At first, one wants to dismiss Anthony Winner's Culture and Irony: Studies in Joseph Conrad's Major Novels because it appears insufficiently informed in theories of irony and unaware of important secondary criticism on the individual novels; however, as Winner's argument unfolds its intriguing thesis, offers its perceptive insights, and unravels certain textual cruxes, it earns a reader's respect and admiration with the contribution it makes in exploring the crucial role of irony in both Conrad's art and ideas.
Working with the assumption that "each of Conrad's four major novels juxtaposes an unexceptional protagonist against the complex and equivocal irony that is the key signature of all human endeavors," Winner's argument is that each of these novels "pits private need against the bonds of public shelter; each employs irony to maintain at least a minimal faith in the viability of moral community in the face of human vulnerability and the anarchist egotism to which mere personality is prone." Essentially, Winner sees Conrad advancing the necessity of the idea within the human community and using irony to protect it from the disorders and ambiguities that threaten it. Winner views irony as Conrad's "endeavor to impose the artifact of moral culture upon the anarchistic facts of man's flaws and nature's indifference," and identifies this type of irony as "romantic irony," an admitted "elusive concept."
Winner sees a clear progression through Lord Jim, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, and Under Western Eyes in which irony moves from protective dream to nihilistic vision, ultimately so ambiguous that Conrad can no longer explore a particular personality type. As the ironies in the texts grow ever more complex, so Winner's discussion becomes ever more revealing, assisted by numerous insightful comments about Heart of Darkness. The discussion of Lord Jim is fairly traditional in approach, seeing the issue as being "the authenticity and viability of the organic community to which Western civilization has sworn fidelity," but insufficient light emerges from the discussion of the all-crucial ending of the novel. The chapter on Nostromo focuses on "the complex and equivocal irony" surrounding the "unexceptional protagonist." Arguing that Nostromo is "an intrinsically neutral, amoral resource," Winner sees "the fiction of civilization" becoming outright "dirty work," with Nostromo ultimately serving a lie. According to Winner, the characters in The Secret Agent follow "the mutation of moral exceptionalism into a bizarre shelter in a seeming dead end." Winnie of The Secret Agent chooses not to know and through this decision enters into a complex game with culture. Even this dead end, however, appears impossible in Under Western Eyes, because it becomes impossible for the individual or the human community to create "protective meaning." In Under Western Eyes, "no reliable perspective or voice controls the competing ironies," a conclusion that illuminates the narrative strategy in useful ways. The novel bleakly concludes that the shelter of ideas "may be diseased beyond the hope of any moral cure." Winner stresses the moral and intellectual force in the women of this novel and concludes that "with extreme ambivalence, Conrad moves towards the faith in the force of women that Rilke expresses in Malle Laurrids Brigge and Lawrence in The Rainbow." The overall conclusion—that ever deepening, [End Page 679] ever more ambiguous ironies brought Conrad's art to a creative impasse—seems inevitable, given the shape of Winner's discussion.
Several minor points need correction. Under Western Eyes was conceived as a short story, not as a novella, and Razumov was made safe by the letter Sophia Antonovna received, not by his near-lie to Nathalie. The University Press of Virginia has chosen for some reason to print block quotations in italics with documentation in the left margin—a somewhat distracting feature for the reader.
Because of the strength of its discussions of the four novels, its insight into the various roles of irony in the major novels, and its keen sensitivity to Conrad's text, Culture and Irony easily earns a place for itself in Conrad studies. Winner...