How does he appear to others?
At the time the story begins, Heyst is about thirty-five years old. The last vestiges of youth are gone from his face. In the fullness of his physical development, with his bald head and "long red-gold moustaches," he presents a "broad and martial appearance." He reminds one of portraits of Charles XII. His forehead is noble and his blue eyes, tired. He dresses habitually in the white drill suit of the tropics and wears a white cork sun helmet.
Male characters in the book generally like Heyst. He is a perfect gentleman. His most obvious characteristic is a finished courtesy of manner, movement, and voice — a delicate playfulness which serves as a perfect concealment for his private impressions of life about him.
To Morrison, he appears as a messenger of divine Providence, and Morrison spends the rest of his life trying to show his gratitude for Heyst's kindness.
To Lena, he appears as a deliverer, one to whom she is profoundly grateful. Later, she loves him. Although she never understands him on an intellectual level, her intuition probes the secret of his basic need — to love and be loved.
To Davidson, he proves himself a gentleman of the finest sort, yet Davidson never feels close to him. He always stands in awe of the Swedish baron.
Schomberg regards Heyst with malignant suspicion. He deludes himself into the belief that Heyst is a swindler and bloodsucker who preys on Morrison as well as the investors of the Tropical Belt Coal Company. Schomberg regards Heyst's polite manner as a cover-up for the darkest of deeds.
Jones and Ricardo never fathom Heyst's polite and casual attitude. They mistake his forthright manner and courteous behavior as a mask for depths of cunning that frighten them.
How does Heyst regard himself?
While a person's own estimate of himself may not coincide with others' judgment, still such self-knowledge as a person possesses is important to the study of that character. Heyst thinks himself to be exactly like his father but "without the genius." He tells Lena that he is "the most detached of all creature, . . . the veriest tramp on this earth, an indifferent stroller through the world's bustle . . . a man of universal scorn and unbelief."
What makes him the sort of man he is?
Conrad has fully motivated Heyst by telling us that his philosopher father has imbued him, in his youth, with a deep mistrust of life. At his most impressionable age and under the most poignant of circumstances, the elder Heyst has guided his son, Axel, into an isolationist philosophy that years of experience only confirm, strengthen, and solidify into a pattern of life. Heyst's father has advised him to "cultivate that form of contempt which is called pity." Otherwise he is never to participate in human action.
What does Heyst do that reveals him?
In all relationship to people he holds himself aloof, masking his indifference under consummate politeness. Following his father's advice, he allows himself only the emotion of pity toward his fellows. Through pity he becomes involved first with Morrison, then with Lena. After both these involvements, he regrets his action, feeling that he has opened the door to all manner of evil. Because no one can get close to him, Lena feels that she must defend him, and Davidson hesitates to go ashore on Samburan until it is too late.
What does he say that reveals him?
Throughout the book, the reader will find many statements which show that Heyst never deviates from his father's precepts. "I have never killed a man nor loved a woman!" he exclaims to Lena. All his conversation show that he is capable of neither love nor hate. He has refined them away.
How does he think?
Since Conrad allows the reader access to Heyst's mind in the later part of the book, his private thoughts furnish the clearest revelation of his character. He thinks of Morrison with playful and half-annoyed scorn. He thinks of Lena as "that poor little girl." Even in the last hours of his life, he looks on Lena "with the dregs of tender pity." Davidson he regards with indifferent approval. Schomberg's vicious gossip enrages him because it probes his guilt complex. Yet even his rage is short-lived and futile. He regards the three villains as a deadly menace, yet every idea he advances for dealing with them is childish and impotent, nullified by his own emotional inertia.
What changes occur in his character?
Conrad shows with stunning clarity how difficult it is for a man to change his habits of thought after the age of thirty-five. Only the most powerful incentive can affect him. The powerful incentive is Lena's great love. The reader can see that Heyst is affected. His heart is "broken into." He hears a new call, "imperious and august." Lena's tender glance leaves "a secret touch upon his heart." Conrad manages to convey the impression that, given more time, Heyst might have yielded to the warmth of Lena's devotion and become a more normal person.
Perhaps the only significant change in Heyst's character comes when the "new doubt" enters his mind and he realizes the futile deadliness of his philosophy. This change comes too late to produce any constructive action and results only in Heyst's suicide.
The Swedish baron Heyst stands as a monumental figure of tragedy — a man who cannot love. Essentially a good and kind person with capacity for tenderness and warmth, his isolationist policy robs him of every precious gift life has to offer. In the end, he finds the goal toward which every step of his detached existence has led him — NOTHING.