Joseph Conrad

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Joseph Conrad

Ralph Maltese

Heart of Darkness is the novel most high schools use to teach Joseph Conrad.  My favorite Conrad work is Secret Agent, a novel set in a time when anarchists were prolific.  I found that, because of degree of difficulty and length, Secret Sharer seemed to work better.  Conrad is a psychological novelist, meaning that he portrays much of what is going on within the human psyche.

Secret Sharer involves two young men heading in different directions---one on the way to acceptance in society as a ship’s captain and the other doomed to be a fugitive…..destined for the gates of Erebus.  The youthful captain ponders the circumstances that brought his stowaway to his currect situation, and realizes that, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  Conrad is not subtle in his titles.  What the captain and the fugitive share a cultural background that makes Leggatt, the fugitive’s, fortune more ironic.

Using Secret Sharer as a background, I ask students to explore the different components that make up their own personalities.  I ask them to investigate Freud and Jung and ask them to consider both in examining their own makeups.  Then we go into one of the exercises I list on other pages of this website.

I composed these notes after reading David Thorburn’s “Conrad’s Romanticism.”

Theme of Secret Sharer—the obstacles to be overcome in the process of maturation.  Process of becoming “good enough.”

Two types of obstacles:

1)      internal—lack of confidence

2)      external—hindrances to one’s maturation imposed by the macrocosm.

Legatt is a ghostly figure—symbolizes another side of the captain’s character.

Secret Sharer belongs to Conrad’s early period where the dark power lurks in us all---Legatt is the evil side of us—Captain leaves him at the realm of the dead (Erebus) towering black mass of Koh-ring, which is “like the very gateway of Erebus.”

Our communion extends even to murderers.  Secret Sharer is a symbolic study of man’s self-awareness, particularly of his subconscious mind.

“The young commander must find out that the meeting between man and his darker self is dangerous.  They can combat the foe of self-distrust with the weapon of self-knowledge.  It is a double-edged weapon, but the only one which gives man the power to free himself from the dark forces preying on his nature.”  Adam Gillon, The Eternal Solitary, p. 102

Quest for self-knowledge.

“The captain is the secret sharer, isolated by his secret; he will arrive at more profound self-understanding after he has solved the problems of Legatt and helped him.”  Gillon

“The captain also has his secret which sets him apart from his crew”---we live as we dream---alone.” Gillon page 108.

Theme is the underlying kinship between all men—saint and sinner.

Story of identity.---an alienation from himself—when separated temporarily from Leggat, it seems as if “part of me is absent.”  He has become unsure of himself, neglecting to give orders which had always been second nature to him.

Asks “Who am I?”  “If all the truth must be told, I was somewhat of a stranger to myself.”  “What am I?”  “I wondered how far I should turn out faithful to that ideal of one’s own personality every man sets up for himself secretly.”

“Was he like the Captain of the Sephora or like Leggat?”---(Dowden)

“The account of Conrad provided in the following pages questions this impulse to transform the author of Typhoon into an image of ourselves.  My argument is revisionist, even in a sense conservative, and emphasizes Conrad’s affinities with the fin-de-siècle tradition of the adventure story and, ultimately, with the Romantic poets.  In his very subjects and in his dominant attitudes toward those subjects, I want to suggest, Conrad was in fundamental ways a man of the nineteenth century, and his affinities with Wordsworth especially are even stronger and more decisive than his connection with, say, Kafka and other prophets of our disorder.  To say this is not entirely to deny Conrad’s modernity, but to qualify it by making two related assertions which it will be part of my purpose to try to justify:  first, that Conrad habitually relied on what must be called Romantic modes of storytelling and created fictional worlds in which alienation, despair, and human separateness are contained,  however precariously,  by a stoic Romanticism grounded in a sense of human sharing and continuity and second, that the increasingly powerful argument for Romanticism itself as a modern tradition—the phrase is Robert Langbaum’s—receives convincing, perhaps crucial support from Conrad’s example…that I have felt it unnecessary to spend much time talking about Conrad’s escapist tendencies, his exoticism, his neo-primitivism,.  Further, the aspects of his work on which I do focus—his preoccupation with the drama of maturation, his richly elegiac interest in “things far distant and men who have lived,” his intensive self-reflexiveness—all this is so commonly understood to characterize those writers everyone agrees to call Romantic that it would seem supererogatory to offer yet another systematic definition.”  Pps.  X,xi, xii.  Thorburn

Theme of isolation.

Strategy—students will examine secret self.  (All men descend from one ancestor—nation states play upon some emotion to cause war—they emphasize differences—but the truth is that when we war, we murder ourselves.

Strategy—writing assignment

Write a short narrative describing a chance meeting with your other self—that part of you which is normally hidden from the view of others and, often, from yourself.  You may construct any scenario to portray this inner self, and you may use any legitimate literary technique.

Last Updated on Thursday, 16 December 2010 18:03



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