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Reviewed by:
  • Joseph Conrad and the Modern Temper
  • Elsa Nettels
Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan. Joseph Conrad and the Modern Temper. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1991. vi + 218 pp. No price given.

Hawthorne’s dictum, “A hero cannot be a hero unless in an heroic world,” could have been the epigraph for this perceptive study of Conrad’s fiction. Defining Conrad as “an incurable moralist infected with the ethical relativism of his age,” Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan sees his characters engaged in “active revolt” against the “modern temper,” which confounds them in their struggle to satisfy a “desperate need” for sovereign truth and source of value. “Modernity,” here equated with the radical skepticism of Nietzsche, functions as a malevolent force—a malaise, an infection, a pathology—which subjects novelist and characters to inner conflicts impossible of resolution.

To develop her thesis, Erdinast-Vulcan analyzes nine of Conrad’s novels, grouping them under three headings which identify responses of author and character to the “modern temper.” Exemplifying “the failure of myth,” the protagonists of Lord Jim, The Rescue, and Nostromo become “failed epic heroes” in their vain attempt to sustain themselves in [End Page 880] isolated communities invaded by representatives of the modern world. The second group—Marlow in “Heart of Darkness,” Razumov in Under Western Eyes, and the narrator of The Shadow Line—suffer the “failure of metaphysics” in their foredoomed effort to find a “metaphysical object,” an ultimate truth to give meaning to their lives. They find salvation in “the bond of brotherhood” and affirm their own identity in identification with a rejected “other.” The protagonists of Chance, Victory, and The Arrow of Gold experience the “failure of textuality” in the paralysis and emotional sterility induced by their habit of seeing the world as text, an illusory construct of which they are fictive spectators.

The terms of the argument are familiar, but the analysis is valuable for its many illuminating insights. Erdinast-Vulcan persuasively argues that Conrad’s late novels suffer not from the resort to the devices of conventional romance, as many critics have contended, but from the surrender of Conrad and his characters to the debilitating effects of modern skepticism. She demonstrates that Jim fails on the Patna and in Patusan not because his romantic dream paralyzes him (the usual reading) but because the dream is not strong enough to sustain him. Particularly striking is her reading of Chance, which identifies Marlow as the protagonist who, through his encounter with Flora de Barral, escapes his callous cynicism and recovers his powers of feeling and action.

At times the author’s thesis pushes her to questionable assertions. Does Patusan, with its degenerate rulers and rotting garbage, really exist as “a space where the heroic-mythical mode of discourse is a viable ethical and aesthetic alternative to the modern outlook”? The author declares that “for Conrad . . . there is no objective representation of reality” and that “the mode of representation is entirely subject to the consciousness of the protagonists themselves.” If this were true, the kind of tension the author analyzes would be impossible. Also questionable is the author’s attributing Conrad’s skepticism to his “temperament,” and his “personal need” for objective truth to his “moral heritage” and its “ideology.” The bifurcations seem artificial, false to the complexities of Conrad’s mind and art revealed by the analyses of the novels.

Readers will continue to interpret Conrad’s fiction in terms of his ideas and beliefs, but Erdinast-Vulcan’s monograph looks back to a period of Conrad criticism that culminated in the early 1980s. The most recent work in her bibliography was published in 1987. Since then, [End Page 881] major studies grounded in postcolonial and narrative theories have taken Conrad criticism in new directions. But later works do not diminish the importance and validity of the author’s thesis and her probing analyses of Conrad’s fiction.

Elsa Nettels
College of William and Mary

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