The style of Victory is more modern than that of Almayer's Folly, Lord Jim, and others of Conrad's earlier novels. The writers of his own period in history influenced him. His manner of building suspense compares well with modern writings. Yet Conrad's matchless word rhythms, word choice, imagery, simile, and metaphor remain unchanged in this, his last truly great novel.
Word Choice and Rhythm
Conrad began to learn the English language at the age of twenty-one. His amazing gift for word selection is the more remarkable because of this handicap. While Conrad's unusual background provides exotic setting for his plot, he does not depend on background. He uses words to create effects, and his play on words is often remarkable in suggestive power. Such a passage occurs in Chapter 8, Part 2, where by playing on the word "hung" he manages to convey objectively the deep guilt in Schomberg's mind and his successful effort to cast off that guilt and go ahead with his murderous plan.
Other Use of Suggestion
By suggestion Conrad succeeds in conveying much more than his actual words express. All great writers use some such device to enrich their work, but few have succeeded so well as Conrad. Often, by a sentence or a phrase, he lifts the curtain on possibilities otherwise undreamed of.
Throughout Schomberg's long conversation with Ricardo in Chapters Six, Seven, and Eight of Part 2, suggestion is used again to reveal Schomberg's cowardice and Ricardo's scarcely controlled ferocity.
In Chapters Three, Four, and Five of Part 3, in which Heyst and Lena talk to each other on the forest path, Conrad conveys a world of subtle meaning. The intricate interplay between Heyst's true confessions about his affair with Morrison and Lena's reaction is a masterpiece of suggestive skill.
The thoughtful reader will find that much of the enjoyment of Conrad's work is induced by this subtle power of suggestion. His later works lack this quality, and many critics think that, whether he deliberately discarded this technique or lost it without knowing, the lack of suggestion in his final works is what marks them as inferior.
For the most part, Conrad chooses to inform his readers through dramatic scenes. In using this method, he conforms with the best opinions of modern writers and critics, who believe that people would rather see a scene than hear about it. Some of the book's most vivid scenes are:
- Heyst's meeting with Morrison on the streets of Delli in Timor.
- The scene in the concert hall where Heyst sees Lena being tormented by Mrs. Zangiacomo.
- The meeting of Heyst and Lena in the hotel garden at night.
- Schomberg's first meeting with the three villains in Sourabaya harbor.
- The scene where Jones and Ricardo force Schomberg to grant gambling privileges of his concert hall.
- Schomberg's long scene in the billiards room which ends in the hotelkeeper directing the three scoundrels to Samburan.
- The arrival of the three villains on Samburan.
- Ricardo's vicious attack on Lena.
- The scene before Wang's stockade.
- The climax scene.
Sentences, Paragraphs, and Punctuation
Departing from the rather ponderous style of his early work, Conrad's paragraphing and sentence structure in Victory are more in line with modern novels. Whereas he formerly ran two or more persons' conversation together in one paragraph, he goes, in Victory, to the opposite extreme and sometimes divides one person's speech into two paragraphs when such division is unnecessary and tends to confuse the reader.
He uses more exclamation points than many modern writers, and he uses contractions much more than he did in the first writings.
The dialogue in Victory is noteworthy for its exact portrayal of character. Only Lena's talk seems a little unbelievable. Would a Cockney girl of such sordid origins use the good English Lena uses? Of course profanities were not allowed in the literature of Conrad's time, so whatever vulgar language she may have used cannot be reported. Even so, she speaks with remarkably pure diction.
In spite of Victory's tragic character, humor often flashes through. Some examples are the description of Morrison's trade practices with the "God-forsaken villages" in the first paragraphs of Chapter 2, Part 1, and the description of Schomberg's fight with Zangiacomo. Even the scene where Schomberg and Ricardo have their long talk in Chapters Six to Eight in Part 2, although loaded with threatening overtones, contains some flashes of delicious humor. Heyst's meditations over his plan to steal Lena furnish this bit: ". . . for the use of reason is to justify the obscure desires that move our conduct, impulses, passions, prejudices and follies and also our fears."
Many snatches of description and characterization are funny.
Conrad makes much use of this device in Victory. By use of simile, metaphor, suggestion, and symbolism, he foreshadows future developments in the plot. Most conspicuous is his frequent reference to fire to foreshadow the scene in which Heyst will perish with Lena's dead body beside him. A few of these references are noted here. The reader will find many others:
- The volcano, in Chapter 1, "levelled at him from amongst the clear stars, a dull red glow."
- The burned area in front of Heyst's bungalow is the first thing Heyst and Lena see when he brings her to the island.
- On the last day of peace Heyst and Lena are to know, the references to fire increase. "The sun looked down . . . with a devouring glare like the eye of an enemy." Conrad also mentions "the intense blaze of the uncovered sea."
- Note "the flaming abyss of emptiness" in Chapter 5.
- In a more subtle manner, Conrad foreshadows the final effect of Heyst's philosophy of isolation:
- "He was incapable of outward cordiality of manner."
- "I don't care what people may say, and of course no one can hurt me." (Heyst to Davidson)
- "Heyst . . . suffered from plain, downright remorse. He deemed himself guilty of Morrison's death."
- "Not a single soul belonging to him lived anywhere on earth."
In Victory, Conrad uses the device of pairing which appears in others of his works, but nowhere with more symbolic meaning than in this novel. There are four pairs of characters.
Heyst and Jones are both gentlemen from the same general background of polite society. One is genuine and the other a renegade of the vilest sort.
Ricardo and Lena are both followers of gentlemen and themselves spawned in the dregs of society. They understand each other. Lena judges Ricardo correctly, but Ricardo misses his calculations on Lena because he does not realize that a great love has transformed the girl's life.
Captain Morrison and Captain Davidson are both owners of trading vessels. One figures in Heyst's first entry into human action; the other presides over his final exit from all human activity.
Pedro and Wang are both servants. They understand one another to the point of being afraid of one another. Wang kills Pedro.
Since all the characters in the book are symbolic, the pairings of persons serve a useful purpose, not only in constructing the plot but in highlighting the symbolic meanings.
Lure of the Unanswered Question
Modern sophisticated journals use a type of fiction which ends in such a way that readers may decide for themselves what really happened. The outcome is always open to argument. While Conrad never uses the open-ended story as such, he does use a subtle form of technique which borders on the open-end situation and raises challenging questions in readers' minds. If the reader takes time to study hints and suggestions which Conrad conceals here and there, clues will be found. They may not clear up the question, but they certainly make the consideration of it intensely interesting. Two such questions follow:
Did Jones shoot Lena by accident or by intention?
At first reading, the reader may be inclined to think it was by accident because Jones told Heyst, "It won't be you that I'll have to shoot, but him!" Also Heyst, himself, believed that Jones intended to kill Ricardo, missed, and shot Lena by accident. He said to Davidson, when they both heard the shot that finally killed Ricardo, "This time, he has not missed."
A more thoughtful consideration raises strong suspicion that Jones was too good a shot to miss a sitting target in a brightly lighted room. Conrad has informed the reader about Jones' ability with a gun, but Heyst was ignorant of how Jones shot Pedro's brother, Antonio: "He snatches his revolver from under his jacket and plugs a bullet dead center into Mr. Antonio's chest."
Heyst did not hear Ricardo tell Lena that his master is "better than good" with a gun. Heyst couldn't know that in a "perfectly dark night" Jones has shot Ricardo "neatly through the heart." The reader knows more than Heyst. Also the reader knows that Heyst was too good a person, himself, to imagine that anyone would shoot a helpless girl by intention.
Then, the reader remembers Jones' intense hatred of women. He regarded them as "horrors," resented them as he would "wriggling vipers." Jones certainly hated women enough to kill one with pleasure. He had double reason to hate Lena. She had seduced Ricardo.
The reader also recalls that Ricardo was sitting on the floor with his back to the door. Lena sat in a chair bending over him. Could Jones have aimed at Ricardo and hit Lena squarely in the heart? The catlike Ricardo was in the act of springing up when he got the grazing head wound.
Another question arises. Would Jones have slipped away as he did if his shot had missed the mark he intended? Would not his pride of marksmanship have urged another shot? He did shoot Ricardo later exactly as he said he would. He knew that Ricardo war armed with a dagger only. The advantage was all on his side.
Why Did Heyst Commit Suicide?
Critics of Conrad's fiction have much to say on this question and do not agree. Some think Heyst at last found something worth dying for. Some think he was crazed with grief. Others think that his reasons were a secret, locked forever in his mind. This question is worthy of deep study because the whole thematic content of the book hinges on it.
In Chapter 11, Part 3, Heyst tells Jones that he has divorced himself, "long ago," from "the love of life."
Perhaps the clearest lead appears in the same chapter where Heyst is being prodded up the steps to his own bungalow with Jones' gun in his back. When he sees Lena and realizes that she has disregarded and disobeyed his orders which would have insured her safety (he does not yet see Ricardo at her feet), sudden realization bursts upon him that Lena knows she cannot trust him to protect her or himself. He sees himself as a "hollow" man. A new doubt enters into him, "formless, hideous. It seemed to spread itself all over him, enter his limbs, and lodge in his entrails." He stops suddenly with the thought that one who feels as he does has no business to live.
Since this doubt is a new one, it cannot be doubt of Lena or any other person. He has always doubted and mistrusted everyone. No, this new doubt can be only of one kind — doubt of himself and his own philosophy of life. Thus Heyst's final statement to Davidson is motivated: ". . . woe to the man whose heart has not learned while young to hope, to love — and to put its trust in life." With his isolationist philosophy toppling about him, Axel Heyst cannot go on living because he can look forward to NOTHING.
By such subtleties as these, Conrad entices his readers and challenges their powers of reason. Much of his charm as a writer lies in his ability to persuade his reader that he, Conrad, is as deeply puzzled about his characters as any casual observer.
The great, overall theme of Victory is the one Conrad draws from the scriptures, without love I am nothing. Other themes are:
- Withdrawal from others leads to soul shrinkage.
- Refusal to participate in life's activities reacts on a person with paralyzing effect.
- Isolationist policy is fatal.
- Through compassion for others, a man is often led out of any beyond himself.
- "Greater love hath no man than this. That a man lay down his life for his friends."
- Great love generates great strength and courage.
- Malicious gossip is a murderous weapon.
The problem Conrad probes in all his fictional works is that of the non-conformist. Victory is unique in that it presents this problem from a different angle. Axel Heyst is no outcast from society. He, himself, has cast out society. He scorns the world and all its activities and isolates himself by choice.
In a broad sense, this novel is a condemnation of the "isolationist policy" which was popular in our country just before World War I. Conrad may have been thinking of speeches and articles presented by American statesmen when he wrote portions of Victory.
In a more modern and individual analysis of Victory's problems, they reach into every person's life and challenge our thinking. The ability to give of oneself is a priceless treasure. Only those who live close to others in mutual love and trust can know the fullness of life. All withdrawal and aloofness react upon the isolationist with destructive force until, confirmed in his habit of non-participation, he becomes incapable of real cordiality or affection. As a result, he must instinctively feel guilt for that greatest sin of omission-failure to love.
So the significance of Victory may be condensed into a simple statement: To love is the greatest good. Conversely, to be incapable of love is the greatest misfortune.
Conrad says that Samburan is one of the Tiger Islands off the south coast of the Celebes and about three hundred miles from Sourabaya. Part of the story happens in Sourabaya and then the scene shifts to Samburan, where the plot unfolds to its dramatic climax. The last chapter shifts back to Sourabaya again, where Davidson gives his report to an "Excellency" of the Dutch Government.
The time setting of the plot is without doubt late in the nineteenth century although there is no specific mention of a date. Conrad was active in that part of the world in the late 1880s, and he wrote Victory in 1912-1914.