The New Compass: A Critical Review



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Conrad’s Belief in Victory[1]


Ian Robinson



“I am not afraid of going to church with a friend. Hang it all, for all my belief in Chance I am not exactly a pagan . . . .”[2]


Put the following together and they are surprising enough to deserve some attention:

Is there not also a central obscurity, something noble, heroic, beautiful . . . but obscure, obscure? . . . These essays do suggest that he is misty in the middle as well as at the edges, that the secret casket of his genius contains a vapour rather than a jewel; and that we needn’t try to write him down philosophically, because there is, in this direction, nothing to write. No creed, in fact.


That is E. M. Forster on Conrad, and I quote his words, secondly, from The Great Tradition, where F. R. Leavis cites them on the first page of his discussion of Conrad as “gratifying” (sic, not justifying or excusing) his “exasperation”—exasperation with Conrad, not with Forster. C. B. Cox’s version is, “Confronted by the mystery of human experience, [Conrad] offers us strange high-sounding phrases whose implications are deliberately left unclear.”[3]


Leavis disagrees with some more recent critics I shall quote about whether the title of Victory is meant ironically. But about the supposed absence of belief at the heart of Conrad he can be surprisingly close, though less severe. A sniff of the recent critical atmosphere in which Conrad in general and Victory in particular is discussed:


                       “Heyst and Decoud in Nostromo [share] the same cynical pessimism.” (Jeffrey Meyers)[4]


Chance, Victory . . . imitate Gulliver in the stable, thoroughly drenched in a hate of the human. . . . These works deride all traditional structures and values. Seen with one eye, they can be very funny books. Seen with both, they are morally repellent.” “That is the dominant idea of Victory, ‘infinite littleness’, the triviality of mankind and of the gods. The title is not serious or tragic. It is not ironic or ambiguous. It is savage parody, a despairing sneer.” “Heyst cannot love Lena, and her love is a silly parody of divine love,” a “futile, grotesque parody of redemption.” Summed up in the two words “Conrad disbelieves.” (Dwight H. Purdy)[5]


I have quoted Purdy most extensively because he, who demonstrates beyond contradiction Conrad’s deep indebtedness to the English Bible, should have known better. Well then, here is what Purdy calls a one-eyed view: I don’t find these novels morally repellent and I don’t accept the likes of Meyers and Purdy as reliable judges of morality or of art. My case is that Conrad’s great achievements, which I am going to call “comic,” depend on his retaining Christian judgement along with Christian language—and the latter for the sake of the former.


Conrad expressed a number of different theological opinions at different times. One of the best-known comes in a letter to Edward Garnett, apropos of Tolstoy, written while he was at work on Victory:


Moreover the base from which [Tolstoy] starts—Christianity—is distasteful to me. I am not blind to its services but the absurd oriental fable from which it starts irritates me. Great, improving, softening, compassionate it may be but it has lent itself with amazing facility to cruel distortion and is the only religion which, with its impossible standards, has brought an infinity of anguish to innumerable souls—on this earth.[6]


There is (in English terms) much of the Whig and of the fatalist in Conrad; he was apt to call himself Polish, Catholic and a gentleman, which he no doubt understood in a sense that did not contradict his distaste for Tolstoy’s Christianity; and he had a quotation from Spenser’s Despair put on his tombstone. Conrad’s admiration for Turgenev’s judgement and humanity, and dislike of the “convulsed, terror-haunted” Dostoevsky,[7] might have been expressed, had he had the chance, by that other contemner of oriental fable, the Trimmer.


Leavis objects to words of a passage of Heart of Darkness including these:


The spell . . . that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions. . . . Soul! If anybody had ever struggled with a soul, I am the man. . . . I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself.”[8]


The objection begins: “Conrad must here stand convicted of borrowing the arts of the magazine-writer . . . in order to impose on his readers and on himself, for thrilled response, a ’significance’ that is merely an emotional insistence on the presence of what he can’t produce.” (Leavis 180) Citing this in support, Chinua Achebe accuses Conrad of “inducing hypnotic stupor in his readers through a bombardment of emotive words and other forms of trickery.” (qtd. in Tredell 71) Leavis’s comment goes to the centre of what I want to discuss but is, I believe, quite wrong. Leavis just doesn’t notice that the terminology he objects to is in fact painstaking and accurate Christian theology. (Whether a critic as obtuse as Achebe here shows himself can be thought to notice anything at all is a question I leave open.) In that tale the passions are strictly and indeed monstrous, a warping of human nature, “unspeakable” in a language of any decency; and Marlow’s struggle is as directly for Mr Kurtz’s soul as if he were a missionary. In case anybody should not have noticed, I point out that I am using the word theology without any apologies.


Here, if I had time, I would consider Heart of Darkness, and also The Secret Agent, in this respect of how their central moral judgements, which are absolutely clear, are also Christian; but I restrict myself to what seems to me Conrad’s climactic achievement of the kind.


Victory is Conrad’s last significant full-length novel, completed just before the outbreak of the Great War. I call it a climactic achievement because in Axel Heyst (Conrad’s most developed character, Jocelyn Baines thinks, as against the “wooden characters” Meyers finds. (Meyers 280)) Conrad depicts the post-Liberal loss of belief, in a gentleman as perfect and unbelieving as Asquith, with a much more formal credal unbelief than Conrad himself, but who nevertheless achieves in the course of the novel what one has to call a saving faith—even though he does it at the price of his life. Heyst is not an “infidel,” as in that now quaint Victorian terminology Morrison denies himself to be: he only thinks he is. And his Alma–Magdalen–Lena is, in however odd a way, a Christian hero.


Victory is a packed novel, to be savoured and taken slowly, but at the last it becomes intensely gripping and painfully moving. It is at an opposite extreme in Conrad from Nostromo, with its claustrophobic narrowing-down of the scene of action to the two bungalows on Samburan, and there is more than a hint of the stage-like imagination of the late James, though like James, Conrad isn’t actually stageable: too much depends on the narrator’s ironic control. For me Victory passes the crudest, indispensable test of tragedy: it makes you cry. That, though, is a necessary but not sufficient condition of tragedy. Victory is intensely moving, but in ways not at all comparable with the fifth acts of Hamlet or King Lear. The death of all the leading characters is Jacobean-tragedy like, even down to the rather perfunctory and motiveless polishings off of Pedro, Martin Ricardo and a fortiori plain Mr Jones, who might have been expected to resume his going to and fro in the earth.[12] It is, still, more like the end of Part II of The Pilgrim’s Progress, or the story of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. The tears in Victory are not tragic ones. As Leavis thought, the novel is rightly named, though I don’t think Leavis fully saw why.


Victory is not unique among the harrowing tales of Conrad in beginning and much of the time continuing comic by anybody’s standards, and sometimes in a manner owing something to Dickens (though the wildly farcical moment of Schomberg’s and Signor Zangiacomo’s “go-as-you-please scrap” (44) is more reminiscent of the dénouement of a Chaucer fabliau). Morrison is a sort of back-to-front Wemmick whose property is lamentably static, though at the same time subject to evaporation, a joke Conrad makes in the first paragraph of the novel: “coal is a much less portable form of property” than diamonds, whereas Ricardo’s vision of Heyst’s (nonexistent) treasure takes the form of “gold, solid, heavy, eminently portable” (215). The comedy is that of a judgement perhaps world-weary but always, to a superlative degree, sane, and the sanity consists of a confident appeal to general standards. That dance Conrad does round the evaporation and liquidation of the assets of the Tropical Belt Coal Company, for instance, like the one round the word thrift in Chance, makes a sort of Mendelssohnian gaiety out of a subject as sombre as failed global finance, but without any mere debunking of or sneering at the human beings concerned.


The Tropical Belt Coal Company went into liquidation. The world of finance is a mysterious world in which, incredible as the fact may appear, evaporation preceds liquidation. First the capital evaporates, and then the company goes into liquidation. (9)


More seriously, the detailing of Heyst’s involvement first with Morrison then with Lena is (amongst other things) social comedy generally of the tradition of Jane Austen.


                       “You are in for a bout of fever, I fear,” [Heyst] said sympathetically.

                       Poor Morrison’s tongue was loosened at last.

            “Fever!” he cried. “Give me fever. Give me plague. They are diseases. One gets over them. But I am being murdered. I am being murdered by the Portuguese. The gang here downed me at last among them. I am to have my throat cut the day after tomorrow.”

In the face of this passion Heyst made, with his eyebrows, a slight motion of surprise which would not have been misplaced in a drawing-room. (16)


It’s quite naturally a comedy of moral judgement. Heyst’s relations with Morrison make a high order of moral comedy. The whole Tropical Coal Company fiasco proceeds, if Heyst is to be believed, from his scrupulous unwillingness to hurt Morrison’s decent feelings, although he judges them at the same time to be overdone. Sometimes the comedy is quite broad, as in the consistent comic hostility towards Schomberg—whose fatuity turns out nevertheless to be menacing. I like the stage-like appearances of Mrs. Schomberg, who is not the fool she seems, and who takes a decisive part in the action, because as Heyst says, “She was engaged in the task of defending her position in life. ...It’s a very respectable task” (50).


This is all morally well judged. But I have to go further. Victory goes more explicitly than anything else in Conrad into philosophy and theology.


Philosophy of course comes in with Axel Heyst’s father. Like Hamlet’s, Heyst’s father haunts the story, but unlike the elder Hamlet’s the elder Heyst’s influence is towards sceptical inaction. Having started life not as a utilitarian but as a hedonist (77) the elder Heyst ends up writing a book in which “he claimed for mankind that right to absolute moral and intellectual liberty of which he no longer believed them capable” (77). It is about as hard to put a philosopher into a novel as a poet, because in both cases some of their work may be called for. A novelist can only show that a character is a poet by giving some poetry, and so too with philosophy. Like Dickens, Conrad is not supposed to be a philosophically sophisticated novelist. But both can get philosophical notions as clear as they need. Heyst père is not systematic but a “destroyer of all systems, of hopes, of beliefs” (139). Conrad does not report the destructive analyses, but the philosopher’s conclusions, and his emotional attitude to them, read convincingly as a sort of amalgam of the philosophical ideas, all but idealism, of the scientific age after they have given out in complete scepticism. There is a bit of Schopenhauer in him,[13] but if one had to attach a single name—as regards philosophical position, not cheerfulness of temperament—it would be Hume. The elder Heyst is a post-Hume Victorian unbeliever, but without any of the moral fervour that George Eliot carried over from Christianity. He is—much more defensibly—in a pure state of negation.


But the philosophical position is strong more by force of character than by any argumentation: powerful because quite disinterested and in a way noble. The young Axel is still naif enough to ask “Is there no guidance?” (138) to which the answer is:


“You still believe in something, then? . . . You believe in flesh and blood, perhaps? A full and equable contempt would soon do away with that, too. But since you have not attained to it, I advise you to cultivate that form of contempt which is called pity. . . . ” (138)


Axel Heyst does show pity, whether by cultivating it or not, but not as a form of contempt. Dutiful son, he teaches his Lena/Alma on their island before the irruption of evil that “facts have a certain positive value” (156), a doctrine he has already preached to Mr Tesman: “There’s nothing worth knowing but facts. Hard facts! Facts alone, Mr Tesman” (12). But he has rejected this by the time of the decisive action of the novel and on Samburan has “done with facts” (28). Conrad himself on facts, by the way, is impeccably clear of Gradgrind: “For facts, whatever their origin (and God only knows where they come from), can be only tested by our own particular suspicions” (127). The value Heyst tries to attach to facts is a value not a fact. The speech to Davidson in explanation of why he wants Mrs. Schomberg’s shawl to be taken back naturally causes Davidson to think Heyst has gone mad (“Imagine poor, simple Davidson being addressed in such terms alongside an abandoned, decaying wharf jutting out of tropical bush.”(48)), but it’s actually, in all the comedy of the moment, naturalistic as well as philosophically lucid:


I suppose I have done a certain amount of harm, since I allowed myself to be tempted into action. It seemed innocent enough, but all action is bound to be harmful. It is devilish. That is why this world is evil upon the whole. But I have done with it! I shall never lift a little finger again. At one time I thought that intelligent observation of facts was the best way of cheating the time which is allotted to us whether we want it nor not; but now I have done with observation, too. (48)


He also says to Lena, “Man on this earth is an unforeseen accident which does not stand close investigation” (156) and we are victims of “the Great Joke” so that “by folly alone the world moves” (157). His apparently illogical lurch into action in the interests of progress, bringing coal as “a great stride forward for these regions” (11) is later explained by his humouring Morrison (160).


Axel Heyst does differ from his father (and somewhat resembles George Eliot) in that his attitude to religious belief, though he says he has none himself, is never hostile or contemptuous. “ ‘You are a believer, Morrison?’ asked Heyst with a distinct note of respect” (17) is a note consistently maintained. Compare his narrative to Lena:


                       “Being cornered, as I have told you, he went down on his knees and prayed. What do you think of that?”

                       Heyst paused. She looked at him earnestly.

                       “You didn’t make fun of him for that?” she said.

                       Heyst made a brusque movement of protest.

                       “My dear girl, I am not a ruffian,” he cried. (157)


Axel Heyst, unlike Mr Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, is a principled unbeliever, but this episode of the stride forward is also reminiscent of Mr Kurtz’s rhetoric. Heyst is in fact as far from Kurtz as from Don Martin Decoud, dying because he can’t stand his own company. Heyst prefers his own company and consistently ascribes all his misfortunes to involvement with the world.


And the world of the novel is not the world of the elder Heyst’s philosophy; it is both better and worse; it contains spiritual wickedness as well as faith and salvation. The whole novel is a sermon on the text “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good.”[14] I do believe that Victory is one of the most convincing pictures of goodness in the English novel, for them that have ears to hear.


Victory is the story of Heyst’s attainment of self-knowledge (perhaps Lena never has any need of that), but whereas in the primeval garden self-knowledge comes, along with the certainty of death, in the act of sin, in the later paradise of Samburan the Round Island, self-knowledge is of a redeemed state. Heyst the sceptic is unable to resist the temptation of his Christian impulses. His impulse towards Lena is “the same impulse” (61) as the earlier one towards Morrison. He “could not defend himself from compassion” (67). Pity, though not exactly of the kind recommended by his father, proves Heyst’s salvation or, from the point of view of his father and of his own conscious judgement, his undoing. For there is a path from pity towards loving one’s neighbour as oneself: “Heyst felt a sudden pity for these beings [the lady artists of Zangiacomo’s troupe], exploited, hopeless, devoid of charm or grace, whose fate of cheerless dependence invested their coarse and joyless features with a touch of pathos” (60). Heyst’s compassion leads to charity. (“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”) Heyst’s goodness—what else to call it?—provokes him to intervene first in the matter of Morrison then in that of Lena, with, in both cases, disastrous consequences, if you wish to say so (and Heyst sometimes does), but it leads to what Conrad rightly calls victory.


I have to emphasize how theological Conrad’s treatment of this theme is, and that this is the way his inspiration developed. The Christ-like self-sacrificing love of Lena, for instance, is much clearer in Victory than that of her prototype Laughing Anne in “Because of the Dollars.”


Heyst’s question “Is there no guidance?” is precisely the one comically raised at the beginning of the novel. Heyst is providential both to Morrison and to Lena, literally an answer to prayer. Naturally, in the Conradian comedy this is presented with an irony centring on Heyst’s own attitude to the identification of himself as an angel, an order of spiritual beings in whom he does not believe.


“What captivated my fancy was that I, Axel Heyst, the most detached of creatures in this earthly captivity, the veriest tramp on this earth, an indifferent stroller going through the world’s bustle—that I should have been there to step into the situation of an agent of Providence. I, a man of universal scorn and unbelief ...” (157–8)


As a matter of fact, though, this does not disprove the identification: “ ‘Miracles do happen,’ thought the awestruck Morrison” (19). “It was as if he expected Heyst’s usual white suit of the tropics to change into a shining garment flowing down to his toes, and a pair of great dazzling wings to sprout on the Swede’s shoulders” (18–19).


For Lena, Heyst is the man whom Heaven has sent (227). Even to Ricardo and Mr Jones, when Heyst supplies the life-saving water he is “a man more unexpected than an angel” (188). Morrison goes as far as raising for himself the question whether Heyst may be an emissary of the other power:


“Forgive me, Heyst. You must have been sent by God in answer to my prayer. But I have been nearly off my chump for three days with worry; and it suddently struck me: ‘What if it’s the Devil who has sent him?’ ”

“I have no connection with the supernatural,” said Heyst graciously, moving on. “Nobody has sent me. I just happened along.” (19)


(The “graciously” is delicious.) That is true as well; Heyst is not conscious of having been sent. But God does move in a mysterious way His wonders to perform. I have to say that as a Christian I see no need to add anything to what Conrad says to take Heyst as an answer to prayer in both cases, and angelic in the strictest biblical sense of a messenger and agent of the divine. This is at least one of the ways in which prayer is answered and messages sent and received. I think in fact that the novel is more orthodox than its narrator, with whom I have to take issue. He himself has too unrefined a notion of miracles as something both more spectacular and more predetermined than the actions of Heyst.


And all this sprang from the meeting of the cornered Morrison and of the wandering Heyst, which may or may not have been the direct outcome of a prayer. Morrison was not an imbecile, but he seemed to have got himself into a state of remarkable haziness as to his exact position towards Heyst. For, if Heyst had been sent with money in his pocket by a direct decree of the Almighty in answer to Morrison’s prayer then there was no reason for special gratitude, since obviously he could not help himself. (23)


Well, Conrad too is very far from being an imbecile, but why can he not see that the answer to prayer is Heyst’s obeying his impulse to use the money in his pocket in that particular way? Most people, after all, would not have done so. It is thoroughly in character, but not something directly decreed to him, that he should save Morrison. Of course this is not miraculous in the sense of breaking the laws of nature. But the notion that a miracle is something that can’t be helped is not orthodox. In the New Testament our Lord repeatedly assures those he has miraculously healed that their faith has made them whole: without it there would have been no miracle. Whether there was any miraculousness in Heyst’s wandering in that particular direction I don’t know. There is nothing unlikely about the meeting of the two white men in the circumstances. But we need not raise that question. The answer to prayer is that all things work together for good to them that love God. The moral discovery in Victory is that it may be possible to love God unawares. But even the unawareness is, perhaps, only skin deep. Lena, quite realistically at the date of Victory, has not only been to Sunday school (152), but has there received a good grounding in the Bible; there is no difficulty in accepting that Heyst also, as an educated man, knows the Bible well. They are both steadily allusive.


Lena worries about whether the evil that comes upon them may be a form of retribution for their sinful life—thereby casting the three evil men as “righteous agents of Providence,” as Heyst puts it (275). (They are emissaries, but from somewhere else.) Lena, more simple-minded, does not share Heyst’s moral serenity. She fears their living together is sinful, because of the absence of the marriage ceremony, though if it is possible to have a sacrament in intention the couple are surely married. (Naturally the idea of marriage comes from Schomberg: in answer to Ricardo’s question “What did he go back to the island for”: “‘Honeymoon!’ spat out Schomberg viciously.” (129)) “‘Are you conscious of sin?’ Heyst asked gravely. She made no answer. ‘For I am not,’ he added; ‘before Heaven, I am not!’” (275). The point here is not only that Heyst is right (though Lena is also right to have scruples) but the straightforwardly Christian terms in which he expresses his rightness. His father would never have talked about sin, or have spoken before Heaven. Heyst uses both words less self-consciously than many a professing Christian would do now.


Victory even has a touch of allegory.[15] The comic-macabre-grotesque trio who invade Heyst’s island are the world, the flesh and the devil, from which Heyst innocently believes he has separated himself by retiring to his island. Pedro, the flesh, is too mindless to speak for himself, but his role in the anti-Trinity is made clear by his more articulate bosses, as well as by the moment when Pedro, dying of thirst, realizes that there is water of the most ordinary physical kind:


Something hairy and black flew from under the jetty. A dishevelled head, coming on like a cannon-ball, took the man at the pipe in flank, with enough force to tear his grip loose and fling him headlong into the stern-sheets. (182)


Of that love of money which is the root of all evil,[16] Pedro, as mere flesh, is innocent; as Mr. Jones says, “Pedro, of course, knows no more of it than any animal other would” (294). Ricardo—all too real, human and naturalistic—is to Lena, at the same time, and equally naturally, “the embodied evil of the world” (232). That naturally takes the form of “murder itself” (309). Ricardo is death, the wages of sin, whom Lena manages to deprive of his sting.


This leaves plain Mr. Jones as the Devil. If anything, Conrad’s hints are too insistent. Heyst says to Lena “Well! I don’t know myself what I would do, what countenance I would have before a creature which would strike me as being the devil incarnate” (164). Jones’s eyebrows are “devilish” (95). After using the Book of Job, “coming and going up and down the earth,” a phrase used there of Satan and instantly recognized by the sceptical but Bible-soaked Heyst, he avows his identity openly: “As to me, I am no blacker than the gentleman you are thinking of, and I have neither more nor less determination.” It is true that at one point he calls himself “the world itself, come to pay you a visit” (294) but the other signs are consistently Satanic. He has by his own account been hounded out of his sphere (Milton’s Satan has the same self-pity) though at the naturalistic level he has been excluded from decent society for strongly hinted reasons, of which cardsharping is one. The final Powys-like hint is almost superfluous as he says


“A man living alone with a Chinaman on an island takes care to conceal property of that kind so well that the devil himself—”

“Certainly,” Heyst muttered. (297)


Lena dies believing in the efficacy of her self-sacrificial action as she deprives the world of its “sting.” As many have noticed, this is the sting of death in the passage from which the novel takes its name: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”[17] The sting takes the form of Ricardo’s dagger.


Heyst says he does not believe, but acts as if he does. It is Heyst’s gentlemanly goodness[18] that pushes him into actions that express a faith quite at variance with his words. Which of the two sons does the father’s will, the one “who said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went” or the one who said “I go, sir: and went not”?[19] And: “If ye love me, keep my commandments.”[20] If Heyst keeps His commandments he loves him—whether he knows as much or not. Heyst does what to the good heart appears a duty, inspired by a love, neither of which are jokes, and in response to a threat which, however grotesque, is no joke either, and worse than mere danger to life and limb, because evil.


Now whether Conrad would agree with this commentary—which could be much extended—I don’t know. There certainly was in Conrad the man something of, and perhaps in the narrator of Victory there is a hint of, Heyst’s scepticism: Conrad certainly portrays it so inwardly that it is natural enough to think that he may have known it at first hand, at least in some moods. (The novel is contemporary with his friendship with Bertrand Russell, author of the rhapsodically atheistical “Freeman’s Worship.”) Let me not disguise that “Our convictions, the disguised servants of our passions” (131) is a moment of pure Bertrand-Russellism; but it is not the note of the novel, and applies to the villains but not at all to Lena or to Heyst, whose convictions are actually redeemed by his passions. Though “Every age is fed on illusions, lest man should renounce life early and the human race come to an end” is near a border with Ibsen and Shaw’s Life-Force, though it may remind one of Don Martin Decoud, this is not the bottomless cynicism it might seem elsewhere to be. “Great achievements are accomplished in a blessed, warm mental fog” (77). But only from Heyst’s point of view: and Conrad supplied “blessed.”


If we trust the tale, not the teller, what I have reported is much in the grain of what is deepest in the author, whatever he would have said himself.


None of this implies that the story fails at an ordinary novelistic level. I think it’s grippingly naturalistic. And I do think that what I have been glancing at is much more central to the novel than the theme of the painfulness of Heyst’s reticence (developed from Captain Anthony’s in Chance) which the novelist tends to highlight, thereby tripping up Meyers and Purdy into supposing there is no love between Heyst and Lena.[21] I believe that Victory is inter alia a great love story. That love it is, on both sides, I have no doubt at all.


“You should try to love me!” she said.

He made a movement of astonishment. (174–5)


It is poignant that he cannot get far enough away from his father to express his love in language. But actions do speak louder than words.


The central interest is still, rather, religious. The victory of the title is Lena’s, and then Heyst’s recovery of faith, in the form possible to him—too late for him to base a married life upon it or to resume his place in public, but in time to save him. Lena uses this word faith at the decisive moment, and it is called forth by Heyst’s goodness.


She resisted without a moment of faltering, because she was no longer deprived of moral support; because she was a human being who counted; because she was no longer defending herself for herself alone; because of the faith that had been born in her—the faith in the man of her destiny, and perhaps in the Heaven which had sent him so wonderfully to cross her path. (227)


That, from the so subtle and ironic Conrad, is simple and heroic.


Leavis underestimates Victory and is not quite on target because he overlooks the theological backbone. I suspect criticism that makes a great deal of proper names but it is worth noting that Heyst’s name (which gave Conrad trouble and which he adopted late in the process of composition) is only an aspirate away from Geist and rhymes with Christ. If he is the spirit of anything it is of a still basically Christian age.


In his best art Conrad achieved, with great labour, a wholeness of faith that necessarily for this Polish-English artist was Christian in character; and it was this that released him into creativity, including the most immediate creativity of his wonderfully inventive prose. One snippet, about poor Morrison: “Finally he went into Dorsetshire to see his people, caught a bad cold, and died with extraordinary precipitation in the bosom of his appalled family” (23). Cf. “the late faithful Stevie blown to fragments in a state of innocence and in the conviction of being engaged in a humanitarian enterprise.”[22] N.B. in neither case is there any lack of sympathy!


If Conrad’s opinions have the freethinkingness of a Whig aristocrat it may still be true that his art depends on standards of judgement neither Whig nor liberal. When Conrad is most creative—when, that is, he is being one of the best novelists in the world—he is always rising to a momentary faith he could not himself formulate otherwise, but which is finally and securely made in the great moments of the novels. How else, after all, should a novelist express belief?


I further assert that without that faith he would not have been so great a novelist, nor could he have occupied the classical place he rightly does. I wonder whether, with James, Conrad is the latest novelist of Christendom.







[1] This article is based on a talk given at Brock and Laurentian Universities in October 2001. Victory (1915) is quoted from a 1952 edition with an introduction by V. S. Pritchett (London: The Book Society, 1952).

[2] Marlow’s closing words in Chance.

[3] Quoted in Nicolas Tredell, ed., Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness (Duxford: Icon Critical Guides, 1998), 71.

[4] Jeffrey Meyers, Joseph Conrad (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1991), 279.

[5] Dwight H. Purdy, Joseph Conrad’s Bible (Norman, Oklahoma, 1984), 7, 125, 110, 127, 127.

[6] 23 February 1914; Joseph Conrad on Fiction, ed. Walter F. Wright (Lincoln, Nebraska, 1964; 1967), 35.

[7] Notes on Life and Letters (London: Chatto & Windus, 1955), 64.

[8] F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition (1948; 1955), 180.

[9] Possibly Conrad is letting Mr. Jones down to a level of pettiness and insignificance comparable with the fallen angels’ metamorphosis into hissing snakes in Paradise Lost.

[10] It is clearly wrong to say as Wollgaer does that the elder Heyst is “clearly modelled on Schopenhauer” (Mark A. Wollgaer, Joseph Conrad and the Fictions of Skepticism [Stanford, 1990], p. 204 n.9). There is not much resemblance either in person or doctrine.

[11] Luke 6:45.

[12] How much of this is common knowledge I don’t know. Jeffrey Meyer, for instance, sees nothing of it.

[13] Schomberg manages to inspire Ricardo with a phrase rather like something out of Donne’s Songs and Sonets: “ ‘Minted gold,’ he murmured with a sort of anguish” (132).

[14] 1 Corinthians 15:54–5.

[15] He is far too much of a gentleman to insist on the fact, unlike Mr. Jones, admired as gentleman by Ricardo. The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman.

[16] Matthew 21:29, 30.

[17] John 14:15.

[18] Meyers even thinks there is no sex, and writes that “Lena’s ontological fears and sense of unreality are presumably caused by her lack of sexual relations with Heyst, who once tried to sleep with her but was unable to do so” (285). The Marxist critic Terry Collits is surely right when he notes “that suggestive gap between chapters which in fact encloses a moment of sexual intensity” (“Imperialism, Marxism, Conrad: a Political Reading of Victory,” rpt. in Keith Carabine, ed., Joseph Conrad: Critical Assessments [Mountfield, E. Sussex, 1992], 491), though Conrad doesn’t leave it all to space: at the end of Part 3, Chapter 4, “With her hand she signed imperiously to him to leave her alone—a command which Heyst did not obey.” And at the beginning of the next chapter, “When she opened her eyes at last and sat up, Heyst scrambled quickly to his feet and went to pick up her cork helmet, which had rolled a little way off.” (170, 171) If you need more than that in a post-Victorian novel you really are not acquainted with the conventions. Ricardo, on the other hand, says Meyers, “achieves orgasm with Lena” (Meyers 289)—not in the book I read!—who “subconsciously responds to Ricardo’s sexual assault” (Meyers 288) Has she not enough to do responding consciously?

[19] The Secret Agent, (1907; 1947), 266.






Robinson, Ian. “Conrad’s Belief in Victory.” The New Compass: A Critical Review 2 (December 2003)  <>