Betrayal and Moral Imagination: A Study of Joseph Conrad's Five Major Works
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A series of Joseph Conrad's five major novels, beginning with Lord Jim (1900), followed by Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907), Under Western Eyes (1911), and concluding with Victory (1915), are all concerned with the theme of betrayal. These novels demonstrate Conrad's artistic depth and ultimately provide a better way of understanding his profound "moral imagination." The "standing jump" Conrad made out of Poland certainly motivated him to speculate diligently and almost exhaustively about the significance of the "jump" or betrayal. Conrad did not, however, remain in a personal realm. He transcended, as Russell Kirk said of T.S. Eliot, "the barriers of private experience" by shaping his unique experience into a universal art with the power of his moral imagination. His treatment of betrayal is too comprehensive, too artistic to be merely private or personal. The life of Conrad was a ceaseless and always agonizing struggle, as Eliot said of Shakespeare, "to transmute his personal and private agonies into something rich and strange, something universal and impersonal." It is F.R. Leavis who first noted Conrad's "moral intensity" and thereby placed him in the "Great Tradition" of English literature, along with Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and D.H. Lawrence. Conrad surely occupies his place in the "Great Tradition" not only as an "innovator in form and method" but also as an artist whose "moral intensity" stands out among English writers. Any study of Conrad should not ignore his passion for "the moral discovery" as well as his "spirit of love for mankind." The "moral discovery" was for Conrad "the object of every tale." It is certainly through such moral imagination that Conrad succeeds in, to borrow Lionel Trilling's phrase, "involving the reader himself in the moral life, inviting him to put his own motives under examination." It is also through the redeeming and almost healing power of the moral imagination that Conrad's vision as a whole always resists becoming either wholly existential or merely nihilistic.