restricted access Conrad and Religion (review)
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Reviewed by
John Lester. Conrad and Religion. New York: St. Martin's, 1987. 220 pp. $35.00.

John Lester's stated purpose in Conrad and Religion is to offer a close reading of Conrad's writing for an accounting of the important role religion, in its literal form or figurative guise, plays in Conrad's fiction. Borrowing a term from Ian Watt, he further states his intention of seeking a homeophoric or balanced interpretation of Conrad's work that "is a natural extension of the implications of the narrative content and retains a consistent closeness to it." His book then should be a combination of New Criticism in its detailing of Conrad's use of religion and archetypal criticism in its tracing of religious patterns, but it should also avoid the pitfall of letting names, numbers, or patterns, active or latent, control the interpretation of Conrad's writing.

Lester's effectiveness in Conrad and Religion is in his reading of Conrad's fiction for religious names, numbers, and patterns, although some works are mined to the point of tedium. We learn about religion in 19th-century Poland, religion in Conrad's life, the significant presence of both Christians and Muslims in Conrad's fiction, Conrad's "religious lexis" of the demonic and the egocentric, and finally the purpose behind Conrad's extensive religious vocabulary and imagery. Although never declaring Conrad as a religious artist, Lester does provide a constant flow of evidence that Conrad, like Joyce and Lawrence, continually clothed his aesthetic, moral, and social concerns in the language and symbols of religion.

Lester concludes that whatever religion or set of beliefs that exists in Conrad's work is closely associated with Conrad's deep respect for his early life on the sea and his later vocation as an artist. Conrad's own religious character then expresses itself in his seaman's belief in solidarity of purpose and fidelity to the task at hand and in his faith in the craft of writing. Ironically, much of Conrad's religious imagery is used to expose the lack of faith and materialism in many of his characters or the fanaticism of those who pervert religion or an idea to satisfy the demands of their own ego.

There is not much that is new in Lester's approach or conclusion; neither shows an apparent interest in theoretical considerations of Conrad's use of religious language, characters, ideas, and imagery. His Conrad and Religion, relying on the accumulation of details, remains a straightforward summary of Conrad's religious background and his literary use of religion. When he ventures into interpretation, Lester relies, in spite of his early commitment to a homeophoric reading, on symbolic readings although he does occasionally remind his reader of the danger of misreading the text when hunting for symbols. Conrad and Religion would have benefited from more self-criticism of Lester's reading of Conrad's symbolic use of religion and a more comprehensive literary perspective (James and Ford are hardly mentioned) on Conrad's advocacy of his craft, but the book should prove useful if pedestrian to Conrad scholars interested in the subject. [End Page 321]

Richard F. Peterson
Southern Illinois University