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Tragedy and technique in the novels of Joseph Conrad : an examination of artistic development from Almayer's Folly to Lord Jim and Under Western Eyes Chippindale, Nigel K.


Tragedy and comedy are, in Conrad's phrase, "but a matter of the visual angle." Tragedy focusses on the individual, comedy on the human community, but each must partake of the other for completion. The aesthetic form of a work of literature represents an order which prevails against the chaos of events, producing in the reader a tension between aloofness and involvement. Conrad's failure to find a technique capable of fully achieving this tension caused his early works to fall short of rendering a tragic vision, but his discovery of the possibilities inherent in the use of a narrator allowed his fiction from The Nigger of the "Narcissus" to Lord Jim to transcend his earlier limitations. By the time he wrote Under Western Eyes, Conrad no longer needed a narrator such as Marlow to achieve distance and was able to utilize his narrator in other ways. In doing so, he was able to create a more traditional tragedy. Almayer's Folly, the most successful of the "Maylayan" novels, presents Almayer’s tragedy as ironic comedy, and only occasionally falls into the cynicism to which its pessimistic philosophy is prey. An Outcast of the Islands. however, despite advances in characterization and plot development, is too overtly and discursively philosophical to succeed. And The Rescue, with its romantically tragic philosophy and tone, proved to be a cul-de-sac. Breaking off from work on The Rescue. Conrad found, in his experience as a seaman and in the employment of a narrator, means of liberation that allowed him to write an almost wholly positive work, a comedy of salvation through communal effort. The somewhat inconsistently used narrator allows the reader to comprehend both the decadent influence of Wait, the "nigger", and the benign influence of Singleton, who "steered with care," without losing sight of the tale as aesthetic work. Marlow, narrator of "Heart of Darkness" and Lord Jim, performs somewhat the same function, but is technically consistent and stands in a much more complex relation to the story. "Heart of Darkness" provides the tragic point of view to complement The Nigger's comedy. Lord Jim represents Conrad's first achievement of a sustained tragic vision, yet it is not a tragedy; its center is divided between Jim's tragic experience and Marlow's tragic awareness. The complex narrative method allows the reader to participate in Marlow's search for understanding through recognition of Jim as "one of us. " An image is created which has the sculptural quality of lacking inherent point of view, but which is never completely sharpened. Jim is important to Marlow for the romantic illusion to which he is true and which seems to offer a possibility of finding dignity. Stein's butterflies symbolize this dream, while his beetles symbolize the counter-illusion of the realists like Brown. Marlow, aware of the illusory nature of both, seeks an integrated vision. The language teacher of Under Western Eyes is used differently from Marlow. He is ironically presented as an impartial recorder of events, helping to clarify the political differences but human similarities between Russia and the West. Razumov is unlike Jim in that he starts from a "realistic" illusion of worldly success and is brought by circumstances to a vision of human contact, a radical transformation, and one of which he is fully aware. The novel is a tragedy in the conventional sense and is a profound treatment of the relation between a man and his society, yet, despite such effective techniques as the use of Christian allusions to establish a shared set of values, it lacks the richness of Lord Jim.

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