Tag Archives: Joseph Conrad

Secondary Conrad

Form Harpham’s One of Us (1996)

Conrad’s oeuvre can be read as symptomatic of Modernism’ uneven development. Lumped together with Flaubert, James, and Joyce because of the defamiliarizing force of abstraction, we could also say that this is because (the English) language does in fact resist attempts to shape it into something perfectly referential…things take on associational force almost by accident rather that design. This is Conrad as the accidental modernist, that graduates into something more coherent with Nostromo in beyond, but then he is already explicit about referential relationships (however complicated) to politics and history.

Conrad’s work can be said to both disturb us and open us up to new horizons, argues Harpham. He does this 1) through the idea of the nation as a potentially unifying anecdote to trade, but nevertheless one that is porous and therefore laboriously constructed 2) through the idea of the sea that simultaneously symbolizes freedom and homelessness 3) through language itself, which becomes capacious grand at the same time that it fails to make a tight system of meaning, or even coherence of imagery.

Joseph Conrad – Nostromo (1904)


If Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness dramatize the difficulty of narrating a life, confronting that difficulty by dramatizing the various subjective, generic, historical conditions that frame our experience of the world, then Nostromo ups the ante, expanding the palate of narrators (13 main characters) and opening the stage to the history of a continent and the circuits of global trade. Nostromo is “constructed” in ways similar to Jim, but this novel is not so much interested in characterization, as it is interested in how the past becomes present, and the present becomes future, and how all the various characters deal with these historical becomings.

Conrad employs a basic rectangle of characters:

Nostromo   –   Decoud (loves Antonia)

Mr. Gould   –   Monygham (loves Mrs. Gould)

On the top, two men that are killed by the silver. On the bottom, two men who are able to resist that death. On the left, two idealists. On the right, two pragmatists. Acting outside of these rectangle, are the two women, Antonia and Mrs. Gould.

Nostromo the character is a composite of what other characters believe him to be. We see him consistently fail to live up to the idea of the hero–he is literally a “man of the people” to the degree that he becomes subject to the same temptations of the silver.

When the old Garibaldi soldier kills Nostromo (not knowing that he does it), Conrad is showing who the older foams of heroic revolution are not tenable under the new regime of global capitalism.

Discuss the difference between catching a moment out of the stream of time and Mrs. Gould’s beliefe that we need to see the past, present and future within every moment….this is a different way of seeing the relationship between particular events and history in general.

Joseph Conrad – Lord Jim (1900)

Marlow tells the story of Jim, whom he first sees in a court room, being tried for jumping off the Patna even though the Patna did not sink. Jim is torn up over this because he has romantic ideals that he tries but cannot fulfill–but it’s actually not so clear, since at times it seems that it is simply Marlow attempting to write Jim in to a heroic story. Jim is disgraced but Marlow and his friend Stein get him a job on the island Patuma, which is wehre he become “Lord Jim.” He rids the island of competition, meets a woman named Jewel, and is well liked and respected by all the natives. However, some guy named Brown shows up and tries to take the island over. Jim drives him away, but Brown manages to sabotage a group of islanders before leaving, killing the king Doramin’s son. Jim resigns himself to his fate, and his shot by Doramin.

The epiphany in Conrad, and the impossibility of representation. Contrast the following descriptions of Jim’s face with the knoweldge conveyed in Kurtz’s “the horror!” What is the different statuses of knowledge? In Lord Jim, the chinese box narration withholds clarity all together, retrospective and otherwise:

To watch his face was like watching a darkening sky before a clap of thunder, shade upon shade imperceptibly coming on, the gloom growing mysteriously intense in the calm of maturing violence. (chapter six)

The muscles round his lips contracted into an unconscious something violent, short-lived, and illuminating like a twist of lightning that admits the eye for instant into the secret convolutions of a cloud. (chapter ten)

He heard me out with his head on one side, and I had another glimpse through a rent in the mist in which he moved and had his being. (chapter eleven)

It is hard to tell you what precisely she wanted to wrest from me. Obviously it would be something very simple—the simplest impossibility in the world; as, for instance, the exact description of a cloud. (chapter thirty-two)

A good opportunity to talk about narrative vs. story, and about the readerly contracts necessary for creating a distance between the narrative and the story. So Marlow keeps saying “one of us” (connect to Forster’s ONE and Ford’s GOOD PEOPLE) as a way of implicating the reader in the Western tradition of the quest, for example:  Marlow is attempting to show the reader that that narrative is appropriate to the story.

Stein and the butterflies, rendered as aesthetic objects. Talk about Jim as a butterfly of sorts.

The trope of the abyss: here it is first and foremost an abyss of non-meaning. Track how this differs from both New Grub Street and Howard’s End.

Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness (1899)

Unnamed narrator introduces Marlow. He tells a story on the Nellie, a ship floating on the Thames. The story begins: he can’t find a job, but eventually takes one that will involve traveling into the interior of the Congo as the captain of a ship, where he will help with the ivory trade. He says good-bye to his aunt and sets off. He arrives at the “Central Trading Station.” run by a dubious “Manager.” The boat sinks and Marlow suspects him of sabotage. Marlow keeps hearing about Kurtz. He eventually goes up stream with a small crew. They are attacked, but eventually arrive at Kurtz’s station. With his astounding “eloquence” he has convinced the natives to treat him like a god. He is deathly ill, so Marlow takes him on board. Just before he dies, he gives Marlow some papers, and pronounces “The horror! The horror!” Marlow returns to London where he seeks out Kurtz’s “Intended.” He cannot bear to tell her his final words. He lies by telling her that he last said her name.

Bureaucracy – The opening section is largely about the inefficient bureaucracy plaguing the Imperial project. The manger is the definition of Weber’s bad bureaucrat. Michael Levenson reads the tension between good and bad social forms (between crippling bureaucracy and Kurtz’s “charisma”) being supplanted by “a nightmarish choice between social venality and passionate license,” and “ends by offering the individual moral psyche as a slim third term between these weighty alternatives” (Norton, 403). Marlow is the one who seeks to cultivate this third term, which manifests itself in the style of the narrative itself:

Conrad longs to overcome the separation between fact and value; he longs to see value lodged securely in fact–“the redeeming facts of life”–so that the individual need not rely on the rickety apparatus of social ethics. (404)

Opposed to an ethics of the social, “Conrad” asserts the sensuous as the domain of judgment–which includes the second and third critique. 

This can be connected with the self-conscious attention to the “surface of things” in both Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, as well as in the Preface to the Nigger of Narcissus:

Fine sentiments be hanged! I had no time. I had to mess about with white-lead strips of woolen blanket helping to put bandages on those leaky steam-pipes–I tell you. I had to watch the steering and circumvent those snags and get the tin-pot along by hook or by crook. There was surface-truth enough in these things to save a wiser man. (38)

This falls more or less into Ian Watt’s reading of Heart of Darkness as an education in impressionistic narration. The closing bars of the novel portray the Thames with a vividness learned in the heart of darkness. Conrad, narrator, Marlow: the three join in the truth of cohesive artistic project.

But this reading does not account for the “lie” that Marlow tell to the Intended. The nameless fiancé stands in for the outer limit which a bourgeois  ideology fixes on Conrad’s art. The “horrible” truth must be suppressed in order to sustain the narrative overcoming of the fact-value distinction. In this sense, the act of narration participates in the violence of historical imperialism. What was at first “just a hole” (14), becomes “ostentatious holes to bury stuff in” (50), and then finally Kurtz’s unmarked grave: “the pilgrims buried something in a muddy hole” (69): sensory impression, empirical report, ideological concealment. Perhaps this also could be rounded out into a critique of intentionality (the Intended)  in general (cf. Levinas, M-P, ALF).

The problem of endings is  also a way to talk about Kurtz’s cry “the horror, the horror.” Marlow wonders: “Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge?” Marlow recalls, “It was as though a veil had been rent” (68). Talk about how this “rent” and glimpse into “complete knowledge” is withheld in Lord Jim. Also, compare Marlow’s question to the one asked by Yeats in “Leda and the Swan”: did she take on is knowledge. These are questions about history, about the violence of history. About the possibility or impossibility of narrating that violence. Connect this with Benjamin’s “The Storyteller” and also to Arendt’s comments on “Action” in The Human Condition.

Maps (page 11) – Marlow and Conrad are both obsessed with the colonial map–with the spread of the colonial flag, but also with the blank spaces that represent opportunities for the adventure that is writing itself. Connect this with Naipaul’s A Way in the World, with Moretti’s work on the bildungsroman, and with Peter Brook’s stuff on plotting and mapping in the novel.

Life as (Modern) Art: “that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose” (69).

The heart as a symbol and device  in Conrad, Yeats and Ford Maddox Ford.




An attempt on Conrad’s part to overcome the fact-value distinction. We have contrast between good and bad bureaucracy in the opening, that turns into a contrast, in the second half of the novel, between rigid social control and unrestrained passionated license. Between these two alternatives, Conrad tries to insert his impressionism. which would imbue sensuous judgment with moral judgment–a sort of compression of the second and third critiques. Curiously, for the novel to emerge into this aesthetic reality (so that Marlow can read the Thames as a “heart of darkness,” a social commentary in itself) Marlow needs to lie to the intended. He lies in order to conceal the violence that makes possible Kurtz’s knowledge into socially suitable form.

This connects to other books in which Imperial violence is forceful repressed, as in, for instance, Howard’s End and Mrs. Dalloway.

This connects in very interesting ways to some of Conrad’s non-fiction…he is constantly trying to bring the whole into the particular….every line must carry the full weight of the whole…first line of the Preface. But also, in his work on Henry James, we see Conrad trying to claim for the novelist the position of an historian: an historian of human experience. in this way, we can connect Conrad’s desire to merge fact and value to Yeats’ attempts to render history aesthetic in Easter 1916 and Leda and the Swan.