Typhoon and Other Tales by Joseph Conrad

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Typhoon” is famous as a virtuouso description of a storm at sea, and it is easy to see this novella as little more than a yarn about a dullard captain who gets lucky and his annoying, callow first mate Jukes. As usual with Conrad, second and further readings reveal a much more complex and sophisticated story than at first glance. It happens that the ship’s “cargo” is not inanimate goods but a group of homebound Chinese coolies, and although very little happens during the duration of the voyage, the story’s moral center revolves around the difference between the dull MacWhirr’s commitment to treat the Chinese just as he would any other human being, and Jukes’s self-serving and racist attitude. More subtly still, Conrad’s use of the aesthetics of the sublime (as I’ve argued in an academic paper) links the storm at sea to the political storm on board.

Conrad took many risks in “Falk,” from the inclusion of a female lead who never speaks (for which the serial press rejected the story, even in 1900) to the subject of cannibalism. The only actual cannibalism in Conrad’s oeuvre is committed by a white man himself, Falk, which suggests a counterargument to readings of Conrad–rather than Marlow, the narrator of “Heart of Darkness”–as racist. Moreover, “Falk” also deploys the double-voiced, doubly distanced narration at work in “Heart of Darkness,” written just before “Falk,” with the difference that in the latter the story ends by emphasizing the epistemological instability of storytelling and gossip. The reception trouble that “Heart of Darkness” has generated, as Chinua Achebe argues in his essay on the novella, “An Image of Africa,” is due to its lack of an “alternative frame of reference” that tells the reader how to receive the images of Africa and Africans. But reading “Falk” against “Heart of Darkness” might have given Achebe the opportunity to discover that Conrad was well aware of such an alternative frame.

The story of a doomed Eastern European castaway washed ashore in an English town who is rejected by his host community, “Amy Foster” is both a scathing commentary on the insularity and hard-hearted indifference of the townspeople to the Other and a heartbreaking tale of shattering pathos. Brief but unforgettable, in the tradition of Flaubert and Maupassant whose compressed narratives heighten emotional power, “Amy Foster” is notable for its exploration of the failure of cross-cultural language and communication. It’s also one of the more successful Conrad stories in my college classroom.

More on “The Secret Sharer” coming soon.

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