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Joseph Conrad's tragic moral paradoxes

248 pages
In this scholarly book, Dr A. Ayuk raises issues of existential concerns in Conrad's major fiction. It's a refreshing interpretation of Conrad's works, a major contribution to not only the novelist's moral and philosophical vision of man in the early 20th century but also the psycho-complexity of human experience of our day.
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Athanasius A. AyukJoseph Conrad’s
TragiC Moral paradoxes
In this scholarly book, Dr A. Ayuk raises issues of existential
concerns in Conrad’s major fiction. In an age in which science Joseph Conrad’s
and technology soared with success, it produced as its antithesis
a tragic and complex humanity which this book clearly and TragiC Moral paradoxes
coherently examines. Through close textual analysis, Ayuk brings
out Conrad’s paradoxes in his portrayal of human experience: the
struggle between individual ego and societal mores, guilt and
conscience and loyalty betrayed.
Joseph Conrad’s Tragic Moral Paradoxes is a refreshing inter­
pretation of Conrad’s works, a major contribution to not only the
novelist’s moral and philosophical vision of man in the early 20th
century but also the psych­o complexity of human experience of
our day.
John Nkemngong Nkengasong
Associate Professor,
Department of English
University of Yaoundé­1
Dr. Athanasius A. Ayuk, who is presently the Chairman of
the Department of English of the Higher Teacher’s Training
College, holds a PhD in English Literature from the university
of Yaoundé-1. He has held teaching positions in the universities
of Yaound é-1, Burundi and Hope Africa University, Nairobi,
Kenya (Bujumbura branch). Some of his articles have appeared in New
Urges in Postcolonial Literatures: Widening Horiz on(ed. Sunita Sinha),
Cameroon Literature in Englis h(ed. Edward Ako) and Language,
Literature and Liberty( eds. Kizitus Mpoche and Mathias Mbuh).
Cover illustration from George Charles Beresford.
26 €
ISBN : 978-2-343-00733-5
Athanasius A. Ayuk
Joseph Conrad’s TragiC Moral paradoxes

Joseph Conrad’s
tragic moral paradoxes

Athanasius A. Ayuk

Joseph Conrad’s
tragic moral paradoxes

Foreword by Shadrach A. Ambanasom

© L’Harmattan, 2013
5-7, rue de l’Ecole-Polytechnique, 75005 Paris


ISBN : 978-2-343-00733-5
EAN : 9782343007335
Dr. Elizabeth Ayuk Ako, the woman with a beautiful heart,
and Monica Egbe Ayuk the Angel Mother. ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
It has been an arduous task getting this book to this level. Many people
and institutions have been of invaluable assistance. My sincere thanks go to
the University of Maroua authorties, but especially to Professor Edward O
Ako, our master; the library of the University of Yaoundé 1, my colleagues
of the Department of English of the Higher Teachers’ Training College of
the University of Maroua, my Graduate students past and present, especially
Dr Divine Njong and Dr. Denis Tembong who did the index. Sincere thanks
to Professor John Nkemngong Nkengasong for reading through the
manuscript. My two lovely daughters Edelqueen E.B. AyukAko and Sissy
O.N. AyukAko have been marvellous. Foreword
Conrad’s Tragic Moral Paradoxes There is no doubt, through the
discussions in this book, that Conrad poses serious existential questions that
demand our utmost attention. In various chapters of the work the author
explores the anguish of both the author and his characters in both affirming
and accepting their fate. They are the victims of a society that depends for its
survival on the ethics imposed by its condition of life. It is against this that
the critic asks, amongst others, one fundamental question, that is, is the life
we live worth the sacrifice that we make? Concluding on the argument that
the morality-society nexus is an inevitability that humanity must cope with,
the author makes a case for mutual human compassion.
It is my belief that this text will elicit more debates and discussions
amongst Conrad scholars, especially in an age when national and personal
interests take precedence over collective wellbeing and interest. Students and
teachers will find in this book an instrument of further investigation as far as
problems of morality in English Literature are concerned.
Shadrach A. Ambanasom
Professor of Literature
The University of BamendaINTRODUCTION
The purpose of this work is to investigate the breadth of Joseph Conrad's
vision of human morality in some of his major fiction. To understand his
views better, it is important to know the characteristic tendencies of Conrad's
own social experiences that shaped his view of humankind and the social
and ethical constructs that guide, influence or thwart human moral
development. The problem of human life as Conrad sees it resides in the
difficulty of how mankind can come to grips with the life denying reality of
his surroundings. His fiction raises a number of pertinent questions such as,
whether a person can withdraw from the human community, live in solitude
and assert his or her own individuality? Is the life we live worth the sacrifice
we make for it? Can human morality attenuate the deceptions of life? And
above all, is human morality and the vision of life it projects a constant?
These are amongst the questions that we ultimately have to address in this
book, arguing that Joseph Conrad is a profoundly pessimistic writer whose
characters, inseparably and genetically linked to society, act basically from
the instinct of self-preservation and their desire to survive rather disengages
them from the community whose ethical values conflict with theirs. In other
words, his characters’ dilemma is the result of the tragic choice they are
forced to make between personal survival (that inevitably contradicts social
morality) and the social responsibility of respecting the inhibiting moral
codes of their society. The social tensions in Conrad's world are therefore the
result of his characters' inability to overcome these moral dilemmas.
The morality of the present world like that at the time in which Conrad
wrote is that of the strongest. More than being based on some religious,
social and cultural values, present day morality is rather defined by the
political,economic,social and personal benefits that individuals stand to
have. If these can help in the attainment of specific goals, then they are
considered good, even if they go counter to the general good. Wars of
liberation, struggles for democratic principles by developing nations no
matter how bloody they seem,if only they satisfy the social and economic
demands of the West sometimes will be justified as morally correct. This is
the extent to which morality is defined and one hundred years after Conrad’s
first texts, this tendency hasn’t changed and doesn’t seem to change. This is
Conrad’s major anguish and the apparent source of his pessimism.
Conrad's major novels Lord Jim (I900), Heart of Darkness (I902),
Nostromo (I904), Under Western Eyes (I908),and The Secret Agent ( I9II),
deal for the most part, with man’s inability to make meaningful moral and
existential choices. Conrad is one in a long line of English authors whose
fiction deals with this human difficulty. Other writers before him have
11attempted to wrestle with man's struggle to free himself from the scourge of
society. But his own conception of the human condition assumes an
existential and almost mythical status because it considers the whole of
human history. His characters' choices are determined by cultural, social,
political, economic and even mystical forces.Their morality defined by the
greed of others contradicts and obfuscates their desire to live.
Lord Jim's act is considered a betrayal and therefore criminal because it
deals with the violation of accepted cultural constructs. This tendency
pervades Conrad’s fiction; his characters are under the pressure of such
cultural and politico-economic forces as class, politics and materialism as in
Nostromo, family as with Winnie in The Secret Agent, social and
professional ethics as in Lord Jim, the evil of colonialism and material
acquisition as in Heart of Darkness, and the sense of duty and patriotism as
in Under Western Eyes. Conrad’s main characters are victims of an accepted
moribund social ethic that is blind to existential truth. Lord Jim's jump from
the ship is considered a betrayal of social and professional ethics simply
because it is seen as a travesty of acceptable social behaviour. Kurtz is
caught in the nightmare of choices that engages him in a battle between a
selfish desire to possess ivory and the idealism of civilizing the 'savages'.
Nostromo on his part is trapped between the vainglorious desire to remain
incorruptible and the pressures of economic survival, while Winnie Verloc
who murders her husband because she cannot come to terms with the new
reality occasioned by her brother's death is wrapped up in the struggle
between filial love and private convictions on marriage. Her instinct to kill is
the direct consequence of her belief that she has failed to protect her brother.
The pressures of a personal desire to realize his dream of becoming a
professor and the fear of being caught for treachery tear Razumov apart.In
all these examples, the protagonists’ social set-up, is responsible for their
demise. These characters fail or are forced to fail because they are burdened
by the pressures of the mores of their various social settings. The society
demands loyalty, fidelity and an unbridled commitment to its socially
accepted moral constructs. Tragedy befalls these characters because of their
inability to reconcile the demands of society and their personal impulses.
Even when they would want to overcome these social norms, they are
overwhelmed by malignant forces and circumstances.
This problem is more topical in Conrad’s fiction than say in that of Joyce,
Hardy, Lawrence, and the plays of Shakespeare. More than any of these
writers, Conrad’s concern with the "nightmare of choices"(Said,
Autobiography I7) is more compelling and enigmatic. His treatment of the
human difficulty is generally more thought provoking and relevant. His
belief that our individual destinies rest much both on the very choices we
12each make and on forces beyond our understanding is universally appealing.
Strangely enough, apart from Razumov in Under Western Eyes, the rest of
Conrad’s major characters perish. Their death is proof of the overwhelming
power of social, cultural and economic forces that impinge on their very
existence. It is equally an expression of Conrad’s statement on the illusory
nature of all human attempts to impose any meaning on their lives. His
fiction and his art tower because they attempt to come to grips with
individuals’ struggle to define and situate themselves in a complex
socioeconomic, metaphysical and political matrix. Whether opposed to fellow
man, society, or the forces of nature, the major characters in Conrad's major
fiction, consistently focus attention on individual fate than on social
cohesion simply because of the patterns of life imposed on them.
The cultural critic, Edward Said describes Conrad's structures of
experience as "a habitual view of experience that allows either surrender to
chaos or a comparably frightful surrender to egoistic order" (Said II). His
characters, Said argues are faced with the Schopenhaurian dilemma of
"either/or". Even though this is true, the real significance of his fiction is his
characters' inability to detach themselves from the society and make
important personal choices. Conrad's major pre-occupation with human life
as he portrays in his fiction is that his characters are not even given the
opportunity to choose but are forced to accept the verdict of the choices
imposed on them. He demonstrates with characters such as Razumov, Lord
Jim, Kurtz, Marlow, Martin Decoud and Nostromo that this imposition is
both unjust and fatal. All these characters are alienated from and repudiated
by society because their actions are considered socially unethical. Even
when the moral basis for this is difficult to determine like is the-case with
Jim, the consequences are not considered as a violation of the character's
own right to exist.
Conrad, than any of his contemporaries, handles with tenacity the
complex problems of humankind in relation to their history, biography,
culture and society. He portrays characters that are helpless in the face of the
unavoidable contradictions inherent in life. For instance, the choices they
make are self-contradictory as sometimes their loyalty to the society or to
their governments, good intentioned as they may be, contradict their own
aspirations. Razumov thought that by betraying Haldin he was doing a
service to the nation, but rather his act produces a contrary result. Whether
Haldins's murder of the great political figure is motivated by any altruistic
reason or not, it is politically and ethically wrong. It is in this regard that
within the Russian political system, Haldin is a criminal. In betraying Haldin
to the authorities, Razumov does justice to his country’s political system and
government. In the same vein, Nostromo thought (his vain gloriousness
13apart) that he was doing a service to the economic well being of Sulaco, but
he is treated as a fool and repudiated by both the reader and the society. The
noble idea of civilization originally incarnated in Kurtz is inherently
corrupted by the economic factor. Jim's decision to let Gentleman Brown
leave Patusan unharmed, good as it appears, results in bloodshed and death.
In a nutshell, moral goodness in Conrad’s world is not necessarily an
acclaimed fact of life .Life as Conrad portrays, is therefore,
selfcontradictory since its inherent positive values are contradictorily
Conrad's characters are intent on preserving not only their lives, but their
identities. However, their inability to reconcile the demands of their personal
impulses and the exigencies of their society, inevitably leads to social
conflict and makes this almost impossible. His fiction presents life as an
unending drama of individuals struggling to wall fiction from truth, moral
reality from moral idealism, personal impulses and social exigencies,
selfinterest and the tragic circumstances of communal cohesion, reality and
illusion. His vision challenges humankind's scientific perception of life and
forces him to question the ability of his civilization in resolving the more
enigmatic metaphysical concerns of life. That Kurtz's mission of civilization
turns simply into that of the search for ivory, obviously shows the limits of
human ideals. Conrad raises the ultimate question of how one can come to
terms with say the gruesome reality of Kurtz's savagery, Jim's fated life,
Nostromo's inevitable vain gloriousness, Razumov's paralysis of will and
fear, and the Verloc's social tragedy. Even though the novelist himself has
argued that to be conscious is to be tragic, the consciousness of a tragic state
of life can paradoxically give meaning to an individual’s life. Razumov
consciously accepts his fate and decides to live with it since knowledge of
the fact that he is deaf-mute does not in any significant way make his life
more tragic.
Like Sisyphus in Albert Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus, Razumov accepts
his condition since it is the best alternative. By his example, the author
demonstrates that Consciousness sometimes becomes the only palliative to
human anguish. His fiction offers a vision of Mankind constantly trapped in
their ideology, history, biography and culture. In Nostromo, Conrad portrays
history as both heretical and phenomenal. The same chain of events is
reproduced even with the passage of time, even though the human condition
remains the same. Even if Nostromo ends on a note of apparent optimism
because of the peace and security that seems to reign with the end of the
rebellions, overall, it leaves a sense of pessimism.
Amongst the numerous moments in the "nightmare of choices" to which
Conrad’s characters are confronted is that of the question of identity. In his
14succinct and compelling treatment of the relation of Conrad's life to his
fiction, Said has argued that "between Conrad's life, then, and his fiction
there exists much the same relation as between the two divisions (past and
present) of his life" (II). More than Hardy, or Joyce, Conrad attempted as
much as he could, to suppress the facts of his personal life in his writings.
Some of such facts about his life that he seems to have succeeded in
repressing are the tragic circumstances of his family, his desperate attempts
to kill himself in France, his not too convenient and happy marriage, his
financial difficulties and his relation to Poland. Even when critics attempt to
relate his past to his fiction, Conrad succeeds with the use of his complex
symbols and dubious irony to hide these facts. He uses fiction as a medium
to judge and define the values of society, and in so doing to gauge the extent
of his own personal involvement and guilt.The question of identity is both
serious and complex in his major fiction partly because it has an element of
autobiography but also because it involves the reader in the author’s
"nightmare of choices". Critics such as Ian Watt, Frederick Karl, Said and
recently John Batchetor have established an undeniable link between
Conrad's characters' search for identity and the author himself. His letters
and the facts about his life reveal a mind struggling to express in his fiction
his worries about himself and his relationship to his society while at the
same time fearing to expose so much of himself to the public.Conrad
understood that a character's life could have any meaning if his or her
identity assumed a social role. And he repeatedly writhed under the weight
of this personal burden. In defining his characters, he attempts to define his
own self. Jacques Berthoud writes that "The self is not merely something
that belongs to society. A social role is therefore necessary for the
achievement of personal identity. Yet it is also insufficient, for it has to be a
role in which the individual can believe". (Qtd in Mendelson et al.59).
Conrad’s work reveals the burden, of his struggle to distinguish between
private and public desires and attitudes.
This is exactly the point where Conrad's "Nightmare of choices" is
meaningful. For the individual to assert himself/herself, he/she has to assume
a social role. But unlike in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Youngman,
where Stephen Dedalus finally achieves his identity by escaping from the
society, in the novels under study, no such escape is possible because
Conrad's characters are identified only by the social roles that they play. The
will to make the choice does exist, but that choice, Conrad demonstrates
over and over again, is imposed on them by sinister, social, natural and
metaphysical circumstances. In a moment of crisis, Lord Jim is forced to
jump not because he is given a rational possibility to do so, but because the
idea of whether to jump or not is imposed on him by the will of nature. In
this same vein Razumov betrays Haldin before he finally understands the
15real significance of what he has done. Razumov and Lord Jim, but especially
the latter faced with dramatic social situations, act before they understand
that they have done so. In acting, Jim is not presented with any consciously
selected possibilities, but is forced to do so by a paralysis of will caused by
fear. In a nutshell, their actions are not the result of self-conscious
motivation, but rather the result of malignant social forces and fate.
The quest for identity is tragic because the ethical constructs that govern
the individual's social environment demand and impose obedience. The
choices the individual makes if he has to affirm his own individuality must
in one way or the other efface that individuality. Said in The Fiction of
Autobiography captures this when he says : "either one loses one's sense of
identity and thereby seems to vanish into the chaos undifferentiated,
anonymous flux of passing time, or one asserts oneself so strong as to
become a hard and monstrous egoist" (I3). These are some of the kinds of
social choices Conrad's characters are confronted with.
Although his example is that of Marlow and Falk, the terrible dilemma
equally applies to characters such as Emilia Gould in Nostromo, Marlow in
Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim in Lord Jim, Razumov in Under Western
Eyes and Winnie Verloc in The Secret Agent. For Razumov, either he
decides to be the gentleman, not betraying Haldin and living in perpetual
fear of being caught and his career being destroyed, or betraying him and
still jeopardising the attainment of his dream. In Lord Jim, either Jim lets
Gentleman Brown walk away so that he Jim lives with the guilt of
cowardice, or let Gentlemen Brown stay in Patusan and constantly be
reminded of the guilt of his jump. In both situations, Conrad shows that the
choice will eventually build up to the characters' ultimate tragedy.
His major characters (Nostromo, Lord Jim, Razumov, Kurtz and Marlow
of Heart of Darkness, Verloc and Winnie) cease to exist because their being
is socially incongruent to their social milieu. Identity and survival in
Conrad's world cease to be two different things since they are
interdependent. In Lord Jim, Marlow says that "we exist only in so far as we
hang together." This statement does not blur the distinction between a social
and an individual being, especially when Marlow says: "we either fight in
the ranks or our lives don't count". The question of choice raises the polemic
of the definition of what it means for something to be right or wrong.
Razumov's betrayal of Haldin, Jim's jump, Marlow's recognition of Kurtz are
all situations where major decisions, whether correct or not, could hardly be
arrived at. In Lord Jim, Marlow affirms that Jim's case was "a dispute
impossible of decision, if one had to be fair to all the phantoms in
possession- to the reputable that had its claims and to the disreputable that
had its exigencies"(Heart 9).
16The struggle and insistence for survival is a major tendency in Conrad’s
major fiction. Many critics amongst who are Ted Boyle, Jocelyn Baines, Ian
Watt, have seen Jim's movement to Patusan as an attempt to redeem himself.
Opinions on this are not unanimous. Berthoud argues on the contrary that by
abandoning the ship, Jim has fallen from idea to fact, and discovered the
truth that what a man is, is what he does. Berthoud supposes that it is only
when Jim jumps from the Patna that he understands the differences between
his dream of himself as a hero and his real responsibility as a member of a
ship's crew. The ship’s crisis portrays to Jim the difference between
imagination and reality. Terrified with the possibility of the ship sinking and
his own imminent death, Jim then comes into contact with fact. He then
understands that he will become only that which he makes of himself. His
failure and the guilt thereof explain why his wish to return to the scene of the
action is an act of expiation of his guilt.
Jim's fate, like Razumov is partly determined by the complicity of time
and nature. Many years after his show of cowardice during the Patna
incident, Jim is hunted by that past, a past that eventually leads to his
undoing. For Jim to have accepted to face the inquiry, for Razumov to have
revealed his odious act of betrayal, Kurtz's cry in the jungle all reveal
characters who, being aware of the loss of their identity, struggle to redeem
it. But the more the struggle for a new self, the more characters such as Jim,
Nostromo and Razumov are confronted with the unavoidable circumstances
of fate. Conrad creates Patusan probably as another opportunity to share
either Jim's fateful nature or to define his struggle in his fighting against his
past. In Patusan, Jim's decision to allow the criminal, Gentleman Brown, to
escape unharmed results partly from the fear that Brown will eventually
reveal his true identity.
Conrad’s characters "being" or "identity" depends on the extent to which
they subordinate to the demands of the society. Arnold L. Weinstein sums
this up when he says that Conrad's fiction, "deals with the precise conflict
between the image of the self and the patterns of conduct which fate causes
us to enact. This clash usually takes the shape of a betrayal of truth, and the
only reconciliation in Conrad... is to acknowledge both parts of the self” (qtd
in Mendleson et al 220). The truth of Weinstein’s view is sustainable on the
grounds of the argument that characters like Jim, Razumov and Nostromo
struggle to keep their self-image. However, his qualification of what he
means by "betrayal of truth" is problematic as it raises more dust as to the
meaning of truth since truth in Conrad is elusive. It is difficult to agree with
Weinstein when he acknowledges that recognition of both images of the self
can resolve the character's conflict. Both parts cannot only be reconciled
because they are products of different situations that exist as naturally
17incompatible. Razumov for instance cannot reconcile his real self to the one
imposed on him by society. Escape from oneself would therefore be the best
option where this is possible. But as Anatole France remarks "on ne sort
jamais de soi-même. C'est une vérité commune à tout le Monde, mais qui
paraît plus sensible dans certaines natures dont l'originalité est nette" ( « It is
impossible to escape from oneself. It is a common truth that seems more
sensible in some natures whose originality is neat”. (Qtd. in Yves P. I53
translation mine).
France’s thoughts are common in Conrad who is quoted as having said "I
perceive that in common with the rest of men nothing could deliver me from
my fatal consistency. We cannot escape from ourselves" (Qtd in Berthoud
I54). It is this same argument that Morton Dauwen Zabel carries on when he
says "The man who is alone in the world can never escape, for he is always
with himself”. Here, Conrad is concerned with the question of guilt. This is
one of his major concerns, since to him man is the product of his own
making. A person's crime and the resultant guilt are always at the center of
his or her conscience. Jim, Razumov, Kurtz, and Nostromo are destroyed by
their past. This is also a major theme of Hardy, Conrad's contemporary. But
Michael Henchard's fate in The Mayor of Casterbridge unlike that of
Conrad's characters is more a matter of chance than personal choice. He is
overcome by social forces and his death is the result of his inability to
overcome them. Fate aside, Henchard could overcome his own predicament.
But in Conrad, a human being is a moving tragedy. Even without the
complicity of fate, he is still caged in the disastrous complexity of his own
being. The tragic search for identity by Conrad’s major characters is in a
way, the author’s own search.
In Lord Jim. Gentleman Brown is a monumental example of a character’s
inability to escape from himself. Conrad himself suffered this fate. His
attempts to suppress his Polish names point to his inner struggle to stamp out
his polish heritage, to affirm a new identity. But all along his life, the history
of Poland, his birth and life, that of his parents, kept haunting him. Ian Watt,
in his very famous book Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, and Said in his
The Fiction of Autobiography, trace Conrad's fiction to the characteristic
tendencies of his life and time. Watt and Said agree that Conrad’s life was
influenced by the early years of his youth in Poland, his life at sea and in
France. But Watt goes further to show that Conrad was a product of I9th
century intellectual and cultural agitations, stressing that Conrad is the
product of the philosophical, scientific and cultural ideas of his time. He
was, Watt equally argues, the product of a childhood void of love, fed with
gloom and agony. Watt considers Heart of Darkness as particularly born out
of personal experience and the ideology of the time. But in all, Watt sees
18Conrad's fiction as a product of its age. By implication, he insinuates that to
better understand his fiction, we should read it in relation to the philosophies
of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, the scientific theories of Charles Darwin,
Herbert Spencer, and the politico-cultural arguments of the day.
For Watt, Conrad is a modern author because his major fiction is closer to
the personal experiences which had formed his view of the world; but also
because he anticipates the concerns with identity and the search for
individual meaning reminiscent of our age. Besides, his Polish past had
given him a vision of life which was uncommon to the western mind, and his
Polish sense of loss and alienation made him to affirm the need for moral
resistance and affirmation. Of course, our own interest in Conrad lies in how
his fiction comes closer to our modern predicament, and in this, Watt’s study
remains monumental.
Said's work is equally persuasive because, he gives enough documented
evidence to proof that Conrad's fiction is basically neurotic. Using Conrad's
letters, Said argues that the novelist was worried about the nature of the
world, the impossibility of man achieving any sort of earthly salvation, and
the unavoidable relation of the author to his fiction. Said especially
demonstrates with compelling facts from Conrad's letters that his shorter
fiction such as Heart of Darkness and The Shadow Line reflect the novelist’s
anguish with the world. Said studies Conrad's letters from a
phenomenological perspective, with the intention of exploring Conrad's
consciousness "So that the kind of mind he had, both in its distinction and
energy, will become apparent" (Said 7-8). Said's study, reveals that Conrad's
letters present a slowly unfolding discovery, that is, Conrad's spiritual
history as written by Conrad himself. In this study, Said equally explores the
"contours of Conrad's mind" (2) arriving at the conclusion that "between
Conrad's life, then, and his fiction there exists much the same relation as
between the two divisions (past and present) of his life" (II). If we consider
that Conrad himself once wrote in A Personal Record that "every novel
contains an element of autobiography... since the creator can only express
himself in his creation" (xvii-xviii), and again to his friend, Edward Nobel
that he should write from "an inward point of view, I mean from the depths
of your inwardness". (Life and Letters. I.I84), then Said's assumption
becomes more pertinent. Nevertheless, we shouldn't, and Said did not intend
us to think that everything Conrad wrote was personal.
Unlike Said, Watt, however, does not show how these various shaping
influences influenced Conrad’s sense of contradiction and deepened his
sense of personal guilt. He instead affirms that rather than being guilty of his
"standing jump" from Poland, Conrad was rather angry at the way poles
responded about his leaving Poland. The Poles accused Conrad of having
19abandoned his country and the political course for which his father died.
They thought that he escaped in order to make easy money. Watt lends
credence to his argument with a passage from A Personal Record: "I can
catch myself in hours of solitude and retrospect meeting arguments and
charges made thirty five years ago by voices now forever still, finding things
to say that an assaulted boy could not have found" ( I2I).
Conrad's response here is an attempt to justify the fact of his decision not
being conditioned by any of the reasons for which he is accused. However,
in his characteristic contradictory manner, he still acknowledges the guilt of
his leaving Poland "There was no precedent. I verily believe mine was the
only case of a boy of my nationality and antecedents taking so to speak,
standing jump out of his racial surroundings and association"( I2I).
Like his characters, Conrad was contradiction personified. This
contradiction however portrays the difficulty in reconciling the warring
tendencies of his life. His past kept coming to him and all his life he fought
hard to write off those pages. In April I899, a Polish woman, Eliza
Orzeskowa attacked Conrad for having betrayed the cause for which other
Poles and especially his father had died .Conrad's response to this accusation
was a curt and insulting "hag" addressed against her. And the critic Angela
Zagorska has argued that Conrad's response may have resulted from the
consequences of Orzeskowa's words which “touched on his deepest and
painful emotions and thoughts because of his dual loyalty to Poland and
England with the evident supremacy of the latter constituted a constant
source of distrust" (Qtd in John Batchelor, I87).
More than Zagorska's affirmation, Conrad's response might be an
outward expression of a sense of guilt or anger at an awful past. This attempt
to conceal his hatred for the accusations can be read as his attempt to
suppress his Polish identity and to affirm a new one in Britain. Conrad’s
inability to suppress his Polish identity is important because it seems to
validate his argument that our past is part of our earthly life. He was a
selfexile, who no matter how much he tried, could not exile the "Polishness" in
Leo Gurko over simplifies Conrad's relationship to his fiction.While
acknowledging that an over dependence on Conrad's biography will
downplay the philosophical insight of his fiction, it would also be
inappropriate to neglect the least detail that relates Conrad to his work
because of the overwhelming evidence (Said, Karl, Batchelor) to the claim
that Conrad's personal life filters into his fiction. The extent of the
philosophical frame of his work and its value to the appreciation of human
experience will either be totally ignored or not grasped at all. No doubt, it is
20dangerous to haunt "an element of autobiography" in Conrad Gurko argued
since we are seeking not a personal myth, but universal truths about human
beings. But Conrad himself has acknowledged the inevitability of the artist
in his or her work, reason why claims by critics such as Avrom Fleishman
that "Man is not the helpless victim of the world of history he has created; all
efforts to show him as such are attempts to reduce him to the condition of the
natural forces out of which he makes his history" (242) can easily be
We cannot pretend to ignore the fact that Conrad's fictional moral world
can be dissociated from his original context. It is true that his moral world is
for the main part rooted in I9th century Victorian moral smugness, but
studies of him within our own moral context reveal the shocking relation
between nineteenth century European imperialism and its consequent moral
outrage and 20th century power politics and its equivalent moral infelicities.
An understanding of the society is important in the contextualizing and
interpretation of Conrad's fiction.
The society plays a major role in Conrad's moral world since it
determines and judges the individual's response to and in it. But nowhere
than in a socially constituted environment does Conrad project his characters
struggling to survive, to impose themselves, to dream their various dreams
and to discover after all that "all is illusion." Thomas Aquinas has written
about the relevance of society that "The end of society is the good life, and
that the good life is a life according to virtue, so that is the end of society"
(Qtd in Copplestone 285). And in Conrad, the word "virtue" begs for a
broader definition if we have to understand the real extent of Conrad's
portrayal of the drama of human life. By virtue, Aquinas means that which is
morally true and socially accepted and acceptable. This (society inability to
adequately define and situate its values) is where the moral conflict in
Conrad’s world originates, the idea of and the need for characters to respond
positively to the exigencies of society. Nostromo, Razumov, Marlow, Jim
and the Verlocs, are all lurked in a gruesome social battlefield. Conrad
demonstrates that all attempts at human beings severing their ties with
society can only be tragic. It is only in society that the individual makes
possible his or her own experiences and life. Aristotle has written that “He
who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient
for himself, must be either a beast or a god” (qtd Copplestone 286). Conrad’s
characters are neither beasts nor gods; they are caught in between these
Their moral dilemma is the more compelling because they are torn
between commitment to the moral ideals of the self and loyalty to the
demands of society. Jim’s difficulty like that of Razumov is represented not
21only as that of I9th century man as Raymond Williams asserts, but of man at
all times. He writes that, “People become more aware of great social and
historical changes which altered not only outward forms-institutions and
landscapes-but also inward feelings, experiences, self-definitions. These
facts of change can be seen lying deep in almost every imagination”. (I2)
This vision of society validates David Daiches claim “that society can
never be wholly real” and J. Hillis Miller’s argument that “the human world
is a lie.All human ideals, even the ideal of fidelity are lies” reason being that
“they derive from man himself and are supported by nothing outside him”
(2I5). In defining Jim’s predicament, Williams portrays him against the
background of social forces to which he owes allegiance. In doing this, he
therefore recognizes that Jim has breached his contract with the human
society, and for this, he has to be punished. There is nothing in my opinion
which is wrong with this Marxist conception of the relationship of man to his
society. But what Williams’ argument does not question is the justness of the
social forces that govern Jim’s life. The burden of guilt that Jim, Razumov,
Marlow, Nostromo, and Winnie have to bear is a consequence of their
conscious recognition that they have transgressed the values that bind them
to society.
On the contrary, David Daiches and Miller think that society is a smoke
screen, because they believe that it is an illusion and that it would be tragic
to follow it. More intriguing is equally their belief that it is an illusion
because it comes from human fabrications, like Conrad himself once claimed
all human values are soon corrupted by men's attitudes. All is not illusion,
human institutions whether social, political, cultural, economic and religious
are by themselves good. They are only corrupted by the value men give
Evidently, there is no way that a man living in society can avoid being
conscious of its values. But these values by themselves are reasonably useful
except when corrupted by the selfish motives of human beings. Characters
such as Nostromo, Emilia Gould, Lord Jim, and Razumov fail to understand
that there is nothing they can do but accept their condition as normal. It is
only in this way that their lives will become more meaningful. Conrad is
aware that very little will change. He is concerned with how his characters
cope with this common recognition. And he is more interested in the
character that, knowing he is fighting a losing battle, fights to the end.
This is exactly where Jim's problem arises. His crisis is that of a human
being divided between a sense of duty and a natural instinct to survive.
Either he serves his cause and perishes or fails to do so and lives in abject
solitude and the tragedy of abandonment. Jim, Williams argues, "has been
22taught a code, a set of laws about sailing and these are not technical but in
their essence moral definitions of responsibility and duty which are at once
specific practical rules and general social laws" (I4I). At the inquiry, Jim's
"conduct" is being looked into by the nautical assessor within an agreed
scheme of values. Nobody is certain if the ship would have sunk. If
Razumov didn't betray Haldin, we would equally not have been sure that the
police would have found him out. It's in line with the same argument that the
actions of Nostromo, Kurtz and Marlow can be interpreted. Conrad
demonstrates that social cohesion is achieved to the detriment of individual
ideology and identity, because men always uplift their personal to the
disadvantage of the collective interest.
Unlike in Hardy where self-sacrifice is not a prerequisite for
readmittance into the human community, it is so in Conrad. Penn Warren notes
this when he says: "The crises of his (Conrad's) story comes when the hero
recognizes the terms on which he may be saved, the moment to take Morton
Dauwen Zabel’s phrase of “the terror of the awakening" (Qtd in Mendelson
et al 205). When Warren talks of the terms on which Conrad's characters
may be saved, it is reference to the character being reaccepted into the
human community. Lord Jim understands that after betraying the Patusan
community, he may only gain approbation from them by moving boldly
towards Doramin and accepting the fate reserved for him.
Conrad's vicious societies do not however inhibit the characters' attempts
to redeem themselves. Razumov finally confesses not because he needs a
free conscience or even because he needs society to accept him but because
he thinks it is simply proper to do so. Razumov understands that he is caught
between the deep sea and the roaring bear. He understands that "to cut
oneself entirely from one's kind is impossible. To live in a desert one must
be a saint" (30). And since man is neither a saint nor god, he is compelled to
cope with the social and moral values that inhibit his or her own
fidelity becomes the inescapable barrier man erects against nothingness.
That we have no right to a choice that will satisfy our own moral
imagination is one of Conrad's greatest worries. Despite his concern with
honour, fidelity, order and decorum, Conrad portrays his characters with
tenderness and sympathy, and lulls the reader to do same; as Lionel Trilling
argues, Conrad succeeds in "involving the reader himself in the moral life,
inviting him to put his own motives under examination" (Trilling I5).
Conrad's communities are generally hostile. We either live in them and
But Man's dilemma in society is better captured in Under Western Eyes.
When talking about the girl whose father sacrificed a lot for the state, Sophia