This is the first installment in a four-part series on Joseph Conrad’s novel “Victory.”
“I have managed to refine everything away. I’ve said to the Earth that bore me: ‘I am I and you are a shadow.’ And, by Jove, it is so!’” Axel Heyst, the reclusive protagonist of Joseph Conrad’s “Victory,” will, along with several other men, serve as a window, with his thoughts and desires, into the secret quivers of the soul. “Victory” is a novel of quaking beauty, lighting in clear, fine language the nature of life, of reality and its relevance to the human mind, whose pauses and turns are laid bare through each exposed thought until Heyst’s words “I am on a Shadow inhabited by Shades!…I have lost all belief in realities” convey a truth that has as little impact on life as intention, or compulsion, or veiled stabs of madness from the heart. No conclusions are pushed, no message constructed – each character has his own preoccupation, a meaning he has distilled, and Conrad simply makes these visible for perusal. Life seems to move on at a thick, inexorable pace, each event delicately shown to be somehow inevitable, people and choices bound inextricably to one another as the book ends with a soft “There was nothing to be done there…Nothing!”
The story centers around Heyst’s two lone instances of active participation in life, in which he had vowed only to observe “a world not worth touching, and perhaps not substantial enough to grasp.” The first is his lending money to Morrison, a businessman in dire straits, who persuades Heyst to join him in a commercial venture, the failure of which leads to the former’s death. Heyst, who blames himself for this development, goes into seclusion on the premises of the bankrupt company with only the Chinese steward Wang and his native wife to accompany him on the small island where the business was headquartered; the ship captain Davidson makes periodic but infrequent visits out of mild concern for his well-being. Necessity impels Heyst to stay for a short while at a hotel on another island, owned by a man named Schomberg, who has a passionate hatred of Heyst that he voices with great pleasure to his other guests in tales of Heyst’s callousness and craftiness as regards Morrison’s death. With the help of Schomberg’s wife, Heyst rescues Lena, a performing fiddler, from her employers’ cruelty and Schomberg’s relentless overtures; she joins Heyst in his island solitude as stories of his audacity are spread far and wide by a furious Schomberg, who “in this state of moral weakness [allows] himself to be corrupted”: a trio of thieves staying in his hotel, excited by his assertions that Heyst is very wealthy, arrive on Heyst’s island to rob and murder him. One of the thieves, Martin Ricardo, is aware of the presence of a woman, but has not informed the leader, Mr. Jones, for fear of his violent misogyny. Ricardo becomes infatuated with Lena, who, after fighting off his initial rape attempt, commits herself to protecting Heyst, an act she views as the redeeming purpose of her life. Meanwhile, Heyst puzzles over the strangers’ possible intentions and, unarmed and indecisive, agonizes over his own nature, which he feels makes self-defense impossible. He reveals Lena’s presence in conversation with Mr. Jones, who decides to kill Ricardo in a fit of uncontained rage – “It won’t be you that I’ll have to shoot, but him. I wouldn’t trust him near me for five minutes after this!” – and finds him with Lena in Heyst’s bungalow, where she has charmed him into giving up his weapon. Shot in the ensuing chaos, she expresses her delight in a task well done to Heyst, who watches her die and then burns down the bungalow while still inside. Davidson, who witnesses the last of the drama, recounts how Mr. Jones shoots Ricardo and drowns himself, while Wang kills Pedro, the third accomplice, to protect the island.
There is an initially obvious hierarchy among the characters: the white men of seemingly higher class, Heyst and Mr. Jones, command or frustrate white men of the middle order like Morrison, Schomberg and Ricardo, who in turn dominate lower-class males – the beastly Pedro, who is bested in the end by Wang, the “Chinaman” – and the women, who ostensibly reside below the animals in this ranking. But it is women who drive the plot, women who ruin the composure and scheming of each ham-handed man in the narrative; the two speaking female characters (Mrs. Schomberg and Lena) and the one who is never visible (Wang’s wife, referred to only as the Alfuro woman) carry more weight in the novel than their countless male counterparts. Multiple chapters are devoted to Schomberg’s indignation, internal turbulence and terror at losing Lena – “I would have kicked everything to pieces about me for her. And she, of course…I am in the prime of life….Then a fellow bewitched her – a vagabond, a false, lying, swindling, underhand, stick-at-nothing brute. Ah!” – his contempt for his wife – “no fit companion for a man of his ability and ‘in the prime of life’” – and his justifications and heightened self-conception as he primes himself to confront the three bandits – “He did not want to be told to be careful by an imbecile female. What he needed was a pair of woman’s arms which, flung round his neck, would brace him up for the encounter” – but for all his male posturing and machinations, Mrs. Schomberg quietly defeats all his designs with two interventions narrated in less than ten lines each: her aid in Lena’s escape, which precipitates his moral and constitutional breakdown, and her warning to Davidson regarding the thieves’ arrival on Heyst’s island, which interferes with his only chance at vengeance. Lena’s abduction itself is the work not of Heyst, who declares himself baffled or compelled multiple times in the narrative, but of Mrs. Schomberg, who assists their flight, and of Lena’s own unconscious charm. Heyst is captivated by her to the extent of violating all his scruples about remaining an “unconcerned spectator,” and the secretive, delicate quality of her presence enchants Ricardo so that he loses both his focus and the confidence of his superior, while her “feminine choice” to protect Heyst decides the fate of all the men present. Meanwhile, the Alfuro woman exerts a pull on Wang that compels him to steal Heyst’s revolver and withdraw into the jungle, prioritizing her safety before the others’ survival, so that her influence renders Heyst unable to fight, leaving him a spectator until the last.