Joseph Conrad's Victory begins with the words 'There is..." and ends with the word "Nothing," pointing out to the reader the insignificance of individual lives within the context of the wider universe. The novel revolves around Axel Heyst, a character who, after his father's death, resolves to lead a life free of commitment, refusing to take roots in any specific place. The father's last advice to his son, to enable him to avoid pain, is: "'Look on make no sound."(1). Hence Heyst decides to travel and not to form any attachment with either piace or others, thus putting into practice the tenets of his father's teachings: to remain uninvolved in society, to be a mere observer and not a participant in societal activities. The endeavour, however, is doomed to fail, since "No man is an island entire of itself" and for all his attempts not to be involved, Heyst continually experiences the impossibility of absolute detachment. The onlooker, when among his fellow-men, finds it unavoidable to speak, and the very action of speech leads to communication and involvement.
In the novel, Heyst makes three impulsive attempts to form relationships: two with human beings, Morrison and Ima, and one with a place, when he decides to take up residence on the island of Samburan. He becomes the indirect cause of the deaths of the first two, and is himself annihilated by the island.
Heyst's ultimate decision to settle on Samburan coincides with his impulsive involvement in the life of the bankrupt merchant Morrison. His attempt to save Morrison is thwarted by the reality of England, that other island, and a materialistic and increasingly imperialistic social structure. This active and impulsive participation in social life (it is no coincidence that his name is the phonetic equivalent of the word 'haste') constitutes an unconscious rebellion against his father's admonitions which are based on Schopenhauer's philosophy. From that point on, in his relationships with Morrison, and, later, Lena, he becomes a usurper of God's prerogative, the giving and shaping of life. His interference with the existence of Morrison, to whom he gives a new chance in life through the materialistic medium that money is, only results in the annihilation of the latter. His attempt to create a new woman out of Lena, which is a re-enactment of the creation of Eve, but by Adam himself, is defeated by forces triggered by society in the shape of Schomberg, the hotel-keeper. His attitude to the place he chooses to settle in, Samburan island, shows parallels with his dealings with human beings. Motivated by idealistic intentions, which at heart echo the missionary spirit of Western culture, he causes the colonization of the island, reshaping it in the image of industrial Western society. Whereas initially his purpose had been to be a wanderer with no specific abode, by settling down in Samburan, he not only becomes the colonizer, an integral member of the community, but also introduces into the place that he so drastically alters, the alien and destructive forces of an exploitative society. For all the well-meant rebellion inherent in Heyst's activity, he cannot withstand or evade the chaotic, disorderly world of contingencies which ultimately arrives to engulf him, in the form of a demonic trinity consisting of Satan, Sin and Death, personalized in the guise of Mr. Jones, Ricardo and Pedro respectively, The island thus becomes a Garden of Eden infected by not only societal corruption, but also by a more primeval form of evil.
When the reader first meets Heyst, the character's fall has already
taken place, and that fall is reminiscent of that of Adam, since, in his
attempt to integrate himself into society, Heyst has disobeyed his father.
The reader is also reminded of Frankenstein, since his action is fundamentally
an experiment in the re-creation of a human being. The difference is that
Eve has not yet been created, and Heyst is "-..out of everybody's way,
as if he were perched on the highest peak of the Himalayas, and in a sense
The island has become a parody of the Garden of Eden, and the fallen Adam/Frankenstein
figure ironically reminds us of Andrew Marvell's words, "Two Paradises
'twere In one / To live in Paradise alone." (3)
Only Heyst's garden is now a centre for corruption. As in Paradise Lost,
nature in Samburan has suffered from man's transgression, and death has
become not an attribute of man alone, but a universal reality that prevails
in the environment in which he exists:
It is not a coincidence that Samburan should be an island. It not only reminds us that the source of corruption lies in that other island, England, but it also functions as a metaphor for the self. The desolation depicted implies that the island has become a mirror image of Western industrial areas. The black jetty is a phallic indication of man's violation of the integrity of the island, which significantly is round, as well as suggesting that both the island's and Heyst's integrity and insularity have been irrevocably broken. The blackness of the jetty is echoed in the colour of the coal for which the Tropical Belt Company decided to mine in the area, and that very action of mining is reminiscent of Manimon in Paradise Lost, "by [whom] first / Men also, and by his suggestion taught, / Ransacked the centre, and with impious hands / Rifled the bowels of their mother Earth / For treasures better hid- "(6) With industrialization, however, the quest for gold and treasure has relegated its place to a more prosaic quest for the commodity ensuring the perpetuation of industrial activities. The irony is that the Tropical Belt Coal Company's project falls and the result is that the entire process initiated by Heyst to remodel or recreate Samburan in the image of its European conquerors has been futile as far as the colonialists are concerned. Hence, it is the gigantic sign announcing the proprietary rights of the Western capitalist power, and the wasted mount of coal that form the grave in which the natural order of the environment has been buried.
The island and nature, however, have the potential for violence and vengeance: the red glow of the cigar smoked by Heyst, the destructive colonizer, is reflected by a similar "red glow, expanding and collapsing spasmodically like the end of a gigantic cigar puffed at interrnittently in the dark." (7) This depiction not only reinforces the image of the island as a metaphor for the self; but it also reveals that Samburan, and by extension, nature, has a reality and an existence of its own. Revenge, therefore, when it comes at the end of the novel, will unsurprisingly materialize in the form of fire.
The impulse that initially leads Heyst to the ultimate destruction at
the end of the novel is not a villainous one. As the narrator puts it:
The incipient force that originates Heyst's inability to survive in
modern society lies in his failure to choose between the alternatives presented
to him. One option for survival is to integrate himself in "the flow of
life's stream, where men and women go by thick as dust, revolving and jostling
one another like figures cut out of cork and weighted with lead just sufficiently
to keep them in their proudly upright posture," (12)
puppets for Hardy's President of the Immortals to have his sport with,
but also participants in society. That, in fact, is what he attempts to
do when he decides to become the manager in the tropics for the Tropical
Belt Coal Company. He is hampered, however, by the attraction of the other
alternatives, refusing to establish bonds and obligations that would result
in active participation in communal life. Heyst's father's admonition had
been one of non-involvement. But, like God the Father and Adam, Heyst's
father is inadequate because he refuses to supply his son with an explanation
for his instructions: when Heyst asks, "Is there no guidance?", his fattier's
response 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," (13)
This inability on the part of the father to justify himself is caused by
the fact that he is already fallen. While God undoubtedly believes in His
own Godliness, there is nothing that Heyst's father finds worthwhile to
have faith in. He dies, therefore, this "destroyer of systems, of hopes,
curled up in the foetal position, isolated from the 'proudly upright' people
crowding the streets of London. The problem, as far as Heyst is concerned,
is that he has been badly equipped by his father to make the necessary
choices in the outside world: "The dead man had kept him on the bank by
his side. And now Heyst felt acutely that he was alone on the bank of the
stream. In his pride he determined not to enter it."(15)
The key word there is of course the word "pride", with its Satanic implications.
It also indicates disobedience to the patriarch, since his father's advice
had been to remember that he himself is as pitiful as the rest of humanity.
It is therefore his pride that leads to Heyst's failure to follow his father's
admonition. Although he does attempt to become rootless, and free of anchor
and bonds, a stance which would involve his total freedom from allegiance
to a specific place, he nevertheless fails:
Involvement with another human being inevitably engenders duties and obligations. After an interval during which Heyst disappears from the community, "(he) became visible again rather suddenly, his eyes sunk in his head, and with a sort of guarded attitude, as if afraid someone would reproach him with the death of Morrison." (18). Any man's death diminishes us, and hence the skeletal appearance of the protagonist's head.
It is another impulse that leads to Heyst's involvement with Lena, the
orchestra girl with the irresistibly seductive siren-like voice. Although
she is a female, there is a certain amount of resemblance between the girl
and her benefactor. They share an unrealistic romanticism, in that Heyst
impetuously assumes the rote of the knight in shining armour rescuing the
damsel in distress, and believes that he can save her from the fate worse
than death that awaits her. Her name is indicative: "They call me Alma.
I don't know why. Silly name. Magdalen too. It doesn't matter; you can
call me by any name you choose." (19)
In the sense that 'alma' means 'soul' in Latin, Lena's final action can
be assumed to be positive, an actual victory. But, as Edward Said notes
in the context of another writer's work:
Like Heyst, Lena is under a misapprehension too. She unquestioningly
accepts the fiction of Heyst as a knight in shining armour, and, furthermore,
as Hampson points out,
Since relationships between human beings are based on fictions created by individuals, since mankind has replaced the natural with the unnatural, and persists in believing that the unnatural is the natural, nature herself rages in the background through the final act of the tragedy, shivering, trembling and shuddering, much in the way that the natural elements in the Garden of Eden do as Adam progressively approaches his fall. The human beings fail to survive and like Morrison who in a way had sacrificed himself for the sake of his benefactor and died of gratitude, Lena is killed, presumably to save her own saviour, but Heyst's inability to face the prevalent destruction he has caused renders her rather quixotic sacrifice null and void. What is left is the island and nature, which have not only the ability to outlive human beings, but can also revitalize themselves. The volcano metaphorically erupts and Samburan takes her revenge through a purging fire that annihilates everything created by man, and nature obliterates all traces of the colonizers on the island. If victory there is, it is the ultimate victory of the island and of nature.
1. Joseph Conrad, Victory, Penguin Books Ltd., Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1966, p. 150.
2. Ibid., p.19.
3. Andrew Marvell, 'The Garden', The Complete Poems, ed. George deF, Lord, Everyman's Library, London, 1984, p 50.
4. Joseph Conrad, Victory, p 48.
5. Ibid. p. 34.
6. John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I, New American Library, New York, 1961, p.56, II. 684-688.
7. Joseph Conrad, Victory. p.20.
8. Ibid, p.21.
9. Ibid. p.22.
11. Joseph Conrad, Victory, p.150.
15. Ibid., p. 151.
16. Ibid., p. 22
17. Ibid., p.25
18. Joseph Conrad, Victory, p.33.
19. Ibid., p.84
20. Edward Said, Orientalism, Vintage Books, New York, 1979, p.186.
21. Robert Hampson, 'The Late Novels", The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad, ed. J.H. Stape, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, pp 144-145.
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