The Art of Joseph Conrad: A Critical Symposium

By R. W. Stallman | Go to book overview

PAUL L. WILEY


The Knight: Man in Eden: The Arrow of Gold

*

IN ITS QUALITY of bravura, in its specialized atmosphere of the 1870's in France, and in its partly autobiographical foundation, The Arrow of Gold ( 1919) may at first appear somewhat isolated from the main body of Conrad's work. He himself attributed the note of disappointment in the reviews to the fact that he had produced something unexpected and had essayed a method of presentation which was a new departure in his art.1 Even today the novel is too frequently set aside by critics as one of the least successful of the later stories,2 when it is actually one of the most interesting when seen in relation to the main tendencies of his writing at this time. Under the surface glitter achieved by technical craft alone, the solid lines of the thematic substructure common to all of the work of Conrad's last phase can be discerned--just as, near the close of the book, one seems to have heard from the beginning the approaching footsteps of the crazed Ortega running amok along the back of a forestage shimmering in the light off marble, brocade, and Venetian glass. The action begins with the first encounter of a man accustomed to an isolated life with the suddenly unveiled powers of sense, a formula applied at the opening of "A Smile of Fortune" and afterwards repeated in the varied settings of Chance, Victory, and "The Planter of Malata". The lady in distress appears again, moreover, in Rita, who bears under her disguise of a modern Gioconda the same psychic wound of fear as Alice Jacobus or Flora de Barral. Her spirit too has been lamed for her first experience with mankind by the scorn poured into her ear as a child still too young to die of fright (1, 96).

Conrad, however, places his familiar theme of damsel and rescuer against a background which he introduces here for the first and last time. The novel is his one attempt to deal with the world of art, or at least with a level of society governed solely by aesthetic standards; and even though the conspiracy to place a Bourbon pretender on the throne of Spain gives an air of adventure to the narrative, the political events take place mainly off stage. In no other book does Conrad work quite so steadily as a painter in prose; and one remembers The Arrow as in many respects a gallery of portraits and statues: Rita standing in a blue dress on the crimson carpet of a staircase (1, 66), Therese a figure out of a cracked and smoky painting (1, 138-39), Mrs. Blunt a picture in silver and grey with touches of black (1, 180), and Blunt a marble monument of funereal grace (1, 212). The actors move through a succession of rooms as cluttered with bric-abrac as those of an antique shop, and the splendor of all these furnishings seems slightly tarnished and artificial. The Pompeiian panels, the Argand lamps, the silver statuettes belong to a world as much sealed off from the

____________________
*
From Paul L. Wiley Conrad's Measure of Man ( University of Wisconsin Press, 1954), pp. 162-172.

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