From Modernism Lab Essays
Joseph Conrad’s (1857-1924) novel Victory: An Island Tale was first serialized in the London Star, then published in 1915, just over a year after the novel Chance (1913) had established Conrad as a popular writer. The contours of the narrative bear resemblance to Conrad’s earlier work: in the Pacific islands a European man, the cerebral yet naïve Axel Heyst, tries to withdraw into tranquil seclusion, only to have this peace shattered by the intrusion of evil, embodied in Mr. Jones and his henchmen, Ricardo and Pedro. Victoryis an accessible treatment of the Conradian themes of innocence and evil, with prose less dense than in earlier works like Heart of Darkness (1899), and a relatively straightforward chronology. Notably, the narrative voice changes over the course of Victory. The narrator is first a European of the Malay Archipelago’s seafarers (he refers to Morrison as “one of us”, echoing Marlow of Lord Jim), but in the second section this voice fades to a traditional omniscient third-person narrator. This transition permits a crucial dynamic of the novel to come through: we witness not only the self-deceptions of the major characters, but also their consistent misinterpretations of others (for example, Lena and Heyst, Heyst and Jones).
Conrad finished Victory in May 1914, and in July of that year took his family on vacation to his native Poland. The outbreak of the First World War stranded them in Krakow until November 1914, and Victory was published in March 1915. In his foreword to the first edition Conrad notes his hesitation over the title at publication, fearing that the word “victory” was, in light of the war, “too great, too august, to stand at the head of a mere novel.” This humbling of literature is not linked to the content of Victory, but rather attempts to preclude criticism that Conrad had chosen the title for commercial success. He concludes, however, that he would let the title stand because of “the obscure promptings of that pagan residuum of awe and wonder” the coincidence elicited in him (45). Conrad published another, longer note to the novel in 1920 that once again questions the relevance of art in a violent reality where truth and faith are so gravely threatened.
Victory’s central question is of the individual’s engagement with, or detachment from turbulent reality. In its treatment of this question, the novel meditates on the problem Conrad aphoristically puts forth in the 1920 preface: “Thinking is the great enemy of perfection” (48). The opposition between action and thought is thematized in Heyst, who vacillates between the desire to withdraw from the world, or to plunge into human relations. His skepticism was born under the influence of his deceased father, a philosopher who embraced a Schopenhauerian negation of will through detachment and observation. The narrator describes this analytic mode of being as fatal to man’s capacity for heroic action:
“The young man learned to reflect, which is a destructive process… It is not the clear-sighted who lead the world. Great achievements are accomplished in a blessed, warm mental fog, which the pitiless cold blasts of the father's analysis had blown away from the son” (129).
The apparent opposition between thought and action is never fully resolved: Heyst’s father is characterized as a cold and destructive force, and yet Heyst’s entrance into the world results in his own destruction. Conrad comments, in his 1920 note to Victory, that Heyst had simply “lost the habit of asserting himself” and was thus incapable of excellence, even in love. We might read a Conradian nostalgia for youth as the critical moment in which hope might be embraced and skepticism at least forestalled in Heyst’s last words, reported by Davidson at the tribunal that closes the novel: “Woe to the man whose heart has not learned while young to hope, to love – and to put its trust in life!” (383).
Heyst’s entanglement in the world is sealed when he falls in love with a destitute orchestra girl whom he re-names Lena (perhaps a combination of her earlier names, Alma and Magdalen). They flee to Samburan, an isolated paradise where Heyst compares himself to “the original Adam” (193), but despite their idyllic isolation their union is thwarted by misunderstandings. Heyst fails to comprehend Lena’s utter dependence on him, even though she tells him, “I can only be what you think I am” (206). He cannot fathom this cipher-like quality in Lena, the quality of total immersion in love that grounds her eventual self-sacrifice for Heyst.
Conrad is clear about the turning point this passion marks for Heyst, who nevertheless continues to view love and hope as illusions: “Formerly, in solitude and in silence, [Heyst] had been used to think clearly…seeing life outside the flattering optical delusion of everlasting hope, of conventional self-deceptions, of an ever-expected happiness” (122). The narrative maintains this tension, born of Heyst’s self-consciousness, between skepticism and engagement. Though no longer immune to love, Heyst remains, through habit, a spectator. In one observation, he ruminates on “something inexplicable reposing within her; stupidity or inspiration, weakness or force – or simply an abysmal emptiness” (210). Heyst’s inability to read Lena takes on an aesthetic dimension, one that heightens his sense of his own being through his contemplation of her, his feelings for her, but most of all the sound of her voice.
For Heyst, the bewitching sound of Lena’s voice dominates his perception such that the words themselves are irrelevant. “He thought that if she only could talk to him in some unknown tongue, she would enslave him altogether by the sheer beauty of the sound, suggesting infinite depths of wisdom and feeling” (222). This evokes the aesthetic perception of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, in which the non-linguistic immanence of the beautiful object permits a tranquility that analytic detachment alone cannot achieve. Yet the immanence Heyst hopes for does not arrive, and the lovers remain locked in their own worlds. In contrast, Lena’s parallel fantasy of union – her self-sacrifice – is spectacularly carried through, and represents her “victory.” Such, it seems, is the immanence of action.
A major presence in Victory, and the catalyst for Lena and Heyst’s tragic fate, is Schomberg, who appeared as a minor character in Lord Jim. He is fleshed out in Victory into a striking psychological study of petty self-deception. The dissection of Schomberg’s hypocritical and petulant masculinity sets the stage for his later collusion with the novel’s somewhat less complicated, though by no means uncompelling villains: Jones, Ricardo, and Pedro. Jones, perhaps a demonic descendant of Lord Jim’s Gentleman Brown, is described as a specter of evil; Ricardo as a stalking cat; Pedro as a volatile ape. Together these three men are evil incarnate, and spread violence and destruction for reasons that, Conrad emphasizes, are entirely arbitrary.
It is worth noting Conrad’s interest in industry and economy in Victory. The novel opens with a discussion of coal and diamonds, liquidation and evaporation to introduce Heyst’s earnest belief in “facts” and progress – “a great stride forward” – to be brought about by the Tropical Belt Coal Company in the Malay Archipelago. This venture, born of Heyst’s rescuing Morrison from financial ruin, fails, but Heyst lingers on Samburan as the traces of industry are reclaimed by vegetation. Conrad also draws on Marxist thought, particularly in the image of wage-slavery. One example is Heyst’s explanation of his father’s disillusionment with the world: “Suppose all the world were a factory and all mankind workmen in it. Well, he discovered that the wages were not good enough” (212).
Citations based on Victory, Joseph Conrad, Penguin Classics Edition 1996.