The Art of Joseph Conrad: A Critical Symposium

By R. W. Stallman | Go to book overview
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Joseph Conrad: Chance


WE HAVE by now, I hope, some idea of the extraordinary circumstances governing Conrad's art. His use of the indirect narrative with the aid of Marlow and other devices we are familiar with. On the assumption that there is nothing causeless, if not under the sun then at least in the expression of a responsible mind, we have looked for the reason for Conrad's choice of method and found it to lie in the attempt of an entirely subjective temperament to live up to a self-imposed ideal of objectivity. If Marlow is a bore, which anyone is at liberty to think, Conrad is also a bore; the two are inseparable.

I have already quoted Mr. Garnett's phrase, to be found in his preface to Letters from Joseph Conrad, that Marlow came into being simply because he saved Conrad trouble. That is a curious thing to say about a scrupulous artist with an extremely high opinion of his medium; in a sense, nevertheless, it is true, but not in the sense, I imagine, that Mr. Garnett intended. If it can be said that an Englishman speaks English because it saves him trouble, then the phrase about Marlow is true; if it can be said that a man walks on the towpath rather than swims to his destination to save himself trouble, then it is true. But we do not as a rule walk rather than swim to save ourselves trouble, but because it is our natural means of progression. To save ourselves trouble we ride rather than walk, and Conrad never, never rode.

The phrase might possibly be true in another sense, although here we are getting on to dangerous ground. Marlow was not the only device used by Conrad to give a subjective eye an objective focus. In Nostromo he took up a standpoint exceedingly difficult to maintain, the standpoint of the objective observer recording physically observed facts with such accuracy that they reveal their inner significance to the reader. The standpoint is not maintained with perfect consistency throughout the book; at times a junior Marlow is successfully introduced in the person of Decoud, and at times a train of thought is rendered or a passage of interior monologue, usually with not the happiest effect; but the main attitude is the recording and selection of observed facts. In The Secret Agent we have an all but perfect tour de force in another technique which we shall have to glance at later on. And then we have the first person stories. It may be true to say that Conrad found all these methods more trying than the Marlow method, even that method as employed in Chance, and he may have taken Marlow as the lesser of two evils. But to jump out of the fire and into the frying-pan is a gesture surely inadequately described as a saving of trouble.

From Edward Crankshaw Joseph Conrad: Some Aspects of the Art of the Novel ( John Lane, 1936), VI, pp. 120-134.


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