Academic journal article Conradiana

The "Moral Annihilation" of War: Conrad's "The Tale" and "The Warrior's Soul"

Academic journal article Conradiana

The "Moral Annihilation" of War: Conrad's "The Tale" and "The Warrior's Soul"

Article excerpt

When World War I broke out, Conrad was vacationing with his family in Poland. Explaining in "Poland Revisited" why he would embark on such a journey during the third week of July 1914, he concludes "there was no room in my consciousness for the apprehension of a European war. I don't mean to say that I ignored the possibility: I simply did not think of it" (149). Once mobilization occurred in August, Conrad expressed fears that civilization as he then knew it was at an end. In a Cracow hotel with what he refers to as "a few men of mark," he declares, "[a]ll the past was gone, and there was no future, whatever happened; no road which did not seem to lead to moral annihilation" ("First" 178).

Yet the threat of moral apocalypse did not prevent Conrad from taking immediate steps to get his family out of the war's path. From a private villa in Zakopane, a mountain resort south of Cracow, he wrote to J. B. Pinker asking for money and explaining his attempts to obtain a military pass necessary for travel through Austria. "If I had been alone," Conrad writes, "I wouldn't make half the fuss. But with four people (and one a cripple) I'll have an awful job to get out of this country" (CL 5: 411). His wife Jessie, the "cripple" Conrad refers to, bore up well under the circumstances, and by October tenth, two months after the start of the war, the four had reached Vienna (CL 5: 411); not until November were the Conrads once again in England. In Vienna, Conrad fell ill with gout, and his condition did not significantly improve back at home. Describing the ordeal to John Galsworthy, Conrad connects, at least metaphorically, his illness to the war. Traveling by boat from Genoa to Gravesend, Conrad "felt beastly all the time," and, he goes on to say, "[i]n London I felt even worse. On reaching home I just rolled into bed and remained there till yesterday, in a good deal of pain but mostly suffering from a sort of sick-apathy which I am now trying to shake off" (CL 5: 424). Still in its early days, the war had evoked in Conrad the cynicism that would become the keynote of literary modernism.

By 1916, Conrad's sense of "moral annihilation" had deepened further ("First" 178). Borys was at the front with his father's blessing, but the stress of having a son in the fighting added to Conrad's woes. Still struggling with ill health and money problems, he wrote little that year: two "war" stories, "The Warrior's Soul," a look back at the retreat of Napoleon's army from Moscow, and "The Tale," Conrad's only World War I story. Seen as companion pieces, these stories chronicle the moral shift from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, from a world of relatively clear cut values to a world of change and uncertainty. (1) Set roughly one hundred years apart, the stories offer a remarkable contrast between the character of the Napoleonic wars and that of the Great War. Originally titled "The Humane Tomassov," "The Warrior's Soul" depicts an older time when the honor of a gentleman was of foremost importance, a time before the "moral annihilation" Conrad anticipated in August of 1914 ("First" 178). Writing in "Poland Revisited" of the new tactics of sea-warfare, Conrad links the two periods and mourns the loss of "manly sentiment" reflected in the older war (163). Of the new world, Conrad says, "It is true [...] that since the Napoleonic time another sort of war-doctrine has been inculcated in a nation, and held out to the world" ("Poland" 163). This new brand of war Conrad deplores involves the "mastery of mechanical appliances," which he sees as "stealthy murderous contrivance[s]" ("Poland" 163). The technology of the new war, Conrad believes, is to blame for the onset of that "moral annihilation" ("First" 178). And yet, imbedded in "The Warrior's Soul," in the character of the adjutant and elsewhere, are the ethical lapses that foreshadow the later moral disintegration that emerged in World War I.

We should also note that Conrad is writing about Russians in "The Warrior's Soul. …

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