Conrad First The Joseph Conrad Periodical Archive

The Rescue in Its Time and Ours

Joyce Wexler, Loyola University Chicago

© Joyce Wexler. No part of this text may be reposted or republished without the permission of the author.


Joseph Conrad began The Rescue in 1896 but was unable to finish it until 1919, and this biographical fact has caused several generations of critics to regard it as his albatross. Taking their cue from Conrad’s letters, they interpret the delay as a sign of his own dissatisfaction with the novel. The mid-century consensus was that it was an artistic failure. But when The Rescue was published serially in Land and Water from January 1919 to July 1919, it was marketed as the first postwar book by a major writer.The cover promoted The Rescue as the latest work of “The Greatest Living Novelist,” calling it “His most intense and vivid story.” [LINK: 30 January 1919, cover] Now that a digital facsimile of the magazine has been made available at the Conrad First website, we are in a position to recover the perspective of the novel’s first readers. The Land and Water audience did not know that Conrad had struggled with this novel for more than twenty years: readers expected greatness, and, I argue, they were not disappointed.
Paradoxically, a shift in critical ideas since mid-century has made it possible to appreciate The Rescue as its first readers did. In contrast to earlier aesthetic criteria, postmodern reevaluations of popular forms such as romance, postcolonial critiques of the representation of non-Europeans, and feminist analyses of attitudes toward women all call attention to the novel’s relation to its contemporary cultural context. Instead of enjoying its setting as an exotic escape, we can perceive the parallels between political conflicts in the Malay Archipelago and in Europe. Instead of complaining that The Rescue is unrealistic, we can read its genre conventions as an expression of very real wishes and fears. Instead of condemning Edith Travers as the agent of Tom Lingard’s downfall, we can see that they are both adventurers.

Parallels to the Great War
The serialization of The Rescue in Land and Water highlights two facts ignored by mid-century critics: Conrad’s reputation was at its height, and the First World War had just ended. Readers were primed to receive the wisdom of a great writer, not the half-hearted efforts of a failing novelist. The Armistice had been signed only a few months earlier, and in January 1919 a wartime atmosphere still permeated Land and Water. The title page of the issue containing Part 1 of The Rescue features a political cartoon of a German officer raising a whip against a man, woman, and naked child. [LINK: L&W 30 Jan 1919, p. 11] A caption reading “The same Hun” is followed by Bismarck’s adage, “‘Nothing should be left to an invaded country except their eyes for weeping.’” An editorial comment appears beneath the image: “This cartoon was drawn two years ago by Mr. Raemaekers. We did not then know that the Kaiser had actually outdone Bismarck with his letter to a fellow-emperor: ‘Everything must be put to fire and sword; men, women, children, and old men must be slaughtered.’” A photo spread titled “The Last Act” includes an image of the last British ship to be torpedoed, shown “heeling over with her guns still firing.” [LINK: L&W, 30 January 1919, p. 12] The military implications of Conrad’s title were inescapable for readers as they turned the pages of the magazine.
Conrad also preserved this postwar atmosphere for later readers in his dedication to the book edition published in 1920. His solemn words indicate that he was thinking about the war as he finished the novel:


Conrad and his family had been visiting relatives in Poland when the war began, and Ambassador Penfield helped them return to England. Since the United States was still neutral in 1914, Penfield had acted in an unofficial capacity, less like Mr. Travers, the career diplomat, than Lingard, the man of honor who tries to save his friends by mediating between warring parties. This is the only explicit link between the tale and World War I, and Conrad discouraged one correspondent from seeking references to the war: “I must confess that I am surprised you should imagine that the ‘English Channel in peace time’ phrase is in any way an allusion to the present war” (Conrad 2002, 364). While the time and place of the story are specific, Conrad acknowledges that it contains parallels to other wars in the distant past. Contemporary readers would have recognized parallels to the recent war as well:

The time of “The Rescue” is fixed precisely by Lingard’s allusion to the war in China, when the “French helped” 1859–60. Further on you may find passages that I beg you to believe have nothing to do with the present time. My dear Sir, the sentiments, the opinions, the phrases, the emotions, and the very catch-words of our time are as old as the hills. The voices of to-day are but the echoes of dead voices that were moved by the same thoughts, the same doubts, the same anguish and the same passions from which we suffer to-day. You may just as well reproach me for dragging in the Trojan war. It’s there, you know. That ass Shaw gives his view of it rather fully. (Conrad 2002, 364)

Just as Land and Water preserves the moment of serial publication, the dedication is a permanent reminder of similarities between storms in Europe and in the Malay Archipelago.
One of the few critics to consider the impact of the war on The Rescue is Gary Geddes, and that may be why he is also one of the few to admire the novel. Instead of bemoaning Conrad’s loss of artistic energy, Geddes regards the result of the twenty-year gestation period as a triumph. In his 1974 essay “The Rescue: Conrad and the Rhetoric of Diplomacy,” Geddes speculates that being rescued by Penfield may have helped Conrad finish the novel:

Perhaps his emotional immersion in the political and diplomatic intrigues of Europe during World War I and the rescue of himself and his family from Poland at the outbreak of the war by the American Ambassador to Austria, Frederick Penfield, to whom the book is dedicated, helped Conrad to see afresh the psycho-political significance of those intrigues on the Shore of Refuge; perhaps also his experiments with a more obviously symbolic fictional mode gave him a clearer sense of the form which lay submerged within his story of an obscure rescue in a distant land. (Geddes 1974, 108–9)

Calling attention to the importance of political and social negotiations in the text, Geddes perceives symbolic parallels between events in the Malay Archipelago and Europe. He notes how often the word diplomacy describes both political and personal relationships, as Lingard mediates rivalries among native communities and protects the Europeans who intrude on his domain.
Conrad emphasizes the historical background of the story by beginning with a brief history of the European presence in the East. Gene M. Moore verifies the accuracy of Conrad’s Eastern stories: “Whatever their shortcomings as romances, they deserve to be taken seriously as political novels, as studies in the politics of representation, and as sources of ethnographic evidence concerning fugitive peoples relegated to the margins of empires” (Moore 2007, 22). A short prologue explains the political situation: “The shallow sea that foams and murmurs on the shores of the thousand islands, big and little, which make up the Malay Archipelago has been for centuries the scene of adventurous undertakings” (Conrad 1925, 3). The natives of the Malay Archipelago have resisted colonial incursions by the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and English. Unlike Sir James Brooke, who is unnamed but “belongs to history,” the European “adventurers who began that struggle have left no descendants” (Conrad 1925, 3). These men were “obscure adventurers who had not his advantages of birth, position and intelligence” (Conrad 1925, 4). Apart from serving as a disclaimer, the contrast allows Lingard to stand for the many rather than the exceptional. The narrator describes the Malay Archipelago in terms that appeal to traditional British values. Though defeated, the Malays have kept their “love of liberty” (Conrad 1925, 18). They are forced to defend this value against European aggressors: “Their country of land and water—for the sea was as much their country as the earth of their islands—has fallen a prey to the Western race—the reward of superior strength if not of superior virtue” (Conrad 1925, 18). As the title of the magazine reminds readers, Britain, too, is a country of land and water. Establishing the particular historical setting, the prologue also implies parallels to Europe. The remoteness of the Malay Archipelago allows Conrad to examine the dynamics of warfare without taking a position on European conflicts.
Despite vast differences, the violence in the novel resembles the war in Europe. Readers were likely to notice, for example, that an assassination triggers defensive alliances that escalate hostilities. Similarly, Carter’s youthful enthusiasm for combat recalls the eager enlistment of young men in the first years of the war. As he tells Lingard, “‘No fear of the old country ever getting undermanned—let die who must. Only let it be a fair game, Captain. Let’s have a fair show’” (Conrad 1925, 194). Peaceful villages are destroyed, and special interests and opportunistic leaders interfere with attempts to negotiate a settlement:

This was the preliminary fight of a civil war, fostered by foreign intrigues; a war of jungle and river, of assaulted stockades and forest ambushes. In this contest, both parties—according to Jaffir—displayed great courage, and one of them an unswerving devotion to what, almost from the first, was a lost cause. (Conrad 1925, 82)

A web of alliances suggests the intricacy of interlocking European treaties. A letter from Jörgenson rehearses the intrigues of rival chiefs in more detail than Lingard can absorb. He is impatient with past grievances and reads Jörgenson’s letter with “a heavy frown of perplexity” (Conrad 1925, 175). Personal loyalty guides Lingard, but in the East as in the West, the heroic individual is defeated by impersonal forces.
In addition to recognizing parallels between conflicts in the East and West, contemporary readers knew that colonial rivalry had been a contributing cause of the war. Colonialism was both profitable and dangerous, but Europeans covered this reality in idealized images. Land and Water introduces the first episode of The Rescue with just such an image. A drawing by Dudley Hardy (1867–1922) sets the scene. A native sailor gazes out to sea, his naked back to the viewer. He is alone on deck, except for a monkey, and wears loose harem pants, a turban, and an earring. His contrapposto stance alludes to seductive classical nudes. [LINK: L&W, 30 January 1919, p. 19] The caption describes the unnatural calm of the night as “absolute, a dead flat calm, the stillness of a dead sea, of a dead atmosphere.” His improbable isolation gives the exoticized figure an iconic significance. Conrad, however, strongly objected to Hardy’s drawings in the first installment—the boat was wrong, the weather was wrong, and Lingard was a disaster. Hardy’s illustration of Lingard and Carter [LINK: L&W, 30 January 1919, p. 22 (misidentified in Conrad 2002, 328, n. 2)] caused Conrad to write directly to S. Neville Foster, editor and managing director of Land and Water:

But really in the scene with the two figures drawn by Mr. Hardy the limits of the widest license are overstepped. It almost amounts to gross contempt and I tell you this plainly because I feel it strongly. What does he mean by sticking a fur cap on the head of Lingard? What is it –a joke? Or is it to display a fine independence in a story whose action takes place in the tropics? What is that face? (Lingard is a man with a beard—I say so.)—that face which says nothing, which suggests no type, might belong to a hotel waiter or a stock broker, and with that whole figure which might be that of a burglar, meeting an about 35-year-old railway guard in some nondescript place that might be a cellar! (Conrad 2002, 328–29)

Before publication, Hardy managed to remove Carter’s and Lingard’s headgear (Conrad 2002, 329, n. 2). Conrad compared Hardy unfavorably to Maurice Greiffenhagen (1820-1931), who had illustrated Typhoon in 1902 (Conrad 2002, 327). Although an advertisement for The Rescue had announced that it would be “magnificently illustrated by Mr. Dudley Hardy” [LINK: L&W 16 January 1919, p. 6], Foster acceded to Conrad’s wishes and hired Greiffenhagen, whose first illustration appeared in the issue of 10 April 1919. In the interim, Foster commissioned drawings by H. L. Bacon and Christopher Clark (1875-1942).
In contrast to Hardy’s drawing of the native seaman, Conrad’s text individualizes the Malay characters and presents their viewpoint. Lingard, who owes his wealth to gun-running, is not exempt from the critique of colonialism. The Malays understand that Dutch and British interests fuel native rivalries and that Lingard’s support for Hassim and Immada threatens Belarub’s idyllic settlement. D’Alcacer expands Conrad’s critique to travelers like Mr. and Mrs. Travers. Recalling his first meeting with them in Manila, d’Alcacer describes their journey to the East as a refined type of exploitation. He observes

that Englishmen, when worsted in the struggle of love or politics, travel extensively, as if by encompassing a large portion of earth’s surface they hoped to gather fresh strength for a renewed contest. (Conrad 1925, 123)

The Malay leaders reinforce his insight; Daman realizes that the sudden appearance of the Europeans has changed the balance of power, but he cannot explain their motives. They neither trade nor fight, yet they are a threat. Speaking in an “ironic and subdued tone,” he asks Hassim about the Europeans’ presence:

Why, asked Daman, did these strange whites travel so far from their country? The great white man whom they all knew [Lingard] did not want them. No one wanted them. Evil would follow in their footsteps. They were such men as are sent by rulers to examine the aspects of far-off countries and talk of peace and make treaties. Such is the beginning of great sorrows. . . . He asked what they had come to see? Was there nothing to look at in their own country? (Conrad 1925, 223)

Daman here utters perhaps the most incisive sentence in the novel. His final question is not a political analysis of colonialism or the war, but a cautionary observation about the consequences of seeking more than one has. D’Alcacer’s idleness, Edith’s stifled capacities, and Travers’s career stand to benefit from this voyage to the East. Their leisure is figured as aggressive looking. Like Lingard, the Europeans travel to acquire more than they have at home.

Mid-Century Disparagement of Romance
The mid-century disparagement of The Rescue was based on critical studies of Conrad’s revisions, yet the critics’ findings were shaped by their own aesthetic assumptions. In 1945, Walter F. Wright compared the versions published serially in Land and Water and the American magazine Romance (November 1919–April 1920), and as a book in 1920. In 1956, Thomas Moser compared the early manuscript of “The Rescuer” and the final text of The Rescue. Although both Wright and Moser accurately describe the differences among these versions, their arguments are rooted in a particular idea of literary value. Focusing on the text apart from its relationship to any cultural context and using the criteria they associate with Modernist art—experimental narrative techniques, irony, impersonal form, and the isolation of the individual in a meaningless world—they judge The Rescue inferior to Conrad’s earlier work. They try to account for his failure biographically, arguing that unconscious obstacles blocked his conscious intentions, particularly when he tried to write about women and love. Imposing a plot on the textual history of the novel, they interpret the hiatus between beginning and finishing The Rescue as evidence that Conrad had lost the creative impetus which true art requires.
Probing Conrad’s unconscious, both critics disregard his own statement about the delay in the Author’s Note to the Collected Edition of 1920. Conrad’s explanation is that when he began the novel he lacked confidence in his craft: “But I suspect that all the trouble was, in reality, the doubt of my prose, the doubt of its adequacy, of its power to master both the colours and the shades” (Conrad 1925, ix). While Conrad’s letters contain other explanations, the first readers of the novel had no reason to doubt his assurance that his goal was “absolute frankness” (Conrad 1925, vii). Anticipating his critics, he affirms: “Why I did not return to ‘The Rescue’ at once then, was not for the reason that I had grown afraid of it” (Conrad 1925, ix). He urges readers to regard the delay as a period of maturation in which he gained confidence writing The Nigger of the “Narcissus” and its successors. Conrad speaks of the finished novel with the same pride Tom Lingard takes in his brig:

As I moved slowly towards the abandoned body of the tale it loomed up big amongst the glittering shallows of the coast, lonely but not forbidding. There was nothing about it of a grim derelict. It had an air of expectant life. (Conrad 1925, x)

Wright, however, is more interested in the life of the author than the life of the text, and he dwells on biographical reasons for the delay. In 1896, Conrad wrote Edward Garnett:

I had some hazy idea that in the first part I would present to the reader the impression of the sea—the ship—the seamen. But I doubt having conveyed anything but the picture of my own folly.—I doubt the sincerity of my own impressions. (Conrad 1983, 287)

Paraphrasing this letter, Wright alludes to Conrad’s dissatisfaction with the “Rescuer” in its early stages in order to discredit the final text:

He was still dependent more on the truth of his sensations than on impersonal artistic principles. He could know that a scene was true for him if it expressed his feelings about life, but he could not infallibly determine its relevance to the main artistic effect at which he aimed. (Wright 1945, 224)

Seeing no improvement, Wright concludes that Conrad was unable to transform his feelings into art. In contrast toConrad’s claim that he improved his rhetorical control, Wright attributes the deficiencies in The Rescue to Conrad’s inability to express his feelings.
Aware that Conrad was aiming for “high tragedy” (Wright 1945, 205), Wright disapproves of such grandiosity, suggesting that he should have been content with an adventure story about an isolated individual. Conrad went astray, Wright argues, by adding descriptions of the political situation in the Malay Archipelago, the natives, and the Europeans, especially Edith. He tried “to tie his localized story in a large frame, to make it have more verisimilitude geographically and historically” (Wright 1945, 209). Since much of this material was eventually deleted, Wright claims that Conrad himself thought his early attempt to expand the cultural setting was “merely confused” (Wright 1945, 209): “he evidently realized later that he should isolate his characters from main currents of history to intensify the focus” (210). In the later version, Wright claims, “the reader has the sense of being in a part of the world which, until the British yacht burst upon it, was remote and timeless” (Wright 1945, 210)—the imaginary world evoked by Dudley Hardy’s drawing of the exoticized native. Moreover, by developing the emotional relationship between Lingard and Edith, Conrad commits “what he himself recognized as a sin against true art, the sentimental” (Wright 1945, 215). Instead of keeping “Lingard alone as the center of interest,” Conrad makes the mistake of exploring Edith’s thoughts and feelings: “Conrad usually had trouble with his women characters when they came into the foreground of a story. The themes which he best understood could be illustrated very well through the lives of men” (Wright 1945, 216). Despite the novel’s faults, however, Wright praises Conrad as “still essentially the creative artist who could capture again the excitement and, despite its anguish, the inherent joy of artistic creation” (Wright 1945, 224). Wright’s judgment is based on a conception of the artist as a stable identity, regardless of the quality of his work. What Wright calls “the truth of his sensations” made Conrad an artist, even if he could not always transform them into art.
Moser follows Wright in seeing the value of the novel not in terms of its “intrinsic literary worth,” but as evidence of the decline of “a great writer’s career” (Moser 1956, 355). While Moser would later express regret at being associated with a negative view of Conrad (see Moser 1987, 13), his essay on the differences between the 1899 manuscript of “The Rescuer” and the 1919 version in Land and Water reflects the prevailing aesthetic standards of the 1950s. Articulating these standards, Moser explains that he prefers the early version because it is both “concrete and symbolic,” and the tone is typically ironic (Moser 1956, 350). Long sentences suggest that “there is more meaning and more feeling to be expressed than language can quite contain” (Moser 1956, 350). It is closer to the “classic pattern” of Conrad’s “best works,” which reveal how the hero’s attempt to “realize his ideals, alone, in a remote part of the world” turns into a “self-destructive lust for power” (Moser 1956, 340), and Conrad used some of this “Rescuer” material in Lord Jim (Moser 1956, 342). In The Rescue, however, instead of dominating the natives, the hero is “possessed and utterly destroyed by them” (Moser 1956, 340). For Moser, Lingard’s failure to dominate the natives is an aesthetic fault.
The overriding issue for Moser is where to rank The Rescue in Conrad’s oeuvre. Is it as good as his work at the turn of the century, or as bad as his other late novels? To assess Conrad’s “development” and “decline,” Moser lists several concerns:

First, what were the early Conrad’s conscious intentions in beginning ‘The Rescuer’ and why could he not finish it in the nineties, as he had planned? Second, what relation does ‘The Rescuer’ bear to the other fiction that Conrad was writing in the nineties? Third, what relation does the manuscript bear to the book version, The Rescue, and what does this reveal about the comparative artistic quality of Conrad’s early and later work? (Moser 1956, 327–28)      

Like Wright, Moser turns to Conrad’s life for answers. If conscious intentions do not achieve “artistic quality,” unconscious factors must be to blame. He argues that Conrad’s later work suffered from his presumed difficulty writing about women: “the early Conrad had succeeded artistically by learning to subordinate love, a subject uncongenial to his creativity” (Moser 1956, 345). Moser’s touchstone is Heart of Darkness: “His second effort, the symbolic masterpiece, ‘Heart of Darkness,’ deals almost not at all with women and love” (Moser 1956, 333). Although Moser notices that the “last scene does contain a woman, Kurtz’s ‘Intended’” (Moser 1956, 333–34), his comment reminds us how much of the text was ignored before feminist critics joined the conversation. On the other hand, Moser faults Conrad for giving women too much attention in his later work. Moser argues that the turning-point of Conrad’s career was the commercial success of Chance in 1912–1914. Knowing that Conrad attributed the novel’s success to the central role of Flora de Barral, whose image appeared prominently in the syndicated serial as well as on the cover of the book edition, Moser assumes that high sales meant that Conrad was willing to sacrifice quality for popularity and began to write love stories for money: “There is something about the theme of love that elicits only bad writing from Conrad, something that frustrates his most strenuous efforts to create. . . . His most successful works of the period reject women and love completely” (Moser 1956, 333–34).
By 1916, Moser argues, Conrad’s “work had deteriorated seriously” (Moser 1956, 344). It had “much less moral complexity, human interest, and technical virtuosity than his work from 1897 to 1912” (Moser 1956, 344–45). Conrad’s late novels suffer from cumbersome rather than complex narratives, vague rhetoric, and taking “love affairs for their centers of interest” (Moser 1956, 345). Moser explains that The Rescue lacks “artistry” because Conrad “did not really believe in his subject,” which in Moser’s view is the “love affair between the heroic Lingard and his sophisticated equal” (Moser 1956, 334). As a result, Conrad wrote “crudely, mechanically, insincerely” (Moser 1956, 334). The dialogue “between the lovers is wooden, and there is the same insistence upon emotions that Conrad seems unable to dramatize” (Moser 1956, 344). Moser’s inability to appreciate or even perceive Conrad’s interest in native peoples and women illustrates the New Critical outlook that dominated literary study before the advent of critical perspectives derived from postcolonial and feminist theory. Conrad’s subject is much more than a love affair. Edith Travers is not Lingard’s “sophisticated equal.” He is an adventurer embroiled in a native civil war, and the novel deals with political conflicts and social disparities in Europe and the Malay Archipelago.
Although Moser elevates Lingard to Edith’s social status, he deprives Lingard of the heroic qualities that might bridge the disparity between them. Moser claims that in the final version Lingard is merely ordinary, and that Part IV, which was written in 1916, “obscures. . . the subtle difference between [Lingard] and the other seamen; his egoistic longings for power; his lack of self-knowledge; his moral isolation. As a result, he has none of the vitality and intensity of Conrad’s great self-destructive heroes” (Moser 1956, 347). Moser considers Lingard’s loyalty to Hassim and Immada a weakness: “As originally conceived, Lingard’s apparently charitable assistance to his native friends was to have been motivated by essentially unlawful desires for personal power and even violence” and “longings for self-destruction” (Moser 1956, 347, 349). Moser’s Lingard is more pathetic than heroic:

What had begun as a most promising portrait of a romantic, egoistic, meddlesome figure becomes in the published book the characterization of a conventional hero of popular fiction, a generous, brave, inherently good man brought low by bad luck, human misunderstanding, and the machinations of fate. (Moser 1956, 350)

Although the “conventional hero of popular fiction” is not usually defeated, Moser refuses Lingard the dignity of tragic reversal, claiming that “no one is really to blame for the evil outcome” (Moser 1956, 349). “The most significant alteration of ‘The Rescuer’ is the simplification and emasculation of Lingard,” insists Moser:

The second half of The Rescue, wholly written during 1918-19, carries the emasculation of Lingard further by absolving him of responsibility for the deaths of his best friends and by sanctioning his passive acceptance of repose as his greatest good. (Moser 1956, 346, 348)

This characterization does not fit a character who exudes masculine glamour, even to other men: “‘Nobody can resist that man,’ Jörgenson muttered to himself with increasing moroseness. ‘I couldn’t’” (Moser 1956, 387).
In addition to bad luck, misunderstanding, and fate, Moser blames Edith for the deaths of Hassim and Immada, though Lingard blames himself. Edith’s decision to conceal Jörgenson’s message is the immediate cause of Lingard’s failure to help his friends, and she feels responsible: “‘Then why don’t you throw me into the sea?’ she asked, passionately. ‘Am I to live on hating myself?’” (Moser 1956, 465). Lingard, however, refuses to hear her “confession,” asking, “‘Haven’t you understood long ago that if you had given me that ring it would have been just the same?’” (Moser 1956, 465). Taking full responsibility for all the consequences of his decision to help the Europeans, he belatedly learns that his ambitions have come to nothing and that his belief in his autonomy was an illusion. Such recognition is tragic.
Moser is so enthralled by the isolated hero of the earlier texts that he is impatient with Conrad’s interest in social conditions in The Rescue. For Moser, the novel’s historical realism seems no more than exotic decoration and clumsy satire:

Although Conrad’s ‘exotic’ writing has its charms, Conrad himself recognized its limitations and essentially eliminated it from his best work. Equally interesting as an early, albeit unsuccessful, experiment were his efforts to satirize in the manner of the French realist the complacently stupid bourgeois. (Moser 1956, 336)

To illustrate Conrad’s failure, Moser cites a passage in the manuscript of “The Rescuer” (232-238): Travers “began to think that some immediate profit could be obtained from the study of colonials and diplomatic questions in the East. He decided to travel then and on his return take up the position of a man who has seen and—having seen—knows” (Moser 1956, 337). In Moser’s judgment, “Conrad wisely cut out the . . . overly explicit, crudely ironic passage about Mr. Travers” (Moser 1956, 336). While the manuscript is more explicit than the published text, Conrad’s critique of Travers’s colonialism is clear in both versions. Long before travel and study were theorized as orientalism, Conrad understood the aggressive undercurrent in Europeans’ curiosity about remote places. Just as feminist critics have made the women in Conrad visible, postcolonial perspectives highlight the political realism in Conrad’s colonial settings.
While Moser admires Conrad’s early novels for their insight into the individual’s pursuit of power, his search for the same theme in The Rescue prevents him from noticing that Conrad is asking the next question: after acquiring great power, how does one use it? Far from being irresponsible or emasculated, Lingard tries to do too much. Taking responsibility for Hassim and Immada as well as the Europeans, he is overly confident that he can control events. Despite his resolve, he faces dilemmas of his own making. Should he honor his commitment to his native friends or his duty to the Europeans? Should he maintain his paternal devotion to Immada or fulfill his erotic passion for Mrs. Travers? Instead of confronting these choices and making difficult decisions, he tries to do everything and suffers the consequences of his ambition and indecision.

Reevaluating Romance
The war renewed Conrad’s interest in the story he had begun more than twenty years earlier, possibly because he discerned parallels between Europe and the Malay Archipelago. His subtitle, “A Romance of the Shallows,” announces a genre that promises more than a realistic story set in a specific time and place. Although romance is rarely considered a Modernist form, Katherine Baxter has argued that Conrad’s romances continue his earlier experiments with narrative (Baxter 2010, 1). In The Rescue, she observes, frequent references to the “theatrical unreality of location” lead to a “disruption of the novel’s own genre” (Baxter 2010, 122). Her point recalls T. S. Eliot’s analysis of the postwar disruption of narrative in his 1923 essay “Ulysses, Order and Myth.” Asserting that “the novel is a form which will no longer serve,” Eliot proposes, “Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method” (Eliot 1975, 177–78). He defines the mythical method as the use of a continuous parallel between “contemporaneity” and “antiquity” to represent the “immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” (Eliot 1975, 177). Extending the meaning of this formula beyond the patterns of classical myth, he recommends other sources of order, including astrology, psychology, ethnology, and The Golden Bough (Eliot 1975, 178). This structure of the immediate and the distant, the particular and the pattern, is also evident in The Rescue, and the novel can be considered a popular, more accessible example of the mythical method.
Although Eliot justifies formal experimentation as a response to contemporary history, mid-century critics were more interested in the plight of the individual than the social context of postwar texts. More recently, however, critics have shown that even texts that do not refer to the war directly represent it symbolically. For example, D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1921), written at the height of the war, has been interpreted as a withdrawal from public events as well as a reflection of military violence. Baxter notes in passing that Lawrence’s fiction has also been compared to romance (Baxter 2010, 14). In fact, there are surprising similarities between The Rescue and Women in Love. Both novels speak about the war indirectly but not evasively Like Conrad’s dedication to the The Rescue, Lawrence’s 1919 Foreword to Women in Love stamps the novel with contemporary significance. He states that the “bitterness of the war may be taken for granted in the characters” (Lawrence 1987, 485). Among many references to German militarism in the text, one character speaks of “a real Wille zur Macht” (Lawrence 1987, 150).
Both novels correlate personal and public conflicts, focusing on the sexual dynamics of the struggle for power in private life. Despite charges that neither author could write about women, Conrad and Lawrence create sympathetic portraits of modern women who resist social constraints. Edith Travers is a twentieth-century woman stifled by outdated conventions. D’Alcacer remembers meeting her “out West, far away, impossibly different, as if in another universe, as if presented by the fantasy of a fevered memory. He saw her in a luminous perspective of palatial drawing rooms” (Conrad 1925, 140). But even before meeting Lingard, she does not fit d’Alcacer’s image. Her husband berates her because she has refused to conform to social expectations: “‘It’s my belief, Edith, that if you had been a man you would have led a most irregular life. You would have been a frank adventurer. I mean morally. It has been a great grief to me. You have a scorn in you for the serious side of life, for the ideas and the ambitions of the social sphere to which you belong’” (Conrad 1925, 268). Edith has been faithful to her husband, but he recognizes her discontent: “‘Your conduct was, of course, above reproach; but you made for yourself a detestable reputation of mental superiority, expressed ironically. You inspired mistrust in the best people. You were never popular’” (Conrad 1925, 269). His grievances become increasingly trivial, and he gets the answer he deserves: “‘I was bored,’ murmured Mrs. Travers in a reminiscent tone and with her chin resting in the hollow of her hand” (Conrad 1925, 269). She is too intelligent to conform to d’Alcacer’s ideal or Travers’s expectations.
Neither Conrad nor Lawrence considers intelligence and sensuality incompatible in a woman. When Edith appears in the clothing Lingard bought for Immada, Travers implies that she has gone native. He sees sexual implications in native dress: “‘And you look simply heathenish in this costume,’ Mr. Travers went on as though he had not been interrupted, and with an accent of deliberate disgust’” (Conrad 1925, 275). Like Lingard, Edith thrives away from home and defends her new freedom: “‘And let me tell you that those clothes are fit for a princess—I mean they are of the quality, material and style custom prescribes for the highest in the land, a far-distant land where I am informed women rule as much as the men’” ( Conrad 1925, 274). Although they come from different social classes, she is the reciprocal image of Lingard—adventurous, independent, and passionate. Both believe in their destiny:

“I assure you I am a lucky person, too, in a way. . . . As lucky as you, at least,” she had added in a murmur and with a smile which provoked his responsive mutter—“Oh, yes, we are a lucky pair of people.” (Conrad 1925, 287)

Their confidence in their luck is another bond,
Conrad is far more reticent than Lawrence about sexual passion, but both authors represent it as an overwhelming force. As in typical romance novels, a woman’s sexual response is expressed as submission to a lover: “He was like a blind force. She closed her eyes altogether. Her head fell back a little. Not instinctively but with willful resignation and as it were from a sense of justice she abandoned herself to his arms” (Conrad 1925, 395). Yielding to her passion is portrayed as yielding to her lover:

. . . his great strength, too seemed able to fill all space in its enveloping and undeniable authority. Every time she tried instinctively to stiffen herself against its might, it reacted, affirming its fierce will, its uplifting power. Several times she lost the feeling of the ground and had a sensation of helplessness without fear, of triumph without exultation. The inevitable had come to pass. (Conrad 1925, 395)

Edith loses “the feeling of the ground.” Then she regains her self-possession: “A voice said suddenly ‘it’s done’ with such emphasis that though, of course, she didn’t understand the words it helped her to regain possession of herself. . .” (Conrad 1925, 395). To yield to Lingard is to yield to her own desire. The intensity of passion becomes a symbol of transcendence. Just as Birkin in Women in Love rejects “the emotional, loving plane” to seek “a beyond, in you, in me, which is further than love” (Lawrence 1987, 146), Lingard’s parting words to Edith affirm that their connection cannot be reduced to personal emotions:

“It was only after I heard they gave you the ring that I felt the hold you have got on me. How could I tell before? What has hate or love to do with you and me? Hate. Love. What can touch you? For me you stand above death itself: for I see now that as long as I live you will never die.” (Conrad 1925, 465)

Like Lawrence, Conrad has been criticized for using inflated rhetoric. In both cases, however, departing from ordinary speech increases the symbolic force of the narrative. For example, the passing of a storm is “a return to life, a return to space; the earth coming out from under a pall to take its place in the renewed and immense scintillation of the universe” (Conrad 1925, 46), a description that is more metaphysical than meteorological.
At times the grandiosity is ironic, as when Shaw, the chief mate of Lingard’s brig, comically alludes to Helen of Troy:

“Women are the cause of a lot of trouble,” he said, dispassionately.” In the Morayshire, I remember, we had once a passenger—an old gentleman—who was telling us a yarn about them old-time Greeks fighting for ten years about some woman.” (Conrad 1925, 22)

Although Shaw is unable to fathom why anyone would fight over a woman, Conrad uses him to introduce the epic parallel. Similarly, d’Alcacer highlights yet undercuts Lingard’s romantic view of himself as Immada’s protector by comparing him to Don Quixote:

“If she is a princess, then this man is a knight,” he murmured with conviction. “A knight as I live! A descendant of the immortal hidalgo errant upon the sea.” (Conrad 1925, 142)

If Lingard is a knight, Edith is a diva for whom the grandeur and improbability of opera are the framework for her adventure. She feels as if she is performing a role:

Mrs. Travers, her hand resting lightly on Lingard’s arm, had the sensation of acting in a gorgeously got up play on the brilliantly lighted stage of an exotic opera whose accompaniment was not music but the varied strains of the all-pervading silence. (Conrad 1925, 295)

In another mood, Edith refers to opera to conceal her feelings from d’Alcacer:

“You want to know what we [she and Lingard] were talking about,” said Mrs. Travers. . . . “Oh, well, then, we talked about opera, the realities and illusions of the stage, of dresses, of people’s names, and things of that sort.” (Conrad 1925, 308)

These references to Western culture assimilate events in the Malay Archipelago to a European cultural context.
In its forging of parallels between places and between periods, romance has sometimes been regarded as a reactionary form that universalizes the present and idealizes the past. Baxter, however, claims that Conrad exploited “romance’s potential for destabilizing the status quo,” using “romance radically throughout his writing career to question the values of his historical milieu and the power of narrative itself” (Baxter 2010, 14). From a structuralist perspective, she explains, “romance typologies” present an alternative to realism (Conrad 1925, 3). But not all romances are alternatives to realism. The typologies of romance can be tethered to fantastic or familiar particulars. For example, the Star Wars series projects fundamental emotions into outer space, while Robin Hood films positimprobable but not impossible events in an historical situation. The long list of remakes of Robin Hood illustrates the capacity of historical romance to accommodate many meanings. In the 2012 film, Russell Crowe is a mature Robin and Cate Blanchett is a widowed Lady Marian who make the traditional folk tale seem contemporary. Like Robin Hood, The Rescue situates extreme events in a realistic setting. In 1929 the novel was made into a silent film starring Ronald Colman and Lily Damita. If the film were remade today, casting Crowe as Lingard and Blanchett as Edith Travers could bridge the realistic and unrealistic parts of the text.
Similarly, the illustrations of the novel in Land and Water demonstrate a range of contemporary interpretations of the main characters. H. L. Bacon’s drawing of the first encounter between the yacht and the brig contrasts the virility of Lingard with the timidity of Travers [LINK: L&W 20 March 1919, p. 22]. Lingard is dressed casually, sleeves rolled up to reveal his muscular arms, at ease in the warm climate. Travers is encased in a tropical suit and pith helmet. He is not just shorter; he is drawn on a different scale, making Lingard seem gigantic. In contrast, Christopher Clark’s drawing for a later episode reduces the contrast between the two men, presenting Lingard as Edith’s social equal [LINK: L&W 3 April 1919, p. 29]. Standing upright in a rowboat, Lingard is primly dressed in a white dress suit and vest. He has a carefully trimmed beard and looks more like Colonel Sanders than an adventurer. Edith leans over the rail of the yacht, her chin resting on her hand. She looks pensive and petulant. Maurice Greiffenhagen also reduces Lingard’s physical strength but increases the social distance between him and Edith [LINK: L&W 10 April 1919, p. 25], imagining him rough and grizzled like an aging Hemingway. Edith again leans over the rail of the yacht, resting her chin on her hand, but now Lingard is a supplicant, his fist striking the hull in frustration. Conrad was especially pleased with Greiffenhagen’s image of Travers watching Edith dress in native clothing. Conrad commented that the “last full-page with its remote suggestion of byzantine art is very good. Strange how one gets an impression of opulent, sultry colour from that ‘black-and-white’. If he meant it then it’s quite a feat” (Conrad 2002, 441). [LINK: L&W 22 May 1919, p. 33] Like the multiple film versions of Robin Hood, the illustrators of The Rescue show how romance accommodates multiple meanings.

The Rescue in Our Time
The Rescue is a romance that ends in tragedy—not merely the modern tragedy of mismatched lovers, but the classic tragedy of a great man brought low by hubris. From the perspective of current cultural criticism, the personal causes of Lingard’s reversal have political significance. Initially, he is a glamorous hero, who has acquired wealth and influence thanks to his skill and daring. A self-made man who captains his own ship, he loves his brig as if it were a woman—or all women:

To him she was as full of life as the great world. . . . To him she was always precious—like old love; always desirable—like a strange woman; always tender—like a mother; always faithful—like the favourite daughter of a man’s heart. (Conrad 1925, 10)

Lingard’s Lightning is his kingdom:

She—the craft—had all the equalities of a living thing: speed, obedience, trustworthiness, endurance, beauty, capacity to do and to suffer—all but life. He—the man—was the inspirer of that thing that to him seemed the most perfect of its kind. His will was its will, his thought was shaping this feeling into the soundless formulas of thought. To him she was unique and dear, this brig of three hundred and fourteen tons register—a kingdom! (Conrad 1925, 11)

But he reaches for more.
Lingard’s commitment to Hassim and Immada begins with a pledge of friendship after Hassim rescues him from Papuan warriors. When Hassim is driven from his throne, he seeks Lingard’s help. The decision to answer this call is based on a personal commitment, and it feels more like destiny than duty:

Her owner and commander did not know where he was going. That adventurer had only a confused notion of being on the threshold of a big adventure. There was something to be done, and he felt he would have to do it. It was expected of him. The seas expected it; the land expected it. Men also. The story of war and of suffering; Jaffir’s display of fidelity, the sight of Hassim and his sister, the night, the tempest, the coast under streams of fire—all this made one inspiring manifestation of a life calling to him distinctly for interference. But what appealed to him most was the silent, the complete, unquestioning, and apparently uncurious, trust of these people. (Conrad 1925, 87–88)

Their devotion gratifies his vanity: “Their dumb quietude stirred him more than the most ardent pleading. Not a word, not a whisper, not a questioning look even! They did not ask! It flattered him” (Conrad 1925, 88). Their trust gives Lingard a purpose greater than mere accumulation of wealth, and he assures Jörgenson, “‘One more trip I must make, and then we shall be ready to go ahead. I’ve foreseen every single thing. Trust me!’” (Conrad 1925, 105). Such pride in his ability to control events can only lead to a downfall.
Lingard does not foresee that a yacht carrying European travelers will get stuck in a mud bank. The stranded yacht is a nautical symbol of its passengers’ lives at an impasse. Travers is powerless away from the social institutions of home; his wife is bored by her conventional life; d’Alcacer finds that his impeccable manners are useless in a crisis. The Europeans need Lingard’s help, but Travers refuses to ask for it. He looks down on Lingard as a profiteer, a reckless man who trades in contraband to make his fortune.
Lingard’s first reaction is to oppose the Europeans who endanger his plans, but he gradually accedes to their need for his help. Although critics have blamed this decision on his attraction to Edith Travers, his motives are complicated by class differences. Lingard knows that the other Europeans consider him a social inferior. When Travers insults him by calling him an adventurer, Lingard’s reply is defiant: “‘I am an adventurer,’ he burst out, ‘and if I hadn’t been an adventurer, I would have had to starve or work at home for such people as you’” (Conrad 1925, 134). He owes them nothing, except, as they remind him, his duty to his “origin”:

Their coming at this moment, when he had wandered beyond that circle which race, memories, early associations, all the essential conditions of one’s origin, trace round every man’s life, deprived him in a manner of the power of speech. He was confounded. It was like meeting exacting spectres in a desert. (Conrad 1925, 121–22)

Lingard achieves a status in the East that he could never hope for in England. If he becomes the Europeans’ protector, he can assert his new position, an ambition that ultimately leads to his defeat.
Lingard’s feeling for Edith Travers is inseparable from this ambition; he is attracted by her beauty, and her social status only increases her allure. Passion that crosses class lines is common in popular romance as well as serious novels, including Lawrence’s. Despite wealth and privilege, Edith scorns the “shallowness of events and the monotony of a worldly existence” (Conrad 1925, 122–23). Lingard offers her an escape. She is attracted to him because he is unlike anyone in her circle:

He had a large simplicity that filled one’s vision. She found herself slowly invaded by this masterful figure. He was `not mediocre. Whatever he might have been he was not mediocre. The glamour of a lawless life stretched over him like the sky over the sea down on all sides to an unbroken horizon. Within, he moved very lonely, dangerous and romantic. There was in him crime, sacrifice, tenderness, devotion, and the madness of a fixed idea. (Conrad 1925, 215)

They speak to one another as they speak to no one else, and Conrad’s dialogue conveys the contrast between their intimate conversations and their normal speech. Edith usually uses clichés that suggest her worldly cynicism. For example, when she returns to her husband, she tells d’Alcacer, “‘You were right. I have come back.’ Then with a little laugh which impressed d’Alcacer painfully she added with a nod downward, ‘and Martin, too, was perfectly right. It was absolutely unimportant’” (Conrad 1925, 467). But when she is with Lingard, her rapture is conveyed by hyperbole: “‘You are the most magnanimous of men but you are throwing it away on me. Do you think it is remorse that I feel? No. If it is anything it is despair. But you must have known that—and yet you wanted to look at me again’” (Conrad 1925, 465). While her speech may seem artificial, it registers the difference in her feelings.
Since the Europeans’ demand for help conflicts with Lingard’s commitment to his Malay friends, he faces a dilemma. Although proud of his honorable promise to Hassim and Immada, he cannot resist the temptation to assert his new status among people who would have scorned him at home. He is unprepared for the test of competing loyalties, and he tries to fulfill his duty to both the Malays and the Europeans. Torn between these obligations, he feels that his luck is running out: “No, I am not a lucky man” (Conrad 1925, 320). The narrator continues:

This was but a feeble expression of the discovery of the truth that suddenly had come home to him as if driven into his breast by a revealing power which had decided that this was to be the end of his fling. . . . His natural impulse was to grapple with the circumstances and that was what he was trying to do; but he missed now that sense of mastery which is half the battle. Conflict of some sort was the very essence of his life. But his was something he had never known before. This was a conflict within himself. (Conrad 1925, 329)

Lingard realizes that this conflict is caused by incompatible but freely chosen aims. To rescue Travers and d’Alcacer, he sacrifices the three people he cares about. He is not the victim of circumstance but an overreacher whose tragic moment of recognition comes too late.
In the real world, women like Edith Travers hardly ever meet, let alone fall in love with, gun-runners, but in romance passion overcomes social boundaries. The brave hero, the endangered woman, and the risk of violent death are conventions of the genre that were once seen as escapist but are now appreciated as expressions of widespread fears and desires. Using these conventions sincerely and ironically, The Rescue constructs parallels between the violence in the Malay Archipelago and in Europe. Extreme situations, exotic settings, and passionate characters express longings that may be unreasonable but are all too real. A daring Englishman may become rich abroad, class barriers may fall, and a privileged woman may fall in love with a strong, handsome man from a lower social class. Conrad grounds these wishes in a realistic plot in which mistakes are made, people are killed, and lovers must separate. He elaborates these patterns in the Malay Archipelago, yet they also fit parallel situations in Europe. Finishing the novel during the war, Conrad shows how alliances lead to combat, how negotiations fail, how individuals are destroyed by forces beyond their control. Good intentions, individual decisions, and uncontrollable events converge.
Land and Water provides glimpses of the social conditions in which the novel’s first readers responded to Lingard’s conflict. As a romantic hero, he overcomes class differences, but the magazine reminds readers that social boundaries are in place. Its ads for luxury items like motor cars [LINK: L&W 6 March 1919, p. 12] address privileged readers, and its editorial positions are conservative. For example, the title page of 6 March 1919 applies wartime rhetoric to domestic unrest, warning of a new “Triple Alliance” [LINK: L&W 6 March 1919, n.p.], not of enemy nations but of trade unions—mining, railway, and transport. Whereas the war dominated contemporary readers’ responses, mid-century critics valued the individual’s struggle with inner demons more than cultural significance. Although The Rescue has some of the qualities that mid-century critics were looking for but did not see, Lingard is not Kurtz. But neither is he the victim of passion or fate. Abandoning mid-century assumptions about aesthetic quality, critics today focus on the relationship between texts and the cultures in which they are written and read. Postmodernism admires popular genres like romance because they can express widespread wishes and fears. Postcolonial criticism pays attention to the representation of subaltern cultures, and feminism leads to new interpretations of women characters. These perspectives encourage readers to take Lingard’s pledge to Hassim and Immada as seriously as he does, to regard his attraction to Edith as the culmination rather than the renunciation of his ambition, and to see Edith as a worthy prize rather than as a temptress. Lingard is a tragic figure not because he chooses passion over duty but because he thinks he is strong enough to have both.


Works Cited

Baxter. Katherine Isobel. 2010. Joseph Conrad and the Swan Song of Romance. Farnham: Ashgate.

Conrad, Joseph. 1925. The Rescue: A Romance of the Shallows. Edinburgh: John Grant.

-----. 1983. The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad: Volume 1: 1861-1897. Ed. Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

-----. 2002. The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad: Volume 6: 1917-1919. Ed. Frederick R. Karl, Laurence Davies, and Owen Knowles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Eliot, T. S. 1975. “Ulysses, Order and Myth.” First published in 1923. In Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode, 175–78. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Geddes, Gary. 1974. “The Rescue: Conrad and the Rhetoric of Diplomacy.” Mosaic 7.3 (Spring): 107–25.

Lawrence, D. H. 1987. Women in Love. First published in 1921. Ed. David Farmer et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Moore, Gene M. 2007. “Slavery and Racism in Conrad’s Eastern World.” Journal of Modern Literature 30: 4 (Summer): 20–38.

Moser, Thomas. 1956. “‘The Rescuer’ Manuscript: A Key to Conrad’s Development and Decline.” Harvard Library Bulletin 10: 325–55.

-----. 1987. “Joseph Conrad: Achievement and Decline (1957).” Conradiana 19:1 (Spring): 10–13.

Wright, Walter F. 1945. “Conrad’s The Rescue from Serial to Book.” Research Studies of the State College of Washington 13.4 (December): 203–24.


Joyce Wexler is Professor and Chair of English at Loyola University Chicago. She is the author of Laura Riding’s Pursuit of Truth (1979) and Who Paid for Modernism? Art, Money, and the Fiction of Conrad, Joyce, and Lawrence (1997), and her most recent essays are about Modernism and magic realism. The title of her current project is “Writing About Violence in a Secular Age.”



Back to the start of the essay.