Contemporary Novelists: Joseph Conrad


IF Mr. Joseph Conrad appears at first glimpse as a romancer, — and it is certain that to many readers he does, — the explanation is simply that he is a deeper realist than is commonly perceived. There is a truth outside of truth which is romance; there is a truth within truth which is the living heart of truth. Romance is a vision; but this heart of truth, the objective of the greatest realists, of whom Mr. Conrad is one, is a patient discovery.

These matters can be made clear if we regard each living organism, from the individual life up to the mass of collective lives, as being an affair of circles within circles, spheres within spheres, from an outermost layer of superficial reality to an innermost core or principle of reality in which all that envelops it is implied, explained, and justified. The truth about life is like (shall we say?) a series of Chinese dolls, each fitting inside a larger until a largest one contains them all. The romancer looks at the outermost one and imagines still another outside that; his truth is in the similitude of life viewed in the large, but grander, more free in perspective, fitting reality as a garment fits the body, not as a glove the hand. But the realist’s quest is inward. His inspection of the single life takes him beneath the outer husk of act and habit, expression and gesture, to the stratum of emotion and fancy where these have their root; and, perhaps, under that to the substratum, made up of heredity and environment and pure accident, which we call character. But he has not really acquitted himself until, beneath the last wrapping of all, he has uncovered some inmost kernel of truth, some such secret dream or frozen despair as obscurely rules every life, giving to all the outward manifestations a logic and a legibility not otherwise theirs. And if he confront the medley of lives which make up the general spectacle of life, his concern is still with its hidden centre, the secret aspiration of all mankind — the dream of brotherhood.

As a result of the inward bent of Mr. Conrad’s mind and interest, it follows that no one else has written with so profound a sense of the awful privacy of the soul, the intense, palpitating secrecy which underlies even the most placid and composed phenomena of the everyday world. Every one of his stories, properly understood, is a story of mystery, though with hardly anything of the conventional machinery of mystery. Readers will have noticed the extraordinary number of passages in his work which involve the physical presence of somebody or something hidden: evidently the bare fact of concealment fascinates this author. But the whispering intensity of such passages is only the reflex of Mr. Conrad’s general feeling that everything in the world is in thralldom to secrecy, that secrecy is almost the law of life. Every being is at bottom inexpressible and trying to express itself, every truth is in essence a paradox and struggling for consistency. The ‘secret sharer’ haunts the captain’s cabin and the captain’s thoughts until he seems to have become the captain’s other self; but the unearthly and dreamlike reality of the whispered consultations of those two is as nothing to the reality of secrets buried in the consciousness too deep for even whispered consultations. That young rebel stowaway is the negation of tranquillity in a stolid and respectable ship’s company; it is an outrage upon all fitness that he should be there and they innocently not know. But he is only an obscure symbol of rebel man precariously living on his pin-prick of lighted dust in space, a negation of the serene immensity of the cosmos which mocks him.

It is important to understand this about Mr. Conrad, for it is the heart and marrow of his kind of irony. Even his verbal irony is only a way of reminding us of the paradox of outer and inner, the incredible gap between the appearance and the reality. In Nostromo, his account of the horrible scene of Señor Hirsch’s tortured and violent end is sprinkled with reminders of the utterly commonplace character of Hirsch’s previous life and occupation. The tragedy of an old man whose world has dropped to pieces round him is described in these terms: ‘The enthusiastic and severe soul of Giorgio Viola, sailor, champion of oppressed humanity, enemy of kings and, by the grace of Mrs. Gould, hotel-keeper of the Sulaco harbor, had descended into the open abyss of desolation among the shattered vestiges of his past.’ Thus, even as a stylist, Mr. Conrad is occupied with the ironic or tragic unfitness of things. He reminds us by a system of allusions that the strange and sinister things that people do are never so strange as what people are; and he makes the secret inner reality throw a sombre or a shimmering light outward over the plain coarse texture of the dullest lives and occupations.

This primary interest of Mr. Conrad in the inmost verity of things, and the secondary quality of his interest in their external appearances, are the prevailing notes in all that he has to say of his own art. ‘Art itself,’ he says, ‘may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of just ice to the visible universe by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect.’ The artist must ‘reveal the substance of its truth — disclose its inspiring secret: the stress and passion within the core of each convincing moment.’ If he succeed, ‘you shall find there ... all you demand and, perhaps, also, that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.’ The emotional side of life will not suffice for him, as it does for the sentimentalist in fiction : ‘His aim is to reach the very fount of laughter and tears.’

Mr. Conrad has no lack of the modern realist-reporter’s facility in transcribing minute surface aspects of life; indeed, his notation of them is singularly firm and sharp. But he transcribes them only as indices of the moral life which at once implies and transcends them; and he penetrates further into the dusky hinterland of character and motive than any other modern ‘historian of hearts ’ — the more remarkably because quite without the apparatus of the psychological novelist.

To be a historian of hearts, in the sense of feeling the isolation and secret mysterious beauty of each individual adventure, is to be almost necessarily a historian of the lonely. Mr. Conrad speaks somewhere of ‘the indestructible loneliness that surrounds, envelops, clothes every human soul from the cradle to the grave, and, perhaps, beyond.’ And instinctively he chooses from the medley of lives those that are most detached from ‘the community of hopes and fears,’ most cut off, by some agency of race, of inheritance, of character, or simply of chance, from participation in the life of civilized and social man. In the earlier stage of his work his bent was toward the man cut off by his own act; in the later stage, it has been toward the man cut off by his own nature. But whether he writes about a disgraced man outlawed from society, or about a profoundly individual and solitary man locked in the unlighted cell of his own temperament, the meaning is always that, there is a tragic beauty in our secret process of being ourselves; that the indestructible barriers of self are the most inexorable thing in the world. And so, not only does he become very definitely and specially the spokesman of the outcast, but he also perceives that, in some intangible and spiritual sense, every one in the world is an outcast.

The first barrier that Mr. Conrad studied was that of race. The central character of Almayer’s Folly is the isolated white man stranded in a backwater of life, among brown men. An Outcast of the Islands presents the sharper issue, the more relentless tragedy, of the white man’s infatuation for tho brown woman. In the two novels about revolutionists, The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes, Mr. Conrad comes a step nearer to Western civilization. Haldin, the anarchist murderer in Under Western Eyes, condenses in one laconic utterance the whole burden of the anti-social life and conscience — ‘Men like me leave no posterity.’ Here again the theme is fundamentally racial. The characters, both anarchist and autocrat, are alike victims of the deep unconscious irony of political Russia; that irony which expresses itself in the sterile violence of anarchist and autocrat against each other, while between them the real Russia is gored and trampled.

But neither of these types of fiction, where the action turns on tragic mischances of inter-racial contact, is the true quintessence of Conrad. For he is most himself where he explores the purely individual solitude, probing, not the mystery of racial difference, but the intricate laws of the individual variation. In this latter case, it is to be observed, he comes still closer to the meaning of spiritual solitude as a universal reality; because he studies solitude, not through the nature of race, a tragic accident, but through the nature of the soul itself, or through some physical event that has left its impress indelibly on the soul.

The soul that was born aloof may be represented by Captain MacWhirr, the stolid and unimaginative master mariner of Typhoon. The clue to Captain MacWhirr’s identity, his unspeakable remoteness from the hearts and lives of common men, is his utter incapacity for fear, even for ordinary caution. It is not that he has courage: it has simply never occurred to him that there is anything to be afraid of. Fear itself is actually more social than his kind of immunity from fear, for fear at least rests on the constructive imagination of things to be shunned, and such imagination drives men together. But MacWhirr ‘was unable to discover the message of a prophecy till the fulfillment had brought it home to his very door.’ He had ‘just enough imagination to carry him through each successive day, and no more.’ Similarly, Lord Jim is rendered solitary by his romantic selfloathing, ‘Il Conde’ by his instinctive horror of all human brutality, Nostromo by his colossal vanity, Mr. X. in The Informer by his skepticism, Heyst in Victory by his incapacity for spontaneous action, and a dozen other characters by a dozen other such qualities as make every individual soul unique and incommunicable.

The soul that has become unapproachable through the effect of something accidental in its own past may be studied in Falk, who has become monstrous and inhuman in his own eyes because he has once eaten human flesh; or in Dr. Monygham, who has lashed himself into misanthropy by constant selftorture with the thought of his ancient betrayal of a trust; or in Captain Whalley, in The End of the Tether, who has severed himself from the tradition of seamen’s honor by sailing his ship after his eyesight has dimmed. All these are so near to being ordinary folk that we see ourselves reflected in them; and this nearness to common life is half at least of Conrad’s strength in treatment of character. The other half is his perception of the strangeness that underlies the familiarity; the strangeness which comes from the something inexplicable and nameless at the centre of every soul, which makes it eternally foreign to every other.

Thus Mr. Conrad reproduces in the individual the mystery of race. He deals, not only with a world in which East is East and West is West, but also with a world in which every man is a foreigner to his neighbor. The secret and invisible thing that renders us alien to each other is the thing that Mr. Conrad is always trying to disentangle; nothing less will suffice for his insistently humane and tender curiosity. When he has traced that thing to its source, and shown how it expresses itself in all the groping and baffled actions of the outward life, he has done his task. What we do and say and strive for may be the necessary means and materials of his search; but its end is always the tragic beauty of what we are. The outward wrappings, however grotesque or trivial in themselves, are suffused with this light from within — a light other than the glamour of romance as we commonly understand romance, because that glamour is an illusory flicker thrown from without over the mixed spectacle of reality, while this inner glow is the radiation of the deepest reality itself.


It is legitimate and helpful to indicate at this point that Mr. Conrad himself is, for one inescapable reason and another, the loneliest of mortals, and that underneath his inspired and almost unprecedented gift of comradeship there exists a melancholy sense of his own isolation — legitimate, because to this extent Mr. Conrad has generously violated his own privacy, in The Mirror of the Sea and A Personal Record; helpful, because that fact puts us at once in touch with his largest aspiration, the meaning that he draws even out of the things that make for despair. If he writes about the man fallen out of his racial background, or cut off from his safe and sheltered past, or rendered inscrutable even to those nearest his sympathy by passions or memories that they cannot share, the reader may be very sure that he is only writing about a fraction of his own experience.

Racially, his position is anomalous. Of the language in which his books are written he learned his first words in his twentieth year; and there is a dumb eloquence in the simple fact that in the twenty years of his following the sea he never encountered a man of his own nationality. To every faculty except faith, his Poland is now more than ever a lost cause; and there is a species of irony in the fact that the soldiers of the autocracy which hunted his parents into exile are now the allies of the nation which has received his fervent loyalty. How wistfully his memory reaches out toward the scenes, the happenings, the personal presences of his lost past, only the chapters of A Personal Record can adequately unfold; but it is clear that all these things are most vividly present in the hinterland of his imaginative life. If a great-uncle of Mr. Conrad had not helped devour a Lithuanian dog in the retreat from Moscow, Falk might never have eaten his grotesque meal of human flesh. Upon all the great women of Mr. Conrad’s books falls the shadow of his mother, tenderly pictured for us in A Personal Record.

These earliest things are beautiful, and they are beyond recalling. The second of Mr. Conrad’s three lives, his score of years filled with ‘ the voices of rough men now no more, the strong voice of the everlasting winds, and the whisper of a mysterious spell’ — that life of the sea, too, is irrevocably gone. These losses — each of them the loss of an immense slice of physical existence without any corresponding loss in the accompanying mental and emotional life — account for the vague melancholy of everything that Conrad writes, the melancholy of a man whose worlds crumble away round him and leave him to construct other worlds from the remnants. In one sense he has had everything, in another sense he has lost everything. It is the paradox of these two facts, the physical loss and the spiritual retention, that leaves him alone, in a world where the immediate realities are only seemings, and the true realities are things that have all but ' perished out of mind.’

It is through this paradox of Mr. Conrad’s life and character that we can understand the full moral import of his work. He has lost and he has retained; in the midst of crumbling and disintegration he has achieved continuity; he has found the way to turn every kind of failure into some kind of success. He stresses the solitariness of his own heart only in order that he may prove how the faculties of hope, of courage, of imagination struggle against it and, reaching beyond barriers of time and space and nationality, recover old contacts or replace them by new ones. And in his tales, similarly, he stresses the solitariness of men and women, with a kind of inverted emphasis, only to show the desperate ardor of their struggle for fraternity. In other words, his mode of arguing the supreme worth of human solidarity as an ideal is to exhibit the whole array of difficulties which tragically interfere with that ideal, sometimes turning the pursuit of it into appalling tragedy. Writing about the terrible loneliness of expatriates, he is really celebrating the indispensable security of home and country. In fact, his consistent way of affirming anything is to deny its opposite. His outlaws and anarchists prove the beauty of law and of the civilized conventions; his impractical dreamers exist for praise of the practical life; his skeptics and men of lost honor imply the need of faith and of fidelity. And always, while he portrays directly the forces of dissolution, the forces that sunder lives, his insistence remains indirectly on the ideal of brotherhood — ’the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation — . . . the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity — the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.’

So vivid is Mr. Conrad’s sense of ‘the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation ’ that if he were to make a formal definition of his personal system of ethics he would probably make it in some such phrase as Royce’s ‘ Loyalty to Loyalty’ — devotion to whatever fosters the idea and the practice of loyalty in men’s lives, hatred of whatever defeats the idea and the practice. Not being given to formal definitions, Mr. Conrad phrases his ideal in a few words that recur with unconscious frequency throughout his books, such words as Conscience, Service, Fidelity, Honor, Solidarity — Loyalty itself among them. These are all intensely social words; no one of them means anything except to the individual whose imagination gets outside the crevice of individual sufficiency and becomes aware of the mass of mankind. The ideas in such words are necessarily the basis of society; and any group of lives largely ruled by them is a society in the most intelligible sense.

It is probably because the life of the sea rests on such simple and unshakable ideas, and is in fact a brotherhood of unwritten law stronger than law itself, that Mr. Conrad finds on the decks of ships so much to affirm his faith in solidarity and so little to deny it. It is only in his tales of the sea that tragedy does not predominate. The life of sailors is a life of invisible loyalties. They feel, not only the obvious loyalty to each other, to their officers, to their code of honor, but also, obscurely and beautifully, to ships, ‘the creatures of their hands and the objects of their care,’ and to the tradition of the sea as it has come to them from remote and forgotten generations — generations of sailors that were, Mr. Conrad says, ’like stone caryatides that hold up in the night the lighted halls of a resplendent and glorious edifice.’


If we have measurably succeeded in expressing the reality and the intensity of Mr. Conrad’s valuation of the social instinct in man, and the obst inacy of its fight against the forces of dissolution and anarchy in man’s own nature, we have expressed what is by all odds his supreme claim as a social philosopher addressing the modern social conscience. But there is another conflict of the social will, against another and larger opponent, not inside but outside man; and this still remains to be described before we can deal with our author simply as the artist speaking to ‘our capacity for delight and wonder.’

Briefly, man triumphs over his individual differences so far as to conclude that fellowship must be the supreme logic of creation. Then, having to that extent learned the lesson of brotherhood, man looks outside the immediate world of his own kind, and discovers that fellowship is not the logic of creation at all — that in the chaos of warring species and mute constellations there is no decipherable logic. And again he despairs of the frail human sodality. If the universe is framed for lawlessness, if disaster is as natural in it as triumph, and war as inevitable as peace, why should man take the trouble to invent loyalties and organize brotherhoods? Why should he not assert the separateness of his identity and get what he can for himself out of a precarious existence, let what may happen to others?

These are, of course, the questions raised by such pessimism as that of Heyst in Victory, or by the despair of such disappointed optimism as that of Martin Decoud in Nostromo. One logical outcome of a desperate world is despair in the individual; and to a temperament such as Hardy’s, despair is the only possible outcome. But there is another logic, the logic of a different temperament, which answers that, if the universal affair is desperate, it is so much the more necessary for the human affair to be hopeful, and that men’s standing together against the universal threat is one way to cheat adverse destiny. This is in fact Mr. Conrad’s answer. And it is characteristic of his inexorable love of truth that he draws the answer, by another of his paradoxes, out of a dark view of the world-purpose— a view which is dark because it is negative, blank, entirely non-ethical.

’The ethical view of the universe involves us at last,’ he says, ‘in so many cruel and absurd contradictions, where the last vestiges of faith, hope, charity, and even of reason itself, seem ready to perish, that I have come to suspect that the aim of creation cannot be ethical at all. I would fondly believe that its object is purely spectacular.’ The cosmos is ‘a spectacle for awe, love, adoration, or hate, if you like, but in this view . . . never for despair! Those visions, delicious or poignant, are a moral end in themselves. . . . The unwearied self-forgetful attention to every phase of the living universe reflected in our consciousness may be our appointed task on this earth — a task in which fate has perhaps engaged nothing of us except our conscience, gifted with a voice in order to bear true testimony to the visible wonder, the haunting terror, the infinite passion, and the illimitable serenity; to the supreme law and the abiding mystery of the sublime spectacle.’

In other and less eloquent words, the fact that the world has no meaning does not prove that what we feel about it has no meaning; and it is futile folly to renounce the natural and spontaneous emotions in order to hope exorbitantly or to despair about a mere assumption. This is the logic that drives us back to the soluble problems of our own tangled world, the microcosm of purposes which do exist and in accordance with which we do act — the world in which the various private dreams and the collective dream of brotherhood are sufficient moral ends.

This, too, is the logic, expressed as usual by indirection, which comes out of Mr. Conrad’s tragedies of intellectual men. Heyst, in Victory, is the modern man who asks so little of creation that he does not even reach out his hand for what life offers him. He has schooled himself to ‘a full and equable contempt.’ To a really lucid mind, action, from whatever motive, is a defilement; and love is only a stratagem ‘ to bring out of the lightless void the shoals of unnumbered generations.’ Men and women are the least substantial part of the general nightmare: Heyst sees them as ‘ figures cut out of cork, and weighted with lead just sufficiently to keep them in their proudly upright posture.’ But, through a temperamental accident which contradicts his deliberate choice, he commits himself to life, to love; and when he suffers the normal human loss, having only the negation of his abnormal philosophy to help him to resignation and readjustment, he can but cry in despair, ‘Ah, Davidson, woe to the man whose heart has not learned while young to hope, to love — and to put its trust in life.’

Thus, as in other stories of Mr. Conrad, the meaning of failure is less tragic than the physical fact. Heyst dies, but in the moment of his death his heart beats for the first time with the heart of humanity. The story ends with a dead woman’s triumph over his paralyzing skepticism.

Against such a negative case as this of Heyst, one may set Mr. Conrad’s affirmation of a robust working philosophy of life. That affirmation comes to us, as from an artist it should, in the form of an image: the little ship’s company in the forecastle of the Narcissus on her interminable and timeless voyage from Bombay round the Cape of Storms and homeward to a port of England. In that forecastle there is no forgetting of either nature or man. Round the ship is the unchanging circular emptiness of the horizon, never free from the veiled menace which is part of the life of the sea; within the ship is the vivid realization of the only practical answer to the menace, a comradeship of choice cemented by necessity and the hostility of the common foe. The pressure of the immense nothingness outside is only a pressure of men together. It is a pleasure to think that in this first of his pictures of the working partnership of a few lives regulated by a common bond of service, and strong in a conscious fidelity, Mr. Conrad may have intended a half-symbolic image of man’s place in his world of space and time.

Mr. Conrad’s use of conscious artifice in his writing is so exclusively determined by his general ideas — especially by this general idea of man’s relation to the universe of which he must be, for art, the focal point — that it is exceedingly difficult to separate the novelist from the thinker. That Mr. Conrad is indeed the conscious artist one may deduce from his style, which in every phase, from its somewhat too flushed and rhapsodic beginnings to its carefully disciplined later developments, is marked by care for the magic of the fitly chosen word, the rhythm and cadence of sentences. Or, if other proof is needed, let it be sought in the arrangement of the effects of light and shadow in the story Youth, or in the purely decorative opening and closing formula of The Brute. These considerations are all important, and they have something to do with Mr. Galsworthy’s professed belief that Conrad’s work is likely to ‘enrich the English language.’

But it is more immediately desirable to point out the exact and inevitable correspondence between art as this author defines it and his account of the relation of man’s consciousness to ‘every phase of the living universe.’ We find him declaring that the truth of the objective world is in the emotions evoked by it; that the moral worth of a phase of the cosmos is in direct ratio to the moral or social feelings stirred in the beholder. And art he defines through exactly the same relation of the phase of reality to the mood in which the artist receives it. In his own words, ‘To snatch in a moment of courage, from the remorseless rush of time, a passing phase of life, is only the beginning of the task. The task approached in tenderness and faith is to hold up unquestioningly, without choice and without fear, the rescued fragment before all eyes and in the light of a sincere mood.’

If we accept his definition as sincere — and there is no evidence to show that he has ever followed any other — we find him taking in the presence of an artistic ‘subject’ the same posture he recommends us to take toward the incomprehensible whole of things, and cherishing no purpose beyond the moral sensations evoked by his lesser spectacle; there being, in fact, between the greater cosmic affair and the lesser artistic, no difference at all except the artist’s necessary care for communication of what he has perceived. It is worth while to note in passing that this is among the most acceptable definitions of art that have ever been framed, in that it falls between the acceptance of art as purely decorative and unmoral, and the opposite requirement of a didactic and utilitarian value.

One or the other half of this general definition, or the combination of both halves, will be found to account in minute detail for Mr. Conrad’s artistic process. If the value of a phase of life is to be defined in terms of the emotions evoked by it, then there can be no curtailment of the phase by arbitrary ‘technique,’ with its different, its unmoral and abstract notion of relevance. As a fact, Mr. Conrad’s practice of inclusion and exclusion is based on the moral values of the given case, quite in the sense of his definition. He leaves out ruthlessly, even to the sacrifice of just the type of narration he executes with most overwhelming effect, wherever exclusion prospers his larger purposes. And he rounds out his phase of life ’ by inclusion of much that the most rigid economy would discountenance. The End of the Tether, his story of the master mariner going blind, begins, on the orthodox formula, ‘ near the crisis’; but it loops backward and still backward until it has become the comprehensive story of a life. And, like most of its author’s work, it achieves its crisis in such fashion as to shed relevance backward upon all that momentarily seemed irrelevant. There is ultimately no irrelevance in Conrad, because everything that he admits into the chosen subject is fused at last in the heat of his unifying purpose, the evocation of a special mood.

An interesting extension of the novelist’s art, so defined, occurs in Chance, where even the duality of phase and mood breaks down and the two coalesce. There is more than a casual fitness in Henry James’s comment on Chance: ‘The whole clutch of eggs, and these withal of the freshest, in that one basket.’ Briefly, Mr. Conrad presented the mood of the beholder as an integral part of the subject itself; he put it explicitly into the story, instead of merely so organizing the story as to conjure it into being. Chance, it will be remembered, is the story of a romantic love-affair which a first person singular, the author presumably, pieces together from Marlow’s account, after Marlow has pieced it together from several other accounts. It is not grossly inaccurate to say that Chance is the author’s reedited version of Marlow’s interpretation of Fyne’s and Powell’s not too skillful summaries of what happened. Now, on the supposition that Mr. Conrad wanted only to tell the story of Flora cle Barral, her convict father, and her quixotic and impetuous lover, his machinery is cumbersome and formidable. But there is every reason to suppose that what most interested him was the sight of Marlow’s eager and humane inquisitiveness at work upon the complex materials of that story. In other words, Chance is a sort of apotheosized detective story, in which Marlow is the detective, and the thing detected is the exquisite and incredible happiness of two people whose understanding love triumphs over every obstacle. It is no more the history of the love-affair exclusively than a detective story is the history of a crime exclusively. Chance is primarily the account of a beautiful if somewhat inquisitive sympathy at work upon a phase of life which invites sympathy; and, considered as such, it adds a cubit to the stature of that Marlow whom we know in Lord Jim, in Heart of Darkness, in Youth, and probably, though by no name, in Falk. Also, it adds a cubit to Mr. Conrad’s stature as a disciple of Henry James, for it obviously practices Henry James’s favorite device of tincturing each story with the finest, most responsive consciousness present or available.


We have seen that Mr. Conrad sacrifices economy and swiftness of movement to mood: it remains to add that he sacrifices chronology to the same governing principle. Mood and chronology cannot both be supreme, for to enforce mood any given piece of material must appear where it weighs most in terms of character, not merely where it serves a narrow constructive expediency. Whence innumerable events in the remote past, suppressed only to be revealed at present crises; whence the looping, intersecting construction of Lord Jim; whence the odd lapsus in Under Western Eyes, so contrived that Part IV shall begin where Part I leaves off. It is relatively unimportant, except as one of several evidences of a purely technical ambidexterity, that these affairs set themselves right by the calendar once the book is laid down; so that, however sure one may be that the tale is incoherent as Mr. Conrad tells it, one invariably recalls the events in strictly chronological sequence.

Nostromo utilizes more than any other of the tales, and to a greater end, this device of chronology thwarted in the service of a higher coherence. What this novel develops, so far as a very succinct statement will suffice, is the idea of avarice as a force dominant over a large community of lives, until at last it crushes out the few lives in which we have invested most of our sympathy, including the one life, that of Nostromo, which we had thought of as most immune from the corrosion of greed. The story rambles in wide loops and circles over a stretch of years; but through it, from the opening chapter, in which two legendary gringos perish in a vain search for gold, until the closing page, in which Linda Viola throws herself into the sea for a lost love, the idea of avarice sweeps evenly on to its sinister triumph, drawing after it with a powerful suction the litter of individual lives, wills, and acts. At the outset, we see that idea of avarice embodied in Charles Gould’s silver mine, the pivot of the economic and political life of Costaguana, a semi-tropical state of South America. Presently, avarice takes the concrete shape of a particular quarterly load of the mine’s output, a single hoard of silver ingots which Nostromo, the captain of the Navigation Company’s longshoremen, and the young patriot Decoud receive into a cargo-lighter and secrete in an island ravine, to save it from the hands of revolutionists. At last, when the revolution has been put down and Decoud has gone mad and killed himself on his island, Nostromo, who alone knows that the treasure is still accessible, resolves to ‘grow rich slowly,’ and abstracts the ingots one by one, under cover of night. Thus avarice lays its shriveling finger on him, the selected victim of its irony; and thus the design is rounded out.

It is here, for the only time on a large scale, that Mr. Conrad begins, not with the struggle of the isolated outcast, but with the whole panorama of civilization, the background from which he falls. The rôle of outcast here is played by avarice itself, the proscrit of moral qualities, rather than by any individual. Costaguana, the imagined seaboard country of the tale, a republic lying between mountain and gulf, is of course the modern world in little. It is complete enough as Mr. Conrad depicts it to revolutionize, among other things, one’s idea of South American revolutions. It furnishes successive pictures of civilization in different eras, from the old days of free-handed governmental cessions down to the modern days of exploitation by foreign capital and increasing industrial unrest. After the civil conflict is over and the incalculable wealth of the Gould Concession is preserved intact to its owner, one whose vision is of the clearest says to Mrs. Gould, ‘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 it is inhuman; it is without rectitude, without the continuity and the force that can be found only in a moral principle. Mrs. Gould, 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.’

And reverberating through the book, literally from the first page to the last, haunting every chapter like the wandering echo of some lost truth, is the suggestion that the world’s problems are more than economic, that national identities must not be tampered with from outside in the name of progress.

This tale of lives ruled by a precious metal is winning unstinted praise from more and more authoritative voices. It remains thus far, to our thinking, the one work by which Mr. Conrad stands or falls. There is certainly nothing else in English like it; indeed it is obvious that its author (except in so far as he is profoundly original) has worked here, as everywhere, under Continental influences— those of the French and Russian masters, with whom we must include Henry James, whose avowed discipleship is to Balzac and Turgenieff But from whatever quarter Mr. Conrad’s own influence a half-century hence shall appear to come, one feels more strongly with every re-reading that it must come as an influence, acknowledged and far-reaching; for he is one of the three or four enduring beacons of our generation. Both as man and as artist he is too great to be comprehended in any one glimpse. And his service, to letters as to life, has been unfalteringly good service.