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On Victory

Analysis of Joseph Conrad's novel Victory, originally published in four parts in Bilkent News between October-December 2017.

“I have managed to refine everything away. I’ve said to the Earth that bore me: ‘I am I and you are a shadow.’ And, by Jove, it is so!’” Axel Heyst, the reclusive protagonist of Joseph Conrad’s “Victory,” will, along with several other men, serve as a window, with his thoughts and desires, into the secret quivers of the soul. “Victory” is a novel of quaking beauty, lighting in clear, fine language the nature of life, of reality and its relevance to the human mind, whose pauses and turns are laid bare through each exposed thought until Heyst’s words “I am on a Shadow inhabited by Shades!…I have lost all belief in realities” convey a truth that has as little impact on life as intention, or compulsion, or veiled stabs of madness from the heart. No conclusions are pushed, no message constructed – each character has his own preoccupation, a meaning he has distilled, and Conrad simply makes these visible for perusal. Life seems to move on at a thick, inexorable pace, each event delicately shown to be somehow inevitable, people and choices bound inextricably to one another as the book ends with a soft “There was nothing to be done there…Nothing!”

The story centers around Heyst’s two lone instances of active participation in life, in which he had vowed only to observe “a world not worth touching, and perhaps not substantial enough to grasp.” The first is his lending money to Morrison, a businessman in dire straits, who persuades Heyst to join him in a commercial venture, the failure of which leads to the former’s death. Heyst, who blames himself for this development, goes into seclusion on the premises of the bankrupt company with only the Chinese steward Wang and his native wife to accompany him on the small island where the business was headquartered; the ship captain Davidson makes periodic but infrequent visits out of mild concern for his well-being. Necessity impels Heyst to stay for a short while at a hotel on another island, owned by a man named Schomberg, who has a passionate hatred of Heyst that he voices with great pleasure to his other guests in tales of Heyst’s callousness and craftiness as regards Morrison’s death. With the help of Schomberg’s wife, Heyst rescues Lena, a performing fiddler, from her employers’ cruelty and Schomberg’s relentless overtures; she joins Heyst in his island solitude as stories of his audacity are spread far and wide by a furious Schomberg, who “in this state of moral weakness [allows] himself to be corrupted”: a trio of thieves staying in his hotel, excited by his assertions that Heyst is very wealthy, arrive on Heyst’s island to rob and murder him. One of the thieves, Martin Ricardo, is aware of the presence of a woman, but has not informed the leader, Mr. Jones, for fear of his violent misogyny. Ricardo becomes infatuated with Lena, who, after fighting off his initial rape attempt, commits herself to protecting Heyst, an act she views as the redeeming purpose of her life. Meanwhile, Heyst puzzles over the strangers’ possible intentions and, unarmed and indecisive, agonizes over his own nature, which he feels makes self-defense impossible. He reveals Lena’s presence in conversation with Mr. Jones, who decides to kill Ricardo in a fit of uncontained rage – “It won’t be you that I’ll have to shoot, but him. I wouldn’t trust him near me for five minutes after this!” – and finds him with Lena in Heyst’s bungalow, where she has charmed him into giving up his weapon. Shot in the ensuing chaos, she expresses her delight in a task well done to Heyst, who watches her die and then burns down the bungalow while still inside. Davidson, who witnesses the last of the drama, recounts how Mr. Jones shoots Ricardo and drowns himself, while Wang kills Pedro, the third accomplice, to protect the island.

There is an initially obvious hierarchy among the characters: the white men of seemingly higher class, Heyst and Mr. Jones, command or frustrate white men of the middle order like Morrison, Schomberg and Ricardo, who in turn dominate lower-class males – the beastly Pedro, who is bested in the end by Wang, the “Chinaman” – and the women, who ostensibly reside below the animals in this ranking. But it is women who drive the plot, women who ruin the composure and scheming of each ham-handed man in the narrative; the two speaking female characters (Mrs. Schomberg and Lena) and the one who is never visible (Wang’s wife, referred to only as the Alfuro woman) carry more weight in the novel than their countless male counterparts. Multiple chapters are devoted to Schomberg’s indignation, internal turbulence and terror at losing Lena – “I would have kicked everything to pieces about me for her. And she, of course…I am in the prime of life….Then a fellow bewitched her – a vagabond, a false, lying, swindling, underhand, stick-at-nothing brute. Ah!” – his contempt for his wife – “no fit companion for a man of his ability and ‘in the prime of life’” – and his justifications and heightened self-conception as he primes himself to confront the three bandits – “He did not want to be told to be careful by an imbecile female. What he needed was a pair of woman’s arms which, flung round his neck, would brace him up for the encounter” – but for all his male posturing and machinations, Mrs. Schomberg quietly defeats all his designs with two interventions narrated in less than ten lines each: her aid in Lena’s escape, which precipitates his moral and constitutional breakdown, and her warning to Davidson regarding the thieves’ arrival on Heyst’s island, which interferes with his only chance at vengeance. Lena’s abduction itself is the work not of Heyst, who declares himself baffled or compelled multiple times in the narrative, but of Mrs. Schomberg, who assists their flight, and of Lena’s own unconscious charm. Heyst is captivated by her to the extent of violating all his scruples about remaining an “unconcerned spectator,” and the secretive, delicate quality of her presence enchants Ricardo so that he loses both his focus and the confidence of his superior, while her “feminine choice” to protect Heyst decides the fate of all the men present. Meanwhile, the Alfuro woman exerts a pull on Wang that compels him to steal Heyst’s revolver and withdraw into the jungle, prioritizing her safety before the others’ survival, so that her influence renders Heyst unable to fight, leaving him a spectator until the last.

(part two)

Lena’s character is presented in a softer, holier way than that of any other: Conrad’s language turns almost condescendingly reverent, describing her as she is perceived by observers, with rare, steady glimpses into her person. The reader is aware of her detachment and submission to the world, aware that she is not extraordinary in her desires or her thoughts, and that both flit through her to the point of producing almost inert watchfulness, but her effect on Heyst and Ricardo lends a touch of purity, secrecy and unattainability to her presence. Lena truly becomes a conscious actor in the novel only when she steps into her “role” as a woman, marked by the basic pleasure of nurturing and protectiveness, and colored by her own desire to perform and purify herself for her lover, who she feels has been drawn into sin by her femininity. “Woman is the tempter. You took me up from pity. I threw myself at you,” she says to him, building upon the metaphor begun with Heyst’s “There must be a lot of the original Adam in me after all,” and later continued in “The very sting of death was in her hands; the venom of the viper in her paradise” when she disarms Ricardo in the bungalow. Conrad’s language changes after her resolve to redeem herself to portray her as a more active participant, her femininity emphasized often, in statements such as “Womanlike, she felt the effect she had produced” or “All her aroused femininity, understanding that whether Heyst loved her or not she loved him, and feeling that she had brought this on his head, faced the danger with a passionate desire to defend her own.” There are many instances of such emphasis previous to her revelation, which commonly take the form of generalizations such as “As often with women, her wits were sharpened by the very terror of the glimpsed menace,” but she herself is usually an object of admiration for Heyst, and descriptions of her body and expressions predominate over those concerning her mind, as we see her through his eyes. Her perceptible neutrality admits the projections of her surroundings, so that when Ricardo encounters her, he mistakes her inert fear for understanding, her scant speech and measured assent for willingness and familiarity: “Words themselves were too difficult to think of…she whispered [yes] with not a feature of her face moving. To Ricardo the faint and concise sound proved a cool, reserved assent.” To seduce him, her social class and gender combine with the very manifestation of what Conrad deems femininity, which is that she struggles quietly during his rape attempt and overpowers him without informing Heyst of the altercation, so as not to incite unwise action on the part of the latter. Her resistance to Ricardo is completely dependent on Heyst’s presence in her life: “She was no longer alone in the world now. 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.” Ricardo perceives it as an indication that she is too good for Heyst, and decides to take her into his confidence with a rapid descent into what he later calls love, dragging him into a position where he is “murder itself, pleading for her love at her feet.” Mr. Jones recognizes his shifted allegiance – “He has found his soul-mate. Mud souls, obscene and cunning! Mud bodies, too – the mud of the gutter! I tell you, we are no match for the vile populace” – drawing attention to a class rift between the two pairs that does not exist. Heyst is no baron and Mr. Jones is a sailor like Ricardo, whose similar anger against “gentlemen” is a tangible recognition that he has, by courting Lena, given in entirely to compulsion and emotion rather than reason; the duo, termed “evil intelligence and instinctive savagery,” are experiencing a separation wherein Jones decries with great bitterness their descent into the lower realm, which causes only destruction.

This relates to the two prominent hierarchies of reason over impulse and contemplation over action, each of which is examined through Heyst and the trio at length throughout the novel. Mr. Jones is a languorous, cerebral man who dominates Ricardo’s lively, physical cruelty, and as long as he commands the man of action they prosper; he curbs Ricardo’s various urges, and only when a fit of boredom plunges him into carelessness does he accept Ricardo’s ill-considered suggestion to rob Heyst on his island. Once action is unfettered, it slowly consumes cautious observation, just as the man on the second rung deposes the first. Pedro, dominated by his instincts, is seen as little more than an animal, a creature caricaturized by apelike traits and halting speech, while the more reasonable, reserved Ricardo beats him into submission as a brutal master. Jones, however, is almost wholly cerebral, removed entirely from all the distractions and temptations of the earth, as with his wild distaste for women; he is thus the recognized leader of the trio to a point of blind loyalty. Ricardo’s exaggerated violence against Pedro, whom he beats cheerfully over the skull during their first encounter with Heyst, is a manifestation of his own struggle between his impulses and obedience to Jones: “You don’t know how much he can stand: I do. We have tried him a long time ago….Nothing can hurt him,” he tells Heyst, reminiscent perhaps of a past and failed attempt to master his own instincts. Jones, in contrast, barely acknowledges Pedro, as if he is completely detached from his basic urges: a tall, exceedingly thin man, he spends his time in quiet inertia and is described as corpselike, skeletal or spectral throughout the novel. He is the last of the three to drink water after a period of dehydration during their journey to the island, in a passage where Conrad states, “Water was life,” with a simplicity that explains why Ricardo is so quick to beat Pedro away from the water pipe, reluctant to strengthen his instincts before his reason, and why, of the two, he drinks first. It is also remarkable that Jones and Ricardo refer to each other as, respectively, “the governor” and “the secretary” until near the end of the novel, where there are unusual references to “Mr. Ricardo” and, notably, “Mr. Secretary Ricardo” as a recognition of the coming coup within a passage that includes the sentences, “Ricardo was not used to a prolonged effort of self-control. His craft, his artfulness, felt themselves always at the mercy of his nature, which was truly feral and only held in subjection by the influence of the ‘governor,’ the prestige of the gentleman.” Later, speaking to Lena, he remarks animatedly, “I have nerve, and I have brains, too…. Gentleman – pah! I am sick of him.” The blurring of the lines between reason and emotion causes the destruction of both, as is observed with Heyst and his agony of choice.

(part three)

In Heyst’s case, external factors acting upon him influence the struggle between action and observation that dominates his life. His father, a “destroyer of systems, of hopes, of beliefs…[a] bitter condemner of life,” has left Heyst loath to engage with life, traveling with an eye to “look on and never make a sound.” The father’s portrait hangs in the bungalow he shares with Lena, a picture that Conrad describes repeatedly as “haughty” or “reproachful,” as if it were condemning the consequences of Heyst’s one damning act. He wavers between action and inaction, which prevents him from being satisfied with his choices; he is “hurt by the sight of his own life, which ought to have been a masterpiece of aloofness,” while his polite neutrality impedes him, not least by alienating characters like Schomberg who do him harm because of it. He does not demonstrate his regard for Lena on her deathbed, prevented by a visceral aversion that haunts him – “Heyst bent low over her, cursing his fastidious soul, which even at that moment kept the true cry of love from his lips in its infernal mistrust of all life. He dared not touch her” – and he passes on the opportunity to evade Mr. Jones before the confrontation in the bungalow, “his very will…dead of weariness.” His indecision is examined most closely during his final discussions with Lena, when he declaims in various tones his inability to protect her, his distance from all violence and his doubtful capability for confrontation even if armed. The middle ground is in Heyst’s case what destroys him; after failing to remain impartial, he also fails to commit to life, which renders him unable to deal with the results of his two acts. The first shocks him into seclusion, the second into suicide. He disappears from the novel with an impassioned, “Ah, Davidson, woe to the man whose heart has not learned while young to hope, to love – and to put its trust in life!,” lamenting bitterly the paternal fetters that have barred him from the world.

Heyst’s father is never named, relegating him to a specific role that strengthens a budding Christ parallel; he was a man “who had spent his life in blowing blasts upon a terrible trumpet which filled heaven and earth with ruins, while mankind went on its way unheeding.” Heyst emulates his beliefs, deferring to his father’s books in a passage Conrad significantly begins “And Heyst, the son, read….” He is the reluctant savior for both Lena and Morrison, the latter of whom gets down on his knees to pray before Heyst appears, and regards him afterward as an “agent of Providence” who has saved a man “already gone to the bad, past redemption.” Lena, on the other hand, is not only preserved from “moral corruption and degradation” by his intervention, but the relationship between the two is also described in a manner that recalls Mary Magdalene and Christ; “she was afraid she could never satisfy [him],” Conrad says, “as if her passion were of a hopelessly lower quality, unable to appease some exalted and delicate desire of his superior soul.” While discussing Heyst’s character, Schomberg and Ricardo endow him with two of their own qualities, calling him greedy because of what happened to Morrison and lecherous because of the situation with Lena. While Heyst is distantly, conflictedly fond of and tender with both Lena and Morrison, neither Schomberg nor Ricardo recognizes the nature of these relations, and the two project onto his person their own various sins, for which he later dies.

The parallel may be continued through the conditions of Heyst’s death, which is preceded by those of both the people he intends to assist. His father’s word has been departed from, and the consequences are similar to those experienced by Mr. Jones, the only other “gentleman”: Heyst and Jones have other similarities in their detachment from life and their tendency to unnerve others, but deviate in their morals and appearance – where Heyst is good and large and present, Jones is spectral, drawn, an unholy ghost. “Our guest!” Heyst says, agitated, of Ricardo; “There is a proverb…when a guest enters the house, God enters the house.” There is a pause before he finishes in frustration, “I venture to think that God has nothing to do with such a hospitality and such a guest!” Nothing is said of Mr. Jones.

(part four)

As the novel progresses, Conrad’s focus on the internal thins the line between sanity and insanity, so that the reader cannot quite tell which thoughts and impulses are more usual and wholesome than others. Speeches become longer and more passionate; Heyst’s ruminations about his own morality degrade into exclamations of anguish while Ricardo croons reverently to Lena from the floor, kissing her feet, each exposing more of his character than ever before, with a fervor politely veiled in Heyst’s case and ferociously revealed in Ricardo’s. Mr. Jones is increasingly discomfited in conversation with Heyst, sweating and faltering as he speaks. The line “His voice had a wild, unexpected shrillness” comes while he still maintains his composure, which rapidly devolves – “‘Keep still as you are!’ he cried sharply…he passed his tongue over his lips, dry and black, while his forehead glistened with moisture” – his speech growing incoherent: “‘We are – er – adequate bandits; and we are after the fruit of your labours as a – er – successful swindler. It’s the way of the world – gorge and disgorge!’” After which, upon hearing of Lena, he is completely disarmed and diverted from his original purpose – “He screamed out twice. There was no mistaking his astonishment, his shocked incredulity – something like frightened disgust…the very object of the expedition was lost from view in his sudden and overwhelming sense of utter insecurity.” All the characters make their final appearances in a manner somewhat divorced from their original presentations, with Lena’s inner satisfaction, Heyst’s decisive suicide, Ricardo’s pleading submission and Jones’s deranged fury; good-natured Davidson, however, the only consummate observer in the novel, retains his rotund placidity to the last tranquil “Nothing!,” untouched by action.

Conrad’s names also have a certain significance. Heyst’s is reminiscent not only of his heist concerning the girl, but also the one in which he is the intended victim. Davidson, in his disengagement, is the lone keeper of the faith of Heyst’s father; the “son of David” is a name used for Jesus Christ. In keeping with the book’s title, each character pushes relentlessly to achieve some end, but if there is any victory to speak of, it is Lena’s; for, having achieved her twin aims of neutering Ricardo and proving her self-worth, she dies “profoundly at peace…the flush of rapture flooding her whole being [breaking] out in a smile of innocent, girlish happiness,” in the full knowledge of her “tremendous achievement.” Davidson’s words, “Fire purifies everything,” mark the end of Lena’s search for redemption – “let Heaven look after what is purified,” he says, peacefully. Other victors are Mrs. Schomberg, with her husband reduced to abject desperation, and Wang, left behind to live with his wife as he wishes on an island cleansed of outsiders. The dominated are vindicated; the white men perish.

“Victory” ultimately seems to remark on the nature of reality itself. The rumors about Heyst are inaccurate, but influence his life more heavily than the hard facts that, at the beginning of the novel, he claims are the only things worth knowing; after Morrison’s death he says to Davidson, “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 or not; but now, I have done with observation, too.” It is after this that we see how little the accuracy of a thought affects its impact, as the trio pursues Heyst on a false assumption, Ricardo devotes his passions to Lena under a misconception, and each character is pulled into an unavoidable turn of events. Conrad writes so that no specific breaking point can be identified – the plot is as conclusive and continuous as life itself, each action with its particular reaction in the indomitable order of the world. Inaction, however, is shown to be as heavy a burden as any action, as the pleasures of living are sucked away from Heyst, who, under his father’s spell, is incapable of truly appreciating them. This, then, is Conrad’s final, resounding note: No matter what is done, life will push forward, and if it is not done, life will push forward, and some of us will be crushed. There are no small victories.

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