restricted access Paradox and Polarity in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad, and: "I'd Have My Life Unbe": Thomas Hardy's Self-Destructive Characters (review)
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Reviewed by
Stephen K. Land. Paradox and Polarity in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad. New York: St. Martin's, 1984. 311 pp. dollar;25.00.
Frank R. Giordano, Jr. "I'd Have My Life Unbe": Thomas Hardy's Self-Destructive Characters. University: U of Alabama P, 1984. 230 pp. $18.75.

It will be a long time, I suspect, before one again sees a piece of structural criticism more thorough-going, informed, consistent, and convincing than Mr. Land's Paradox and Polarity in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad. It has no bibliography. The names in the index are exclusively characters in the tales. And only three footnotes appear in the entire work.

Starting with a single architectural model for the entire Conrad canon, Mr Land steadily, even doggedly, works his way chronologically through the tales (excluding only minor stories that do not fit the mold). The larger model, however, he divides into five, the phases of Conrad's work. Land has one division for "Early Works" and four for subsequent stages of "Maturity." The first work of each of these "Mature" stages is "The Nigger of the Narcissus," Noslromo, Chance, and The Arrow of Gold. The divisions represent developments in the structural and thematic pattern with which Conrad begins each period.

The focus of each story and set is the hero. He begins the action with some "readily identifiable exertion of will." Then, because circumstances and short-comings of this man and his situation thwart his action, he accepts instead a "compromise," some "moral shortcut to his goal." This next action causes to emerge the Conradian "paradox": as Land explains it, "the very act in pursuit of a [End Page 795] specific goal entails its own frustration." Put differently, in Conrad's view, all "purposive action is self-nullifying."

As a result, the stories do not have "happy endings"—with an exception for each phase, the last work in each: "Typhoon," "The Secret Sharer," The Shadow-Line, and The Rover. But these exceptions are more apparent than real. They signal a completion of a set. At the end of each, "Conrad changes his mood," having solved the problem of the group, and so then writes a story "from which the usual ironies are absent." This Land calls a "solution," which Conrad then incorporates into a "new problem" that marks the new set. And this goes on.

This is interesting. In "Typhoon" MacWhirr applies a "rigorous pragmatism" that is lacking in the heroes of "Nigger," Heart of Darkness, and Lord Jim, works in "The First Phase of Maturity." In "The Secret Sharer" the Captain rises above the selfishness of Decoud, Stevie, and Haldin in Nostromo, The Secret Agent, and Under Western Eyes respectively, works in "The Second Phase." He has learned the self-less value of taking "decisive responsibility for the safety of Leggett." In The Shadow-Line the Captain does not turn his back on the world as do Anthony, Heyst, and Renouard of Chance, Victory, and "The Planter of Malta," works in "The Third Phase." Instead, he comes "actively to grips with the malicious world." And it is his "solution," involvement in the world, which begins the problems for the heroes of "The Final Phase." Here George and Lingard of The Arrow of Gold and The Rescue are not committed solitaries, as were their predecessors in "The Third Phase." They face a new problem, unresolved by Conrad's death—the problem of "conflicting claims of their independence."

So although this is a thesis book with threads that run all through Conrad's works, Land does not suggest that Conrad wrote the same book over and over. The worst that could be said is that Conrad wrote five books over and over, and that each set ends with a final resolution that leads into the writing of another set, and so on. And with his like-the-palm-ofhis-hand understanding of the works themselves, Land delivers a book that is both unified and satisfying.

The satisfaction, I think, comes from his persistent and unflagging compulsion to show echoes, parallels, similarities, analogies, reminiscences, and continuities of the heroes, dualisms, paradoxes, "treasures," philosophical questions, heroines, antiheroines, rivals, and...