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Conrad's literary response to the First World War.

It is well known that the First World War had a profound effect on many writers. The tragedy of the war itself, and the fact that it ran so counter to the idea of the evolutionary progress that permeated Western civilization before its outbreak, brought about profound disillusionment. Conrad, however, appears to be among the few writers of the time whose work does not exhibit the same disillusionment as that of his fellow writers. This essay argues that Conrad, unlike his fellow writers, felt none of the optimistic spirit about the progress of Western civilization beforehand. Long before the war, Conrad felt the same skeptical disillusionment that began to appear in the works of Conrad's fellow writers after the war. The First World War merely reinforced Conrad's already profound skepticism regarding Western civilization.

The influence of the First World War on most Modernist writers is well known. T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922) and Ezra Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) are perhaps the two most notable examples of literary responses to the war, but the effects of the war are unmistakable on numerous other literary works from Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927) to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925), and perhaps to Ernest Hemingway's entire oeuvre; in the aftermath of the war, all expressed great disillusionment toward traditional Western views of the world. Samuel Hynes suggests that much of the postwar literature was a "reaction against the prewar world and its values" and could "be described as iconoclastic, or disillusioned, or cynical, or disenchanted" (Hynes 1990, 339). The massive loss of life and dehumanizing nature of the first truly mechanized war, with its use of chemical weapons and trench warfare, had a profound effect both on those who participated in it and those who witnessed its consequences. Hynes also argues that the war "brought to an end the life and values of Victorian and Edwardian England; but it did something more fundamental than that: it added a new scale of violence and destruction to what was possible--it changed reality" (Hynes 1990, xi). The First World War was certainly a war unlike any preceding it in the physical devastation and moral disillusionment it left behind. Furthermore, the fact that it appeared to contradict so violently the dominant Western idea of civilization's evolutionary progress brought about a widespread loss of faith in the claims of Western civilization.

Joseph Conrad, however, appears to be one of the few writers of the time whose work written during and after the war does not exhibit the same disillusionment as that of his fellow writers. Conrad certainly despaired at what happened during the war, and was skeptical toward Western values, but he was not disillusioned by the war. Instead, it seems that the First World War so corroborated Conrad's already existing skepticism that he no longer felt it necessary to foreground such views as he had once done, and instead submerged these views into the background of his later works. While other writers expressed their disillusionment with traditional Western views after the war, Conrad concentrated on human relationships, trying to identify a means by which one could construct at least an ephemeral meaning for existence in a universe that Conrad had long since considered devoid of any transcendent meaning. Furthermore, unlike many of his contemporaries, Conrad felt none of the general optimism regarding the state of Western society or the direction of its future progress prior to the war's outbreak. Samuel Hynes remarks of those prewar years, "Writers on Edwardian England are inclined to call the time 'golden'--'a golden afternoon' or 'a golden security'--or ... a 'long garden party' (1968, 4). Even with the onset of the conflict itself, disillusionment with the war and with Western progress did not become widespread for quite some time. Rather, as Roland N. Stromberg notes:
  Among leading philosophers, Henri Bergson of France and
  Max Scheler of Germany wrote passionate pans to war. ...
  It was not only the idealists who cheered for war; one
  could add Ernst Haeckel, Frederic Harrison, Sigmund Freud,
  Emile Durkheim, or the venerable Russian Marxist Georgy
  Plekhanov. . With equally rare exceptions the greatest poets
  and novelists were included: Stefan George, Thomas Mann,
  Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Claudel, Andre Gide, Marcel Proust,
  Anatole France. ... old Henry James and Thomas Hardy, Arnold
  Bennett, H. G. Wells, and the Russian poets Mayakovsky,
  Esenin, Gumilyev, Blok. (Stromberg 1982, 2)

And the list goes on, as Stromberg details the optimism felt by so many of that time as to the enlivening effects of war. As he notes, such prewar optimism also appeared in the literature of the time, for example in the work of the Georgian poets. In fact, even among war poets such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Ivor Gurney, and others, the power of their poetry comes from the fact that they had entered the conflict optimistically, only to become tragically disillusioned before its close. (1)

These sentiments, though, stand in stark contrast to Conrad's view of civilized progress. Sharply diverging from the optimism of Edwardian England and long before the outbreak of the war, Conrad expressed the same skepticism toward traditional Western views and values that only began to appear in the works of his fellow authors writing in the wake of the war. Similarly, he was equally doubtful concerning the direction of Western society, civilized progress, and the possible perfectability of humanity and human social entities. Mark A. Wollaeger has insightfully interrogated Conrad's skepticism, arguing that "in Conrad's best work skepticism remains continually at odds with the various forms of refuge afforded by his recurrent trope of the sheltered retreat" (Wollaeger 1990, 2). I would add that this pattern appears consistently throughout Conrad's works, not just in his best work; and, as Wollaeger implies, these various shelters from skepticism always prove to be merely temporary. As early as Conrad's first novels, Almayer's Folly (1895) and An Outcast of the Islands (1896), he revealed his lack of faith in the Western way of looking at the world in his critique of colonialism and in his critique of Western superiority, a stance that in many ways mirrors that of the postwar milieu. Such doubts became even more pronounced with the publication of "An Outpost of Progress" (1897), in which he questioned even more radically not only the future of civilization but also its then present state. The story's darkly ironic title signals Conrad's views regarding the widespread idea of progress, and, as the story's civilized protagonists become progressively more de-civilized, "An Outpost of Progress" becomes a study of regress rather than progress. "Heart of Darkness" (1899) expresses still more clearly a profound criticism of civilization. At each point at which civilization appears in Africa, it appears as either out of place (the chief accountant's Western attire), absurd (the French gunboat firing into a continent), or actually detrimental (the grove of death). By the story's end, it has become apparent that for Conrad the West is not founded upon absolute truths, and that the progress it had achieved is of questionable value. The other major novels that followed--Lord Jim (1900), Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907), and Under Western Eyes (1911)--similarly critique Western values and progress. All of these works appeared prior to the First World War, and demonstrate as critical an attitude towards Western civilization and its claims for future progress as any of the postwar literary works of Conrad's contemporaries.

Furthermore, the skepticism exhibited in Conrad's prewar works, unlike that of many of the postwar writers, is not limited to Western values. Conrad's doubts reach so far as to question the very nature of human existence and of the universe. In Heart of Darkness, for instance, Marlow remarks, "Droll thing life is--that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of you comes too late--a crop of unextinguishable regrets" (Conrad 1928l, 150). Even more to the point perhaps, when Decoud commits suicide in Nostromo, the narrator notes: "After a clear day break the sun appeared splendidly above the peaks of the range. The great gulf burst into a glitter all around the boat[.] ... [T]he brilliant Don Martin Decoud, weighted by the bars of San Tome silver, disappeared without a trace, swallowed up in the immense indifference of things" (Conrad 1928b, 500-01). A somewhat similar effect occurs in "Youth," published in 1898, when Marlow relates that after the explosion of the Judea: "[T]he peace of the sky and the serenity of the sea were distinctly surprising. I suppose I expected to see them convulsed with horror" (Conrad 1928l, 24). In each of these incidents, Conrad emphasizes the indifference of the universe, along with the unbridgeable gulf that lies between the human and natural worlds. Similarly, Conrad chronicles the lives of characters in "Falk," published in 1903, "An Anarchist," published in 1906, "The Duel," published in 1908, and Under Western Eyes, who find themselves at the mercy of an absurd universe, unable to control or make sense of their existence. In "Falk," the narrator inexplicably finds himself the victim of Falk's aggression, unaware that Falk perceives him to be a romantic rival for the affections of Hermann's niece (Conrad 1928i, 186). In "An Anarchist," Paul is labeled an anarchist (which he is not) on the strength of a few drunken statements, which result in his imprisonment, blackballing from employment, and eventual further imprisonment on St. Joseph's Island (Conrad 1928a, 147). In "The Duel," D'Hubert becomes embroiled in a duel with Feraud based upon the flimsiest of pretexts and then finds himself forced to continue this combat on a number of occasions over a number of years, unable to escape from the duel (Conrad 1928a, 175-176). In Under Western Eyes, Razumov finds himself in a world largely outside his control once Victor Haldin appears in Razumov's rooms and his political neutrality thereafter becomes impossible (Conrad 1928j, 15-16).

Perhaps Conrad's most profoundly skeptical statement, however, appears in a well-known letter to R.B. Cunninghame Graham:
  There is a--let us say--a machine. It evolved itself ... out
  of a chaos of scraps of iron and behold!--it knits. I am
  horrified at the horrible work and stand appalled. I feel it
  ought to embroider--but it goes on knitting. ... And the most
  withering thought is that the infamous thing has made itself;
  made itself without thought, without conscience, without
  foresight, without eyes, without heart. It is a tragic
  accident--and it has happened. You can't interfere with it.
  The last drop of bitterness is in the suspicion that you can't
  even smash it. In virtue of that truth one and immortal which
  lurks in the force that made it spring into existence it is what
  it is--and it is indestructible! It knits us in and it knits us
  out. It has knitted time[,] space, pain, death, corruption,
  despair and all the illusions--and nothing matters.
  (Conrad 1983, 425)

This letter was written on December 20, 1897, and reveals just how early in Conrad's literary career his skepticism regarding any form of transcendent meaning had already become firmly fixed.

Other writers working in prewar Edwardian England, such as Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells, John Galsworthy, and George Gissing, expressed views critical of Western society, but their concerns were different from Conrad's because their criticism was directed toward society's injustices--not toward society's underlying philosophical assumptions. In contrast to such writers, Conrad's criticism was not of Western social practices and policies merely but rather of the fundamental presuppositions upon which they rested. He was not entirely alone at that time in his attitude toward the Western view of world. After Conrad's first forays into skepticism toward Western attitudes, E. M. Forster in Howards End (Two) and Ford Madox Ford in The Good Soldier (1915), for instance, expressed somewhat similar reservations, although Conrad's criticism is more radical in that he not only questioned the preeminence of Western civilization and its values, but also the very meaning of human existence and the existence of an ordered universe. Even so, such authors as Conrad, Forster, and Ford were minority voices in Western society, voices crying in the wilderness, as it were, that would not be heard until the disillusionment resulting from the cataclysm of the First World War would become a literary commonplace.

Conrad's lack of disillusionment is further evident in his works written during the war: The Shadow-Line (1917), "The Tale" (1917), and "The Warrior's Soul" (1917). The Shadow-Line, despite being dedicated to Conrad's son Borys and his compatriots in the war, lacks any direct implications reflecting the idea of war. (2) "The Warrior's Soul" is set during the Napoleonic wars, and the First World War was clearly in the back of Conrad's mind. In this story, Conrad most obviously represents the devastation of war in his chronicle of Napoleon's retreating forces as they abandon their disastrous Russian campaign, and what becomes clear in the story is that had it been left up to Tomassov and De Castel (friends before the war but opponents after its outbreak), the war never would have occurred. For Conrad, individuals are always the ones crushed between larger political forces. Nevertheless, the story's primary emphasis rests on the moral dilemma Tomassov faces when De Castel asks that he kill him to repay the debt he owes for the warning that allowed Tomassov to escape Paris when war broke out (Conrad 1928d, 26). More striking still is "The Tale," Conrad's only work of fiction actually set during the First World War, in which the ship's captain is left not knowing whether he has sent a crew of innocent or guilty men to their deaths (1928d, 80). "The Tale" certainly highlights the tragedy and exigencies of war. As Celia Malone Kingsbury correctly suggests, the captain has been subject to "war hysteria, ... acting on the basis of hearsay" (Kingsbury 2002, 113), but the personal moral conflict and guilt he endures bear the greater emphasis in the story. Despite being set during a time of war, "The Tale," like "The Warrior's Soul," develops such that the war becomes almost ancillary to the profound moral struggles of the story's protagonist; and with some minor changes, Conrad just as easily might have set it during the Napoleonic wars. In both "The Warrior's Soul" and "The Tale," moral conflict rather than the horrors of war are what Conrad most forcefully underscores. Those wartime horrors that do appear lead not toward developing a new-found attitude of disillusionment, but merely toward reinforcing the already-existing sense of doubt evident in Conrad's earlier works.

Nor do Conrad's works change in this respect after the war. Richard Niland suggests that "[w]hile many postwar writers, such as Ford, Joseph Roth, and Thomas Mann, returned to prewar culture in their work, Conrad looked further back . ... By placing himself in the nineteenth century and by employing conventional methods of representation, Conrad ... experienced the solace of memory and historical escapism" (Niland 2009, 161). Although Niland is right about the shift of historical period and the solace and escapism such settings may have provided for Conrad, skepticism remains in these later works. Like Ni land, Cedric Watts also sees a shift in Conrad's later writings: "As Conrad aged and eventually prospered, the skepticism faded and some very traditional affirmations (patriotism, solidarity, love) gained prominence. His outlook became more conventional; the writings lost their verve" (Watts 1990, 207). Many commentators would agree with Watts's assessment of Conrad's later work. (3) He is correct: overt skepticism does fade, and the element of affirmation does increase. However, skepticism still lies covertly in these works, as Watts would probably admit. I would argue that Conrad's later writings continue to betray his attitude of doubt; it merely becomes more submerged than in his earlier works. Further, the element of affirmation in Conrad's later works does not represent the movement toward a conventional outlook, but is rather yet another ephemeral shelter from doubt. Wollaeger also sees a change in Conrad's later works, arguing that "in much of his later writing shelters lock out skepticism with increasing effectiveness" (1990, 170). Wollaeger further suggests that "skepticism is still an issue, but, no longer a crucial force governing literary construction, it becomes rather an explicit topic of discussion within the text" (170. I would argue instead that skepticism remains more than a topic of discussion, and remains at the core of Conrad's view of the world. His novels written around the time of the First World War and during its aftermath, with their typical emphasis on romance, reveal a skepticism lying beneath that romance; they suggest that in a world where so much death and suffering had occurred, in a world where nothing can be known with any certainty, in a world where no transcendent meaning for human existence can be discerned, the only possibility for at least contingent meaning may lie in human relationships, whether it be through the social solidarity of The Shadow-Line or the mutual solidarity of Victory (1915). In The Shadow-Line, the crew members forge a meaning for their existence through their increased self-knowledge, and through their cooperative struggle to survive, while in Victory Lena and Heyst forge such a meaning by establishing a connection between them. Heyst himself recognizes this fact, albeit too late, when he says: "Ah, Davidson, woe to the man whose heart has not learned while young to hope, to love--and to put its trust in life!" (Conrad 1928k, 410). At the same time, the absurdity and helplessness of the crew's plight in The Shadow-Line in the face of illness and deadly calm and of Lena and Heyst's plight in Victory in the face of Mr. Jones and company resembles that which had appeared earlier in "Falk," "The Duel," "An Anarchist," and Under Western Eyes.

In the same way, despite the strong elements of romance that appear in Chance (1914), Victory, and the post-war novels, The Arrow of Gold (1919), The Rescue (1920), and The Rover (1923), nothing suggests that Conrad views the world with any less doubt than he had earlier in his career. The aspects of romance in Chance, for example, are counterbalanced by the overarching idea that chance governs events, such that it becomes clear that the characters exhibit little actual control over their existence and are subject to the largely uncontrollable and unpredictable buffeting of chance. In Conrad's postwar novels, not only has his skepticism not disappeared, but just the opposite seems to be true. It remains strong--only further from the surface. In The Arrow of Gold, for instance, what becomes particularly apparent is that although the entire edifice of the novel is constructed upon the Carlist plot, the patriotic and political sentiments the characters must have held in order to have become involved in such a dangerous undertaking receive no real emphasis (Conrad 1928e, 338-339). Instead, romance appears at the forefront of the novel's action and focus. Even acknowledging the weaknesses resulting from such an emphasis, what seems to provide meaning for the characters, particularly for Monsieur George and Dona Rita, are human relationships, not political sentiments or loyalties, an attitude not unlike what appeared in Conrad's earlier political novels, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, and Under Western Eyes. Similarly in The Rescue, again despite the romance, we find the same questioning of Western civilization's preeminent position that had surfaced in the other novels in Conrad's Malay trilogy (Almayer's Folly and An Outcast of the Islands), as Hassim and Immada appear far more noble than any of the Westerners, including Lingard. Furthermore, Conrad's vision in this work is by far the darkest regarding any possible mutual understanding between East and West, and the element of betrayal--which occupies such a prominent position in so many of Conrad's earlier works--is also one of the primary points of emphasis in The Rescue (Conrad, 1928f, 449-450). Finally, in The Rover, set during the Napoleonic wars, Conrad's critique appears in yet another form. When Peyrol takes Real's place and sacrifices his life for the French cause, he does so not so much out of loyalty to France as out of loyalty to Arlette, whom he has come to see as a surrogate daughter. In this way, he allows her relationship with Real to come to fruition and a new generation to take root. For Peyrol, meaning for his existence has come not through patriotic sentiment, nor even through a belief in the abstract principle of the value of self-sacrifice, but rather through the concrete human relationships he has forged since returning to France (Conrad 1928g, 250. As is clear from these novels, written during and after the First World War, Conrad remained doubtful concerning the transcendent ideals and philosophical presuppositions of the West. And despite the muted presence of these ideals in his later works, he had not abandoned such views but simply shifted his emphasis away from what had become by then a much more widely accepted conception of the world. He focused instead on the hope for some kind of meaning, ephemeral though it may be, through human relationships, whether romantic or communal. Consequently, although in his later works Conrad appears to affirm Western values, he never held that civilization was based upon absolute truths, nor that it was evolving toward a better social organization. Instead, for Conrad Western civilization was always presented as the least questionable of questionable alternatives. The only other option was to accept utter nihilism, which he could not do. As the narrator remarks in Victory: "For every age is fed on illusions, lest men should renounce life early and the human race come to an end" (Conrad 1928k, 94).

Conrad's doubts concerning traditional Western views were not all that prevented him from feeling disillusioned about the First World War. He also failed to feel so because in fact he was not surprised by the war. For many years he had anticipated Germany being at the center of a large conflict. In his 1918 essay "First News," Conrad remarks:
  Four years ago, on the first day of August, in the town
  of Cracow, Austrian Poland, nobody would believe that
  the war was coming. My apprehensions were met by
  the words: "We have had these scares before." This
  incredulity was so universal amongst people of intelligence
  and information, that even I, who had accustomed myself to
  look at the inevitable .for years past, felt my conviction
  shaken. (Conrad 1928c, 174; emphasis added)

From this passage, we can deduce that Conrad, unlike many of his contemporaries, clearly expected war to break out, and any momentary illusions of continued peace he felt died when England declared war two days later and he found himself caught behind enemy lines. Furthermore, nearly a decade earlier in his 1905 essay "Autocracy and War," occasioned by the Russo-Japanese War of 1904.1905, Conrad predicted future conflict in Europe: "War is with us now; and, whether this one ends soon or late, war will be with us again" (Conrad 1905, 18-19). In the same essay, Conrad goes on to explain why he felt such inevitability about the prospects for war:
  Pangermanism is by no means a shape of mists, and Germany
  is anything but a Neant where thought and effort are likely
  to lose themselves without sound or trace. It is a powerful
  and voracious organism, full of unscrupulous self-confidence,
  whose appetite for aggrandisement will only be limited by the
  power of helping itself to the severed members of its friends
  and neighbours. (Conrad 1905, 15)

Later in this essay, he elaborates on why he saw Germany at the center of a large-scale future conflict:
  The German eagle with a Prussian head looks all round the
  horizon not so much for something to do that would count for
  good in the records of the earth, as simply for something good
  to get. He gazes upon the land and upon the sea with the same
  covetous steadiness, for he has become of late a maritime eagle,
  and has learned to box the compass. He gazes north and south,
  and east and west, and is inclined to look intemperately upon the
  waters of the Mediterranean when they are blue. The disappearance
  of the Russian phantom has given a foreboding of unwonted freedom
  to the Welt-poiitik. According to the national tendency this
  assumption of Imperial impulses would run into the grotesque were
  it not for the spikes of the pickelhaubes [German helmets) peeping
  out grimly from behind. Germany's attitude proves that no peace for
  the earth can be found in the expansion of material interests which
  she seems to have adopted exclusively as her only aim, ideal, and
  watchword. (Conrad 1905, 21)

Conrad believed that German expansionist desires, along with a strong emphasis on material development in Germany and throughout Europe, would eventually come to an inevitable clash of interests and finally result in military conflict. In this belief, Conrad proved prophetic.

All of this is not to say that Conrad was unaffected by the First World War. On the contrary, his letters often reflect deep despair regarding the events and results of the war. In fact, when it began he appears to have been considerably more affected than most of his contemporaries, since he felt none of the prewar optimism toward civilized progress, nor any of the initial approval of the war that so many other intellectuals felt. Instead, in a letter to Ralph Wedgwood written not long after the declaration of war, Conrad remarks that "the thoughts of this war sit on one's chest like a nightmare" (1996, 427). Similarly, on August 30, 1915 he writes to Ford Madox Ford: "Our world of 15 years ago is gone to pieces; what will come in its place God knows, but I imagine doesn't care" (1996, 503). Nor did his despair lessen as the war dragged on, but rather seemed to increase in intensity. In a letter to John Quinn in August 1917, Conrad comments that, "nowadays it's difficult to get any sort of mood to last--except the war-nightmare mood which makes one a little sick of life. That's so. No use concealing it" (2002, 112). Conrad laments to Christopher Sandeman that same year: "Je me demande what on earth one can write to a friend in these times? A speechless stare would about meet the situation, but one can't send that in a letter. And words somehow die on one's lips" (124). In this same vein, he observes to Richard Curie that, "All one's interior and private life is knocked into a cocked hat every morning by the public news of which you know as much as I do" (152). Even more important perhaps, in a letter to his British publisher J. M. Dent dated December 4, 1916, Conrad speaks to the war's effect on his work:
  You mustn't be angry with me for the delay. My psychology
  has been affected by the way of inability to concentrate.
  I am sorry--but helpless. It isn't so much the war itself
  as the course it has taken which is the cause of that
  unsatisfactory state. I am more emotional, it appears,
  than I imagined myself to be. (Conrad 1996, 682)

More specifically, in a letter to Eugene F. Saxton (August 77, 1975), he remarks: "I am not neglecting it [The Rescue). But my deepest feelings are engaged in the momentous events of the time just now. I am not fit either mentally or physically for my work every day" (1996, 500). These letters, and others like them (see for example 1996, 425; 2003, 302, 304; 2005, 506), demonstrate Conrad's constant concern over the war, a concern that went so far as to affect even his ability to write.

Linked to his despair about the war in general, Conrad knew a number of people killed in the conflict, among them the young poet Edward Thomas who had once stayed with Conrad and his family. He also knew others who had lost loved ones in the fighting. Furthermore, Conrad was worried about the safety of his own son Borys, who enlisted in 1917. He reveals his fears in a letter to Helen Sanderson, dated April 20, 1918: "During the first days of the German attack I lived in an agony of apprehension for I knew that his [Borys'si battery was in the very thickest of things" (2002, 201). Conrad reiterates these concerns shortly afterward in a letter written that same month to Borys himself: "I had the most anxious time of my life" (204). In fact, Conrad had good reason to worry, since later in 1918 Borys would be gassed and suffer shell shock, which forced him to be invalided away from the front lines. At that time, Conrad commented to Katherine Sanderson that, "Our eldest boy has been shell-shocked and gassed severely enough to be sent to a base hospital just about 3 weeks ago" (297). And in a letter to William Rothenstein, he elaborates on the event and his reaction to it: "Borys is in N0 8 Red Cross base hospital after being knocked down by a H. Z. [Howitzer] and also gassed. When this happened he was with his batty [battery} Major. They were both much bruised and shaken. I got a shock from the War office wire. A most horrid fright" (294). Later, he reveals the seriousness of the incident to Sir Hugh Clifford: "After several weeks in hospital in France he is now with us on a month's convalescent leave" (350). Conrad also mentions the event in letters to Sir Sidney Colvin (291), J. B. Pinker (292), and Edward Garnett (335). With the wounding of Borys, the war came home to Conrad with an even more forceful immediacy than it had to some of his literary contemporaries who became so very disillusioned because of the war.

Given Conrad's comments on the war, he appears to have felt an almost paralyzing despair at the war's progress that was every bit as strong as that of his contemporaries. Conrad had lived at various times in Poland, France, and England, and, as a result of his personal experience with the war, as well as his awareness of the tragedies all of Europe was experiencing, his despondent view of the state of the world is understandable. Although Conrad despaired as a result of the war, my argument here is that his despair is different from that of so many others, in that he felt none of the accompanying disillusionment his contemporaries felt; and so, unlike those authors, no resulting feelings of disillusionment permeate his works written during and after the war. That the war so corroborated his doubts regarding Western civilization confirmed Conrad's existential despair; but he was not disillusioned, because for him there was nothing about which to become disillusioned. Any illusions he may have held about the progress of civilization or the perfectability of humanity in general had long since disappeared, and the events of the war could only reinforce his already existing and profound skepticism. Instead, Conrad's life experience was markedly different from that of most of his literary contemporaries. As a boy, he accompanied his parents into exile in Russia and witnessed their subsequent premature deaths as well as the deaths of other friends and relatives during the 1863 Polish uprising and its aftermath. Conrad, who had seen so much tragedy at so young an age, and who had experienced so much of the world during his maritime career, found it difficult to look optimistically at the progress of civilization or its future in the years prior to the war. What the First World War made clear to others had long since been painfully apparent to him.


(1.) Isaac Rosenberg is an exception to this general pattern among the war poets; he enlisted in the British Army out of poverty, and his view of the world exhibits almost as much skepticism as that of Conrad. Furthermore, although his poetry evidences the horrors of war, such events do not lead to a sense of disillusionment the way it does with the other war poets. He seems instead to have entered the conflict with none of the illusions of his contemporaries.

(2.) The dedication reads: "To Borys and all others who like himself have crossed in early youth the shadow-line of their generation."

(3.) It is widely, though not universally, held among Conrad scholars that the literary quality of Conrad's works declined after he finished writing Under Western Eyes in 1910, although most would point to The Shadow-Line as an exception. This theory was initially developed through the work of M. C. Bradbrook, Douglas Hewitt, Albert J. Guerard, and Thomas Moser. Moser coined the phrase "achievement and decline" and codified the theory into the form in which it now exists, arguing that the ideas of fidelity and betrayal were crucial to Conrad's strongest writings and lacking in his later works. Moser further argues that morality is at the center of Conrad's best works, whereas chance is at the center of his later works. He also contends that the romance elements particularly weaken those works. Two early dissenting voices, however, were Paul L. Wiley and John A. Palmer, who were followed by Gary Geddes and Daniel R. Schwarz. More recently, Robert Hampson, Susan Jones, and others have also come to reconsider the achievement and decline theory. Furthermore, even if one accepts this idea of aesthetic decline, that only explains in part the absence of the First World War as a subject in Conrad's works and the absence of the kind of disillusionment that appears in the work of Conrad's contemporaries. Conrad could have written inferior fiction that still addressed circumstances surrounding the war. Other writers of that time wrote works both artistically superior and inferior that dealt with issues related to the war. Even among those writers most closely associated with the First World War, a great deal of difference exists in the quality of their literary output; while Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg, for instance, wrote artistically superior poetry that chronicled the physical and emotional toll of the war, Siegfried Sassoon and Ivor Gurney often wrote artistically inferior poetry expressing much the same sentiments.


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Conrad, Joseph. 1905. "Autocracy and War." Fortnightly Review. n.s., no. 463 (1 July): 1-21.

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--. 1928k. Victory. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran.

--. 1928l. Youth and Two Other Stories. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran.

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[c] West Chester University 2012

JOHN G. PETERS is a Professor of English at the University of North Texas. He is the author of Conrad and Impressionism (Cambridge 2001), The Cambridge Introduction to Joseph Conrad (Cambridge 2006), and Joseph Conrad's Critical Reception (Cambridge, forthcoming). He is the editor of Conrad and the Public Eye (Rodopi 2008) and A Historical Guide to Joseph Conrad (Oxford 2010).
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Title Annotation:ESSAYS
Author:Peters, John G.
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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