victoryCan a man of moral sensitivity function in a corrupt and derelict world? This is a major question that Joseph Conrad probes in Victory (1915) and that his main character, Axel Heyst, presumably a Swedish baron, depicts through a demanding process of self-examination and self-discovery. Conrad, to be sure, conveys in this novel the fundamental pessimism and melancholy that stamp his view of the human condition. But at the same time, he also shows how the power of redemption unfolds in the decisions and the actions that Heyst strenuously enacts in the course of the novel’s happenings. In him, we see a deep, agonizing struggle going on between his habit of detachment and his instinctive need to involve himself in the life-process as he tears his self away from the doubts and fears, which prevent one from putting trust in life. As Heyst moves out of his self-chosen isolation on the island of Samburan in the Malaysian Archipelago, he asserts faith in the essential meaning and dignity of the human being. He personifies precisely what Henry James calls the “emotion of recognition” as he collides with the power of the world, and finds that he cannot kill the invisible God within him.

With William Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet, Conrad’s “Hamlet of the South Seas” sees this world as “unweeded garden/ That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature/ Possess it merely.”[1] Heyst’s worldview is rooted in despair, which impels him to choose the isolation that, in the end, transforms into “sickness unto death.” “Heyst was not conscious of either friends or of enemies,” Conrad writes. “It was the very essence of his life to be a solitary achievement, accomplished not by hermit-like withdrawal with its silence and immobility, but by a system of restless wandering, by the detachment of an impermanent dweller amongst changing scenes.” In short, Heyst seeks to become “invulnerable because elusive.” Victory renders the full costs of an attitude rooted in cynical and selfish indifference—to hide, to abstain, to do nothing.

The structure and the thrust of this novel, in their organic interaction, delineate the unceasing tugs and turns of Heyst’s efforts. Even the sudden time shifts and truncations in the novel’s structure heighten the furious strains and dissonance besieging Heyst. In this respect, Victory can be seen as a novel of multiplying tensions in terms of space and time as we view Heyst struggling to free himself from the influence of his late father, an expatriated Swedish philosopher of disenchantment, with whom the young Heyst, having now left school, lived in London: “Three years of such companionship at that plastic and impressionable age were bound to leave in the boy a profound distrust of life.” The elder Heyst, “dissatisfied with his [own] country and angry with all the world,” had grimly concluded that mankind was no longer worthy of the right to moral and intellectual freedom. His final advice to his son was “to cultivate that form of contempt which is called pity,” to “look on and never make a sound,” for “he who forms a tie is lost”—“the last words of the man who had spent his life in blowing blasts upon a terrible trumpet which had filled heaven and earth with ruins, while mankind went on its way unheeding.”

Following the death of his father, and for a period of fifteen years thereafter, Heyst makes distant travels “in unexplored countries, in the wilds,” as he proceeds to organize his life in accordance with his father’s vision of existence. Heyst seeks to confirm his father’s basic belief that “the world is a bad dog. It will bite you if you give it a chance…” Darkness and ominous silences become Heyst’s companions in his enterprise to make his life “a masterpiece of aloofness.” He chooses to work as manager for the Tropical Belt Coal Company, which is located on Samburan (“The ‘Round Island’ of the charts”) and remains there even after the firm has gone into liquidation. Here Heyst “was out of everybody’s way, as if he were perched on the highest peak of the Himalayas.” Here, except for aimless visits to neighboring islands, he remained unconnected and disconnected—still removed from the flow of life and still the dutiful son (at the age of thirty-five) of the “destroyer of systems, of hopes, of beliefs.”

Heyst agonizes over a yearning to “drift” and an instinct to “plunge,” thereby to make a moral commitment to humankind. “No decent feeling was ever spurned by Heyst,” Conrad’s omniscient narrator observes. In him a peculiar transparency and sincerity are dominant. However much Heyst wants to avoid human contact, insofar as “all action is bound to be harmful,” he cannot consciously ignore a “distressed humanity.” Nor can his “seclusion in his lost corner of the Eastern seas” keep him from responding to calls for help. As the narrator reminds us, Heyst was not one who “paused” much once his heart and conscience spoke to him: “Those dreamy spectators of the world’s agitation are terrible once the desire to act gets hold of them. They lower their heads and charge a wall with an amazing serenity which nothing but an indisciplined imagination can give.”

In Heyst, we discern how a man of “universal detachment” transforms into a man of moral action. In effect, Heyst resists the “sin” that is despair, which pollutes the soul. But more than anything else he surmounts his craving for abstraction as he answers the appeals made to him by human beings threatened with being crushed under the iron heel of some sinister life-force. Heyst discloses quiet, firm courage once he ventures out of the prison-house of “pernicious reflection.” Clearly Heyst’s detachment was not complete—“and incompleteness of any sort leads to trouble.” In the end, he personifies the truth of words spoken by one of Conrad’s later admirers, Albert Camus: “The individual can do nothing and yet he can do everything.”

The first to call on Heyst’s innate humanity is Morrison, the owner and master of a trading brig, whose acts of generosity to natives barely subsisting in a “quantity of God-forsaken villages up dark creeks and obscure bays,” leads to his economic misfortune. The two men chance to meet on the island of Timor, at a pestilential town called Delli. At the time Morrison, an Englishman from Dorsetshire, is in serious trouble with the Portuguese authorities, who, claiming an irregularity in his papers, had taken his brig, which they plan to auction unless he pays a specified fine. Without any spare cash in hand, Morrison faces ruin. His state of desperation deeply moves Heyst, who formally and politely pays the fine and thus saves Morrison from ruin. He discerns in Morrison an honest and honorable man, the victim of too many altruisms. Clearly the virtues in Morrison’s character arouse Heyst’s sympathy. The decision to help Morrison initiates both a change in Heyst and a re-direction of his moral conversion, as he begins to discern the hollow man in himself.

A thankful Morrison views Heyst’s help as miraculous—“‘Miracles do happen,’ thought the awestruck Morrison…The fact of his turning up in Timor or anywhere else was no more wonderful than the settling of a sparrow on one’s window-sill at any given moment.” But the impecunious Morrison also knows that he will never be able to repay “this amazing emissary of Providence.” Hence he invites the Swede to travel with him in his brig and to share in his trading enterprises in the Archipelago. Heyst accepts Morrison’s invitation, if only to put an end to their mutual embarrassment that springs from a common personal reserve. This arrangement, in the end, results in Heyst becoming the manager of the Tropical Belt Coal Company in the tropics, the original idea that Morrison himself had pushed for successfully when he returned to London. But Morrison himself does not survive, as Conrad’s narrator informs us: “the victim of gratitude and his native climate, [he] had gone to join his forefathers in a Dorsetshire churchyard.” Heyst selects Samburan to be the central station, but the mining venture eventually failed, and he himself “faded completely away.” It is months later that Captain Davidson, a delicate and humane man, coming from the westward in his steamer the Sissie, sees him with his own eyes: “he made out with his glass the white figure on the coaling wharf…He looked exactly as we have always seen him—very neat, white shoes, cork helmet.”

If the encounter with Morrison does not lead to Heyst’s worldly enrichment, it does have a deep and lasting effect on his inner self. It is because of Morrison’s plight that Heyst forms a tie with another human being, and it is also because of Morrison that he brings to the surface his feelings of humanity, to which he consciously submits. Morrison prods Heyst’s faculty of conscience, which is synonymous with the inward knowledge and inmost thought that are part of the mental system. But, above all, in Heyst conscience serves as an intimate function of the moral sense in the discernment of right and wrong. It is what enables him to begin the process of unmasking the deformed titanism of his father’s philosophy. Conscience is Heyst’s interior strength, pregnant with the moral possibilities that he visualizes in his life after Morrison. Morrison, as such, signifies the emergence of the first of Heyst’s affirmations in the form of an ascending moral courage.

The second call on Heyst for help has momentous consequences for himself and for others with whom he has made connections. The novel renders these consequences with a relentless inevitability. Having first established a human tie with Morrison, Heyst exposes himself to his humanity and thus makes himself vulnerable to the kind of fatal outcome his father foresaw. This second call speaks to his passionate self, to his heart. There is no turning back for him once he listens to what his heart tells him to do, introducing, as it, does a new and dangerous dynamic in his life. He can never be the same after he makes another “plunge”—this time in the course of re-appearing in European-ruled nearby Sourabaya, having earlier signaled Captain Davidson to take him there. Here he stays at a hotel owned by a German, Schomberg, who detests and regularly maligns Heyst. Schomberg’s is an instinctive hatred for “a genuine gentleman” whose aloofness and independence rankled the hotelkeeper. Such hatred has its origin in diabolism, with which Heyst will have to contend mightily in due course.

At Schomberg’s hotel, as it happens, a ladies’ orchestra (“Zangiacomo’s eastern tour—eighteen performers”) is giving evening concerts. The Zangiacomos are hardly musicians by profession. Among the performers is found a twenty-year-old English girl, Lena. Heyst visits the concert hall, where he is immediately assaulted by the coarseness of the scene: “An instrumental uproar, screaming, grunting, whining, sobbing, scraping, squeaking some kind of lively air; while a grand piano operated upon by a bony red-faced woman with bad-tempered nostrils rained hard notes like hail through the tempest of fiddles.” The sordidness of this scene—“something cruel, sensual and repulsive”—strikes Heyst as “awful,” “incorrect.” He feels pity for the performers, whom he views as “explicated, hopeless, devoid of charm and grace.” The same kind of human impulse that prompted him earlier to reach out to Morrison again takes hold of Heyst as he observes Lena being cruelly pinched (not for the first time) by another performer. In Lena he perceives a forsaken and affronted human being whose situation fills him with moral outrage.

Heyst’s compassion for Lena’s suffering and humiliation—she is also called Alma and Magdalene—leads him, after another visit to the concert hall, to assure her that he will take her away from the Zangiacomos, as well as from sexual predators like Schomberg. His moral outrage is now touched by deep stirrings in his heart. Lena has a mysterious, mesmerizing effect on Heyst, who seems captured by the fineness of her features, by her seductive voice, by an “immense sadness” that surrounds her like a halo, by her air of innocence. “He could not defend himself from compassion.” For her, too, Heyst himself is like some savior whose kindness and sincerity fill her with admiration. This new encounter between Heyst and Lena is both electrifying and redemptive, as two human beings, a savior and a victim, plod their way to a tragic freedom. Lena enables Heyst to attain his second major affirmation.

Yet, too, if Heyst is aware of her circumstances, and seeks to save her, he is also aware of the dangers and costs. In him, the man of reflection wrestles incessantly with the man of compassion, for he is still assailed by the doubts and fears implanted in him by his famous philosopher-father. But in the end, “his skeptical mind was dominated by the fullness of his heart.” The drama of their nocturnal escape gains in a momentum that blends moral responsibility and passionate feelings. Lena at this point is a “white, phantom-like apparition,” as they both cling to each other in the face of a hostile world.

Conrad renders the entire episode with astonishing power, as two human beings—with the secret help of Schomberg’s pitiably abused wife—defy the terror and treachery of a world that they have come to distrust and fear, embodied in Schomberg’s hotel, which can be likened to a subterranean realm of vice and oppressive cruelties and calumnies. Heyst can hardly ignore Lena’s desperate plea for his help in escaping from diabolic forces. He must take her away, she begs, for he is her only hope: “You told me you had always been alone, you had never had a dog even. Well, then, I won’t be in anybody’s way if I live with you—not even a dog’s.” The pathos of her position nearly overwhelms him as he grasps just how vulnerable she is: “He put his arms around her, and only by the convulsive movements of her body became aware that she was sobbing without a sound. Sustaining her, he lost himself in the profound silence of the night.” Their stealthy escape to “the solitude of Samburan,” when it is finally executed, underlines Heyst’s “departure from the part of an unconcerned spectator.” But that “departure” does not necessarily ensure absolute safety; indeed, it marks still another of the “incalculable consequences” once “the germ of corruption” has entered the soul.

Life on Samburan is far from easy for either Heyst or Lena. It seems that the furies are still chasing them during the more than three months since their flight from Sourabaya. The memory of Morrison haunts Heyst in his view of “this earthly captivity” in which “cornered” human beings like Lena must struggle to overcome somehow. “There is something of my father in every man who lives long enough,” he asserts at one point to Lena, and goes on to say, “Man on this earth is an unforeseen accident which does not stand close investigation.” Nor does Heyst’s memory of his father lessen as he seeks to explain to Lena the paradox of human existence: “Suppose the world were a factory and all mankind workmen in it,” he further asserts. “Well, he [the elder Heyst] discovered that the wages were not good enough. That they were paid in counterfeit money.” It seems, too, that the man with the quill pen in his hand, as found in the oil portrait of his father that he retains in his bungalow in Samburan, is always looking down at Heyst, as if to remind him of the snares of making a commitment to other human beings in a world that is nothing more than “storm and dust” (the title of one of his father’s many books). In Heyst, Conrad portrays schisms of the soul and lacerations of thought that buffet him in his decisions. The movement, if not the form, of the novel itself mirrors the internal solipsisms that rack Heyst, and the polarizing doubts and denials that shake his mind and soul.

To the very end Heyst fights a running battle with “his conception of a world not worth touching, and perhaps not substantial enough to grasp.” His relationship with Lena reflects the grip of this conception. Their long conversations help the reader to acquire a clearer understanding of Heyst’s earlier life, attitudes, reactions, and thus piece together a more coherent picture of Heyst’s thinking and conduct, even in his silences. His inward terrain, as it were, becomes better known to the reader. With Lena, Heyst discovers  human communion, but at the same time there lingers in him an incompleteness that he will never overcome—“the fatal imperfections of all the gifts of life, which makes of them a delusion and a snare.” His confessions to her have a way of marking her as a saintly figure, pure in her innocence and suffering, one who (Heyst thinks aloud in his mind) “had a special grace in the intimacy of life.” Lena enables us to penetrate what one critic calls “the patterns of self-division” in Heyst, whose greatest difficulty is in relating to another human being, to what D. H. Lawrence calls “divine otherness.”[2] Lena helps Heyst gain a keener sense of his own reality, and thus advance beyond his self-division. But his incompleteness is never fully healed, and he cannot openly admit his love for Lena, even when he has demonstrated passion for her: “He swerved and, stepping up to her, sank to the ground by her side…he took her in his arms and kissed her lips. He tasted on them the bitterness of a tear fallen there. He had never seen her cry. It was like another appeal to his tenderness—a new seduction.”

Although he frowned on Fyodor Dostoevsky, Conrad fully grasped the meaning of the Russian novelist’s belief that, in the human soul, good and evil are forever struggling. No one, as Heyst himself discovers, escapes the ferocity of such a struggle. One may want to avoid it, or to sublimate it, or refuse to recognize it, but one can never absolutely deny its existence. One can have absolutely no illusion about the terrors of its might. The failure to recognize evil constitutes a moral lapse; and the failure to resist it leads to moral lassitude, if not to moral death itself. To neutralize evil is an impossibility, for it will make itself known to one without warning, within and yet beyond temporal and spatial entities. It will invade any refuge and break down any wall built to keep out its infernal energies.

In Schomberg we are in contact with one of Nietzsche’s “great despisers.” “He works with immense malice.” His is an inborn detestation of the good, which he will undermine in any manner he can. Schomberg will say anything to anyone at anytime for the purpose of defaming Heyst. Thus he spreads rumors that Heyst is Morrison’s murderer, that as the latter’s partner he got all he could out of him and then sent him away to die. He compares Heyst to a spider: “Don’t you ever get caught in his web.” No less vicious are Schomberg’s stories about Heyst as Lena’s seducer. The Liar, a name for Satan, finds a loyal follower in Wilhelm Schomberg.


In his composite of evil, Conrad presents a graphic picture of “Satan in our day.”[3] His devils are bent on the destruction of life and spirit, and of all norms of law and morals. They ultimately force Heyst to move closer to reality, further distancing him from the terrible illusions, the abstractions of flight and detachment, which the elder Heyst concocted as protection against any involvement in the life-process. In Conrad’s metaphysics of evil we observe how theory and reality collide with a violent crash, as this collision is etched in Heyst’s life. Heyst, it is clear, cannot run away from either himself or life around him; nor can he run away from the fact of evil itself, whether it is found in the world or in himself. Evil, as we observe it in Victory, constitutes a complete and inclusive attack on the order of life and the order of the soul. It is the moral and not the theological dimension of evil that Conrad mainly confronts in this novel. Evil embodies moral disorder and its afflictions are multifarious. Conrad’s devils appear like dreadful diseases, odious in nature, dismal, deformed, bestial, snarling.[4] For them, in Conrad’s words, it is “as if the world were still one great, wild jungle without law.” These “unclean spirits” stop at nothing in creating chaos; they are like wild beasts prowling in the ruins of a maritime Nineveh.

The “human satans” in Victory are Mr. Jones, Martin Ricardo, and Pedro. They arrive in Sourabaya “one fine morning,” coming “from up China Sea way.” They are greeted by Schomberg on his steam-launch, which he uses for boarding arriving passenger ships in his search for “promising accounts.” One of the trio, Mr. Jones, immediately hails Schomberg by name, knowing of him and his illicit reputation. The hotelkeeper views them as “desperadoes,” but he wants to exploit them for his own devious purposes. In the presence of all four of them we detect their common recognition of each other’s demonic energies. Each of them adheres to an agenda of evil, and each one projects particular physical attributes that are in keeping with one’s demonism. These attributes add to the mystery of their evil in its parts and in its whole. Conrad is clearly making the point that the new “guests” staying in Schomberg’s hotel are as morally reprehensible as they are physically grotesque. From the moment they are introduced, Conrad is preparing the reader for a spectacle of devils and, more specifically, for the moral and spiritual battle that will ensue. They are in and of the world, as they “walketh about” seeking whom to devour; they are in time and yet beyond time, and they come from everywhere and are everywhere.[5]

In Victory Conrad goes to great lengths to picture the physical elements of evil. “Plain Mr. Jones,” Martin Ricardo, and Pedro bring to mind “the infernal Proteus,” that is, the diabolical anti-trinity of the Book of Revelation: the False Prophet, the Dragon, and the Beast. In Conrad’s three demonics we have an equivalent androgynous animality, shorn of any semblance of spirituality. Even the hotelkeeper is impressed by the spirit of evil his guests emanate: “Schomberg, raising his eyes at last, met the gleams in two dark caverns under Mr. Jones’s devilish eyebrows, directed upon him impenetrably. He shuddered as if horrors worse than murder had been lurking there.” Mr. Jones, the supreme “outlaw,” has an emaciated, clean-shaven face, a long and loose-jointed body, and sunken eyes, long, feminine, beautifully penciled eyelashes, which give him “a used-up, weary, depraved distinction,” with an “air of withered youth.” Subject to fits, he has a spectral presence, which strikes terror in those he addresses in a voice that is “indifferent, as if issuing from a tomb.”

Mr. Jones’s “secretary,” “the equivocal Ricardo,” is a short, muscular man, whose eyes gleam and blink; he has “a harsh voice, and a round, toneless pock-marked face ornamented by a thin, disheveled moustache,” which sticks out “under the tip of a rigid nose.” He seems only too anxious to pounce on another person “with teeth and claws,” or to set fire to a house without the slightest delay. He has the expression of “a cat which sees a piece of fish in the pantry out of reach;” and he is “game for anything from pitch and toss to willful murder.” To Ricardo, then, “life was not a matter of passive renunciation, but of a particularly active warfare.”

Between Mr. Jones and Ricardo, the narrator points out, there existed “a similarity of mind”—“one the outcast of his vices, the other inspired by a spirit of scornful defiance.” It can be said that Ricardo has always been waiting for Mr. Jones, in whom his corrupt nature finds its consummation. While serving as a mate on a schooner plying the waters in the Gulf of Mexico, Ricardo meets Mr. Jones, instinctively choosing “to follow him,” for “he seemed to touch me inside somewhere.” From that first meeting, and now continuing for more than four years, “Mr. Secretary Ricardo,” “simple—and faithful—and wonderfully acute,” has been carrying out Mr. Jones’s commands with utmost obedience.

The last of the trio, Pedro, an alligator-hunter, from Colombia, is a “nondescript, hairy creature” who seems to tag after the other two, and who is obviously useful to their purposes. Conrad endows him with all the characteristics of an anthropoidal type who belongs to a “shaggy, hair-smothered humanity.” Pedro, unlike the other two, represents the simple, straightforward brutality of evil; he does not have their “subtle power of terror.” We learn from Ricardo that Pedro first joined the thieving pair in Nicaragua, where Mr. Jones and Ricardo found lodgings in the hut of Pedro and his brother, Antonio. The brothers were in the meanwhile scheming to murder Mr. Jones and Ricardo and rob them of the booty they had acquired during their various treasure-hunting expeditions in the Gulf of Mexico. Ricardo, detecting the motives of the two brothers, informs Mr. Jones, who instantly “plugs a bullet plumb center into Mr. Antonio’s chest.” The killing, carried out one night with conscienceless alacrity, reveals Mr. Jones’s diabolical disposition of mind and movement. Pedro, once he is subdued (with some difficulty) by Ricardo, after attempting to escape, has his life spared by Mr. Jones. Since that time, a grateful Pedro attached himself to Mr. Jones. The evil alliance of Mr. Jones, Ricardo, and Pedro was thus to arise from infernal circumstances that knit together “a spectre, a cat, an ape.”

After several weeks pass, Mr. Jones and his henchmen still remain in the hotel, practically appropriating it for their “discreet operations with cards.” Anxious to be rid of his three guests and to regain his business from the oppression of “thieves, gamblers, and murderers,” Schomberg decides to put Ricardo “on another track:” he tells him of Heyst and the “plunder” he has hidden on Samburan. The story fascinates Ricardo, particularly the part on Lena. Schomberg manipulates the various details in enticing and devious ways, not only to free himself of the trio, but also to get back at Heyst, whom he blames for taking Lena away from him. The conversation between the two discloses a mutual diabolism, as one man of evil plays with another man of evil. One must not underestimate the depth of Schomberg’s own diabolism, as he seeks to outmaneuver Ricardo, to steer him to new heights of evil by doing Schomberg’s dirty work against Heyst. His cunning is subtle in development as he draws for Ricardo the way to Samburan. “For people like you,” he says to Ricardo, “three days in a good, big boat is nothing. It’s no more than a little outing, a bit of a change.”

Schomberg’s “expressive combination of words” has deep effect on Ricardo, who is anxious for a new skirmish on a new front. All he needs is a little imaginative prodding from Schomberg. There is a kind of sparring going on between them, with Schomberg having the upper hand as he is driven by his monomania to destroy Heyst as the cause of his “ruined hopes.” He thus persuades Ricardo, who is ready “to get his claws out at any moment,” to “proceed with the business.” (Schomberg will even provide the trio with a boat and provisions, as well as with courses and charts.) Mr. Jones, as Ricardo also reveals, “funks facing women,” preferring instead the occasional company of “a ragged, bare-legged boy,” and therefore he simply will say nothing about Lena to the “governor.” For the hotel-keeper this is a moment of great strategic importance: “Schomberg’s heart began to thump as he saw himself nearing his vengeance.” And for Heyst, who has “never killed a man or loved a woman,” a fatal battle on Samburan looms when he first sights a big boat with three men at the wharf, under the jetty—“envoys of the outer world…evil intelligence, instinctive savagery, arm in arm. The brute force is at the back.”

With this “visitation” comes the last stage of visible and invisible warfare on the island of Samburan and in the soul of Axel Heyst. He looks on this visitation as one “of a particularly offensive kind,” and he is intuitively aware of the dire consequences now that “the outer world had broken upon him.” A prowling Ricardo carefully surveys the surroundings, and is anxious to find the exact location of Heyst’s treasure. Conrad shrouds the entire scene in mystery and danger. Wang, a Chinese servant who, with his Alfuro wife, lived in a hut near Heyst, purloins Heyst’s revolver and later runs away from the immediate area surrounding three bungalows, fearing that Heyst is doomed by the three visitors. Conrad creates here an atmosphere of fatality. For Heyst the test of his courage, of his affection for Lena, and above all of his moral will, is close at hand—but will he be able to cast out the devils, as it were, when the appointed time comes? This is a major question that emerges in the concluding scenes in Victory.

Heyst is at the epicenter of the novel’s happenings at this point, and we observe him from different angles. What he has always feared to contend with, that is, “the embodied evil of the world,” now comes to knock at the door of his soul. All the tensions of his “yes” and “no” converge in the form of diabolisms seeking his destruction. In this final movement of the novel, Heyst comes to see his past and present breaking in on him, recognizing fully as he does, that “I have lived too long within myself, watching the mere shadows and shades of life.” The moral questions that Victory raises crystallize in this omega-point of the novel.


The mood in these last events (in Part IV) is grim, as one feels their intensity and turbulence. Light seems to slide into darkness with no warning, and darkness itself suddenly manifests flashes of lightning, punctuated by thunder, followed by a brooding silence. A nervous confusion seems to prevail, as we see Ricardo scurrying here and there—hiding, watching, stalking, skulking, dodging. At one point, Ricardo enters Heyst’s house while the latter is in discourse with Mr. Jones in another bungalow. There he discovers Lena, “her fingers busy with her dark hair, utterly unconscious, exposed and defenseless and tempting…The instinct for the feral spring could no longer be denied.” He attacks Lena, who resists him fiercely and successfully with exceptional strength that comes from her devotion to Heyst. Ricardo is all amazement and wonder; to him, she is a “blooming miracle,” and he now confides in her his passionate feelings and also his plans to rob (and, if necessary, kill) Heyst.

Lena senses the full danger that faces the man who saved her and now resorts to duplicity in handling Ricardo, who still believes Schomberg’s story that Heyst abducted her. Now that Ricardo has told her about the scheme against Heyst, she is more determined than ever to save the man she loves. Ricardo, infatuated with Lena, deludes himself in believing he has “intelligences in the enemy’s camp.” Quietly Ricardo begins to distance himself from Mr. Jones: “He no longer felt comfortable alone with the governor.” Lena has entered Ricardo’s life with a vengeance and she will use him any way she can to protect Heyst.

Fully perceptive of the dangers that “the envoys extraordinary of the world” pose, Heyst fears much for Lena’s safety, but Heyst has self-doubts about whether or not he can stand up to the “evil men.” Unarmed and desperate, he tries to think of ways of escaping with Lena, but these come to naught. While wandering with Heyst in the forest, Lena intuits “a sullen, dumb, menacing hostility,” and she “feels the nearness of death.” A feeling of doom also inheres in Heyst’s inner thoughts, as he thinks of Lena: “He regretted that he had no Heaven, to which he could recommend this fair, palpitating handful of ashes and dust.” His fears are heightened by “the ill-omened chaos of the sky,” again reminding us of Conrad’s astonishing way of interfusing human life and the natural elements, at a point when a wild storm is about to erupt at an “evil hour.”

Heyst and Mr. Jones are the great antagonists in the final pages of Victory; they confront each other fatefully in a time of “reckoning.” Mr. Jones believes that Heyst has “no stomach for a fight,” while he himself is “the retribution that waits its time.” But increasingly Heyst does become aware he is dealing with “an absolutely hard and pitiless scoundrel.” They speak to each other as opposing equals in intelligence. When Heyst reveals to him that Lena is in fact living with him on the island, Mr. Jones is quick to gauge the meaning of Ricardo’s infidelity. In the midst of all this, Heyst suddenly sees Lena, dressed in black, sitting “enthroned” in a chair, beyond the door in the candle-lit room of his bungalow. (She did not flee to the safety of the forest, as he had instructed her earlier.) Seated nearby on the floor is Ricardo, gazing at Lena with “the absorbed, all-forgetful rapture of his contemplation.”

Death is now in the air—the death that Lena sees as preparing to capture Heyst. Her sole purpose is how to get hold of Ricardo’s knife—she is able to deceive Ricardo and even manages to have him give her the knife. Ricardo now creeps closer to Lena, clasping her ankle and kissing the instep. As she pushes him away with violence, he begins to realize the extent of her duplicity and leaps to his feet, as he also hears “the brief report of a shot” that grazes Ricardo’s head. It was Mr. Jones who fired the shot over Heyst’s shoulder, we learn. Entering the house, Heyst looks concernedly at Lena, who appears triumphant since she believes she has successfully saved him from Ricardo. Heyst, with Davidson by his side—coincidentally the latter has just arrived—picks up Lena’s limp body from his chair and places her on the bed in the other room. There they find that the bullet Mr. Jones fired entered under Lena’s breast. It is a dying Lena we behold here, yet a Lena who has achieved “victory over death” by saving Heyst. He, however, somehow seems unable to take her into his arms and carry her out of “this lonely place:” “Heyst bent low over her, cursing his fastidious soul, which even at that moment kept the true cry of love from his lips in its infernal distrust of life. He dared not touch her, and she had no longer the strength to throw her arms about his neck.”

From his candid testimony to an inquiring high official, we learn that what prompted Davidson to go ashore at the very point of Lena’s death was his discovery of a big white boat, with the dead body of Pedro inside, bumping against the bow of his steamer. We also learn from Davidson that Mr. Jones fatally shot Ricardo and that Wang, out of pity and curiosity, having followed Heyst and Lena through the forest, shot a dozing Pedro in the boat. He then cut the boat adrift, fearing that “those scoundrels…should come round by water and bombard the village from the sea with their revolvers and Winchesters.”

The details of this death scene need stressing, if only to allow us to penetrate Heyst’s deepest feelings. He finally admits to Lena, with a “murmur of unconcealed despair,” that she is the only one in the world who could have done what she did for him. At the very threshold of death, as Heyst slips his arm under her neck, she feels profound relief and is happy to surrender her final moments of life to him. She expires, with “a smile of innocent, girlish happiness,” and with “a divine radiance on her lips,” exactly at the moment when Heyst, at last, “was ready to lift her up in his firm arms and take her into the sanctuary of his innermost heart—for ever!”

In the very last chapter of Victory, and again from Captain Davidson’s testimony, we hear of Heyst’s fate. His inadequacy in the tragic events that transpired on Samburan is clearly painful to him as he surveys what has happened on an island that had originally become for him a fortress against a world he associated with betrayal and catastrophism. Heyst’s despair is one that must be seen in terms of loss: the loss of his sanctuary, the loss of his “cherished negations,” and now the loss of Lena, whose place in his life he finally sees as being permanent. Indeed, his last words to Davidson arise out of his recognition of his losses: “woe to the man whose heart has not learned while young to hope, to love—and to put its trust in life!”

So deep and rending are his losses in their moral import that Heyst chooses to die in the configuration that destroys the principal bungalow and also the other bungalows. As Davidson informs the “attentive Excellency,” Heyst is ashes—“he and the girl together. I suppose he couldn’t stand his thoughts before her dead body—and fire purifies everything.” On the other hand, Mr. Jones, Heyst’s diabolical double, suffers death by drowning when (whether by accident or by choice) while looking for the boat, he tumbled into the water: “The boat and the man were gone, and the scoundrel saw himself all alone, his game clearly up, and fairly trapped…I could see him huddled up on the bottom between two piles, like a heap of bones in a blue silk bag, with only the head and the feet sticking out.” Victory concludes, then, on a note of death and annihilation—“there are more dead in this affair…than have been killed in many of the battles of the last Achin war,” Davidson somberly declares.

The powerful enemy alliance resorts to all kinds of tactics in order to prevail. We have in this novel, then, a total and unconditional war going on. Heyst and Lena create a fragile and tenuous alliance that must confront a savage foe. Heyst prefers to live in a state of isolation and skepticism; and Lena seeks to escape from an oppressive captivity and find a savior who is the incarnation of love. Such an alliance of innocents is utterly unprepared for a collision with demonic forces that are absolutely certain of their aims. The circumstances of their collision are totally unfavorable to Heyst and Lena, lacking as they do any battle plan or strategy, and loyal only to the shaping spirit of their personal predicaments and destinies. Of the two, Lena is the more realistic in gauging the might of the violence in pursuit of Heyst’s ostensible treasure and Lena’s sexuality. Neither inwardly torn nor divided, as is Heyst, she is the more active member of the alliance. Her past exposure to evil helps her to understand what is at stake; whereas Heyst, only gradually and even grudgingly discerns the full dangers of the situation once Samburan is invaded.

Conrad renders moral warfare in military detail. His battle scenes contain beach landings, forays, skirmishes, reconnaissance missions, guerrilla tactics, hand-to-hand combat, even as armies in miniature plot their strategies and execute their attacks. Even a mutinous act like Ricardo’s plays a role in the struggle. There is always, too, a sense of watching and waiting when things are eerily quiet on the battlefront. Climatic conditions add to the suspense, as the shadows of dark clouds touch the openings of the land, darkening even more deeply the mystery of the surrounding forest, and as thunderclaps erupt and flashes of lightning pierce the skies. The anxieties, forebodings, and weariness connected with the final battle, so to speak, inevitably afflict both sides. To be sure, Conrad is revered as the “worshipper, interpreter, and prose-laureate of the sea,” but, in Victory, his treatment of terrain, its special features, configurations, and space or extent of ground, is truly astonishing, if not prophetic when one thinks of the great land battles of the European War of 1914–1918.[6]

Conrad employs religious imagery in this novel without, at the same time, making a specifically theological statement or claim. Heyst’s Christ-like aspects and Lena’s saintly and self-sacrificing acts on behalf of the man she believes is her savior, needless to say, have their Christian prototypes. Heyst is called to give his witness and Lena to experience martyrdom. The religious and, more specifically, Christian concepts of Good and Evil affect the novel’s total economy. Heart, mind, and soul testify to the Pauline command, “Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good.”[7] Even Heyst’s last words to Davidson echo the Evangelist’s admonition, “Beloved, let us love.”[8] How is one to “overcome the world?”[9] This is a religious question that this novel wrestles with ferociously. No less significant is Conrad’s use of the word victory. Lena and Heyst ultimately illustrate forms of “victory which overcometh,” since victory is given to “them that are worthy.”[10]

That one cannot be “above the battle,” as Heyst would like to be, is a very important lesson of Victory. The war being fought in this novel is not simply for treasure, nor for supremacy and aggrandizement. In the final analysis, this is a war for the human soul, and, more specifically, for the spiritual part of human life considered in its moral aspects. Heyst clearly wants to neutralize his soul by isolating himself; he wants to protect his autonomy through inaction and withdrawal. Such a desire is the kind of illusion that Conrad exposes again and again in his fiction. Moral warfare, as he shows in Victory, cannot be exiled or transcended. No island can be utopia. No human being can cut off human ties. No one can escape or renounce the world, for the world will follow one wherever one goes and whatever one does. One must face the world, Conrad seems to be saying, even when one refuses to affirm it.

The last word in Victory is “Nothing!” But the very last word of this novel, written on May 29, 1914, as Conrad informs us in his “Note to the First Edition,” was the single word of the title itself. It was also the last word he had written in peacetime, before the coming of the European War. For Conrad, the word “Victory” signified “the shining and tragic goal of noble effort.” His definition is especially pertinent to the meaning of this novel. Throughout we can observe the moral warfare that rages between those who value and those who would devalue human meaning. In the end, Victory is the story of the moral transformation and fate of human beings who are thrown into, even stricken in, the realm of gravity, and yet who cannot be denied the possibility of entering the realm of grace.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of Modern Age (Summer, 1999).


1. This particular reference to Hamlet, Act I, Scene II, lines 141–143, was drawn to my attention by Frederick R. Karl’s A Reader’s Guide to Joseph Conrad (New York, 1969), 246.
2. Here I am indebted to H. M. Daleski, “Victory and Patterns of Self-Division,” in Conrad Revisited: Essays for the Eighties, edited by Ross C. Murfin (Tuscaloosa, 1985), 107–123.
3. Perhaps one of the finest books on the subject of demonology is Satan (New York, 1951), edited by Père Bruno de Jesus-Marie, O.C.D., with an introduction by Charles Moeller. This remarkable collection of essays, written by various theologians and scholars, deals with “Satan’s Existence and Nature;” “The Place of the Devil Outside Christianity”; “Possession and Diabolism”; “The Devil in Art and Literature”; and “Deicide.”
4. See Stanton de Voren Hoffman’s suggestive essay, “Conrad’s Menagerie: Animal Imagery and Theme,” Bucknell Review (December 1964), 59–71.
5. 1 Peter v. 8.
6. Dictionary of National Biography, 1922–1930, edited by J.R.H. Weaver (London, 1937), 209.
7. Rom. xii:21.
8. I John iv:7.
9. I John xvi:33.
10. I John v:4, 2 Ma. 15:21.

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