Solitude in Literary Fiction
The Works of Joseph Conrad
Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) has been summarily dubbed a writer of sea stories and exotic adventures, but the core of Conrad's fiction is the theme of solitude and isolation. The exotic settings of Africa, Asia, and the sea are clear metaphors for social isolation from familiar Western settings. But, further, the characters in his novels and short stories find themselves in these settings either already disposed to isolation or lured into painful realization of solitude having followed their ambitions.
Conrad himself epitomizes the social isolation and solitude of his fictional characters. He was born in Poland, pursued seafaring as an alternative to society, and took up writing to depict the demons within, plagued as he was by a lifetime of neurasthenia, depression, and physical ailments.
Conrad grew up with his parents in Russia, exiled for political reasons. This experience deeply affected the sensitive child, and he withdrew into reading and imagination. As soon as he could Conrad took up the seafaring life, a reaction to the claustrophobia of youth. His experiences shattered his romantic and idealized hopes and dreams for a profound fatalism. Conrad's writing expresses his observations of life. As critic Adam Gillon notes:
The isolatoes of his novels and stories are, in many a sense, avatars of Conrad's own life. An exile from his country, persistently pursued by ill-health and misfortune, melancholy by temperament, Conrad was an isolato par excellence.
"Isolatoes" is a term coined by Herman Melville to describe the motley crews of the ships inhabiting his fiction, so the term aptly applies to Conrad's characters as well, although there is no evidence that Conrad read Melville. Unlike Melville, however, Conrad was literally an exile, and his dogged sense of fidelity learned at sea crafted his sense of solitude and isolation around fate as inexorable, not moral. Conrad's tormented characters respond to fate as victims of depression, madness (Kurtz in Heart of Darkness) guilt (Jim in Lord Jim), suicide (Decouds in Nostromo), sickness (Jim Wait in Nigger of the Narcissus) or rejecters of love (Jim in Lord Jim). They are too isolated from others and the world to rescue their dreams, to believe them anything but sentimental, if not tragic.
Over and over, Conrad describes his characters in such terms:
- George in The Arrow of Gold describes himself as a "the completest possible stranger in the moral region .... I was as much of a stranger as the most hopeless castaway ... "
- Captain Anthony in Chance is described as "a hermit withdrawn from a wicked world," incapable of understanding or empathizing with others, one of the "silent, solitary men, the voluntary, passionate outcasts of their kind."
- Marlow (in Lord Jim) glimpses the depths of solitude in Jim's story, "a sense of utter solitude" so deep that "all I had lately seen, all I had heard, and the very human speech itself, seemed to have passed out of existence."
The notion of a ship at sea is already a clear metaphor for solitude and isolation, with the nature of the daily tasks determining shipboard solidarity. But once among others on land, the isolation and solitude returns. This separation from others Conrad summarized succinctly in a letter to a friend:
Everybody must walk in the light of his own gospel. ... No man's light is good to any of his fellows. That's my view of life -- a view that rejects all formulas, dogmas and principles of other people's making. These are a web of illusions. We are too varied. Another man's truth is only a dismal lie to me.
But Conrad's irremediable individualism was not thereby a source of happiness. As Razumov (in Under Western Eyes) puts it: "I am independent -- and therefore perdition is my lot." The empathy of the Narcissus crew toward the dying black man is a temporary breakthrough, the possibility of a true solidarity that may persist into the societal existence on land, but in Conrad's view is bound to disintegrate given all the other forces of human nature. The Narcissus crew, defying their captain, are but "lost, alone, forgetful and doomed."
Conrad understood the lure of civilization. He saw civilization as a thin refinement easily torn when facing wilderness and nature. Late 19th-century Western thought, driven by Darwinism and imperialism, saw wilderness as hostile to its civilization, as exacerbating alienation and representing the frustration and defeat of Western ambition, greed, and power. As Ursula Lord notes: "Conrad throws into dramatic relief the vast discrepency between civilization's stated goals of enlightenment and progress, and its rapacious and barbaric practices."
In Heart of Darkness, the darkness is the jungle and primitive peoples, but Westerners carry their own darkness into this setting, project their own shadowy desires, which ultimately clash against reality. Set free from Western morals, the white man in alien settings abandoned themselves to excess, unchecked by peers and authority, only to experience collapse and loss of self-control. Such is the fate of characters from Almayer's Folly to An Outcast of the Islands, An Outpost of Progress, Heart of Darkness, and Lord Jim. In the latter two instances, the narrative character Marlow comes to represent to some degree the narrator Conrad, for Marlow enters the fate of his characters, barely aloof from them, philosophically isolated, safe from taking the last step into their abyss, retaining a last bit of sanity.
Gillon sees in the later works of Conrad a resolution of the dilemma of isolation versus the self:
Conrad's lonely heroes are an affirmation of human solidarity. Man's isolation proves that no person with a conscience can live by himself. ... No transgression against the principle of human solidarity remains unpunished -- in Conrad's books at any rate.
But the human sense of redemption is itself a product of society and human interrelations. Gillon states: "The supreme sin, to Conrad, is failure to be loyal, which in its more extreme form is betrayal. Betrayal is to Conrad the crime of crimes, as fidelity is to him the virtue of virtues ... " And Conrad himself argues (in Victory) for a moral fate linking humanity, an "invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts."
Did Conrad believe such a law of fate exists, or was it his dream? As Ursula Lord argues, Conrad's ideas are reflected in the fates of his characters.
In modern art, the timeless, the mythic, and the archetypal are filtered or refracted through an individual conscious or sensitivity. In the Marlow tales, Conrad filters the experiences of his tragic heroes through the narrator's highly attenuated consciousness.
Conrad oscillates between the moral requirements of self and solidarity on the one hand and the realization, with Schopenhauer, of the inevitability of solitude. The fate of Conrad's characters reflects his pessimism about social change and human progress, about the inevitability of solitude, despite its consequences for weak souls. In the novels, every character who fails to move from seclusion and involuntary solitude to solidarity pays for his transgression. Only Marlow -- that is, Conrad the narrator -- understands, or at least has an inkling of, the balance of solitude and the world. But is it possible for an isolated being to achieve this integrated selfhood, let alone solidarity with others? Or does civilization -- and modern culture and authority, as Lord suggests -- lay a veneer of solidarity over society that does not exist, and towards which we work in vain?
We are each of us a world in itself, says the character Jones in Victory. Our ills are retribution from a blind fate. We are all, Conrad would conclude, isolatoes. Conrad states simply (in Heart of Darkness): "We dream as we live -- alone."
Relevant works include Adam Gillon: The Eternal Solitary: A Study of Joseph Conrad. New York: Bookman, 1960; Ursula Lord: Solitude Versus Solidarity in the Novels of Joseph Conrad: Political and Epistemological Implications of Narrative Innovation. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1998; Martin Bock: Joseph Conrad and Psychological Medicine, Chapter 6: "Solitude/Seclusion". Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 2002.