Conrad’s deterministic view of what makes the story of mankind tragic is because in spite of all his genius and intelligence, he is an unconscious victim of nature. As long as one is not conscious of this fact, life is easy, but the moment one realises how one is enslaved to this Earth, things become painful! Joseph Conrad’s short stories, a few of which I will attempt to examine, question the very meaning of life, in a civilized society, especially when we are fed the concepts of religion, propriety,youth, ambition, love, and brotherhood. Unfortunately, the moment one steps out of the protection of a civilized society, things begin to change. Take for example the case in the short story and Outpost of Progress where Kayerts sees no purpose in returning to the civilized world because his exposure to a primitive world, unmitigated savagery, and the primeval instinct that he sees hiding beneath the veneer of a civilized culture have proved to him that he is just another savage.
Another story by Conrad, The Lagoon, questions the purpose of life when one is deprived of the company of his beloved. Ultimately Arsat’s sacrifice of his brother for the sake of eloping with his beloved, and the risk he takes in eloping with Diamelen, a woman belonging to the ruling family end in the moment when he states to his western friend, Tuan, ‘In a little while I shall see clear enough to strike-to strike. But she has died, and …now…darkness.’ Arsat had sacrificed his brother, he had involved him in the plan but had to abandon him so that he could flee with his beloved, while his brother was overwhelmed by their pursuers, the ruler’s men. The final words describing Arsat are poignant enough, ‘Arsat had not moved. He stood lonely in the searching sunshine; and he looked beyond the great light of a cloudless day into the darkness of a world of illusions.’ Arsat’s romance ends in tragedy, and grief, and a descent into a realm of darkness and a world of illusions. If all the struggle, all that planning, all that risk, and the guilt of choosing Diamelen and leaving his brother to die, even when he called out for help was in the long run worth it. Earlier, immediately after his beloved had passed away from fever and illness, Arsat said to his western friend whom he called Tuan, ‘Now I can see nothing – see nothing! There is no light and no peace in the world; but there is death – death for many. We were sons (His brother and him) of the same mother –and I left him in the midst of enemies; but I am going back now.’ Romance has ended up in a sense of emptiness, and life will end up in a sense of guilt for having abandoned his brother. Death, for Arsat is the ultimate reality!
Conrad’s short story, Youth attempts to examine the meaning of youth especially youthful visions of success. In some ways, it even brings out the emptiness of the visions that young people have about future careers of success, building up business empires and making a mark on the professional front. In the short story, Marlow describes how he looked forward to his first Voyage to the East, and his first voyage as second mate on a ship named Judea. He had high hopes of it being a successful voyage. His vision of the voyage and its future benefits are described in his own words, ‘It was one of the happiest days of my life. Fancy! Second mate for the first time-a really responsible officer! I wouldn’t have thrown up my new billet for a fortune.’ Unfortunately, the ship turns out to be a jinxed ship that barely sails. On its final journey, the coal in the holds of the ship catches fire and the whole ship sinks. There something rather tragic about the way the ship lingers on, and how Captain Beards stays on board the doomed ship till the last moment, attempting, as it were to salvage whatever can be saved for the underwriters. Ultimately, the survivors board their life boats and manage to reach Eastern shores where they tie up their boats for the night at a jetty.
Twenty years after the whole episode, Marlow recounts to his gathered friends the whole story and he analyses the emptiness of that vision of youthful adventure and excitement and opportunity that his appointment as second mate on board Judea had given him. In his words, the East is ‘contained in that vision of …youth.’ His trip to Eastern shores made Marlow understand the paradox of life, that within that vision of youth, to which the East is connected, ‘a stealthy Nemesis lies in wait, pursues, overtakes so many of the conquering race, who are proud of their wisdom or their knowledge, of their strength.’ Marlow had thought that he would be a swashbuckling second mate on an English ship and that he would go to the East, Malay and win all that he saw. It was a truly romantic vision of success and adventure. In Marlow’s own words, ‘And for me there was also my youth to make me patient. There was all the East before me, and all life, and the thought that I had been tried in that ship and had come out pretty well.’ He was young and the vision was young, the words on the ship’s stern spurred him on with the exhortation, “Judea, London. Do or Die.” What starts with a bang for Marlow ends with a whimper when he sees what he had once thought to be less cultured than him look down at the exhausted sailors as if in pity. Marlow describes the moment to his friends in the following words, ‘And then I saw the men of the East – they were looking at me. the whole length of the jetty was full of people..I saw brown, bronze, yellow faces, the black eyes, the glitter, the colour of an Eastern crowd.’ It is this defining moment that challenges Marlow’s vision, he had though he was going to bring civilization to the East, but here were people who were perhaps more civilized than he was, this was a culture that was ‘so mysterious, resplendent and sombre, living and unchanged, full of danger and promise.’ Who knows how they perceived the survivors of the Judea, perhaps they looked like savages to them? Ultimately it all boils down into the following words, ‘But you here…you all had something out of life; money love – whatever one gets on shore – and , tell me, wasn’t that the best time, when we were young as sea; young and had nothing, except hard knocks – and sometimes a chance to feel your strength – that only what you all regret?’ What did that feeling of strength and false bravado displayed by the narrator and his fellow sailors on board the doomed ship amount too? It all came to nothing and thereof lies the existential question, was it worth it after all?
Conrad Joseph, Selected Short Stories, Wilco Publishing House, Mumbai India, 2006