Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Ageing and Individual Experience in "Youth" and "Heart of Darkness"

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Ageing and Individual Experience in "Youth" and "Heart of Darkness"

Article excerpt

ON 3 DECEMBER 1897, Conrad turned 40. In terms of late-Victorian life expectancy he had lived more than half his life. He felt he had "gone over the rise of forty to travel downwards - and a little more lonely than before" (CLl 420). He had, though, just entered the creative phase that would see him produce the works on which his reputation rests: The Nigger of the "Narcissus" (1897), "Youth" (1898), "Heart of Darkness" (1899), Eordjim (1900), Nostromo (1904), and The secret Agent (1907). His anxiety in this letter to his friend Edward Garnett about having crossed the apex of the Aristotelian arc of ageing is similar to others he wrote in 1898, and it reveals concerns dealt with by the middle-aged narrators of "Youth" and "Heart of Darkness": ageing and the importance of past individual experience. What I wish to examine here is how in Conrad's treatment of Mariow, the past provides two effects: security for the ageing subject who recalls it, but, consequently, an alienating effect on that subject who acknowledges that such experience cannot be fully shared.

The Remembrance of Things Past

It has been theorized that as we become aware of ageing "we return in reminiscence to those points in our life which most express our subjectivity and which remain in some sense unfinished dramas."1 Freud saw that memory and the past combined to try to defeat ageing: "One group of instincts rushes forward so as to reach the final aim of life as swiftly as possible; but when a particular stage in the advance has been reached, the other group jerks back to a certain point to make a fresh start and so prolong the journey" (1920: 41). Conrad's fictional treatment of ageing suggests that he had reached Freud's "particular stage in the advance" about the time he would reach his creative peak. His correspondence also shows an increasing awareness of ageing and a desire to return to "unfinished dramas." Writing to R. B Cunninghame Graham in February 1898, Conrad reiterated his concern about the passage of time by quoting Horace: "Eheu! Fugaces! Excuse these tears." [Alas, the fleeting years are slipping by] (CL2 36). In April, he wrote to Graham implying that, despite his friend's more advanced years, ageing affected him more: "Don't take it into your head that you are getting old ...[I] have felt over-tasked ever since the age of 28" (CL2 56). Later he wrote, echoing Petrarch's famous dismissal of the idea of the ages of man: "A moment, a twinkling of an eye and nothing remains" (CL2 70).2

The awareness of fleeting years brought a corresponding acknowledgement of the benefits of the past: "I had in years gone by a certain reputation for courage. Now, no doubt, all this is changed the spirit being brushed out of me by the tyranny of mysterious sensations, yet still a spark, a dim spark exists somewhere - a vestige of the old fire under the tepid ruins" (CL2 97). What Conrad suggests here is that the memory of past experience can hold up the "tepid ruins" of the present, something he praises in Graham's The Ipané: "things in that volume ... like magic and through space, through the distance of regretted years convey to one the actual feeling, the sights, the sounds, the thoughts; one steps on the earth; breathes the air and has the sensations of your past" (CL2 179).

In writing "Youth" and "Heart of Darkness" Conrad appeared to find an alleviating effect in revivifying his past, but when presenting it, he insisted that its true meaning remained private and not fully transmittable. To W. E. Henley, who accepted The Nigger of the æ Naras sus" for serialization in the New Review, he wrote:

Were I to write and talk till Doomsday you would never really know what it all means to me. You would not know because You never had just the same experience. Therein I have the advantage of you and I shall hug this incredible, amazing, fabulous precious advantage with both hands, I shall hug it as long as I can grip anything at all "in this valley. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.