The Craft of Conrad This book, and my Darwin, the Bible, and Tragedy, may be obtained from Amazon.com. For “The Two-way Tussle,” an essay on communication derived from Darwin’s thinking, go to Mossfamilypublications.weebly.com. Your comments are invited: email@example.com.
“I would by contraries execute all things,” one of Shakespeare’s characters says in The Tempest. Serious literature is nothing if not ironic: the many voices of paradox dictate an interplay of opposites, an equivalence of contradictory facts or appearances, a convergence of contrasting identities, a kinship of competitors, a simultaneity of virtue and its annulment. “Nothing is more painful,” Conrad wrote in Victory (1915), “than the shock of sharp contradictions that lacerate our intelligence and our feeling.”
His story sequences demonstrate inward as well as social dissension. They bring together, in tortuous exchange, elevated principles, anarchic impulses, and disorganized deeds. His most clearly visualized characters pursued an ideal identity but inadvertently uncovered its contradiction; they oscillated between shameful desires and noble convictions; their actions were purposeful and confused. They proposed certainties and discovered negation, vacillation, and contradiction; they were fluent and yet hard to decipher.
Most problematic for Conrad was the ambition to exemplify age-old masculine virtues—leadership competence, courage and confidence, manual and verbal talent, strength and endurance, discriminating judgment, honesty, independence, and above all, constancy or “fidelity.” The drive to personify those virtues could be incredibly frustrating or even, ironically, self-destructive. Anxiety permeated the “test of manliness.” The newly appointed captain in “The Secret Sharer” “wondered how far I should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one’s own personality every man sets up for himself secretly.”
Chance, accident, or misunderstanding, human assault or natural calamity, and his unreliable desires or uncontrolled feelings confound Conrad's chief character and imperil his dignity. He often reacts to threat by suspending his notion of integrity inconclusively between reassertion and relinquishment. Neither consistent enough to succeed at reaffirmation nor flexible enough for revision, he moves from stability to vacillation, juggling manly composure with inconstancy, escape, self-defeat, and shame.
In his most powerful fiction, Conrad adapted an ancient story format that traces the degradation of a noble but shadowy standard by an individual desperately trying desperately to enact it. This study will appraise Conrad’s ingenious variations on a paradoxical theme, variations invigorated by magnificent rhetoric and disquieting images that cleverly mingle heroic vision with shameful ignorance.