all social and civilized restraints, goes mad after committing himself to the total pursuit of evil and depravity. His observation "The horror! the horror!" suggests her final realization of the consequences of his life. Marlow also realizes this and is allowed (because he forces restraint upon himself) to draw back his foot from the precipice of madness. The experience leaves Marlow sober, disturbed, meditative, and obsessed with relating his story in much the same way Coleridge's Ancient Mariner must also relate his story.
On a symbolic level, the story is rich; a book could easily be written on this facet of the novel. A mention of some of the major symbols must suffice here: the Congo River that reminded Marlow early in his youth of a snake as it uncoiled its length into the darkness of Africa and furnished him with an uncontrollable "fascination of the abomination"; the symbolic journey into man's own heart of darkness reveals the blind evil of man's own nature, the irony of the quest when the truth is revealed not in terms of light but in terms of darkness (the truth brings not light but rather total darkness). The entire symbolic character of the work is capsuled at the end of Marlow's tale when he is forced to lie to Kurtz's intended spouse in order to preserve her illusion; the truth appears to Marlow as an inescapable darkness, and the novel ends with the narrator's own observation of darkness.
Heart of Darkness is one of literature's most somber fictions. It explores fundamental questions about man's nature: his capacity for evil; the necessity for restraint; the effect of physical darkness and isolation on a civilized soul; and the necessity of relinquishing pride for one's own spiritual salvation. Forster's censure of Conrad may be correct in many ways, but it refuses to admit that through such philosophical ruminations Conrad has allowed generations of readers to ponder humanity's own heart of darkness.



NOSTROMO: A Tale of the Seaboard

Type of work: Novel
Author: Joseph Conrad (Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, 1857-1924)
Type of plot: Psychological romance
Time of plot: Early twentieth century
Locale: Costaguana, on the north coast of South America
First published: 1904


Using the San Tome mine as his focal point, Conrad presents a group of fascinating characters, representing a cross section of attitudes, character types, and economic levels, who contend with one another and with themselves for the silver and all it implies economically, politically, and morally. The result is a powerful, panoramic vision of man, both as a solitary individual and as a social animal, caught up in forces, both external and internal, that he can neither understand nor contain.


Principal Characters

Nostromo (nos-tro'mo), the nickname of Gian' Bat-
tista, the "incorruptible" hero of the people after saving a valuable cargo of silver from revolutionists by hiding it on a barren island at the harbor entrance. Later he realizes that it can be his because the lighter on which he transported the silver is reported sunk in a collision with a troopship at night. He grows rich slowly by returning to the island occasionally for some of the silver. When a lighthouse is established on the island, he is still able to visit his hoard of silver because his friends, the Violas, are made keepers of the light. He chooses to love Giselle, the younger Viola daughter, rather than the more stable and idealistic Linda. Mistaken for a despised suitor of Giselle, he is shot by old Viola while on a night visit to see Giselle. Nostromo dies feeling that he has been betrayed and wishing to confess to Mrs. Gould. Because she refuses to listen, his secret is kept and his famed uncorruptibility remains intact.
Charles Gould, The manager of the San Tome silver mine, which he idealizes as a civilizing force that will bring progress to contented but backward Sulaco, a city in the Occidental Province of the Republic of Costaguana, as well as atonement for the death of his father. But silver, the incorruptible metal, is a corrupting influence politically and morally. It separates Gould from his wife Emilia, attracts politicians from the interior, and provokes a revolution.
Dona Emilia, Charles Gould's wife, supplanted in his affections by his "redemption idea" of the mine. Childless, she is a victim of a "subtle unfaithfulness" created by the mine. In turn, she is gracious, kind, unselfish, and lives for others.
Martin Decoud (mar-tan' ds-ko'), a young Creole intellectual, skeptic, and amateur journalist recently returned from Paris. He falls in love with patriotic Antonia Avellanos and fathers the idea of a separate Occidental Republic. He escapes from the revolutionists on the lighter bearing the silver but commits suicide when left alone on the island to face all the silence and indifference of nature.
Dr. Monygham, a doctor of introspective temperament. Under torture during the former dictatorship of Guzman Bento, he had betrayed friends, a deed that weighs on his conscience. He risks his life during this revolution for the safety of others in order to earn restoration to the human community.
Captain Mitchell, the superintendent of the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, a "thick, elderly man, wearing high pointed collars and short sidewhiskers, partial to white waistcoats, and really very communicative under his air of pompous reserve." He narrates part of the story.
Giorgio Viola (jor'jo ve-o'la), a veteran of Garibaldi's army and keeper of the Casa Viola, a restaurant and hotel in Sulaco. Believing wholeheartedly in the human bond of liberty, he had risked his life in Italy in the hope of bringing freedom to men. He wishes to make Nostromo his son.
Teresa, the portly, ill wife of Viola, anxious for the future of her husband and daughters.
Giselle, the sensuous, blonde younger daughter of Viola, in love with Nostromo.
Linda, the idealistic, dark older daughter of Viola, also in love with Nostromo.
President Ribiera (re-be'a'ra), the beneficent dictator of Costaguana, defeated by revolutionary forces.
Don Jose Avellanos (don ho-sa' a-va-ya'-nos), an idealistic, cultured, dignified, patriotic statesman who has survived many changes in his country and the author of "Fifty Years of Misrule," a history of the republic. He dies of disappointment.
Antonia Avellanos (anto'nya), his beautiful, free-minded, patriotic daughter, in love with Decoud.
Father Corbelan (kor-ba-lan'), the fanatical uncle of Antonia Avellanos. His appearance suggests something unlawful behind his priesthood, the idea of a chaplain of bandits. He is Costaguana's first Cardinal Archbishop.
General Montero (mon-ta'ro), a rural hero and a former Minister of War, the leader of the revolution.
Pedro Montero (pa'dro), his brother, a savage with a genius for treachery. He is the leader of the rebel army from the interior.
Don иð¸ (don pa'pa), the faithful overseer of the San Tome mine, under orders to blow up the mine if the revolutionaries try to seize it.
Father Roman (ro-man'), the faithful padre of the workers of the mine.
Colonel Sotillo (so-te'yo), one of the leaders of the revolution. Cowardly and traitorous, he hurries his army into Sulaco in the hope of gaining personal advantage.
Senor Hirsch, a craven and fearful hide merchant who tries to escape from Sulaco by secreting himself on the lighter with Nostromo and Decoud while they are transporting the silver. When the lighter and Sotillo's ship collide in the darkness, he leaps aboard the rebels' vessel.
There he is tortured for confession and finally killed by Sotillo.
Hernandez (ernan'des), a man mistreated in an earlier revolution and now the leader of a robber band. During the revolt he becomes a general, pledged to Father Corbelan.
General Barrios (bar'ryos), a brave, trustworthy, unpretentious soldier who has lived heroically and loves to talk of the adventurous life of his past. He is the commander of the Occidental military district.
Don Juste Lopez (don hus'ta lo'pez), the president of the provincial assembly. He thinks that resistance to Pedro Montero will be useless but that formalities may still save the republic.
Fuentes (fwen'tas), a nominee for the post of political chief of Sulaco. Eager to take office, he sides with Pedro Montero.
Gamacho (ga-ma'cho), the commander of the Sulaco national guard. He throws his lot with the revolutionists.
Basilio (ba-se'lyo), Mrs, Gould's head servant.
Luis (loo'es), a mulatto servant at the Casa Viola.


The Story

The Republic of Costaguana was in a state of revolt. Under the leadership of Pedrito Montero, rebel troops had taken control of the eastern part of the country. When news of the revolt reached Sulaco, the principal town of the western section that was separated from the rest of the country by a mountain range, the leaders began to lay defense plans.
The chief interest of the town was the San Tome silver mine in the nearby mountains, a mine managed by Charles Gould, an Englishman who, although educated in England, had been born in Sulaco, his father having been manager before him. Gould had made a great success of the mine. The semiannual shipment of silver had just come down from the mine to the customhouse when the telegraph operator from Esmeralda, on the eastern side of the mountains, sent word that troops had embarked on a transport under command of General Sotillo and that the rebels planned to capture the silver ingots as well as Sulaco.
Gould decided to load the ingots on a lighter and set it afloat in the gulf pending the arrival of a ship that would take the cargo to the United States. The man to guide the boat would be Gian' Battista, known in Sulaco as Nostromo (our man) for he was considered incorruptible. His companion would be Martin Decoud, editor of the local newspaper, who had been drawn from Paris and kept in Sulaco by the European-educated Antonia Avellanos, to whom he had just become engaged. Decoud had incurred the anger of Montero by denouncing the revolutionists in his paper. Decoud also had conceived a plan for making the country around Sulaco an independent state, the Occidental Republic.
When Nostromo and Decoud set out in the black of the night, Sotillo's ship, approaching the port without lights, bumped into their lighter. Nostromo made for a nearby uninhabited island, the Great Isabel, where he cached the treasure. Then, he left Decoud behind and rowed the lighter to the middle of the harbor, pulled a plug, and sank her. He swam the remaining mile to the mainland.
Upon discovering that the silver had been spirited away, Sotillo took possession of the customhouse, where he conducted an inquisition. The next day, Sulaco was seized by Montero, who considered Sotillo of little worth.
When the Europeans and highborn natives who had not fled the town discovered that Nostromo was back, they took it for granted that the silver had been lost in the harbor. They asked Nostromo to take a message to Barrios, who commanded the Loyalist troops on the eastern side of the mountains. In a spectacular engine ride up the side of the mountain and a subsequent six-day horseback journey through the mountain passes, Nostromo succeeded in delivering his message, and Barrios set out with his troops by boat to relieve the town of Sulaco.
Coming into the harbor, Nostromo sighted a boat that he recognized as the small craft attached to the lighter that had carried him and Decoud to Great Isabel. He dived overboard and swam to the boat. Barrios went on to Sulaco and drove the traitors out. Meanwhile, Gould had planted dynamite around the silver mine to destroy it in case of defeat, for he was determined to keep the mine from the revolutionists at any cost.
Nostromo rowed the little boat over to Great Isabel, where he discovered that Decoud was gone and that he had taken four of the ingots with him. He correctly guessed that Decoud had killed himself, for there was a bloodstain on the edge of the boat. Decoud had been left to himself when Nostromo returned to the mainland, and each day he had grown more and more lonely until finally he dug up four of the ingots, tied them to himself, went out into the boat, shot himself, and fell overboard, the weight of the ingots carrying him to the bottom of the harbor. Now Nostromo could not tell Gould where the silver was, for he would himself have been suspected of stealing the four missing ingots. Since everyone thought the treasure was in the bottom of the sea, he decided to let the rumor stand and sell the ingots one by one and so become rich slowly.
In gratitude for his many services to the country, the people provided Nostromo with a boat in which he hauled cargo as far north as California. Sometimes he would be gone for months while he carried out his schemes for disposing of the hidden silver. One day on his return, he saw that a lighthouse was being built on Great Isabel. He was panic stricken. Then he suggested that the keeper should be old Giorgio Viola, in whose daughter Linda he was interested. He thought that with the Violas on the island no one would suspect his frequent visits. Linda had a younger sister, Giselle, for whom the vagabond Ramirez was desperate. Viola would not allow her to receive his attentions and kept her under close guard. He would not permit Ramirez to come to the island.
To make his comings and goings more secure, one day Nostromo asked Linda to be his wife. Almost at once he realized that he was really in love with Giselle. In secret meetings, he and Giselle confessed their mutual passion.
Linda grew suspicious. Giselle begged Nostromo to carry her away, but he said he could not do so for a while. He finally told her about the silver and how he had to convert it into money before he could take her away.
Obsessed by hate of Ramirez, Viola began patrolling the island at night with his gun loaded. One night as Nostromo was approaching Giselle's window, old Viola saw him and shot him. Hearing her father say that he had shot Ramirez, Linda rushed out, but Giselle ran past her and reached Nostromo first. It was she who accompanied him to the mainland. In the hospital, Nostromo asked for the kind Mrs. Gould, to whom he protested that Giselle was innocent and that he alone knew about the hidden treasure. Mrs. Gould, however, would not let him tell her where he had hidden it. It had caused so much sorrow that she did not want it to be brought to light again. Nostromo refused any aid from Dr. Monygham and died without revealing the location of the ingots.
Dr. Monygham went in the police galley out to Great Isabel, where he informed Linda of Nostromo's death. She was thoroughly moved by the news and whispered that she—and she alone—had loved the man and that she would never forget Nostromo. Al Linda in despair cried out Nostromo's name, Dr. Monygham observed that as triumphant as Nostromo had been in life, this love of Linda's was the greatest victory of all.
The region about Sulaco finally did become the Occidental Republic. The San Tome mine prospered under Gould's management, the population increased enormously, and the new country flourished with great vigor. Although Decoud, the country's first planner, and Nostromo, the hero of its inception, were dead, life in the new country went on richly and fully.


Critical Evaluation

Joseph Conrad has always been known among the mass of readers as a great teller of sea stories. He is also a pertinent, even prophetic, commentator on what he called "land entanglements"—particularly on the subject of political revolution. Conrad's father was an active revolutionary in the cause of Polish independence; he died as a result of prolonged imprisonment for revolutionary "crimes." Three of Conrad's best novels are studies in political behavior: Nostromo, The Secret Agent, and Under Western Eyes. Nostromo is by far the most ambitious and complex of these works. It has a very large international cast of characters of all shapes and sizes, and it employs the typical Conradian device of an intentionally jumbled (and sometimes confusing) chronology. As typical of Conrad, the physical setting is handled superbly; the reader is drawn into the book through the wonderfully tactile descriptions of the land and sea. The setting in South America is also particularly appropriate to Conrad's skeptical consideration of progress achieved either by Capitalism or revolution.
Nostromo is a study in the politics of wealth in an underdeveloped country. The central force in the novel is the silver of the San Tome mine—a potential of wealth so immense that a humane and cultured civilization can be built upon it. At least this is the view of the idealistic Charles Gould, the owner and developer of the mine. There are other views. From the start, Gould is ready to maintain his power by force if necessary. He remembers how the mine destroyed his father. The mine attracts politicians and armed revolutionaries from the interior, but Gould is willing to blow up his treasure and half of Sulaco, the central city, in order to defeat the revolution. He succeeds, but Conrad intends for the reader to regard his success as partial at best. His obsession with the mine separates him from his wife. As with Conrad's other heroes, the demands of public action distort and cancel out his capacity for private affection.
One of the magnificences of the first half of Nostromo is that Gould and his silver are seen from so many angles. For old Giorgio Viola, who was once a member of Garibaldi's red shirts, Gould's idealization of material interests is wrong because it has the potential of violating a pure and disinterested love of liberty for all humanity. Viola, however, is as ineffectual as the austere and cultured leader of Sulaco's aristocracy, Don Jose Avellanos, whose unpublished manuscript "Thirty Years of Misrule" is used as gun wadding at the height of the revolution. Ranged against Avellanos and Viola, at the other end of the spectrum, are those sanguinary petty tyrants, Bento, Montero, and Sotillo, who want to run the country entirely for their own personal advantage. Sotillo represents their capacity and blind lust for Gould's treasure. The most interesting characters, however, are those who occupy the middle of the spectrum. Of these, two— Martin Decoud, the dilettante Parisian boulevardier, and Dr. Monygham—are central to any understanding of the novel. Between them they represent Conrad's own point of view most fully.
Decoud may be the object of some of Conrad's most scourging irony, but his skeptical pronouncements accord well with the facts of Sulaco's politics as Conrad presents them in the early stages of the novel. Decoud saves the mine by arranging for a new rifle to be used in defense of Gould's material interests, but he does not share Gould's enthusiasm that the mine can act as the chief force in the process of civilizing the new republic. He views the whole business of revolution and counterrevolution as an elaborate charade, a comic opera.
The most trenchant charge against Gould is made by the other deeply skeptical character, Dr. Monygham. His judgment upon material interests is one of the most famous passages in the book:

There is no peace and rest in the development of material interests. They have their law and their justice. But it is founded on expediency, and is inhuman; it is without the continuity and the force that can be found only in a moral principle. . . . The time approaches when all that the Gould Concession stands for shall weigh as heavily upon the people as the barbarism, cruelty, and misrule of a few years back.

It is clear that Conrad intends for his readers to take Monygham's judgment at face value. The trouble is that the facts of Costaguana's post-revolutionary state do not agree with it. The land is temporarily at peace and is being developed in an orderly fashion by the mine as well as other material interests, and the workers seem better off as a result. Monygham is of course hinting at the workers' revolt against the suppression of material interests, but this revolt seems so far in the future that his judgment is robbed of much of its power. This surely accounts for part of the "hollowness" that some critics have found in the novel.
The last section of the novel is concerned with Gould's successful resistance to the attempts of both church and military to take over the mine and the moral degradation of the "incorruptible" man of the people, Nostromo. In this latter case, Conrad abandons the richness and density of his panoramic view of South American society and gives us a semiallegorical dramatization of the taint of the silver within the soul of a single character.
Nostromo's fate is clearly related to the legend of the two gringos which begins the book, for the silver that he has hidden has this same power to curse his soul as the "fatal spell" cast by the treasure on the gringos. ("Their souls cannot tear themselves away from their bodies mounting guard over the discovered treasure. They are now rich and hungry and thirsty. . . .") The result of Conrad's absorption with Nostromo at the end of the novel is twofold. First, readers are denied a dramatization of the changing social conditions that would support Monygham's judgment. Second, and more important, the novel loses its superb richness and variety and comes dangerously close to insisting on the thesis that wealth is a universal corruptor, even that "money is the root of all evil."
For roughly two-thirds of its length, Nostromo gives readers one of the finest social panoramas in all fiction. The ending, however, suggests that underneath the complex texture of the novel lies a rather simplistic idea: that both "material interests" and revolution are doomed to failure. Although set in South America, Nostromo suggests a world in which systems and conditions change very little because men do not.



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