"Joseph Conrad" (Virginia Woolf)

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by Anne-Marie McManus

Virginia Woolf published the essay Joseph Conrad, a tribute to the recently deceased writer, in the Times Literary Supplement in August 1924. Beginning and ending the essay with moments of sincere eulogy, and famously comparing Conrad’s style to Helen of Troy, Woolf nevertheless rehashes her earlier critiques of Conrad’s literary style, which she deems ill equipped the represent the complexities of modernity.

In a number of essays – among them Mr Conrad’s Crisis (1918) and Prince of Prose (1921) – Woolf expresses her admiration for the gravity and insight of Conrad’s masterful prose, yet consistently tempers her praise with admonishments of characters who are too static. Her 1924 essay is similarly structured, but Woolf avoids direct criticism of Conrad by narrating him as ‘a double-man.’ This is a Conrad whose consciousness is split between himself and his most memorable narrator, Marlow. This rhetorical move, blending biography with fiction, permits Woolf to recast her criticism of Nostromo, which she described as a failed attempt at modern literary style in Mr. Conrad’s Crisis. In her tribute to Conrad, the middle period novels are described as the novels of Marlow’s dominance. Woolf explains that Conrad’s early, great novels – among them Lord Jim and The Nigger of Narcissus- were peopled with simple and heroic characters; these were seafarers in conflict with Nature, not man. With Marlow’s ascendance, however, we have Nostromo,Chance, and The Arrow of Gold, and a corresponding turn to “the heart in its perplexity.” It is in this turn, a quintessentially modern technique for Woolf, that she believes Conrad has failed.

Woolf hearkens back to the simplicity of Conrad’s earlier novels, musing wistfully that the phrase, “he steered with care,” could at one time bear within itself an entire morality. Yet Woolf reminds us that times have changed, and conjures up an image of a hopelessly baffled, once-heroic seafarer (who could be, we recall, Conrad) adrift in the modern world of domesticity, politics, business:

“There are no masts in drawing-rooms; the typhoon does not test the worth of politicians and business men. Seeking and not finding such supports, the world of Conrad’s later period has about it an involuntary obscurity, an inconclusiveness, almost a disillusionment which baffles and fatigues.”

Woolf further distances Conrad’s style from a modernist project when she describes Marlow having flashes of vision, lighting up a character against a dark background. This syncopated rhythm of insight in narrative is, for Woolf, unsuited to depicting the ripples of long, gradual life that she seems to see as crucial to the modern novel (here we can think of Woolf’s depiction of time in To the Lighthouse).

Woolf’s profound admiration for Conrad’s literary accomplishments notwithstanding, her reading of his literary style as reflecting a confusion, even disillusionment with the modern world is perhaps too narrow. While Victory deals extensively with the role of individual consciousness in mediating reality, and The Shadow-Line dramatizes the passage from youth to adulthood through trial at sea, these later novels do not harbor doubts as to the possibility of meaning and morality in the modern world. As such, Woolf’s last essay on Conrad is as much a tribute as her articulation of Conrad as a precursor to, but not a participant in, the development of literary modernism. She concludes that the early novels, “with their air of telling us something very old and perfectly true,” will be the ones to endure: Woolf consigns their truth, however, to memory and the past.

The essay is published in The Common Reader. The Project Gutenberg link is below:

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