On Victory, Part 4

11 December 2017 Comments Off on On Victory, Part 4


This is the final installment in a four-part series on Joseph Conrad’s novel “Victory.” The first part, which details the plot and the hierarchy among its characters, and the second and third parts, which explore various aspects of the novel, are available online at bilnews.bilkent.edu.tr/opinions.
As the novel progresses, Conrad’s focus on the internal thins the line between sanity and insanity, so that the reader cannot quite tell which thoughts and impulses are more usual and wholesome than others. Speeches become longer and more passionate; Heyst’s ruminations about his own morality degrade into exclamations of anguish while Ricardo croons reverently to Lena from the floor, kissing her feet, each exposing more of his character than ever before, with a fervor politely veiled in Heyst’s case and ferociously revealed in Ricardo’s. Mr. Jones is increasingly discomfited in conversation with Heyst, sweating and faltering as he speaks. The line “His voice had a wild, unexpected shrillness” comes while he still maintains his composure, which rapidly devolves – “‘Keep still as you are!’ he cried sharply…he passed his tongue over his lips, dry and black, while his forehead glistened with moisture” – his speech growing incoherent: “‘We are – er – adequate bandits; and we are after the fruit of your labours as a – er – successful swindler. It’s the way of the world – gorge and disgorge!’” After which, upon hearing of Lena, he is completely disarmed and diverted from his original purpose – “He screamed out twice. There was no mistaking his astonishment, his shocked incredulity – something like frightened disgust…the very object of the expedition was lost from view in his sudden and overwhelming sense of utter insecurity.” All the characters make their final appearances in a manner somewhat divorced from their original presentations, with Lena’s inner satisfaction, Heyst’s decisive suicide, Ricardo’s pleading submission and Jones’s deranged fury; good-natured Davidson, however, the only consummate observer in the novel, retains his rotund placidity to the last tranquil “Nothing!,” untouched by action.
Conrad’s names also have a certain significance. Heyst’s is reminiscent not only of his heist concerning the girl, but also the one in which he is the intended victim. Davidson, in his disengagement, is the lone keeper of the faith of Heyst’s father; the “son of David” is a name used for Jesus Christ. In keeping with the book’s title, each character pushes relentlessly to achieve some end, but if there is any victory to speak of, it is Lena’s; for, having achieved her twin aims of neutering Ricardo and proving her self-worth, she dies “profoundly at peace…the flush of rapture flooding her whole being [breaking] out in a smile of innocent, girlish happiness,” in the full knowledge of her “tremendous achievement.” Davidson’s words, “Fire purifies everything,” mark the end of Lena’s search for redemption – “let Heaven look after what is purified,” he says, peacefully. Other victors are Mrs. Schomberg, with her husband reduced to abject desperation, and Wang, left behind to live with his wife as he wishes on an island cleansed of outsiders. The dominated are vindicated; the white men perish.
“Victory” ultimately seems to remark on the nature of reality itself. The rumors about Heyst are inaccurate, but influence his life more heavily than the hard facts that, at the beginning of the novel, he claims are the only things worth knowing; after Morrison’s death he says to Davidson, “At one time I thought that intelligent observation of facts was the best way of cheating the time which is allotted to us whether we want it or not; but now, I have done with observation, too.” It is after this that we see how little the accuracy of a thought affects its impact, as the trio pursues Heyst on a false assumption, Ricardo devotes his passions to Lena under a misconception, and each character is pulled into an unavoidable turn of events. Conrad writes so that no specific breaking point can be identified – the plot is as conclusive and continuous as life itself, each action with its particular reaction in the indomitable order of the world. Inaction, however, is shown to be as heavy a burden as any action, as the pleasures of living are sucked away from Heyst, who, under his father’s spell, is incapable of truly appreciating them. This, then, is Conrad’s final, resounding note: No matter what is done, life will push forward, and if it is not done, life will push forward, and some of us will be crushed. There are no small victories.