Whose Youth? Whose Death?: Disrupting the Unequal Encounter between an Ascending West and a Decaying East in Joseph Conrad's "Youth"

By Kao, Pei-wen Clio | Conradiana, Spring-Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Whose Youth? Whose Death?: Disrupting the Unequal Encounter between an Ascending West and a Decaying East in Joseph Conrad's "Youth"


Kao, Pei-wen Clio, Conradiana


In his survey of the significance of the maritime tradition in Joseph Conrad's life and writing, Mark Larabee singles out three aspects that had the greatest impact on the writer: trade, fidelity, and craft. In fact, these three dimensions were interlocking in the formation of the British Merchant Service that in turn strengthened the growth of the British Empire: the commercial trade consolidated the economic cornerstone of colonial enterprise; the fidelity of seamanship shaped the solidarity and loyalty of the British people to dedicate themselves to her imperialist cause; the technologies of craftsmanship empowered the overseas expansion of the empire's territories. When viewed through the lens of the British maritime tradition that formed the pillar of Conrad's sea fiction, the writer's works inevitably reflect the ethnocentric perspective of an empire in the heyday of its maritime hegemony. Accordingly, it could be anticipated that the early reviews of the short sea story "Youth" would focus on glorifying imperial maritime power and its representation of British heroism with a encomium of national supremacy (Middleton 53). (1) Its title seemed to implicate it in the imperialist project of myth-making celebrating the youth and strength of an "empire where the sun never sets," in contrast to the aging of its colonial land that had become the "white man's burden."

Since John Howard Will's 1962 article on Conrad's "Youth," which called for more critical attention and revaluation of this "neglected masterpiece," a number of critics have followed Will's steps to explore the themes of youth and aging, as well as the techniques of symbolism and allegory perfected by Conrad in this densely-written short story. Nevertheless, with the advent of postcolonial studies in the 1980s within the context of decolonization and redistributions of global power, Conrad criticism underwent a transnational turn that introduced the perspective of colonized peoples, re-examined textual meanings, and re-thought interpretative possibilities. Recent critics such as Tom Middleton (49) and John Peters (52-4) in their introductions to the story are both concerned with how the text undermines the theme of youth and its glorification, while intertwining youth and old age in the figure of empire. In Conrad's Trojan Horse, Tom Henthorne borrows Bakhtin's concept of "intentional hybridity" to analyze Conrad's "postcolonial aesthetics" as an aesthetics that seeks to criticize imperialism implicitly and insinuatingly under the guise of expressing the very same ideology through the employment of "misdirection" and "subterfuge." His reading of "Youth" presents Marlow as exerting an alternative perspective to that of the frame-narrator, whose tribute to the empire and imperialism serves as the outer cloak to disguise the former's critique of imperialist ideology as well as his awareness of its true nature. Marliena Saracino starts from the postcolonial concept of "liminality" and the poststructuralist one of "aporia" to address the border-crossing nature of Conrad's works defined as a process of "becoming" rather than of "being" as represented in "Youth." Focusing on the points of transition and undecidability in the short story, Saracino elaborates on Conrad's fascination with the "finitude of human beings" (70), which is reflected in the texts unresolved tensions between youth and aging, life and death, and times of past and present. William W. Bonney, on the other hand, re-examines Conrad's relationship with the "Oriental" from the writer's appropriation of the Oriental philosophy based on Schopenhauer's elaboration of it in The World as Will and Idea. From Schopenhauer's book comes Conrad's knowledge of the Hindu-Buddhist philosophy of "cosmic absence" and the "void" that helps the latter criticize the Western metaphysics of linear progress as well as its certainty of the self. Accordingly, in his reading of "Youth," Bonney points out that the central problem of the tale lies in the title-word "youth" itself which reveals its obsession with the linear temporality and its blind value judgment of "the potentially integrated continuum of human growth" (25). …

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