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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The sympathetic bond in the works of Joseph Conrad Dickson, Harry Hugh


Conrad's firmly held ideal of an ordered and stable society appears to conflict with his undeniable assault on traditional values and the revelation in his works of the inadequacy of those simple virtues which he extolled in later years. The inescapability of human solidarity does not always appear to be inherent in the moral and metaphysical isolation which besets the individual separated from his fellows. Those critics who see as most significant human isolation and the power of the irrational and their result in negation and despair are those who emphasize the force of doubt and skepticism in Conrad's works. Those who seek affirmation emphasize the ideals of duty and fidelity and their function in supporting human solidarity and a stable society. Primary in Conrad's, thought, however, was his recognition of the power of sympathy with and compassion for the suffering of other individuals. This compassion is most strikingly manifested in the relationship which I have called the sympathetic bond. It reveals both the force of individual isolation and the profound inevitability of human solidarity, man's need for order and the value of dissension, his loneliness in an indifferent universe and the liberating bondage of his commitment to the human society. When the sympathetic bond takes effect, one character enters a state in which he feels, recreated in himself, the experience and suffering of another and the effects and implications of that other's experience. Through his response to the experience and suffering of the other finite individual, he feels the claims of his own humanity acting upon him in a way which leads him out of himself into a general commitment to the claims stemming from his moral ties with all other men and to a trust in life. The sympathetic bond is felt when all other ties and values have been destroyed or revealed as ultimately meaningless unless they share in the motive force of sympathy and compassion which must invest all social organization. With an understanding of this relationship and of the need for "sympathetic imagination," we can see that any human institution must be inadequate, meaningful only as long as it takes account of the reasons for its existence, and we can see from another perspective why all virtues and ideals and all traditional values must he suspect. The frequency of identification in Conrad's works is a reflection of his personality and creative temperament. Considered in terms of technique, the sympathetic bond is an extension of the form of identification which has been called "recognition," the process of seeing oneself and the evil within embodied in the other self. But it tends to be self-forgetful in contrast to the egoism and heightened self-awareness implicit in the latter relationship. However, the process of recognition can prepare the character who experiences it for the development of the sympathetic bond. This is the case in "The Secret Sharer," "Heart of Darkness" and "The End of the Tether." In the latter two stories and in "Karain," the sufferings of the central characters instruct and inform with sympathy the younger men who feel a bond with them. The sympathetic bond brings about a selfless compassion which extends beyond a concern for the individual sufferer to a general compassion for all mankind. We feel the strength of the individual's necessary commitment to the moral community in these works; the effect of the moribund state of society on that moral community is the most persistent impression conveyed by The Secret Agent. Sympathetic identification is destructive to those who experience it unless it results in an enlarging of their sympathies, and general compassion requires an outlet in social organization. Conrad suggests in The Secret Agent that the social order can be regenerated only if the sympathy and compassion of its individual members are made to work within it. The claims of human solidarity are unavoidable, however, in spite of the moribund state of society. When they are recognized, they are felt more intensely and more urgently because of this state. Their modus operandi becomes not increased knowledge, but pure power. Those individuals most affected by the disintegration of social order are described, symbolically, as experiencing the impact of an explosion, the shock of which stuns and casts a spell over them. The energy thus released is the energy of life and compassion which had previously invested society, and it is represented by imagery of explosions and the sun. At the end of The Secret Agent, we are left with a choice between the Professor, who embodies wisdom without compassion, and Ossipon, whose moral sense has been awakened by the sympathetic bond which he feels with the dead Winnie. Ossipon is destroyed by his recognition of the moral bonds which he has too long denied. In The Rover. Conrad was able to affirm his hope in the triumph of the normal and the healthy. The sympathetic bond acts to reclaim the central characters for life. Peyrol's sacrifice re-establishes a stable society; and his renunciation makes possible a return to the normal for Real and Arlette. His affirmation and trust in life is fulfilled in them; for in them is released the "sense of triumphant life."

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