- “Infinities of Absolution”: Reason, Rumor, and Duty in Joseph Conrad’s “The Tale”
In “Autocracy and War” Joseph Conrad writes: “It seems that in [opposing] armies many men are driven beyond the bounds of sanity by the stress of moral and physical misery. Great numbers of soldiers and regimental officers go mad as if by way of protest against the peculiar sanity of a state of war . . .” (87). Of course, the war Conrad speaks of in this 1905 essay is the Russo-Japanese War, the mad soldiers, mostly Russian. And yet even a cursory examination of such works as Paul Fussell’s seminal The Great War and Modern Memory reveals among soldiers of that war a debilitating “moral and physical misery,” and a highly “peculiar sanity.” As we shall see, Fussell, Samuel Hynes, and others report curious behavior on the part of combatants and civilians alike. Growing out of moral misery which arises when the rules governing human behavior are suspended and replaced by nationalistic sentimentality, irrational behavior becomes the norm. War fervor, heightened exponentially, becomes not merely a peculiar sanity, but a lack of sanity. Normally critical judgment falls prey to the forces of jingoism and rumor.
Reflected in Conrad’s only World War I story, “The Tale,” the peculiar sanity of war informs the action and positions the story’s commanding [End Page 715] officer, also our narrator as we learn, in a moral as well as literal fog. In the opening frame of the story, when he is asked by his female companion to tell a tale “not of this world” (60), the narrator, momentarily silenced, slips into his story of “seas and continents and islands” (61) which resemble those of the earth, but are not the familiar landscape of our rational existence. Although it is deceivingly quiet, this “other world” is the war zone. Even the setting of the frame is shrouded in mystery. The Great War, from which the narrator and his companion are “on leave,” is never directly named. We remain in the darkening room in which the story is framed, or, in the tale itself, on the deck of a fog-shrouded ship, only guessing at our location and at the source of the moral misery into which we are plunged. We accompany the commanding officer, “a man made of our common, tormented clay on a voyage of discovery” (61). We learn that the narrator, normally a fair-minded man, has been easily drawn into the madness of war and will for the remainder of his life suffer the consequences of his actions—sinking a ship which was most likely neutral. Our discovery forces us to interrogate the means by which normally fair-minded humans, ourselves included, are thus transformed. In the case of “The Tale”’s commanding officer, irrational fear, goaded by rumor and xenophobic rage, becomes a substitute for reason. Once out of the war zone, the officer realizes his folly, but the jingoistic climate of the home front prevents anyone from questioning his behavior.
From the outset, one of the most challenging aspects of “The Tale” proves to be the story’s frame. Jeremy Hawthorn, Jakob Lothe, and William W. Bonney attempt to establish parallels between the frame and the tale the commanding officer tells by breaking the story up into three or four concentric tales. One point of argument concerns whether or not the “grave murmur” the commanding officer hears, which is his inner voice, constitutes one of the concentric tales. While examinations of this kind remain interesting, they may also distract us from larger questions by allowing the moral issues raised by the story to be obliterated in questions of semantics. All three critics provide useful structural analyses of the story, without delving into the historical context, which in fact creates its “peculiar sanity.” While Jeremy Hawthorn offers an enlightening investigation into shipping agreements in existence early in the war which justify the Northman’s destination of an English port, his focus remains other than that of [End Page 716] establishing a further historical context. We might note that in his development of parallels between the story’s layers, Hawthorn at one juncture compares...