Joseph Conrad's Tragic Vision Toward his Novels

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      Next to Hardy, Joseph Conrad is often considered to be the most Tragic and pessimistic English novelists. But at the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that he does not undermine normal human inspirations for living. His tales like Youth, do justice to the joy of living and, in Typhoon, there is a triumph of the human spirit over physical dangers. These themes are also included in Nostromo. But his novel "Heart of Darkness" and also other novels heighten and intensify our response to life because their deep concern is with the moral ordeals that give grandeur to his characters even in their defeat. And the fact is that the characters are not always defeated; in particular; The Secret Agent shows the triumph of the man of self knowledge (The Assistant Commissioner) over the short-sightedness, corruption, egotism and fanaticism which converge in this novel to produce a society governed by tyranny and undermined by nihilism. Conrad offers no formulated, pattern for achieving the redemption of society. On the other hand, he strengthens our faith in the final and stern reality of human beings as pre-eminently moral beings.

      The world of Conrad's fiction is dark and gloomy and it is for this reason that he has been charged with pessimism. However, Conrad himself vehemently denies this charge. He once wrote that the history of men on this earth can be summarised in a single phrase of great poignancy: "They were born, they suffered and they died....and yet it is a great tale." On another occasion he remarked, "It is very difficult to be wholly joyous or wholly sad on this earth." Thus we see that these statements reveal a profound insight and a deep philosophy of life. It can be said that Conrad has realistic outlook towards life. He was quite familiar with the sorrow and suffering, the wickedness and triviality of human life. But, at the same time, he does not obliterate the joys, the greatness, and the inherent nobility of life. Life, for him, was a grand spectacle, and he delighted in it. "I have come to suspect", he wrote in A Personal Record "that the aim of creation cannot be ethical at all. I would fondly believe that its object is purely spectacular: a spectacle for awe, love, adoration, or hate, if you like, but in this view-and in this view alone-never, for despair!" He stood before the grand spectacle of life endlessly fascinated, and recorded his joy in it, as well as his sense of its suffering.

      Conrad's attitude to life might sometimes be pessimistic but, as Richard Curie points out, "his philosophy of character is always optimistic." His characters are usually depicted as constantly struggling with the opposing or hostile forces and thereby they acquire a superhuman stature. Inspite of the fact that this endless struggle brings much pain and sorrow to man, yet, for Conrad, this does not mean that man is defeated. It is in the moment of his death that Jim realizes himself and comes closest to the vision of himself as a hero. This conflict with the hostile environment and circumstance is a test of character and manhood. It may result in tragedy; however it is not a sad tragedy, "but exhilarating, vitalizing, dynamic" - a tragedy with a spirit of triumph of the human personality.

      A study of the finest tragedies reveal the fact that a fine tragedy does not fill the onlooker with infinite grief, but with a sense of awe and joy at the splendidness and strength of the human soul, which ultimately conquers all the ills and disasters of morality and meets the end with a calmness and serenity. Soul becomes nobler and sublimer than Fate. This reminds us of King Lear and Cordelia in Shakespeare's famous tragedy King Lear. They achieve a spiritual maturity which ranks above the earthly evils, failures and even prosperity. Tragedy, in Conrad, as in Shakespeare, brings out the innate nobility and grandeur of the human soul and therefore, it may be fittingly called the apotheosis of the human spirit.

Pre-Occupation with Evil

      Walter Allen points out that Conrad is often preoccupied with the problem of evil. However, the nature of evil is never explicitly defined. It is seen as something inherent in the physical universe itself and malevolent towards man. This idea becomes clear after reading the following passage from Lord Jim: "Only once in all that time he had again a glimpse of the earnestness in the anger of the sea. That truth is not so often made apparent as people might think. There are many shades in the danger of avalanches and gales, and it is only now and then that there appears on the face of facts a sinister violence of intention-that indefinable something which forces it upon the mind and the heart of a man, that this complication of accidents or these elemental furies are coming at him with a purpose of malice, with strength beyond control, with an unbridled cruelty that means to tear out of him his hope and his fear, the pain of his fatigue and his longing for rest which means to smash, to destroy, to annihilate all he has seen, known, loved, enjoyed or hated; all that is priceless and necessary - the sunshine, the memories, the future - which means to sweep whole precious world utterly away from his sight by the simple and appalling act of taking his life." This passage of Lord Jim has been taken as an extreme example of what Ruskin called the pathetic fallacy, the reading of human attributes into nature. But, in Conrad, evil can be something much more sinister and complex.


      The nature of this complex, indefinable evil can best be expressed by stating what is opposed to it. In Preface to a Personal Record, Conrad asserted: "Those who read me 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". In Conrad: A Reassessment, Douglas Hewitt says that as a clue to Conrad, these words are not to be taken precisely at their face value. Fidelity is the barrier man erects against nothingness, against corruption, against evil which is all about him, insidious, waiting to engulf him, and which is, in some sense, within him, unacknowledged. Man lives in a hostile environment and fidelity is the only factor which can enable him to face hostility. But when the barrier of Fidelity breaks down, when the evil without is acknowledged by the evil within, it results in the submerging of man. This, actually is the real theme of Conrad, rather than Fidelity alone. And from this lurking danger of having his fidelity submerged, which is his own sense of moral values and self-respect, only one kind of man is exempted, and he is the one who is completely unimaginative.

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