Contextualizing and Comprehending Joseph Conrad's "The Return."

By Billy, the Kid | Studies in Short Fiction, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Contextualizing and Comprehending Joseph Conrad's "The Return."


Billy, the Kid, Studies in Short Fiction


There is nothing behind the curtain other than that which is in

front of it.

G. W. F. Hegel

"It's death to come back. There's been overmuch of coming back

of late. . . "

Abel Magwitch (Great Expectations)

There are few works by Joseph Conrad that have been so consistently neglected, if not hastily condemned, as the short story "The Return."(1) This is unfortunate, because if this tale is experienced within appropriate conceptual and technical contexts, it proves to be a quality work of art. Conrad's fiction consistently generates a context of anxious yearning for reassurance, if not certitudes, in a cosmos embodying primarily recalcitrant transformations--"the immensity of . . . vague and burning desire" (NN 134),(2) "all mankind longing for what cannot be attained" (TU 179). Willems's thoughts are typical:

Round him ceaselessly there went on without a sound them ad

turmoil.... He wanted to clasp, to embrace solid things; he had

an immense craving . . . for touching, pressing, seeing, handling,

holding on, to all these things. (OI 331)

Because this desire is typically expressed through metaphors of grasping and clinging, Conrad's male protagonists repeatedly resort to analogies that are gendered as feminine when they struggle to comprehend frustratingly elusive phenomena. Thus, conceptual limitations often emerge in or near conjugal bedrooms, and superficial, socially imposed relationships, expectations, and categories founder. It is such a crisis that "The Return" anatomizes in conceptual and rhetorical terms that are commonly encountered primarily in the art of the nineteenth century. Indeed, John R. Reed in Victorian Conventions devotes an entire chapter to a discussion of them (see 216-49).

In Conrad's fiction intense, unspecified desire for coherence and comfort haunts most everyone, even barely articulate drudges. Aboard the Narcissus, after the ship once again is righted and the crew becomes belligerent, Captain Allistoun poses the challenge "What do you want?" (NN 130), which goes unanswered. In "The Return," Alvan Hervey's wife eventually formulates the same question, "What did they [men] want?" (TU 176-77); but she gets a reply, of sorts. Her husband expresses his incongruously aesthetic "picturesque desire" by stammering "I want . . . to . . . to . . . know" (TU 185; original ellipses). Satisfaction of this need is conceived in terms of physical appropriation, an ability "to grasp" (TU153). Thus, each partner at different moments reaches toward the other: Hervey's wife "made one faltering step towards him, putting out her hands," and later he himself "made a step forward, putting his arms out" (TU 153, 178). However, both proffered embraces go unanswered, as they must, since they are tropes for "desire of a certitude" in a cosmos that itself offers "Nothing within-nothing, nothing" (TU 182, 184). And the tale ends with Hervey vanishing into the night after enacting physically his completed wisdom, having "flung both his arms out, as if to push her away" (TU 186), apparently reconciled to the perpetual absence of any "return" at all.

Such moments of what might be termed "frustrated embrace" recur in Conrad's works with remarkable frequency both as dramatic scenes involving characters who clutch at one another and as syntactic structures bearing figurative import (see, e.g., TU39; 11Z) 115, 136; LJ416; N 182, 354; AG 224; TLS 69-70, 189).(3) Indeed, The Rover practically begins with the phrase "vanished as soon as grasped" (1). In extreme cases, such moments mimic the topos of "Adam's dream,"(4) which Keats interrogates in "The Eve of St. Agnes," "Lamia," and "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," and which Conrad parodies in Lord Jim by means of Stein's remark, "I had dreamed of [it] in my sleep and here suddenly I had [it] in my fingers" (LJ 211).

A glance at literary history is useful. …

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