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The rover: a post-skeptical novel?

"The fact is you want more scepticism at the very foundation of your work. Scepticism the tonic of minds, the tonic of life, the agent of truth-the way of art and salvation" runs Conrad's famous advice to Galsworthy in 1901. To judge from the general critical view of The Rover, and perhaps encouraged by the sentimental edge that can be given to Conrad's own statement to Galsworthy twenty-three years after that brisk admonition, that he had "wanted for a long time to do a seaman's 'return' (before my own departure)" (LL 2 339), it seems entirely reasonable to claim that for his last novel Conrad had long abandoned skepticism as the very foundation of his art and of his view of salvation. Certainly, it is unsurprising to find The Rover receives no mention in Mark Wollaeger's Joseph Conrad and the Fictions of Skepticism (1991), who says instead that, "the affirmations of the late romances can supply only spurious closure ... to a career whose central fictions explore even as they struggle to deny the insights generated by authorial scepticism" (193). While it would be futile to attempt to reposition The Rover as a skeptical work of art in the line of the great novels from Lord Jim to Under Western Eyes, I am interested in offering a more nuanced reading than that suggested by Wollaeger's very useful yet still disparaging comment that in the later novels "skepticism is usually reduced to the conflicting claims of detachment versus involvement" (171).


Far from being an adventure story easily read by any twelve-year-old, as suggested by Raymond Mortimer in his New Statesman review of 1924 (a view echoed more recently by Sanford Pinsker, for instance, when he calls the novel an "unabashed surrender to the heroics of boyhood adventure stories"), The Rover for most of its length is a novel about repression and inactivity, about marginalization and the frustrated energies of old age. When Peyrol sets eyes on the Giens peninsular for the first time in nearly fifty years, "he felt for all this neither love nor resentment" (9). "Having learned from childhood to suppress every sign of wonder ... he had really become indifferent--or only perhaps utterly inexpressive" (24). "What he had gone through ... had put a drop of universal scorn, a wonderful sedative, into the strange mixture which might have been called the soul of the returned Peyrol" (25). This coolness, verging on cynicism yet never removed from common expression ("what he had gone through" or earlier, "and there were his ship's papers and his own papers and everything in order" (3)) governs Conrad's writing and his vision in this novel. Peyrol's observant but largely unreflective consciousness is the focalizer which produces a narrative acutely precise in outline, colored by the somewhat austere sedative of a seaman's inexpressiveness. This is not the self-conscious skepticism about the efficacy of words themselves exhibited by Marlow, the teacher of languages or the variously disdainful or pitying narrative voices employed in The Secret Agent and Nostromo that express contempt and dismay for a suffering humanity "indigent in words" that yet finds itself "trusting in words of some sort." (1) It is perhaps a steady unemotionalism, "a stoical immediacy of a Hemingway or a Camus," as John Palmer suggests (253). In fact what we read in the modality of that ruminatively extended phrase, "the strange mixture which might have been called the soul of the returned Peyrol," is a dry refusal of transcendental vision accommodating an acknowledgment of human regions too obscure easily to illuminate in words, a configuration that Conrad builds into the narrative structure, plot, and even the setting of the novel.

Almost the main point to be made about The Rover is how little happens. Peyrol is introduced into an exhausted and unproductive landscape that fits perfectly his desire for "an obscure corner out of men's sight where he could dig a hole unobserved" (12). The Giens peninsular is populated by "scanty grass," "particularly dead-looking bushes," and a few houses "mostly with their blind walls to the path" (15). The salt pond is a "deserted and opaque sheet of water lying dead between the two great bays of the living sea" (16). The island of Porquerolles, where Peyrol might or might not have been born, presents itself as a "lumpy indigo swelling" (6), "dull and solid" (15). The most frequent semantically striking word throughout the text is "immobility," and the adjective "stony" is to be found everywhere: in characters' faces and postures as well as in the terrain they inhabit. In textual terms this is literally a petrified world in which the Gorgon of the Revolution has laid its terrible and arresting gaze on the lives of Catherine, Arlette, Real and, in a different way, on Scevola, and has left them stunned. (2) The Rover is conducted in a nearly silent world of aftermath; as France evolves from republic to empire, Escampobar maintains its diminished routine, as domestic in its details, ironically enough, as that of Brett Street. Sitting down to meals, the attitude of a figure in a chair, the position of a fork, doors locked and unlocked--observing this round of seemingly unremarkable events as if each of them were a sign of something inexpressible is what occupies the foreground of the novel's canvas. The figures in the novel are so placed as to be themselves items to be played upon by visual and aural perspectives:
   The master of the farm, staring straight before him, passed before
   the two men towards the door of the salle, which Peyrol had left
   open. He leaned his fork against the wall before going in. The
   sound of a distant bell, the bell of the village where years ago the
   returned rover had watered his mule and had listened to the talk
   of the man with the dog, came up faint and abrupt in the great
   stillness of the upper space. The violent slamming of the salle
   door broke the silence between the two gazers on the sea. (40)

The constant juxtaposition of the near and the far in both space and time bears the true Conradian signature here. The salle and the sea, years ago and this Sunday morning, Scevola's action of placing the fork against the wall while his mind ("staring straight before him") is fixed upon the triumphant years of the Revolution in Toulon--all are comprehended in the slight shock of the unusual collocation "faint and abrupt in the great stillness." It is not that things linger here; Conrad avoids that sort of melancholic resonance in his portrayal of life that has stopped while it still goes on.

The genius of the novel is to be constructed out of such meager constituents, to present so little in the foreground: early in the novel Peyrol and Real's discussion of Arlette coasts from a shadow to a snore, a stumble, the sound of a dislodged stone--all slight impositions of human presence upon silence which remain merely a series of suggestive impressions. For at least ten of the novel's sixteen chapters this is the portrayal of a life impoverished of significant action on the part of all of its main characters and demanding from its readers the willingness to exist on scanty fare. Yet its slightness is not the "coarse-grained study of feeble-minded and inarticulate people" of Guerard's famous dismissal, as would be demonstrated by any sympathetic attention to the delicate precision with which the morning conversation between Peyrol and Real is unfolded in its surly and reluctant cooperation, right to the point where the young Lieutenant stumbles, as it were, over an observation by Peyrol and inaugurates the plot of the novel shortly after the beginning of Chapter 6 (yes, the twelve-year-old would find The Rover slow, as Raymond Mortimer complained, a slowness which Guerard can only read as dullness but which is in large measure the very subject of the novel).

It is typical that "a warm drowsiness lay over the land" (66). Peyrol "under the mask of his immobility" and Real are flattened to the scrubby hillside observing the morning activities of the English corvette. Real has counted the Amelia's boats and exclaims,

"But I was right. That Englishman had a boat out."

He seized Peyrol by both shoulders suddenly. "I believe you knew all the time. You knew it, I tell you." Peyrol, shaken violently by the shoulders, raised his eyes to look at the angry face within a few inches of his own. In his worn gaze there was no fear or shame, but a troubled perplexity and obvious concern. He remained passive, merely remonstrating softly:

"Doucement. Doucement."

The lieutenant suddenly desisted with a final jerk which failed to stagger old Peyrol...

Secretly Lieutenant Real was daunted by Peyrol's mildness. It could not be shaken. Even physically he had an impression of the utter futility of his effort, as though he had tried to shake a rock. (67)

The attention here to position and movement within a larger stasis, and spoken words as measures of sound lapping at barely receptive surfaces, is reminiscent of the configurations that so engaged Hardy in his tragic novels. The Rover, though it deals with the attenuations of old age in its returned native rather than the disappointments of youth, is similar to The Return of the Native in constructing its plot and the fabric of every page from items of sight and sound that operate as indices of an utterly solitary condition of existence in an indifferent universe. (3) Both novels depict the determination of men's activities by a landscape that threatens to absorb them. Clym "was a brown spot in the midst of an expanse of olive-green gorse, and nothing more.... His daily life was of a curious microscopic sort, his whole world being limited to a circuit of a few feet from his person" (312). Analagously, Peyrol's "visible world was limited to a stony slope, a few boulders, the bush against which he leaned and the vista of a piece of empty sea-horizon" (121). In this most Hardyesque of all his novels, however, Conrad will grant his characters a final movement of release denied to those trapped on Egdon Heath. The obsessive tracking of movements, conjunctions, and near-misses in The Return of the Native will reveal itself as the structuring principle of the second half of The Rover, leading to the climax of the sea chase in which the plotting of movement as on a chart and the plot of the novel coincide at "the spot where Peyrol will die!"(266).

This is the completion of a movement that had begun on that morning observation as
   A sudden thought (which) seemed to strike the lieutenant, a
   thought so intense and far-fetched as to give his mental effort a
   momentary aspect of vacancy.... "Papers in my pocket," he
   muttered to himself. "That would be the perfect way."

His parted lips came together in a slightly sarcastic smile with which he met Peyrol's puzzled, sidelong glance provoked by the inexplicable character of these words. (68)

Real's vacancy is the momentary manifestation of what afflicts all these characters--that their more intense life is lived elsewhere, in visions, memories, or obsessions, or is withheld from them, and self-expression is replaced by an intentness spent in watching others and in interpreting the puzzling hints of incomplete utterance. The light airs of the Petite Passe and the becalmed Amelia, pinning Peyrol and Real to their surveillance-post, are the perfect literary correlatives for this sense of vacancy, the sense of pause, of uncertain anticipation within stoppage, that pervades the first fourteen chapters of the novel. It is significant, then, in revealing the underlying design of the novel that immediately after Real's "sudden thought" both Peyrol and Real are startled to find the Amelia no longer stationary even though "there is not a wrinkle on the water" (69). The larger suggestion that the rest of the book will bear (and that Mr. Bolt will discover most disconcertingly on his night expedition) is that the appearance of permanence and immutability in human affairs is an illusory condition: keen-eyed participants are unaware of the larger movement of things, so absorbed are they in the immediate scene. Peyrol's late understanding of another order of time than that made immediate by his own sensations is never articulated and expressed only (but with absolute conviction) in his final sea maneuver. It is this silent gesture which releases the characters from their servitude to a history that has cast them in stone and relieves the novel of a farcical tragi-comic burden not dissimilar to that of The Secret Agent. In the apparently directionless and inconsequential morning conversation, unhurriedly extended from Chapter 4 through to Chapter 6 as they watch the Amelia in the Petite Passe, Real begins to feel out "in an affectedly sleepy voice" (73) what Peyrol's attitude might be to service for his country. This part of the conversation, which runs through six pages, dramatizes beautifully the ban upon any sort of declaration which operates in the "mute, strangely suspicious, defiant understanding (which) had established itself imperceptibly between (Real) and that lawless old man" (72).

"Oh, it isn't that I want you to die," drawled Real in an uninterested manner.

Peyrol, his entwined fingers clasping his legs, gazed fixedly at the English sloop floating idly in the Passe while he gave up all his mind to the consideration of these words that had floated out, idly too, into the peace and silence of the morning. Then he asked in a low tone:

"Do you want to frighten me?"

The lieutenant laughed harshly. Neither by word, gesture nor glance did Peyrol acknowledge the enigmatic and unpleasant sound But when it ceased the silence grew so oppressive between the two men that they got up by a common impulse. The lieutenant sprang to his feet lightly. The uprising of Peyrol took more time and had more dignity. They stood side by side unable to detach their longing eyes from the enemy ship below their feet.

"I wonder why he put himself into this curious position," said the officer.

"I wonder," growled Peyrol curtly. (74) This extract bears a number of qualities typical of the novel as a whole: a stillness achieved by hanging words equivocally on the air and on the ear; the fixture of two people in unacknowledged emotional proximity upon an apparently idly floating item that is keeping them there; and, above all, the sense that what is directing this conversation is out of sight, either psychologically buried, deliberately hidden, or simply over the horizon--in the form of the English fleet. All of these features are exposed a little more in the second of Peyrol and Real's three conversations that day, its sixteen pages in Chapter 8 certainly forming one of the high points of the novel in terms of showing intimacy establish itself through the apparently adversarial moves of defensiveness, evasion, and antagonism. Real observes how much it rankles with Peyrol that he is entered as "disparu" in the naval records in Toulon, even though this unobserved disappearance from active life was what, it would have seemed, he had so contentedly sought. The unrecognized and unfulfilled needs of egotism drive this novel as powerfully as a tale such as Falk, but here complicated and subdued by age." ... or else it was something inarticulate that rankled, manifesting itself in that funny way" (117): Peyrol's longing for Arlette and his jealousy of Real remains unarticulated but observable, tightening the psychological knot of what might otherwise have been only a service matter. As Peyrol sends Real off to Toulon to get papers for the tartane, "their eyes met with the strained closeness of a wrestler's hug" (120). "C'est l'egoisme qui sauve tout--absolument tout" (CL2, 159), Conrad asserted to Cunninghame Graham, and an aspect of the skeptical inheritance in this novel is that the salvation offered by Peyrol to Real and Arlette is not divorced from an intense assertion of self.


Territorially, the characters in this novel have deliberately been placed at the very margins, cut off by the dead salt lagoon from the rest of France. Rather than staggering under the weight of presentation like Captain Mitchell's visitor in Nostromo, the reader is left with the slightness of things, sharing Peyrol's struggle to "get hold of something definite" (127) from signs that do not yield enough to satisfy the effort of reading them. But this sparseness is of the essence in a novel in which stilled lives mask a barely perceived hinterland of furious social and historical turmoil, and it finds an ironic spatial expression in the strategic naval importance of this neglected and thoroughly unremarkable spit of land. Here is the point of contact between the two great military forces of Europe. In its heroic aspect we read the depiction of an encounter between the courage and skill of a French master-gunner and the intelligent dedication of an English captain. But this coexists with a less exalted version of events that remains contained within the more expansive action. The irony takes on the comic quality characteristic of earlier Conrad when we reflect that the literal point of contact between the English fleet and the French on look-out service is a cudgel blow from behind delivered from one lawless Brother of the Coast upon another, an action which, in one of the most adroit analeptic moves in the novel, we cannot clearly confirm to have been what we have read until twenty-one pages after we first encountered it in the text at the beginning of Chapter 8, which in itself provides the first interpretative clue as to why Peyrol had been so apprehensive at the leaping up of a goat at the end of Chapter 6, twenty-two pages earlier. As Conrad said of his other tale of the French coast, "The Idiots," "Not for babies." If Conrad had wished to write an exciting and heroic adventure story this was certainly not the way to do it.

For all the comparatively sparse furnishing of mental and even physical events, The Rover is not a naively fashioned novel. In terms of narrative voice and lexis, it is very simply told by Conradian standards, governed, as it is largely, by Peyrol's point of view. To follow the structure, however, places greater demands upon the reader. (4) After the eight-year ellipsis between Chapters 3 and 4, the novel's most striking structural feature can be seen in two forms of deferring the chronological narrative sequence of Peyrol's experience of the last forty-eight hours of his life. Most obviously, there are two radical changes of point of view, the first coming in Chapter 5 where we move to Captain Vincent and the adventures of Bolt and Symons, which interposes itself in the middle of the long morning conversation between Peyrol and Real that we have been discussing, and the second in Chapter 10 in which we follow Arlette in her visit to the abbe. As disruptive as these two chapter-long interventions, however, is the use of analepsis, which recovers the histories of Arlette, Catherine, Scevola, and Real from the temperamental affliction of near-silence which prevails at Escampobar. It can be seen in its most intense form in Chapter 7, the midday meal, the business of which is for Peyrol to check with Michel about the progress of the bludgeoned Symons. The sequence begins with nothing but attention to characters' immediate movements:
   Peyrol and the sans-culotte got up from the table. The latter, after
   hesitating like somebody who has lost his way, went brusquely
   into the passage, while Peyrol, avoiding Catherine's anxious
   stare, made for the back-yard. Through the open door of the salle
   he obtained a glimpse of Arlette sitting upright with her hands in
   her lap gazing at somebody he could not see, but who could be
   no other than Lieutenant Real.

      In the blaze and heat of the yard the chickens, broken up into
   small groups, were having their siesta in patches of shade. (82)

In fact, Peyrol has just seen, but without understanding, the most significant moment in Arlette's adult life, intimated by the verb "gazing," but we will have to wait seventy-eight pages before any further disclosure of that moment in which "she sat down again to gaze at him openly, steadily, without a smile" (160). Instead, we are treated to the chickens and pulled back by association to "The very hen manoeuvring her neck pretentiously on the doorstep" at the beginning of Chapter 4, who "might have been standing there for the last eight years" (38). Quite brilliantly Conrad has actually written the sign of cataclysmic change while using the same words to confirm in Peyrol's consciousness only the changeless postures of daily routine.

The remarkable set of analepses which follow all concern on the one hand the nature of the forces that have led to the peculiarly fixed set of relations at Escampobar, and on the other hand Peyrol's construction of his vision of himself as a free rover. As Peyrol sees Michel across the yard, we are treated to an account of "Michel's engagement to serve as 'crew' on board Peyrol's boat" (83) an unspecified number of years earlier, which modulates into a second analepsis, reaching further back to the discovery of the abandoned tartane on the beach at Madrague, the encounter with the cripple, and the subsequent fitting out of the boat (which "had all the air of preparation for a voyage, which was a pleasing dream" (87)) and its launching by the villagers of Madrague under the cripple's direction. Within this second analepsis is contained a further third analepsis prompted by Catherine's reaction to the tartane, in which we learn about Arlette's return from Toulon with Scevola, presumably early in 1794, thus two years before the return of Peyrol which opens the novel, and ten years before the narrative present. The cumulative effect of this cluster of recollection is quietly ironic: as Peyrol congratulates himself on recovering the freedom of the sea, the reader must reflect that what we have been reading about is the web of connections that prevent his stirring from this small plot of land. The conclusion of the chapter confirms the ironic reading on a note that is almost sardonic:
   Often waking up at night he would get up to look at the starry
   sky out of all

      of his three windows in succession, and think: "Now there is
   nothing in the world to prevent me getting out to sea in less than
   an hour." As a matter of fact it was possible for two men to
   manage the tartane. Thus Peyrol's thought was comfortingly
   true in every way, for he loved to feel himself free, and Michel of
   the lagoon, after the death of his depressed dog, had no tie on
   earth. It was a fine thought which somehow made it quite easy
   for Peyrol to go back to his four-poster and resume his slumbers.

The effect of these familiar Conradian disruptions of chronological narrative in The Rover is to convey the sense that past events are suspended in a timeless medium, most obviously in the minds of Arlette and Scevola. They serve to impede the forward motion of the narrative, to drag it back from the action promised by a story of service, of the movement of ships and small craft and of military encounter, to the wariness of full utterance that prolongs the exchanges between Peyrol and Real and to the statuesque immobility that is the visible remnant of the trauma suffered in his native land while Peyrol was away on the seas. It is Arlette in Chapter 10 who finally breaks this almost unbearable sense of at once intent yet vacant suspension when she "desisted from caressing the irresponsive cheek" of Catherine and "exclaimed petulantly: 'I am awake now!'" (146). She brings the statues to life. From this moment on, the verbs of movement multiply and crowd the pages to the point at which we read, for instance, that Scevola "launch(ed) him(self) down the slope" and "bounded among the boulders" (193), Arlette "flew down the slope" and "seemed to be flying through the air" (247/8), and Real "appeared at the kitchen door, panting, streaming with water as if he had fought his way up from the bottom of the sea" (254). And Peyrol's whole action at the close of the novel depends entirely upon speed and control of movement in which "The tartane seemed to be rushing together with the run of the waves into the arms of the oncoming night" (261). Conrad's own comment to Curle in June 1922 about writing the novel offers a remarkably accurate impression of the novel itself: "The whole thing came on me at the last as through a broken dam...." (5)


The activity depicted in the final third of the novel contrasts so markedly with the previous slowness that undoubtedly many readers have felt that at last The Rover has been released into the simple tale of love, courage, and adventure that it was always meant to be. If, by skepticism, we insist upon the Schopenhaurian pessimism of Conrad's letters to Cunninghame Graham, then it is clear that despite the depiction of characters as insulated from each other as those in The Secret Agent, none of The Rover is composed in this spirit. The novel is, however, permeated with the skepticism whose literary expression is impressionism: the stylistic characteristics that we have touched on so far confirm a view of the world in which all we can certainly know are our own impressions of things, impressions that may or may not correspond to those of others. The brilliant formulation by Pater in his famous Conclusion to The Renaissance (1868) articulates exactly the temperamental and philosophical position from which Conrad writes as he depicts the trio of intent watchers whose lives are contracted to an accommodation of what lies immediately in their narrow field of vision to the image of life as it has been fixed in their minds by history, by duty, or by a sentiment for a set of relations that has stolen upon them unobserved:
   Experience, already reduced to a group of impressions, is ringed
   round for each one of us by that thick wall of personality through
   which no real voice has ever pierced on its way to us, or from us
   to that which we can only conjecture to be without. Every one of
   those impressions is the impression of the individual in his
   isolation, each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of
   a world. (219)

   In The Rover the solitary prisoners are allowed finally to escape
   the conceptions that so circumscribe their worlds, yet observing
   this process does not wipe all trace of authorial skepticism from
   the account. The desired life in this novel is that enjoyed by the
   cicadas "in the still noonday heat" in Conrad's most surprisingly
   beautiful sentence: "Delicate, evanescent, cheerful, careless sort
   of life, yet not without passion" (104). But this is not the life of
   human beings as the gloom cast by Lieutenant Real into Peyrol's
   consciousness in the very next sentence testifies. Peyrol's
   unsentimental approach to matters is Conrad's means to color the
   narrative with a cool and spare directness, but he is also an object
   of observation throughout, not a subjective voice for the author's
   vision: Sentiment in itself was an artificiality of which he had
   never heard and if he had seen it in action would have appeared
   to him too puzzling to make anything of. That sort of genuineness
   in acceptance made him a satisfactory inmate of the Escampobar
   Farm. He duly turned up with all his cargo, as he called it,
   and was met at the door of the farmhouse itself by the young
   woman with the pale face and wandering eyes. (34)

Peyrol is a satisfactory inmate of the Escampobar asylum because he too has abandoned his search for any new sensation in his life and his genuineness is also a temperamental aversion to enquiry. He feels the trajectory of his life to be complete, and a certain plain matter-of-factness in the telling of the tale is one of the results. Yet what makes this novel interesting is precisely that in old age Peyrol will be confronted by sentiment in action and his own puzzlement and resistance in the face of it.

While Arlette and Real, Catherine and Scevola, are all figures damaged even to distortion, it is the more normal Peyrol's mental disturbance which provides the consistent narrative development of the novel, indicated in the odd half-suppressed peculiar tone and slight start. He observes "acidly" to Catherine that "grey hairs will come to any sort of man" and that he has " had many names and this (Peyrol) was one of them" (168). His identity as an old man finished with affairs of state and affairs of the heart, apparently so resolved at the beginning of the novel, becomes with increasing visibility the novel's troubling theme as Peyrol is shown to be assailed by feelings for which his life as a sea-rover, a Brother of the Coast, has not equipped him. "Melancholy was a sentiment to which he was a stranger" (173) but a sentiment induced by Catherine's talk of "a sign from death" which makes him feel for the first time:
   this intimate inward sense of the vanity of all things, that doubt
   of the power within him.

      "I wonder what the sign for me will be," he thought; and
   concluded that for him there would be no sign, that he would have
   to die in his bed like an old yard dog in his kennel. Having
   reached that depth of despondency, there was nothing more
   before him but a black gulf into which his consciousness sank
   like a stone. (174)

The unnegotiable mental black gulf will finally be rendered to Peyrol's consciousness as the known waters of the Petite Passe, a stage for the display of skill and courage, and it is evident that the final movement of the novel is one from doubt to assurance, though it also records a retreat from grappling with the uncertainty of signs that cannot be read to the certainty of those that can. The precipitating force toward both crisis and resolution is Arlette, and the very next sentence reads: "The silence which had lasted perhaps a minute after Catherine had finished speaking was traversed suddenly by a clear high voice ... Arlette made three steps forward" (174). No single word more vividly conveys the quality of the novel than the verb "traversed" which accords to the silence a stark surface to be scaled boldly but with intent care like a mountain face. The previously "unmotived" Arlette's three steps (and there is a felicity in the odd word, presumably a direct translation from the French) (6) are as significant a movement as has been achieved in the novel so far and will serve to release an extraordinary proliferation of verbs of motion, beginning symbolically at the opening of the next chapter with "The great cloud had broken up and the mighty fragments were moving to the westward" (179). It will, however, be a further seventy pages, during which Peyrol maintains the self-protection of his attitude of sardonic indifference, before he is able to act with self-possession and harness this quickening force. "A breeze had sprung up. He felt it on his wet neck and was grateful for the cool touch which recalled him to himself, to his old wandering self which had known no softness and no hesitation in the face of any risk offered by life" (250). It is difficult to resist the feeling that any last restraining strands of skepticism are broken through here in an uncomplicated celebration of decisive action, yet the novel's romance ending is a different one from that which Peyrol had intended and that the reader had perhaps surmised. Catherine's talk of the signs of death and Peyrol's view that Real has received his sign all prove delusory: life is a matter of human decision, and it is a hard and absolute condition of existence that this final novel continues to portray, unsoftened by appeals to providence or fate. Quite contrary to his early thought that "his instinct of rest had found its home at last" (31), what Peyrol is granted in this final act of his life is, in the penetrating words of The Nigger of the "Narcissus," "the full privilege of desired unrest" (NN, 90). This reversal of the rover's understanding of the trajectory of his life is the profound irony of the novel, more delicately apprehended and dramatized than "detachment versus involvement" suggests. In his skeptical detachment, Peyrol is shown to be more intimately involved with those around him than he will acknowledge; in his skeptical involvement he maintains a fine carelessness, his one sustaining belief an egotistical one, that his skill exceeds that of Captain Vincent. Insofar as the general account would be that Peyrol learns commitment, we would have to respond that we don't know what he learns. In finally determining the motive for Peyrol's great gift of life to Arlette and Real, the text reads: "It was as though the rover of the wide seas had left them to themselves on a sudden impulse of scorn, of magnanimity, of a passion weary of itself" (260), which brings to mind nothing so much as that cold touch in the "lonely impulse of delight' of "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death."
   I balanced all, brought all to mind,
      The years to come seemed waste of breath,
      A waste of breath the years behind
      In balance with this life, this death.


Clearly The Rover offers a kindlier picture of aging than is to be found in the consistently unsettling portrayals of the earlier fiction, but it is not a sentimental capitulation on Conrad's part to some comforting and transcendental notion of human goodness. It is important for my argument to insist that Conrad does not have Peyrol think, with Sydney Carton, "It is a far, far better thing that I do ...," or, more pertinently in the light of The Rover's epigraph, "it is a far, far better rest that I go to ..." Whatever salvation there is to be had in life and in death, Peyrol works it for himself (and for Arlette and Real) with skeptical gaiety in the great nineteen pages of the sea-chase. One of the distinctions of The Rover is to show that skepticism need not be synonymous with mistrust, "the miserable mistrust of men, of things--of the very earth" that Peyrol's fictional forerunner, Captain Whalley, falls prey to, the "infernal mistrust of all life" that afflicts Heyst even at the moment of Lena's death. In this sense The Rover offers a more subtle affirmation than the stark choice implied in Axel Heyst's dramatic declaration, "woe to the man whose heart has not learned while young to hope, to love---and to put its trust in life!'--which corresponds more closely to Wollaeger's formula. For Captain Whalley, it is said uncompromisingly "the unusual had come and he was not fit to deal with it"; Peyrol responds triumphantly to that demand because he has cast a cold eye on life and on death. (7)

Peyrol's heroic qualities are those that Conrad accorded some of the ships' masters in The Mirror of the Sea, who "combined a fierceness of conception with a certitude of execution upon the basis of a just appreciation of means and ends which is the highest quality of a man of action." Although these are scarcely the qualities of a skeptic, they suggest the embodiment of a coolly egotistical self-reliance that is not at odds with the skeptical tradition. And then Conrad adds, "And an artist is a man of action, whether he creates a personality, invents an expedient, or finds the issue of a complicated situation" (33), this last phrase describing exactly what Peyrol does in the final action of the novel. This reflection from beyond the borders of the novel, however, is as close as we can venture to a claim for identification between author and the personality he has created. Within the novel the reader is kept at a scrupulous distance. When Peyrol's spirits lift as he feels the responsiveness of the tartane's helm, "His unsubdued heart, heavy for so many days, had a moment of buoyancy--the illusion of immense freedom" (254). In this celebration of "know-how" (8) Conrad has not abandoned one of his most important skeptical insights, articulated as "the brilliant Son Decoud" finds he "was not fit to grapple with himself single-handed" and dies of a surfeit of skepticism that leaves him a prey to the disintegrating force of impressions. "In our activity alone do we find the sustaining illusion of an independent existence as against the whole scheme of things of which we form a helpless part" (497). Peyrol has found the freedom of committing himself to a sustaining illusion but the novel has an irony yet to practice upon him. For all that "Decoud lost all belief in the reality of his action past and to come" and is "swallowed up in the immense indifference of things" (501), he will be celebrated as the architect of the Occidental Republic. Peyrol's audacious action in tricking Captain Vincent and Nelson himself will, in the whole scheme of things, prove negligible and futile. Conrad ensures that the reader closes the novel knowing that a year in the future lies Trafalgar, the catastrophic French naval defeat that will lose them any semblance of sea-power in the Mediterranean, that sea which is "the charmer and the deceiver of audacious men" (286). Peyrol's exploit has quite the opposite outcome to Real's intentions confided to him in the noonday talk of their greatest frankness and intimacy in Chapter 8: "It's another stroke to help us on the way to a great victory at sea" (118).

The last word on Peyrol will be uttered by the mulberry tree sighing "in a shudder of all its leaves, as if regretting the Brother of the Coast, the man of dark deeds, but of large heart" (286). A skeptical habit of apprehension cools the register even as it swells to elegy, the provisional "as if" withholding the embrace of a transcendental assurance. The final human judgment on Peyrol comes a few lines earlier in the subdued conversation between Arlette, Real, and the cripple of La Madrague.

"What sort of man was he really, Eugene?" Captain Real remained silent.

"Did you ever ask yourself that question?" she insisted.

"Yes," said Real. "But the only certain thing we can say of him is that he was not a bad Frenchman."

"Everything's in that," murmured the cripple. (286)

If everything lies in finding oneself in relation to national identity, then the ironies in the career of Master Gunner Peyrol persist beyond his death. This seaman's return has its unlooked-for departures. It is true that many details here combine to sound the consonance of a diapason note of closure: Arlette's "faint sigh of memory" echoed by the mulberry tree which "sighed faintly"; the "blue level of the Mediterranean" with "its calm breast" "under the marvellous purity of the sunset sky"; the "fervent conviction" of the cripple and the "large heart" of Peyrol. Yet Conrad does not neglect another set of suggestions, contained but not negated by the comfort of these murmuring repetitions, that finds expression in words such as "deceiver," "victims," "wars, calamities," "regretting," "dark deeds." The point of writing an ending to the novel in this way lies in its refusal to disclose any certainty beyond Real's virtual disclaimer "not a bad Frenchman" that leaves Peyrol free and, like the Mediterranean which we have watched so steadily throughout this novel, keeps his secret. Far from an invocation to the spirit of homing and rest, or even a simple dialectic between the shelter of detachment and the perils of involvement, the indeterminacy of human deeds, their motivation and effect, is what The Rover is finally about.


All references to the works of Joseph Conrad are to the Oxford World's Classics editions, which follow the same pagination as the Dent collected editions.

References to Conrad's letters are to The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, ed. Frederick Karl and Laurence Davies, Cambridge, 1983-.

Carabine, Keith ed.: Joseph Conrad: Critical Assessments, Robertsbridge: Helm Information, 1992, Volume 3, entry 216.

Dickens, Charles: A Tale of Two Cities, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970.

Guerard, Albert: Conrad The Novelist, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Hardy, Thomas: The Return of the Native, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978.

Hervouet, Yves: The French Face of Joseph Conrad, Cambridge: CUP, 1990.

Najder, Zdzisaw: Joseph Conrad, A Chronicle, Cambridge: CUP, 1983.

Palmer, John: Joseph Conrad's Fiction: A Study in Literary Growth, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1968.

Pater, Walter: The Renaissance, London: Jonathan Cape, 1928.

Pinsker, Sanford: The Language of Conrad. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1978.

Sherry, Norman ed.: Joseph Conrad, The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.

Wollaeger, Mark: Joseph Conrad and the Fictions of Skepticism, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.

Yeats, W.B.: Collected Poems, London: Macmillan, 1971.


(1) The references are, of course, to The Secret Agent and Nostromo respectively.

(2) David Leon Higdon suggestively examines The Rover in the light of the Galatea myth and also casts Arlette as Pygmalion's statue: "The Grammar of a Myth," Studies in the Novel I (spring 1965) (collected in Carabine).

(3) It is interesting to note that D. H. Lawrence who, in The Study of Thomas Hardy, wrote more illuminatingly about The Return of the Native than anybody has managed since, also read The Rover with "astonishing intentness" as Paul Eggert reminds us ("Conrad's Last Novels: Surveillance and Action," The Conradian, 24:2 (autumn 1999).

(4) The best account of this that I have read is by Allan Simmons in his chapter on The Rover in his unpublished Ph.D. thesis (University of Surrey, 1990).

(5) Quoted in Najder p. 468.

(6) Gallicisms abound in The Rover and offer substance to the charge of Conrad's failing powers as a writer as he reverts to the prop of translation more familiar from his works of the 1890s. For example, the phrase "mortal envelope" is used three times quite without irony, which can be contrasted with the single, brilliantly judged application of it to Mr. Verloc in The Secret Agent. It would be the subject of another essay to consider whether this reversion was prompted by the French setting--and the perhaps unconscious decision to find in the qualifies of a Frenchman his final piece of self-fashioning--and to consider whether the effects Conrad creates are consistently embarrassing to those who would see him as a great writer in his later work. There are only two references to The Rover in Hervouet and they are not illuminating for such a discussion.

(7) The Rover is the exact reverse of The End of the Tether. The earlier story is governed by the trope of incipient blindness culminating in moral myopia while The Rover is characterized by acute seeing and a final moral clarity. While Whalley who has "seen his Creator's favourable decree" conceives that "his life was necessary," Peyrol, aimless and unnecessary, offers no allegiance to anybody or any higher concept than truth to his own sensations, yet he confers meaning on his death through an act of service to his country and the gift of life to his surrogate daughter.

(8) Margaret Cohen's term for the practical skill often celebrated in sea and adventure literature as having virtually an ethical value in itself. Margaret Cohen: "The sea life of light literature," a paper given at the twenty-eighth annual international conference of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.) at the Greenwich Maritime Museum, 6 July 2002.


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Title Annotation:Joseph Conrad's works
Author:Epstein, Hugh
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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