A rattling good tale in the old-fashioned manner and the modern moment–Joseph Conrad’s “The Warrior’s Soul”

There are fashions in modes of fiction, and sometimes even in the same author’s work, more than one fashion (or era style) can be observed.  Many stories outlive their own time, and continue to have an influence on new generations of readers.  This is especially true of some of the works of Joseph Conrad, whose novella The Heart of Darkness continues to be read, interpreted, and re-used for its modern-day applications and significances (as one might note by recalling that the movie “Apocalypse Now” was based loosely upon it).  Even his novels Lord Jim and The Secret Agent, though more dated than The Heart of Darkness, are still quite popular in classrooms and library circulation systems alike.  Yet, there is something more to this selection of fashions than just a come-again go-again style or styles to be considered; there is also the role played by the various elements of the story in relation to each other which helps establish and make popular the style.

Recently, I rescued from a free book bin a book of four short stories by Joseph Conrad called Tales of Hearsay, and each of the four stories is constructed as the telling of a tale, with three of them using the fictional device of a frame story in which the external narrator relates a story from the past.  In this sense, the story is not unlike The Heart of Darkness, which also uses a frame story.  Yet, the story I’m concerned with today is of an older time both in its setting and in most of its tone, and is a quite simple story for most of its length, with none of the complexity of Conrad’s famous novella.  It is the first story in this book, “The Warrior’s Soul,” and it has all the earmarks of a very old story style indeed, with a passionate young lover, a mysterious beautiful woman, a slightly older gallant soldier, a war, an intrigue, a significant promise, a deathly request–where shall I begin, and where else could it end than in a story of this kind?

The basic story is this:  Just before the time in history when Napoleon marched on Russia, a young Russian soldier attached to a diplomatic corps is in France, in Paris.  He is first inspired by and then falls madly in love with a beautiful society hostess whose drawing room he frequents, and who in a kindly, slightly more mature woman’s fashion, tolerates his adoration and is kind to him.  While there one evening, the young man is witness to some sort of political intrigue between her and a slightly older male French officer, and the upshot of this situation is that the two save him and his diplomatic corps from internment indefinitely in France during the coming war by warning him in time for him to flee.  He is able to pass the warning along to his superiors, and all escape safely back to Russia, after he has vowed to the officer that if ever he can help him even unto his life, he will.  Time elapses, and we are now at the scene of France’s defeat in Russia and Napoleon’s death-filled and starving retreat from Waterloo.  As an old Russian campaigner (the external narrator of the story) sits by the fire one evening in the freezing winter weather, the young soldier comes into the firelight leading a sore-encrusted, raggedy, starving French officer dressed in full regalia except for his nearly frozen feet, which are wrapped in sheepskins.  As it turns out, this officer is the once gallantly attired and regal-mannered older officer of the mysterious woman’s drawing room, who had been so kind to the young Russian soldier when he was staying in Paris, and who had allowed him to escape.  After making himself known to the young soldier, the French officer begs him to shoot him and put him out of his misery, and after a while of debating with himself, the young soldier does so, to be sternly rebuked by his fellow soldiers for shooting a prisoner, all of whom had before reproached him for being too soft and loverlike in his mannerisms, all except the old campaigner, who tells the tale to the end.  For, though the young soldier is able to retire later without overt disgrace, he must retreat to his country province “where a vague story of some dark deed clung to him for years.”

The simplicity with which the mutual sacrifice of the gallant French officer and the high-minded Russian soldier is enacted is part of the old-fashioned quality of the tale.  We are told at the end as a form of summation, “Yes.  He had [shot him].  And what was it?  One warrior’s soul paying its debt a hundred-fold to another warrior’s soul by releasing it from a fate worse than death–the loss of all faith and courage.”  Even the rather trite and well-worn phrase “a fate worse than death” (though it may perhaps have received one of its first usages in Conrad’s tale) slips past the critical reader’s censor rather more easily if one is content to forego modern complexities of thought.  Yet, even in Conrad’s simple tale, at the end we read of the young soldier “He was stooping over the dead in a tenderly contemplative attitude.  And his young, ingenuous face with lowered eyelids, expressed no grief, no sternness, no horror–but was set in the repose of a profound, as if endless and endlessly silent meditation.”  That is true Conradian prose of the complex variety, but it occurs only at the very end of the story, so we may read past it in our first reading, and notice mainly the ease of expression in the portrait of the scene.

The picture of the woman involved too is part of the nimbus cast round the act of glory in battle which is the unspoken referent of both the warriors’ activities, in fact is of the essence of the glory itself.  As the old Russian campaigner relates, “She was of course not a woman in her first youth.  A widow may be….She had a salon, something very distinguished; a social centre in which she queened it with great splendour….Upon my word I don’t know whether her hair was dark or fair, her eyes brown or blue; what was her stature, her features, or her complexion.  His love soared above mere physical impressions.  He never described her to me in set terms; but he was ready to swear that in her presence everybody’s thoughts and feelings were bound to circle round her.  She was that sort of woman….She was the very joy and shudder of felicity and she brought only sadness and torment to the hearts of men.”  It is in fact against  the background of the salon that we are supposed to imagine, superimposed, the image of war to come, and then later, in the scene in the Russian snowy waste, the image of the woman and the salon superimposed over the scene by the fireside, as in the hallucinatory double image sometimes used in film-making.  For, it is the woman and the salon that both men are glancingly referring to in their moment of mutual “heroism” (or what Conrad has used to represent the replacement of a more standard act of heroism as it is usually portrayed, meaning ferocity in battle).  Their heroism lies in the determination of one not to be less than the man he has been because of being in a situation of extreme suffering that might cause him to perform less than heroic acts, and in the determination of the other to act up to the top of his bent and be worthy of the life (and the death-shot) that the other has entrusted to him.  They are brothers and equals in this sense, though one is years older and the other relatively untried.

It is only the hallmark of Conrad which in fact saves this tale from being a typical sentimental (and therefore pernicious) tale of heroism in warfare, for sentimentality about war is as loathsome to the genuine soldier as it is to the conscientious objector; and that is why I would like to return to that final section of the tale, which portrays the old campaigner and the young soldier over the French officer’s corpse.  For, they do not accede to his request immediately.  At first, the young soldier cannot bring himself to kill the French officer, who is then seized up with an “agony of cramp” as his limbs begin to defrost by the fire.  The young soldier says, “It is he, the man himself….Brilliant, accomplished, envied by men, loved by that woman–this horror–this miserable thing that cannot die.  Look at his eyes.  It’s terrible.”  The old man realizes what the young man means, because “We could do nothing for him.  This avenging winter of fate held both the fugitives and the pursuers in its iron grip.  Compassion was but a vain word before that unrelenting destiny.”  The French officer continues to beg, then calls the boy in anger a “milksop” to try to drive him to do the deed.  There is another pause.  At this point, the old man turns his back and then hears the young man’s gunshot.  He says, “I give you my word [I guessed it because] the report of Tomassov’s [the soldier’s] pistol was the most insignificant thing imaginable.  It was a mere feeble pop.  Of the orderlies holding our horses I don’t think one turned his head round.”  The gunshot is thus made into a small thing, which has an inverse great effect upon the future of the young soldier Tomassov.  Another key Conradian tactic comes into play, though, and that is one I did not mention when I previously quoted the passage about one warrior’s soul “paying its debt a hundred-fold to another’s warrior’s soul by releasing it from a fate worse than death–the loss of all faith and courage.”  And that is that immediately following this sentence, Conrad continues, “You may look on it in that way.  I don’t know.  And perhaps poor Tomassov did not know himself.”  And then he goes on to paint the picture of the young soldier, his hat off in a gesture of respect, bent over the corpse.  There’s all the makings of a great melodramatic death scene, yet by giving the reader a choice, by saying “You may look on it in that way.  I don’t know,” Conrad has robbed the matter of its melodrama and produced not only a rattling good tale in the old-fashioned manner, but a triumph of modern tone at the very last minute.  It is at this moment that one suddenly remember the other Joseph Conrad, the author of The Heart of Darkness, and all the complexity which he was able to bestow on the topics of colonization and decadence in Africa.  For this story too is from the same pen, and in small measure at least bears the hallmark of that great work of Conradian modernism.  And is saved thereby.


Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

8 responses to “A rattling good tale in the old-fashioned manner and the modern moment–Joseph Conrad’s “The Warrior’s Soul”

  1. I do remember my needing to read ‘Heart of Darkness’ for English Literature in Year 11. I was always amused that a story of around 80 pages long had supporting information almost three times longer.

    It is a humble thing that he leaves the reader to decide if his action was noble or evil. Acknowledging that another may not see the situation the same as he does is most unlike most authors, who provide their analysis of the situation as the ‘right’ way, or even the ‘wrong’ way in a tale of regret.


    • Ah, yes, it seems like a humble thing, but what I’m trying to suggest by calling it “the modern moment” or “modern tone” or “modern note” is that there is actually a hidden element of successful suasion in it that supercedes the old-fashioned tendency to overplay by avowing. That is, rather than simply state the grandeur of the moment and hope that the reader will be persuaded willy-nilly to trust the narrator’s voice, the modern moment allows and incorporates a moment of doubt in order to overcome the doubt itself. This actually makes the whole thing more successfully persuasive in a modern manner. It’s a tricky thing, I think, but part of the modernist tendency whereas the rest of the story is fairly old-fashioned in its tendencies.


  2. Have you read Conrad’s Typhoon? It’s one of my favorite books.


    • No, I cannot recall reading “Typhoon,” but I suppose I will now, upon your recommendation. The thing I like about Conrad’s sea stories is that unlike Melville’s “Moby Dick,” which I hated, they don’t get bogged down in details for the specialist interested in the inner workings of a vessel or the science of whaling. A friend of mine tried to convince me that my dislike for “Moby Dick” was a male-female issue–i.e., he said that women tended to dislike it more than men did–but I’m not convinced. There are so many stretches in the book in which one feels that it’s mainly a book for people who already know the science of ships or who are simply panting to do so. I prefer Conrad, and I stick by that (female or not)!


  3. The Warrior’s Soul is a magnificent story (it was Borodino by the way, not Waterloo 🙂 ) and is one among many of Conrad’s works that I return to now and then, for a refresher course in the timeless appeal of good reading and in the unchanging nature of the soul.

    My feeling is that Conrad is rather better at short stories than lengthy novels (he shares this with many writers). The Heart of Darkness is a great yarn, but goodness it flows slowly and sometimes in fits and starts. Lord Jim is better – certainly better than the filmed version – but it still potters about. Quite its best passages (pun intended) are those that capture the signal monotony of a straight-line ocean transit, immediately before “the disgrace” occurs.

    Thank you for the post. I enjoyed reading it.


  4. Your enthusiasm is contagious. Someone has suggested I read “Typhoon,” which I suspect will be my next Conradian effort.


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