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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.4 (2001) 723-752



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"Remorse and Power":
Conrad's Karain and the Queen

David Adams


Are there spectres moving in the darkness?

--Lord Alfred Tennyson, "On the Jubilee of Queen Victoria"

I have lived during many days with the faithful dead.

--Joseph Conrad, "To Edward Garnett," 20 April 1897

In the opening chapter of Joseph Conrad's "Karain: A Memory," the narrator declares that the most one can expect from life is the knowledge of "remorse and power." This pairing points the story's reflection on the psychology of rule in a particular temporal direction: toward the past. The narrator links remorse and power while describing Karain and, more particularly, while imagining Karain's death: "He was an adventurer of the sea, an outcast, a ruler--and my very good friend. I wish him a quick death in a stand-up fight, a death in sunshine; for he had known remorse and power, and no man can demand more from life" (8-9). The story is focused so completely on the past that we never learn what Karain's fate is--he may no longer be alive at the time the narrator [End Page 723] offers us this description. Nor does the reader know at this point in the narrative the particular source of Karain's remorse. One might jump to the conclusion that remorse arises from the exercise of power over others, but the ambiguity of the conjunction "and" leaves the relation between remorse and power enigmatic. In fact, in Karain's case, as we learn later in the story, remorse precedes and contributes to power. Here, in the first chapter of the story, the omission of particulars gives the comments about Karain a general validity. "No man can demand" a different experience: there is remorse, there is power, and then there is death. For Conrad's most comprehending British readers, ruled by a morose monarch widely viewed as a symbol of British imperial power, such a message could not have been comforting.

Conrad wrote "Karain: A Memory" in the early spring of 1897, between completion of The Nigger of the "Narcissus" (in January) and composition of its famous Preface (in August). It is the story that initiated his fortunate five-year affiliation with Blackwood's Magazine, which would serialize Heart of Darkness two years later. It also represents an important step toward the discovery of Marlow, for it contains Conrad's first use of one narrator (unnamed) to frame the story of another (Karain), a framing that allows him to distance the cruder forms of imperial ideology while engaging the underlying psychological dynamic of imperial culture. Despite its virtues as a work of fiction and its important position in Conrad's corpus, "Karain" received comparatively little critical attention prior to this past decade, when postcolonial approaches in particular have begun to find it one of the more useful of Conrad's Malay stories. 1 The earlier neglect may be attributable in part to the negative judgment of Albert Guerard, who criticized the story for ending in "trivial anecdote." Hinting at the difficulty of identifying with the protagonist Karain, whom he calls a "superstitious native," Guerard comments that "it is as though Conrad did not yet want to admit that Lord Jim with his crime was 'one of us'" (91). 2 This comment has fed into a tradition of viewing the tale as exotic, whether the exoticism is characterized as Polish--deriving most specifically from Adam Mickiewicz's ballad Czaty 3 --or as Malay--one of the spoils of Conrad's days in the merchant marine. While not wishing to reject such analyses, I hope to show how the exotic material also mirrors domestic concerns, concerns best understood as the search for a spiritual or psychic power sufficiently robust to conquer a [End Page 724] form of remorse unique to the modern age. By identifying for the first time the specific historical model for the gilt coin at the center of the tale, I intend to explore both the nature of the remorse projected...

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