This is the second installment in a four-part series on Joseph Conrad’s novel “Victory.” The first part, which details the plot and the hierarchy among the characters, is available online at bilnews.bilkent.edu.tr/opinions.
Lena’s character is presented in a softer, holier way than that of any other: Conrad’s language turns almost condescendingly reverent, describing her as she is perceived by observers, with rare, steady glimpses into her person. The reader is aware of her detachment and submission to the world, aware that she is not extraordinary in her desires or her thoughts, and that both flit through her to the point of producing almost inert watchfulness, but her effect on Heyst and Ricardo lends a touch of purity, secrecy and unattainability to her presence. Lena truly becomes a conscious actor in the novel only when she steps into her “role” as a woman, marked by the basic pleasure of nurturing and protectiveness, and colored by her own desire to perform and purify herself for her lover, who she feels has been drawn into sin by her femininity. “Woman is the tempter. You took me up from pity. I threw myself at you,” she says to him, building upon the metaphor begun with Heyst’s “There must be a lot of the original Adam in me after all,” and later continued in “The very sting of death was in her hands; the venom of the viper in her paradise” when she disarms Ricardo in the bungalow. Conrad’s language changes after her resolve to redeem herself to portray her as a more active participant, her femininity emphasized often, in statements such as “Womanlike, she felt the effect she had produced” or “All her aroused femininity, understanding that whether Heyst loved her or not she loved him, and feeling that she had brought this on his head, faced the danger with a passionate desire to defend her own.” There are many instances of such emphasis previous to her revelation, which commonly take the form of generalizations such as “As often with women, her wits were sharpened by the very terror of the glimpsed menace,” but she herself is usually an object of admiration for Heyst, and descriptions of her body and expressions predominate over those concerning her mind, as we see her through his eyes. Her perceptible neutrality admits the projections of her surroundings, so that when Ricardo encounters her, he mistakes her inert fear for understanding, her scant speech and measured assent for willingness and familiarity: “Words themselves were too difficult to think of…she whispered [yes] with not a feature of her face moving. To Ricardo the faint and concise sound proved a cool, reserved assent.” To seduce him, her social class and gender combine with the very manifestation of what Conrad deems femininity, which is that she struggles quietly during his rape attempt and overpowers him without informing Heyst of the altercation, so as not to incite unwise action on the part of the latter. Her resistance to Ricardo is completely dependent on Heyst’s presence in her life: “She was no longer alone in the world now. She resisted without a moment of faltering, because she was no longer deprived of moral support; because she was a human being who counted; because she was no longer defending herself for herself alone.” Ricardo perceives it as an indication that she is too good for Heyst, and decides to take her into his confidence with a rapid descent into what he later calls love, dragging him into a position where he is “murder itself, pleading for her love at her feet.” Mr. Jones recognizes his shifted allegiance – “He has found his soul-mate. Mud souls, obscene and cunning! Mud bodies, too – the mud of the gutter! I tell you, we are no match for the vile populace” – drawing attention to a class rift between the two pairs that does not exist. Heyst is no baron and Mr. Jones is a sailor like Ricardo, whose similar anger against “gentlemen” is a tangible recognition that he has, by courting Lena, given in entirely to compulsion and emotion rather than reason; the duo, termed “evil intelligence and instinctive savagery,” are experiencing a separation wherein Jones decries with great bitterness their descent into the lower realm, which causes only destruction.
This relates to the two prominent hierarchies of reason over impulse and contemplation over action, each of which is examined through Heyst and the trio at length throughout the novel. Mr. Jones is a languorous, cerebral man who dominates Ricardo’s lively, physical cruelty, and as long as he commands the man of action they prosper; he curbs Ricardo’s various urges, and only when a fit of boredom plunges him into carelessness does he accept Ricardo’s ill-considered suggestion to rob Heyst on his island. Once action is unfettered, it slowly consumes cautious observation, just as the man on the second rung deposes the first. Pedro, dominated by his instincts, is seen as little more than an animal, a creature caricaturized by apelike traits and halting speech, while the more reasonable, reserved Ricardo beats him into submission as a brutal master. Jones, however, is almost wholly cerebral, removed entirely from all the distractions and temptations of the earth, as with his wild distaste for women; he is thus the recognized leader of the trio to a point of blind loyalty. Ricardo’s exaggerated violence against Pedro, whom he beats cheerfully over the skull during their first encounter with Heyst, is a manifestation of his own struggle between his impulses and obedience to Jones: “You don’t know how much he can stand: I do. We have tried him a long time ago….Nothing can hurt him,” he tells Heyst, reminiscent perhaps of a past and failed attempt to master his own instincts. Jones, in contrast, barely acknowledges Pedro, as if he is completely detached from his basic urges: a tall, exceedingly thin man, he spends his time in quiet inertia and is described as corpselike, skeletal or spectral throughout the novel. He is the last of the three to drink water after a period of dehydration during their journey to the island, in a passage where Conrad states, “Water was life,” with a simplicity that explains why Ricardo is so quick to beat Pedro away from the water pipe, reluctant to strengthen his instincts before his reason, and why, of the two, he drinks first. It is also remarkable that Jones and Ricardo refer to each other as, respectively, “the governor” and “the secretary” until near the end of the novel, where there are unusual references to “Mr. Ricardo” and, notably, “Mr. Secretary Ricardo” as a recognition of the coming coup within a passage that includes the sentences, “Ricardo was not used to a prolonged effort of self-control. His craft, his artfulness, felt themselves always at the mercy of his nature, which was truly feral and only held in subjection by the influence of the ‘governor,’ the prestige of the gentleman.” Later, speaking to Lena, he remarks animatedly, “I have nerve, and I have brains, too…. Gentleman – pah! I am sick of him.” The blurring of the lines between reason and emotion causes the destruction of both, as is observed with Heyst and his agony of choice.