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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The theme of isolation in the work of Joseph Conrad McConnell, Ruth E.

Abstract

Central in the work of Joseph Conrad is the theme of isolation, of the loneliness of man and of alienation from one's own kind, a theme which, in some form, dominates the work of many modern writers and thinkers. A study of the criticism of Conrad shows that this preoccupation with the isolated man has always been noticed and was early linked to Conrad's own position in the world as an exile. Recent critics have delved more deeply into the subject, and have shown its relationship to the threatened break-up of society seen in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and have declared Conrad a forerunner of such modern authors, as Gide, Eliot, Kafka, Malraux, among others, in whose work the "exile" of man Is also a central thought. While many critics have touched upon this aspect of Conrad's writings, I have felt that the theme is so central to Conrad's total outlook on life that a fuller analysis of this question was necessary for an adequate appreciation and understanding of his writing. This thesis, then, is an endeavour to explore more fully the theme of isolation in Conrad's books, to try to distinguish the various types of isolation he deals with and their causes, and to link with this central theme the other beliefs—moral, political, and social—disclosed by Conrad in his work. As Conrad says repeatedly that his writing reflects honestly his view of life, and as most of his stories are at least semi-autobiographical, I have begun with Conrad himself, particularly with his early life. To these early years may be traced many of the ideas and emotions which are reflected in his stories and choice of themes. Also central in Conrad's work and closely related to his theme of isolation is his concern with love and friendship, two important ways in which man’s terrible sense of aloneness may be alleviated—though never completely or permanently dispelled. To Conrad man exists not only in relation to other men, but also, in the form of an "idea", to himself, and thus there runs through his work the theme of self-discovery through experience, often the terrifying discovery of one's aloneness or, as all illusions are stripped off, of one's "hollowness". Closely related to this, often acting as a contributory cause, is the isolation of the settings of his stories, an isolation necessary for such self-confrontation. Conrad himself found his fullest identification with a professional group, and places much stress upon the value of a tradition as a means to keep men together, to combat the fears, doubts, and selfish individualism which may disrupt mankind's "solidarity". The evil man is the code—a type found repeatedly in Conrad's books—the truly evil man is self-confident, with both the strength and the weakness of the wilful isolate. When traditional values solidify into mere conventions and are based upon smugness and self-approval, they become separating forces. In many of his books Conrad presents victims of conventional morality. He also realizes that even living traditions may isolate, and that men in a different moral climate, men of different races, even of different temperaments, may find themselves "exiles". Some of the more fortunate ones may overcome in part this kind of isolation through developing what Conrad calls a "job sense", a keeping in touch with reality through work. But even more important is the power of imagination to bridge this gulf, the power that he calls "imaginative sympathy". Closely allied to Conrad's interest in the imagination as both "the enemy of mankind" and the gift that helps man to transcend his own and another's loneliness, is his interest in the romantic, another self-willed exile. Conrad explores all aspects of idealism as both separating and binding forces in society, examines the strengths and weaknesses of various types of idealists, both selfish and unselfish, and studies the results of their pursuit of illusions and reactions to disillusionment upon the dreamers themselves and upon society. Related to this are Conrad's theories regarding freedom and his fear of all forms of repression, political, social, or domestic, which, he believes, lead to isolation. Conrad makes a further distinction in his treatment of the isolate. In several stories he analyzes critically but sympathetically the intellectual who accepts isolation as a protective philosophy. Convinced of the barrenness of all man's ideals and struggles, and superior in his "clear-sightedness" and withdrawal, such a person eventually finds his position untenable; life breaks in and, being unattached, he is defenceless. It is with this type of "exile" that Conrad seems to come to his most definite conclusions. Thus, while isolation is not the only theme with which Conrad deals, yet it seems to be the central one, the theme which most occupies his thoughts, and the one to which may be related his other social, political, and personal beliefs.

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