Main Characteristics of Joseph Conrad Novels

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Main Characteristics of Conrad's Novels at a Glance

      His Subjects. Conrad, the greatest modern romantic, sought his subjects wherever he could expect to find adventure in an unusual or exotic setting. His own experience of the sea and, in particular, of Malayan waters, was of immense value to him as a writer, and most of his best work is in one or both of these settings. While he is an excellent story-teller who gives deep thought to his technique of presentation, his prime interest is in character, in the tracing of the life of a man in such a way as to illuminate the inmost recesses of his soul. This preoccupation with character grew as time went on.

      His Characters. Instead of a straightforward analysis of character, Conrad preserves an objective detachment and presents his people in a series of brief, illuminating flashes which, by the end of his novel, have cohered into subtly studied and vital individuals. His insight into motive and impulse is deep, and never keener than when he is dealing with savages or whites demoralized by their environment. His characters, both men and women, are drawn from a wide range. They are rarely commonplace and some of his best are dyed-in-the-wool villains like Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness and Donkin in The Nigger of the "Narcissus."

      His View of Life. Like Hardy, Conrad has a profound sense of the tragedy of life, but it did not lead him to a spirit of resentment or accusation. In man's struggle against hostile forces, in his display of loyalty, courage and endurance in the face of heavy odds, he saw the finest thing in human life. He was a profound thinker, but would have nothing to do with sociological or problem novels. His aim was to present life as the senses perceived it, and his novels are free from didacticism. Yet, from the frequency with which he portrays men of faith and courage, determined to abide by their duty to their fellows, it is easy to see that, for Conrad, these were the prime virtues.

      His Technique. A student of such masters of the novel as Henry James and the French writers Flaubert and Maupassant, Conrad was a conscious artist deeply concerned with the nature and method of his art, as his letters and prefaces show. The Shadow Line reveals him to be a master of the traditional direct narrative method, but much of his best work is in the oblique method, first used in Lord Jim. Presenting his material in an easy; conversational manner through the medium of a spectator such as Marlow, he gradually builds up a picture through a series of brief sense impressions, which only reveal their full significance when they finally come together into a complete whole. Such a method makes greater demands upon the reader than the simple direct narrative but is ideal for the kind of psychological investigation in which Conrad was interested, as well as for the creation of a subtle, all-pervading atmosphere which gives the story its own unity. His evocation of atmosphere is tremendously powerful.

      His Style. Conrad's prose style is one of the most individual and readily recognizable in English, not, as might be expected in a Pole, for its eccentricities, but for its full use of the musical potentialities of the language. His careful attention to grouping and rhythm and to such technical devices as alliteration enables him, at his best, to achieve a prose that is akin to poetry. When he writes below his best, he can become over-ornamental, self-conscious, and artificially stylized. His own views on style, he makes abundantly clear in this passage from the preface to The Nigger of the "Narcissus":

      All art....appeals primarily to the sense, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its high desire is to reach the secret spring of responsive emotions. It must strenuously aspire to the plasticity of sculpture, to the color of painting, and to the magic suggestiveness of music-which is the art of arts. And it is only through complete unswerving devotion to the perfect blending of form and substance; it is only through an unremitting, never-discharged care for the shape and ring of sentences that an approach can be made to plasticity, to color; and the light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words; of the old, old words, worn thin; defaced by ages of careless usage.

      Conrad's World. The world, as seen by Conrad, is a place of unending contention between the forces of dissolution and the ideal of brotherhood, between that which makes for disenchantment and that which instills courage and hope. In such a world, in which the powers of disruption prove the need for order and stability; only moral values can be counted upon to last. Duty, loyalty and courage are virtues necessary to man if he is not to suffer defeat from the forces in league against him. So, it is that a sailor is loyal to the unwritten law binding the members of a crew together, and to their ship.

      Conrad's View of Life: A Mystery. Conrad's view of life as something essentially mysterious is well illustrated by a comment made by him in the preface to The Shadow Line. In this novel, there is a situation of ship lying becalmed. The sailors are fever-stricken and it seems for a time that, in accordance with the superstitious belief of the chief mate, the ship will never be able to pass the latitude where its former captain lies buried. Is there a possibility that the malice of the dead captain is still being exerted against the ship? The author did not like to have it said of the story, however, that he had been dipping into the supernatural. The supernatural in fiction, he considered to be a fabrication of minds incapable of appreciating the true mysteriousness of the world. "The world of the living," he said, "contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is; marvels and mysteries acting upon our emotions and intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost justify the conception of life as an enchanted state."

      Conrad's Method of Presentation. In order to convey this impression of the elusive and inexplicable character of life, Conrad developed a method of presentation that, while suited to his special purpose, belonged, in general, to the movement in art now known as "Impressionism". Although the term, Impressionism, belongs more distinctly to painting than to literature, it represents a set of tendencies that has been felt in all the arts. Professor Louis Cazamian has pointed out, in a lecture entitled, "The Method of discontinuity in Modern Art and Literature," that in the latter half of the nineteenth century, a discontinuous mode of presentment was sought by an increasing number of artists. This movement was felt not only in painting but in other arts and in literature, as well. Music began to be less a matter of the symmetrical arrangement of sounds, and the sculptor began to work for broken surfaces and incomplete contours rather than for rounded and finished-out lines. In the thought of William James and Bergson and their disciples, says Cazamian, the mind was no longer regarded as something unified and continuous but was looked upon as being shifting and incalculable - a "complex and discontinuous mass of ever original states." Such a view of the mind tended to bring the traditional conception of form into disrepute and to stimulate interest among artists in the direct expression of the inner truth of life.

      Impressionism. The theory of the Naturalists that the artist should depict everyday life without idealism or moral comment was shared by the Impressionists. Zola, however, worked from certain intellectual concepts and arranged his materials deliberately. Similarly; Esther Waters was constructed with extreme care. The impressionist painter, on the other hand, sought to avoid elaborate composition. He wished to discard intellectual concepts and to paint objects not as he knew them from previously-acquired knowledge but as they appeared to him at certain specified moments. What we actually see, upon looking at an object, depends not upon our knowledge of its structure but upon the amount of light that falls on it. Outlines of objects, seen at a distance, maybe lost in undefined masses of shadow. The artist, having to represent a three-dimensional scene on a two-dimensional canvas, must take into account the degrees of dark and light intensity in his painting in order to give a sense of depth to it. Forms and colors of objects are not constant but change from hour to hour and even from moment to moment, with the character of the light in which they are seen. Thus, an impressionist painting is a representation, not strictly of an object but, of the atmosphere in which it is placed. Details and outlines are often blurred. The purpose of the artist is to give an impression of the subject in its general characteristics rather than in matters of detail. It is, therefore, not a graphic representation.

      Conrad's Impressionistic Technique. Although the technical problems of the painter are different from those of the novelist, the aims of the two are, in some respects, alike. Conrad, like the impressionist painter, sees his subject as something shifting and somewhat illusory. He presents his material, not by direct analysis but, as it appears in detached momentary impressions. He devotes himself to the creation of atmosphere, which, as in such stories as The Nigger of the Narcissus, "Heart of Darkness," and "The Inn of the Two Witches," contributes to the effect by arousing a mood of strangeness, of apprehension, or of suspicion, through which the events are seen. Likewise, the effort of the novelist to deal with life in isolated and fleeting glimpses is suited to his belief that men's lives are mostly hidden from one another and that the artist searches for truth in moments of vision.

      Conrad's Novels. Conrad began his career as a novelist by writing about his experiences at sea and in the East Almayer's Folly (1895) and An Outcast of the Islands (1896) deal with some Europeans living in Malaysia and, showing in their lives, the evil corisequeirices of the tropical environment The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897), one of the best of Conrad's sea stories, is ah account of a voyage home from an Eastern Port. Lord Jim (1900) has its setting in the islands of the Malay Archipelago and "Youth", a short story published with "Heart of Darkness" and "Freya of the Seven Isles" (1912) is another notable short story of life, in Eastern waters. In addition to Chance (1913) and Victory (1915), to which reference has been made, other novels deserving of praise are Nostromo (1904), Under Western Eyes (1911), and The Arrow of Gold (1919). One of the best of Conrad's stories giving expression to the demoralizing effect, upon a European, of life in a tropical environment is "Heart of Darkness".

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