Joseph Conrad, or should I say Jozef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski was born in the Ukraine in 1857. His parents were Polish patriots and died when he was a child. As a result he was raised by his uncle. At the age of seventeen, Conrad left his uncle to begin his maritime career with the French navy. In 1878 he joined a British ship and he became a British citizen in 1886. Eight years later he left the sea to devote himself to his writing, in English his third language.
Conrad describes himself as being concerned “with the ideal value of things, events and people”, and he defined his task as a writer as “by the power of the written word … before all, to make you see”. But what is it that Conrad wants us to see? His work is full of references to fate, destiny and the unexplainable mysterious, but because they are so transparent and obvious maybe we should look harder at the stories and the way in which the stories are told, and we should try to read the subtext, the underlying story, to find what the ideal value of the each story is and what Conrad wants to make us see.
In his introduction to Typhoon, Paul Kirschner quotes from many of Conrad”s letters, to his friends, publishers and agents, and in these letters Conrad speaks constantly of his ever-mounting debts. While writing Tomorrow he wrote to his agent J. B. Pinter of his anguish as his family”s breadwinner and the weariness of having to write for money, and according to Kirschner “he must have looked back on his sea-life as the very essence of freedom”. So clearly economic difficulty was not far from his thoughts, as obviously being an Eastern European living in England social issues were also important to him.
It is to the sea that we go for the setting of Typhoon, a book which has been praised as “a masterpiece of clarity and good sense .. it is without mystifying elements … an obvious directness of language and point of view”. The theme of Typhoon may be MacWhirr”s failure to understand figure of speech so maybe Conrad is encouraging us to look beneath the text, to a possible sub-plot with another meaning cleverly hidden within the obvious sea yarn story.
The story centres around the contrast between two very exaggerated characters MacWhirr the practical Captain and Jukes his highly imaginative Chief Mate. Both Captain and Chief Mate serve aboard the Nan-Shan, a steamer on its way to the port of Fu-Chau with cargo and 200 coolies chinese workers returning home to their villages. Conrad raises the issue of race/racism to emphasise the material reason for the journey. For example the Siamese flag incident, the Siamese flag represents all things un-english to Jukes which he distrusts and fears, an otherness seen as the coolies.
Jukes questions its use to MacWhirr on the ship but does not say that he objects to it because the ship is crewed by British officers, but MacWhirr misses Jukes racist innuendo, and he simply refers to his flag book to ascertain that the flag is indeed the correct Siamese flag. Jukes raises the nationalistic meaning of the flag again later on in the book through his fear of the coolies who are described as “a bulky mass” and “like bees on a branch”, he says “they will fly at our throats isn”t a British ship now … he damn”d Siamese flag”, however this is really an example of Jukes fear of the coolies, fear of the unknown, the incomprehensible, he used them again to hide his fear of the oncoming Typhoon, but is corrected by MacWhirr for calling them passengers, not because they are coolies but because they are not on board as fee-paying passengers, and therefore should be regarded as cargo.
Later in the story MacWhirr is cleared of any racism when in opposition to most of the crew excepting Solomon Rout, he insists that the Chinese be left out of the hold and that he divide their money equally between them. The original title for Typhoon was “Equitable Division” which clearly shows us where Conrad intended the emphasis of the story to be, and it is Captain MacWhirr who released the coolies from the hold and discovers a peaceful solution to the money problem. The issue of race again arises in Amy Foster, with the clash of two cultures unable to make sense of one another.
Yanko is described as coming mysteriously from the sea, but of course we know from the story that Yanko did not appear mysteriously, he came from Eastern Europe, the son of a peasant farmer who had saved hard to give his son the fare to a new and better life in America, and shows us the fraudulent methods used to recruit emigrants. The ship he boards is on its way and it shows us the miserable conditions of the passengers on board like the conditions of the coolies in Typhoon.
The ship is brought down in a storm off the coast of a conservative english village which incidentally protected by “a wall which defends it from the sea”. Yanko is the only survivor, and from the moment he appears in the village he is viewed as an intruder. Our main narrator for this story is Dr. Kennedy, a scientific man of repute, who knew both Yanko and his wife Amy Foster who fell in love with him despite speaking “an unearthly language”. But in his wish to make sense of the story he resorts to fate and destiny to explain what to him is the unexplainable, and therefore he distorts the story.
Robert Andreach tells us that Kennedy “ascribes supernatural qualities to the events” and describes Amy as having come “under the influence of a powerful spell – a possession” when she falls in love with Yanko like Jukes who seemed to be held by a spell in his fear of the Typhoon. As Dr. Kennedy describes the agricultural workers in the field he turns their horses into “chariots of giants” a sort of heroic uncouthness, but if we look a little harder we can clearly see the Edwardian era of social deprivation and hardship, which is the real meaning for the story.
For Dr. Kennedy poverty is attributable to the metaphysical. His narrative reveals the class distinctions and snobbery which supports the society. The conservative community which crushes spontaneity where difference is seen as transgression Yanko for instance was a catholic in protestant village and is crushed. Yanko is described as though he came from another planet and is therefore inferior, and although Dr. Kennedy is critical of the treatment of Yanko by the villagers, he goes on himself to describe him in infantile terms and as though he was “like an animal”.
Dr. Kennedy uses Yanko”s lack of western knowledge to render Yanko childish, through his lack of linguistic ability, he mimics Yanko”s English like Jukes in Typhoon who shows his racism and distaste for the clerk by speaking to him in pidgin english to which the clerk can only reply “velly good”. Again his otherness like the “coolies” who make “incomprehensible guttural hooting sounds that did not seem to belong to the human language” in Typhoon is stressed as inferior to stress his difference from english norms and conventions.
But here Conrad”s satire is not on the Eastern Europeans but on the Western Europeans. Yanko serves to defamiliarize the english society as he sees it from a different perspective. Yanko”s presence drives home to us the appalling treatment he receives in this so called “respectable” English village, where individuality is destroyed. This is what kills Yanko. The racism/xenophobia of the villagers, captured in Amy Foster, Yanko”s wife.
Amy doesn”t mean to harm Yanko, after all she was the only person to show Yanko compassion apart from Swaffer who gave Yanko an acre of land after Yanko saved his grandchild from drowning, which prompted Dr. Kennedy to comment “no power on earth could prevent them from getting married”, and it was his exoticism which attracted her to him in the first place. But Amy cannot break with the norms and traditions of her society and this leads her to distrust Yanko, especially with the arrival of their child, to whom Yanko taught songs from his homeland.
But why did she desert him when he most needed her. Earlier in the book we see a formidable forewarning of events to come, when Amy who was very fond of a talking parrot which belonged to the house where she worked, ran out of the house and blocked her ears, when the parrot was attacked by the cat and screamed for help. Amy was fascinated by and loved that exotic bird, but she did not fully understand it and therefore deserted it and allowed it to die.
In the throws of death Yanko called out for water, but delirious from his fever he calls out in his native tongue, Amy did not understand, so she took the baby and ran away, leaving him to die. Dr. Kennedy”s inability to understand Amy”s actions leads him to describe their domestic tragedy as akin to a Greek tragedy. But it need not be exaggerated so, Amy is simply a product of her community, she is conditioned by the norms and values of her community which she cannot give up, just as Yanko cannot give up his.
According to Lawrence Graver this is another theme of the story, the “inability of simple minded altruism to calms the basic fear of the unfamiliar or to heal the rift arising from irreconcilable differences between people”. Dr. Kennedy asks why Yanko “was cast out mysteriously by the sea to perish in the supreme disaster of loneliness and despair”. According to Paul Kirschner the “great irony of Amy Foster is that Yanko”s heart failure was not the cause of his death; it was the failure of the hearts of all those with whom he associated, including Dr.
Kennedy, who certifying heart failure, cannot see the real cause”. Conrad is a foreigner in England by birth, and debt-ridden whilst writing these stories it is clear that he had something he wanted to say regarding the economic and social world he now found himself in. The references to fate and destiny only serve to make the unbelievable social and economic conditions even more appalling than they already are, when people involved in events especially when characters like the scientific Dr. Kennedy cannot comprehend what his own society has become and the detrimental effects it had on human individuals like Yanko.