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Joseph Conrad’s Youth: A Melting Pot for the Old and New

Tradition et innovation dans « Youth » de Joseph Conrad
Samir Elbarbary


La nouvelle de Conrad « Youth » est un intéressant mélange de tradition et de modernité. Suivant la tradition littéraire, Conrad manipule les cadres narratifs et les récits enchâssés, en même temps qu’il réfléchit à l’acte intime de raconter ou d’écouter des histoires orales. Mais l’auteur utilise la tradition du récit d’aventure pour mieux l’adapter et la déstabiliser. En effet, le moderne/post-moderne est à l’œuvre dans la disposition dialogique (au sens Bakhtinien de ce terme) de ce texte et dans ses dimensions métafictionnelle et intertextuelle qui creusent la thématique de la perte. En outre, ce texte annonce l’orientation générale du postmodernisme en combinant des discours hétérogènes qui donnent au récit une épaisseur et une profondeur qui renouvellent notre lecture.

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Notes de l’auteur

An earlier version of this paper was presented at “The 37th Annual International Conference of the Joseph Conrad Society (UK)”, held in London.

Texte intégral

  • 1 I use ‘old’ and ‘new’ in the generally accepted sense: ‘old’ (literary techniques and devices known (...)

1Conrad’s short story ‘Youth’ (1898) is interestingly complex in its blend of discourses. It appropriates old and new fictional elements in terms of both manner and matter in the mixing bowl of the text.1 The old is prominent in the manipulation of narrative framing in multi-layered narratives intertwined with the intimate act of telling and listening to oral stories. It is a hearing-oriented narrative. Besides, Conrad evokes the standard seafaring story of far-away lands, adapting and yet simultaneously destabilizing it. The modern/postmodern is at work in intimations of the dialogic (in the Bakhtinian sense) along with the shifting discourse that characterizes Conrad’s oeuvre, intimations of self-reflexivity, intertextual space, and there is the sense of loss and pointlessness of striving that is fairly common in such writing. What is more, the text in its heterogeneity (plurality of modes) anticipates the general orientation of postmodernism.

  • 2 ‘Multiple voicing’ was central to later medieval narratives. Chaucer’s Prologue serves as an exampl (...)

2The narrative has an operating structure with three levels of framing that goes further than the familiar frame form we ordinarily expect to find in narrative—a Gothic narrative, for example.2 It is deftly mounted in an exterior frame (the framing prologue and epilogue) and the inner core text it encloses. The inner text is a time frame that projects two narrating voices, with two levels of distance (the orders of happening and telling), dialogically playing one against the other. While some critics have already sketchily marked the distinction between now and then in the narrative (Ambrosini 80, Thorburn 85, Meyers 190, Fraser 55), they do not seem to have noticed a further dimension to the nexus through the agency of the inside frame.

  • 3 In Tzvetan Todorov’s words, ‘Story [fabula] is what has happened in life, the plot [sjuzet] is the (...)

3In this context, the extradiegetic, unnamed voice of the opening and closing lines—which we may suppose is an impersonation of Conrad—lays the ground layer of narrative and, acting as the middle-man between the diegetic world and the addressees, begins by telling the reader that ‘[t]his could have occurred nowhere but in England, where men and sea interpenetrate, so to speak—the sea entering into the life of most men . . . We were sitting round a mahogany table. . . . There was a director of companies, an accountant, a lawyer, Marlow, and myself’ (‘Youth’, 89). The voice, one of the homogeneous group of friends present on the boat, performs the duty of establishing an illusion of believability and pointing out the real setting from which the reader receives the remembered story. The preparative voice speaks the very first words of the story through a mask in order to achieve self-distancing objectivity. Then we step over to another narrative layer as he introduces Marlow, the principal diegetic voice—another impersonation of Conrad; the story is drawn from his own real experience, which serves as an Ur- or a pre-text for the narrative. Author is doubled with character; this doubleness calls attention to recounting as production and self-referentiality. We read Marlow recounting, as a metafictional written voice, (a character in his own fiction, a self-narrator), the details of his voyage in terms of specifics of time and place. He is obviously an accomplished surrogate novelist, as he aestheticizes and transposes the actual events, the fabula into a story, a sjuzet.3 The live audience, the assembled circle of friends, including the narrator of the outer frame, remind us of the oral communal audience: their bond is fostered by the sea, their shared desire is for fictive entertainment, and they value their lost youth for which they now feel some nostalgia. Assuming the stance of a philosopher, Marlow—directing his seductive address to his listeners gathered around him—breaks the ‘Once upon a time’ formula of most oral tales with a general despondent observation, presented in almost aphoristic form, about the sense of illusory hopes and predetermined destinies (traceable to defeats and disappointments) that characterizes man’s existence:

You fellows know there are those voyages that seem ordered for the illustration of life, that might stand for a symbol of existence. You fight, work, sweat, nearly kill yourself, sometimes do kill yourself, trying to accomplish something—and you can’t. Not from any fault of yours. You simply can do nothing, neither great nor little—not a thing in the world—not even marry an old maid, or get a wretched 600-ton cargo of coal to its port of destination. (89)

  • 4 In this sense the story functions as an exemplum—one of the practices of medieval literature. One t (...)

4The positioning of the preliminary, keynoted statement acquaints us with Marlow’s existing state of mind. It is the point of entry into the story. Marlow’s pessimistic reflection, the tragic fate that threatens existence and the despairing submission that consequently follows, may be taken as the objective donnée of the story as well as the raison d’être of telling and listening, and the diegetic narrative in its entirety is a sort of corroborative demonstration.4 (This, en passant, likens the narrative to the oral tale with its moral message). Each successive episode of the tribulations of the voyage intensifies the feeling of the looming sense of fate. And yet the link between the moral utterance and the context of the central narrative is antithetical: the one is overwhelmingly negative; the other involves sites of fervent youthful potential for life and being, self-validation, and ambition. The narrative simultaneously celebrates and criticizes youth. The voice of the man, the analyst, in Freudian terms, counters that of the youth, the analysand. He bears a deconstructive relationship to his own account, seeing with his expanded vision ironies the youth could not have recognized.

5The story is delivered and received in a live oral/aural ambience, creating a dialogical relationship between speakerly narration and auditory reception. In this sense, transmission indicates face-to-face direct communication and this can be seen in Marlow’s oral storytelling tic, the refrain-like statement that abruptly halts the narrative: ‘Pass the bottle’; an interjection establishing a sense of presence and that the addressees are engaged as they pass the bottle to him, although they are reticent and not dialogically interpretive, except at the end. (The participatory element of the oral tradition is missing here). Additionally, the oral quality of the text and the written exist in a continuum: we have the speaking Marlow and the scribal Marlow, the one is as omnipresent as the other. The sense of live interaction and immediacy of the vocal lies there within the written text—an interplay of ear and eye. Voice is an essential factor in the narrative, which is experienced as elocution. We hear Marlow’s voice on the page. In Heart of Darkness Marlow is described as ‘no more . . . than a voice’ (28). Evidences in the narrative support its orality. The use of colloquial expressions infuses the text with a telling-mode quality, as they capture the sounds of natural and informal speech. Here are some examples which have the ring of a conversational tone: ‘a crack Australian clipper,’ ‘wouldn’t have thrown up my new billet for a fortune’ (90), ‘mizzly cold’ (94), ‘Join to-morrow. I joined to-morrow’ (90), ‘they had pretty pickings off us before they were done’ (98), ‘By Jove! this is the deuce of an adventure’ (96). Further, the device of lexical and phonemic repetition, an element of parallelism sustaining sonority and a stylistic hallmark of ‘Youth’, is a sign of the voiced character of the text ensuring that the auditors are engaged: ‘It blew day after day: it blew with spite, without interval, without mercy, without rest. . . There was no rest for her and no rest for us’ (95), ‘It was our fate to pump in that ship, to pump out of her, to pump into her’ (103), ‘who either had been in trouble, or was in trouble, or expected to be in trouble’ (91), and ‘the glow in the heart that with every year grows dim, grows cold, grows small, and expires’ (117). In some instances repetition is obviously anaphoric, and anaphora is a phenomenon of orality. This impression of orality is augmented by recurrent direct addresses to the listeners (using the second person plural), inviting them into the story, such as: ‘you fellows who listen to this yarn’ (101), ‘You see it was to be expected’ (102), ‘What could you expect?’ (101) ‘something you read about’ (96), ‘I need not tell you’ (117), and ‘the Judea. Queer name, isn’t it?’ (a question tag 91). These create an effect of the spokenness of the text. Contractions too, such as ‘isn’t’ and ‘can’t’ produce a similar effect. The recurrent ellipses and pauses in Marlow’s speech, signifying silences, shifting voices, skipping, or concealing (see, for example, 94), are a further element of a spoken discourse. Apart from enhancing the aesthetic quality of the text, the interplay of parataxis, i.e. ‘building passages by syntactic parallelism’, which according to Albert Lord is a notable characteristic of oral epic narrative (Lord 56) and which abounds in ‘Youth’, also gives an impression of oral performance. Here are some examples: ‘She tossed, she pitched, she stood on her head, she sat on her tail, she rolled, she groaned’ (95), and ‘They [the rats] had destroyed our sails, consumed more stores than the crew, affably shared our beds and our dangers, and now, when the ship was made seaworthy, concluded to clear out’ (100), and in ‘Ah ! Well! we stumbled, we crept, we fell, we barked . . . we hauled’ (108), and ‘The men dozed, waked, sighed, groaned’ (115). As such, thoughts are tied together in ‘additive, rather than subordinative’ sentences—a point that Walter Ong has identified, in another context, as a defining feature of orality (Ong 2000, 37–39). (One may note, in passing, that parataxis is of interest to postmodern writers). Oral delivery is underlined further by the profusion of dashes in the text. The dash, generally, indicates a fissure and silence in texture and thought; in other words, interrupted speech. Furthermore, Marlow is sometimes depicted as having memory lapses which lead to uncertainty and hesitation: ‘Wilmer, Wilcox—some name like that’ (91), ‘I think that is how he spelt his name’ (89), and ‘They shouted at us some name—a woman’s name, Miranda or Melissa—or some such thing’ (93). This, too, grants the narration a sense of simultaneity. The oral quality has also foundation in that the word in action (profusion of incident), rather than in description or dialogue, constitutes the bulk of the narrative. Actions and deeds stand preeminent in an oral culture.

6From a temporal point of view the tense shuttles between two scales: the narrated past and the present story-telling time. (This may suggest a glimpse in the process of transformation and also the past’s persistence in the present). Illustration for this point comes in the following passage: ‘That crew of Liverpool hard cases had in them the right stuff. It’s my experience they always have. It is the sea that gives it’ (108, see also 89, 110, 117 for further examples involving a shift in tense). Here Marlow, moving between different ranges of time, loads his praise onto the Liverpool crew for their maritime preeminence, a quality which has remained constant. (The use of the present tense in itself highlights the oral performance of the text). Years after the events, the clear-seeing Marlow relives the experiencing self in the remembrance of things past. He is launched upon a voyage of discovery that will take him from innocence to experience. His youth, with its impatient zest and quicksilver exuberance, forms the matrix of the entire narrative. Full of will and energy, he seeks to exercise his sense of adventure, finding a heroic vocation for himself, ‘And there was somewhere in me the thought, By Jove! this is the deuce of an adventure’ (96). He is not to be ruffled by early portents of impending hazards; he looks more and more nonplussed. He lives by the motto of the once ‘young’ ship, ‘Do or Die’ (91). To be, he must do in moments of stress and crisis. In this spirit he toils so hard: shovelling sand ballast, taking his turns at the pumps to save the leaky ship (ill-fit for the task) from being drowned, and toiling to combat explosion and fire. Marlow is not waiting in the wings; he is the exceptional young man of labour and initiative. He takes intense pleasure in being true to his adventurous nature. He is full of high emotion at the risky chance of being in command of the smallest life-boat, ‘my cockle-shell’ (117), to fulfil his ambitious self by asserting his independent captaincy. He deliberately parts company with the others. Mahon, from a sense of responsibility cautions him about how precarious it is, but he is heedless of the admonition: ‘Mahon, as I sailed proudly past his boat, wrinkled his curved nose and hailed, “You will sail that ship of yours under water, if you don’t look out, young fellow”’ (116–17). He is prepared to run the risk as he is determined to make land first—an ego-enhancing achievement. But his sense of being distinguished from the others is somewhat curtailed, he ends up almost drawing level with them. Outdistancing the two other life-boats is not without a qualification: ‘Mahon is behind [the Captain]—not very far’ (119). His desire to surpass is at one with his solipsistic impulse. He cannot keep heroic ego-assertion in detrimental external circumstances.

7Marlow does not wait until the end of the narrative to reveal the transformation that took place in his perception: the widening of his perspective on things to see what he was not conscious of. During the course of the narrative he detaches himself from the experience and intrudes reflexive (metanarrative) comments working out his sense of self-directed judgment, thus coupling critical reflection, not self-approval, with narrative flow. It is a story-plus-gloss formula. In a postmodern fashion, there is a distinction between the youth’s way of going through an experience and the mature man’s self-distancing revisiting of it—self-othering, the other within oneself. He practices dialoguing with self by becoming other. He is both author and critical reader of his story, both signifier and signified.

  • 5 Thomas Moser points out these two phrases in Joseph Conrad: Achievement and Decline (45).

8Marlow speaks in a second voice as he turns the coin qualifying and relativizing the exploits of his premature self. This is akin to a heteroglossia of discourses. Over time the mind broods over the early self, aware of its assumed knowledge and little learning. This is evident in his critical reservations, which have a basis in reality. It is more than a paternal teasing. Justifiable irony is directed toward the youth—his self-importance, his lack-in-vision, miscalculations of his past self, and the self-created heroic meaning of his life. He does not excuse or justify his previous prejudices. In this regard he comes to realize that Jermyn, the ‘North Sea pilot’, who distrusted his youthfulness was actually right in his judgment: ‘I dare say he was right’, and adds a self-deprecating remark showing his epistemological myopia: ‘It seems to me I knew very little then’ (91). So too in his moral re-estimation of captain Beard and Mahon, who were in his emotionalized, mistaken belief inept in some way, he concedes his misperception of them: ‘Both were thorough good seamen of course’ (90). Marlow’s folly was that of ignorance in contrast to the enlightened knowledge he achieves. Cognitive distance enables him to see through the youth’s illusions. He self-deflates when he remarks again on the limitations and narrowness of his vision; he sees his former self as flawed in judgment: ‘I lived that life of youth in ignorance and hope’ (101)—a major reorientation. The tone is rueful. The faultless certainty of youth blinded him to his own ignorance. Alongside these remarks run others which are self-mocking in nature. As soon as there is disparity between expectation and reality, there is room for comic effect, humour, and the carnivalesque, in Bakhtinian terms, to function. Marlow’s dramatic highpoint, his daring feat in flinging himself boldly and heroically into the fire, with little consideration of possible unfortunate consequences, is described in a manner clearly meant to satirize his romantic, fevered mind: ‘They had learned wisdom by that time, and contented themselves by fishing for me with a chain-hook tied to a broom-handle, I believe’ (104). The coltish self-destructive rashness and risk exact such a price, a mocking jibe. Marlow has not matched up to his cherished image of himself; there is a remonstrating voice of his conscience. Further, he is made downright clownish when in the aftermath of the explosion with a touch of self-critical humour he remarks, ‘I did not know that I had no hair, no eyebrows, no eyelashes, that my young moustache was burnt off, that my face was black, one cheek laid open, my nose cut, and my chin bleeding’ (106). Marlow is diminished into a caricature. The young moustache, icon of promising masculinity, is fittingly burnt off. Marlow subdues his pride, and acceptance of his self-image is progressively deconstructed. The fire of his youth dies out slowly. The temporariness of youth causes the illusion to be quickly dispelled, ‘presently to be quenched by time, more cruel, more pitiless, more bitter than the sea’ (112). Marlow as a detached observer also emerges through a group of qualifying phrases such as ‘of course’, ‘You see it was to be expected’, ‘something [the adventure] you read about’, ‘Of all this I was not aware’ (90, 102, 96, 106).5 The exception of hope is followed by the rule of despair, extase changes into ennui, playing the hero into resigning himself to a prosaic sense of reality, excessive enthusiasm into negation—all in a process of ontological becoming.

9In line with the cyclic oral narrative structure, the narrative, over time, gives way to the closing frame, as Marlow dialogically addresses his narratees, ‘and tell me, wasn’t that the best time, that time when we were young at sea; young and had nothing, on the sea that gives nothing, except hard knocks—and sometimes a chance to feel your strength—that only—what you all regret?’ (122). The initial, impersonal voice answers Marlow’s question embodying his and the other listeners’ concurrence with Marlow’s view: ‘And we all nodded at him . . . .’ Here the narratees do not remain in the passive and captive role of receptive ears, they are conversed with, and they become part of the story. They confirm the insight Marlow expresses at the outset of the narrative. His certainties are theirs. Their experiences bear the same imprint—the dramatic effect is not lost on them. This exemplifies Ong’s statement that in ‘a primary oral culture, education consists in identification, participation, getting into the text’ (Ong 1982, 16).

10We can assume that the years between the fated journey and recounting it (writing it down) have strongly complemented the self-understanding occasioned by the unforgettable experience. Marlow is no more a young man of physical resources and adventure, but a reflective, commonsensical person—the outlook palled. His zeal for writerly narration, which is his confirmation that he exists, replaces his zeal for seafaring. In Descartean terms, ‘He tells (writes), therefore he is’ replaces ‘He ventures, therefore he is.’

11It is unusual that the criticism of ‘Youth’ has given little, if any, attention to the books Marlow has read during their wait at the Tyne: ‘I read for the first time Sartor Resartus and Burnaby’s Ride to Khiva. I didn’t understand much of the first then; but I remember I preferred the soldier to the philosopher at the time; a preference which life has only confirmed. One was a man, and the other was either more—or less’ (92–93). This is a point that seems to me immensely suggestive. Marlow sees the two fictional texts in clear opposition; they pair the soldier and the philosopher. A Ride to Khiva is concerned with the travels and adventures of Army Captain Burnaby in central Asia undertaken in 1875. The contrast with Carlyle’s hero, whose gift is for philosophic vision, is most evident—he is a writer of ‘six considerable paper-bags’. It is not accidental that the youthful Marlow prefers Khiva to Sartor, the theme of which reflects and informs the youth’s adventurous spirit and his sense of physical heroism. Marlow’s innocent bias should make us aware of the redirection that took place in him, which signals a new mode of perceiving reality. As the grown-up saw anew, his enthusiasm for Khiva has withered with time. Even if he does not say so explicitly, this shift in priorities is determined as effect of the words ‘at the time’ in the passage, and by his developing self, eventuating a signifying difference from the original preference. We see his rejection of raw youth and construe the shift in the order of values in the following statement:

I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more—the feeling that I could last for ever… the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort—to death; the triumphant conviction of strength, the heat of life in the handful of dust, the glow in the heart that with every year grows dim, grows cold, grows small, and expires. (117)

12Apart from a plaintive nostalgia for youth, irretrievably lost, and implicitly the role of hero he cast himself in, this could well be taken as implying that the appeal of Marlow’s adult self—seeing through mature eyes and subtle mind—is to the different order, the position of the pro-intellectual. His penchant now is not for performing the daring feats of yesterday’s youth, but for narrating them and the creative practice it occasions. Moreover, Marlow’s apprehension and devaluation of action, which in youth he had held in high regard, can be inferred from the conclusion that he comes to, forced upon him by circumstances: ‘You fight, work, sweat, nearly kill yourself, sometimes do kill yourself, trying to accomplish something—and you can’t. Not from any fault of yours’ (89).

13Within the world of postmodern intertextuality, ‘Youth’ dialogues with Sartor both thematically and structurally. As a number of the circumstances of Marlow’s journey parallel details of Conrad’s own real voyage to the East, the Second Book of Sartor is largely Carlylean self-biography in the guise of the romantic wanderings and travels of Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, the German philosopher of clothes, that end in spiritual development—’The Everlasting Yea’. Further similarities in the thoughts and emotions of the two youths may be found. Marlow bears resemblance to Teufelsdröckh in being positioned as author and subject of the narrative. Moreover, bitter at what life had doled out to him, Carlyle’s hero, not unlike Marlow, is aware that the ‘Universe,’ i.e. life, ‘was one huge, dead, immeasurable Steam-engine, rolling on, in its dead indifference, to grind me limb from limb’ (Carlyle 1913, 119), and his story is of man’s defeat before the forces of a malignant or indifferent universe. Teufelsdröckh remarks that ‘Saturn or Chronos, or what we call TIME, devours all his Children’ (Carlyle 1913, 92), and the words in ‘The Everlasting No’ Chapter ‘Where is the Godhead; our eyes never saw him?’ (Carlyle 1913, 117) assign him the status of a pessimist.

14Teufelsdröckh and the youthful Marlow alike invest value in the idea of duty and work, although in the former’s case it assumes something of a religious aura. This is apparent in the remark, ‘Hence also our Whole Duty, which is to move, to work—in the right direction’ (Carlyle 1913, 93). Various passages in the narrative involve the value of work. It is not without significance that the first English edition of Sartor had as its epigraph a phrase from the German philosopher Fichte that translates as: ‘Not mere knowledge, but according to your knowledge doing is your commitment’ (Tennyson 124). ‘Doing is your commitment’ is echoed in the Judea’s motto ‘Do or Die’ (91). We glean a sense of vested interest in (unpaid) work when we see Mrs Beard happy to retailor Marlow’s clothes saying, ‘I would be glad of something to do’ (92). Marlow’s work ethos instigates him to sacrifice his own life for it. Also indicative of the value of work, Carlyle in one of his miscellaneous essays exhorts his readers to action: ‘Here on Earth we are Soldiers . . . seeing well what is at our hand to be done. Let us do it like Soldiers; with submission, with courage, with a heroic joy’ (Carlyle 1899, 43). This nexus of work and the soldier brings to mind A Ride to Khiva and what it embodies within its textuality.

15Teufelsdröckh, like Marlow, undergoes metamorphosis, a phoenix-like cyclical pattern of death and rebirth—the initial, uninitiated self dies and is replaced by a new one; ‘The Everlasting No’ (bringing about a negation where we discern a sense of self-absorption as something to be eschewed) gives way through ‘The Centre of Indifference’ (a middle disposition) to ‘The Everlasting Yea’ (the culmination of the development where the self gains consciousness of its conceptual limitations and exercises self-effacement). Also as Teufelsdröckh and the Editor suggest a quasi-double, so Marlow’s young mind and mature consciousness imply such dialogic duality—the one rethinks the views of the other or the mind is in discourse with itself.

16The alignment between Teufelsdröckh and Marlow can be pursued yet further. Teufelsdröckh’s injunction ‘Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe,’ in the second half of the ‘Everlasting Yea’ chapter, draws a distinction between the principally classical Goethe and the romantic Byron, expressing admiration for the German. The statement more or less implicitly propagates the discourse of reason, good sense, and the real, which signifies the shift in Teufelsdrockh’s frame of mind. This new orientation is comparable to Marlow’s in his mature tone of objectivity, sobriety, and restraint, together with the ascendancy of right thinking over feeling. Experience and the growth of insight have far distanced Marlow from his young romantic flourish, inaccurate judgments, and conscious subjectivity, and in a sense have classicized him.

17Significant also, along with these intertextual signifiers, is the dense metaphoric and pictorial language of Teufelsdröckh, embracing rhythmicity and fluid symmetry that stand out. Such poetic style is the mark of the following oft-quoted passage (from near the end of Bk. 1, Ch. 3 ‘Reminiscences’), which exhibits the ‘life circulation’, the stuff of city-life that sparked his thoughtful imagination as he strides off at midnight on his way home from the coffee-house. A sense of humanity is so conspicuous in the passage:

The Lover whispers his mistress that the coach is ready; and she, full of hope and fear, glides down, to fly with him over the borders: the Thief, still more silently, sets to his picklocks and crowbars, or lurks in wait till the watchmen first snore in their boxes. Gay mansions, with supper-rooms, and dancing-rooms, are full of light and music and high-swelling hearts; but, in the Condemned Cells, the pulse of life beats tremulous and faint, and bloodshot eyes look-out through the darkness, which is around and within, for the light of a stern last morning . . . . Riot cries aloud, and staggers and swaggers in his rank dens of shame; and the Mother, with streaming hair, kneels over her pallid dying infant, whose cracked lips only her tears now moisten.—All these heaped and huddled together, with nothing but a little carpentry and masonry between them . . .(Carlyle 1913, 49–50)

18The passage displays specificities of Carlyle’s style, such as the use of long, involved sentences, and the clusters of three words related in form and function: ‘full of light and music and high-swelling hearts’, ‘Riot cries aloud, and staggers and swaggers’. On the other hand, in these poetic flourishes one notes the paratactic listing of details and associations, vivid imagery imbued with energy matching the flow of felt sensation and impression. Along with the use of aural and visual images and words descriptive of movement conveying a pictorial quality, the same acoustic balance and alliterative, rhythmic motion are at work in the following passage from ‘Youth’, signalled by a poetic turn of phrase. (It is interesting to note, in passing, that playing with sound contributes to the oral dimension). Additionally, the style is answerable to the theme: typical fluidity and energy inherent in the syntax enact the adventurous liveliness within the events Marlow renders:

Day after day and night after night there was nothing round the ship but the howl of the wind, the tumult of the sea, the noise of water pouring over her deck. There was no rest for her and no rest for us. She tossed, she pitched, she stood on her head, she sat on her tail, she rolled, she groaned, and we had to hold on while on deck and cling to our bunks when below, in a constant effort of body and worry of mind. (95)

19What I would immediately like to point out is that the crossing between this literary-marked style of writing (high discourse) and the style of speech (low discourse) that exist simultaneously, creates heteroglossic suppleness. This brings the narrative further in the direction of postmodern writing.

20A final affiliative link between the two texts may be found in the framing device. Just as ‘Youth’ employs a layered frame, there is a double frame operating in Sartor: there is the framed narrative of Teufelsdröckh’s subjective experience of events, recounted by Heuschrecke, the Professor’s disciple, who offers the documents, and sometimes the Professor takes up narration, and there is the other voice, the frame, the reflective Editor’s critically redefining the individual events in Teufelsdröckh’s life as they develop, and retailoring the epistemological process in presenting these events (of the tailor, the clothes-philosopher) to the reader. In a sense, this is consonant with the signified that the phrasing of the title Sartor Resartus signifies. Editor-like the later Marlow retailors the youthful Marlow’s tale.

21To return to Marlow’s dispiriting statement cited above, gloomily acknowledging the existential futility of ambitions and the sense of doom and negation (common to modern and postmodern writing), ‘You fight, work, sweat, nearly kill yourself, sometimes do kill yourself, trying to accomplish something—and you can’t. Not from any fault of yours . . .’ (89), one needs to say that it concurs with Schopenhauer’s bleak view of human existence. The philosopher notes that suffering, frustration, and nothingness are the inevitable lot of man. In a sense, the narrative is an illustration of Schopenhauer’s dictum that ‘the life of the great majority is only a constant struggle for this existence itself, with the certainty of losing it at last’ (Schopenhauer I, 403). In this light, too, the words at the end of the narrative: ‘I was lying in a flood of light . . . . I opened my eyes and lay without moving . . . Something out of life . . . has passed . . . together with the youth, with the strength, with the romance of illusions’ (120–22) are pertinent, in essence, to Schopenhauer’s ‘Life and its forms now pass before him [the individual] as a fleeting illusion, as a light morning dream before half-waking eyes’ (Schopenhauer I, 505). What is seen at work in Schopenhauer’s individual—his awakening from his preoccupation with guile and illusionism (understandably, of the Will)—is also seen in Marlow: his youth as an agent of self-delusion, and the lighting up and disillusionment that follow. Moreover, in Schopenhauer’s view, man’s life is characterized by the dichotomous states of involvement and detachment: the engagement of the ontological Will-to-Live with life in its practical activities, and consequent to this a reflective dissolution of the existential assertion of Will practices (I, 112). In keeping with this line of thought, the narrative may be titled ‘The Self as Will and Idea’ in line with Schopenhauer’s title The World as Will and Idea. Marlow’s self engaged in action bespeaks the materiality of the Will. He is an implement of the Will-to-Live within the intensity of his Will-motivated youth. When he is not involved in acts of Will, aesthetically contemplating the nature of his actions, this is, in Schopenhauer’s terms, the idea of it, placing the self in the epistemological context. According to Schopenhauer, ‘the Will manifests itself before understanding—a person knows who he is only after he has acted’ (Schopenhauer III, 69). He will become a ‘pure, will-less . . . subject of knowledge’ (Schopenhauer I, 231).

22As I pointed out earlier, ‘Youth’ is not univocal. We see, in Bakhtinian terms, a kind of dialogic interaction between Marlow narrating and Marlow narrated. He is engaged in a double-voiced discourse effecting his bifurcation into a subject and object to himself, involving the dialogical process of self-transformation and self-revision. In the Glossary to The Dialogic Imagination, we read that ‘Dialogue may be external (between two different people) or internal (between an earlier and a later self)’. Pertinent at this point is the co-presence of the heightened and the mundane, the romantic and impassioned celebratory discourse of the youthful Marlow alongside the practical, restrained, and ironic style of the mature Marlow. One sees a play of signification, an interlacing of styles (enacting the dynamic of oppositions in the narrative) embedded in the fluidity of passages such as ‘Youth! All youth! The silly, charming, beautiful youth’ (115), and ‘Oh the glamour of youth! Oh the fire of it, more dazzling than the flames of the burning ship . . . like the flames of the burning ship surrounded by an impenetrable night’ (112), and ‘I remember my youth . . . the triumphant conviction of strength, the heat of life in the handful of dust’ (117). The meaning here is interactive, double-coded, forming contradictory messages in the same statement that could be read with celebration for impermanent youth together with its warm glow and charm, and yet with mockery ringing with hollowness and irony—youth has eventually turned into dust, died. This, in a sense, is the carnivalesque style and its activation of difference—a sort of postmodern signification.

  • 6 A metafictive text, according to Patricia Waugh, ‘draws attention to its status as an artefact’ (Wa (...)

23Well, finally, it is plausible to infer that Marlow draws on inherited, mostly happily-ever-after main-line ‘seafaring tales’ of conquering, heroic devotion to the mission and self-servicing fervour. (For instance, that of Robinson Crusoe, who in his identification with ambition and risk-taking conquest is cast in the heroic mould). However, understandably, Marlow’s down-to-earth person finds that the seafaring he was engaged in was doomed to unfulfilment. The heroism and high spiritedness of youth are implicitly called into question as they are aborted. This, in a sense, tallies with Jean-François Lyotard’s notion of the discrediting of grand narratives—the heroic narrative included. The actions of the modern seafarer are seen without illusions, as inevitably futile, post-heroic—an ironic revision and a near-parodic relationship to the underlying assumptions of the ‘exhausted’ convention. Such an aesthetic issue constitutes a further evidence of the metafictional reference. The narrative draws attention to its divergence from the genre,6 that is in a sense the fabula; ergo the sjuzet of ‘Youth’ deconstructs it. This illustrates what Linda Hutcheon has termed ‘complicitous critique’, i.e. self-reflexivity emerges from incorporating that which one deflates (Politics 2, 4, 101; Poetics 11). This is to say that ‘Youth’, to use Patricia Waugh’s terms in Metafiction,’ sets its individual parole against the langue (the codes and conventions) of the novel tradition’ (11). A most apparent metafictional facet emerges from the narrative self-commentarily calling itself ‘a narrative’ in the title: ‘YOUTH: A NARRATIVE’; this is a marker of the fictiveness of the fiction. Besides, Marlow’s perception of himself as both author of the narrative in which he is the main actor is in itself a condition of self-reflexivity. Also, the oral mode of narration keeps us constantly aware of the allusion to the narrative act. Moreover, the intertextuality pointed out above, calls attention to the text’s artifice. What lends added resonance to the metafictional premise is the factual list of names of places en route—blurring the boundaries of objective reality and fiction: ‘London’, ‘the Thames’, ‘Yarmouth Roads’, ‘the Tyne’, ‘Bankok’, ‘the North Sea’, the ‘Channel’, ‘the Lizards’, ‘the Atlantic’, ‘Falmouth’, ‘The Capes’, ‘West Australia’, the ‘Indian Ocean’, ‘Java Head’, ‘Singapore’, ‘Melbourne and Sydney’. These names alert the reader to the fictionalized reality of the life-like fiction, and to the narrative’s textual self-reflexivity.

24It remains to reiterate in conclusion that in identifying ‘Youth’ with ancient and modern/postmodern criteria, conjoining antiquity (Conrad has a keen sense of tradition) and contemporaneity, it becomes a hybrid narrative structure, a web of dissimilar strands of narrative modes and conventions. This versatility is a feature of Conrad’s remarkable narrative craft: the act of rendering the story is as important as the story that is rendered.

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1 I use ‘old’ and ‘new’ in the generally accepted sense: ‘old’ (literary techniques and devices known of old) and ‘new’ (the modernist and postmodernist canon). This is actualized in performance. But one hastens to add that no easy clear-cut analytic distinctions could be established between the two registers. There are different constructs of the two terms. Sometimes new is expansively continuous with old, such as the term ‘dialogic’ which shows the growth of the new out of the old, the old that is still present in a reconstituted form and new possibilities. John Barth looks into time-honoured antecedents in order to discover the postmodern (see ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’ and ‘The Literature of Replenishment’ for the apparatus he constructs about Don Quixote). Walter Ong highlights the advent of print culture as making way for the new (Ong, Orality 12, 71–74).

2 ‘Multiple voicing’ was central to later medieval narratives. Chaucer’s Prologue serves as an example. Barbara Nolan argues this point in ‘“A Poet Ther Was”: Chaucer’s Voices in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales’. Katharine Slater Gittes argues that as early as the eighth century the Arabs deployed framing devices in their translation of the Panchatantra—the prototypal or Ur-frame narrative, one might say. Besides the outer framing of this narrative there are ‘three or more levels of narration operating simultaneously’ (Slater Gittes 238). The Book of Sinbad and the Thousand and One Nights are further examples of early frame narratives in Arabic. What makes these narratives interesting to the student of Conrad is that they combine travel reporting with layered-frame structuring.

3 In Tzvetan Todorov’s words, ‘Story [fabula] is what has happened in life, the plot [sjuzet] is the way the author presents it to us’ (Todorov 45).

4 In this sense the story functions as an exemplum—one of the practices of medieval literature. One thinks, for example, of The Canterbury Tales where we have the prologue and asides interpreting reality on one hand and the enacting tale on the other. For this, see Peter N. Dunn, ‘Framing the Story, Framing the Reader: Two Spanish Masters’ (100).

5 Thomas Moser points out these two phrases in Joseph Conrad: Achievement and Decline (45).

6 A metafictive text, according to Patricia Waugh, ‘draws attention to its status as an artefact’ (Waugh 2).

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Samir Elbarbary, « Joseph Conrad’s Youth: A Melting Pot for the Old and New »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 81 Printemps | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2015, consulté le 27 novembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Samir Elbarbary

Samir Elbarbary is Emeritus Professor of English literature at Dammam University, Saudi Arabia. He holds an MA from Manchester University and a PhD from Southampton University. His list of publications includes papers on Hardy, Dickens, Conrad, Joyce, Lawrence, Orwell, and in comparative literature that have appeared in such journals as Twentieth-Century Literature, College Literature, Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, Etudes Lawrenciennes, International Fiction Review, Thomas Hardy Annual, Thomas Hardy Year Book, New Comparison, Al-‘Arabiyya, Journal of Arabic Literature, Digest of Middle East Studies, and In Other Words. Two of his essays, on Orwell’s Animal Farm and Joyce’s "Araby", have been reprinted in Short Story Criticism (vols. 44 and 68). Mail :

Samir Elbarbary est professeur émérite en littérature anglaise à l’Université de Dammam (Arabie Saoudite). Il a obtenu son Master à Manchester University et son doctorat à Southampton University. Il a publié de nombreux articles sur Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence et George Orwell. Son travail en littérature comparée est publié dans des revues telles que Twentieth  Century Literature, College Literature, Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, Etudes Lawrenciennes, International Fiction Review, Thomas Hardy Annual, Thomas Hardy Year Book, New  Comparison, Al-‘Arabiyya, Journal of Arabic Literature, Digest of Middle East Studies et In Other Words. Deux de ses articles, sur Animal Farm de Orwell et sur "Araby" de Joyce, ont été réédités dans Short Story Criticism (volumes 44 et 68). Mail :

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