Time in the Work of Joseph Conrad

DOI: 10.55804/jtsuSPEKALI-16-5


Joseph Conrad, an English writer of Polish origin, who worked at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, is rightly considered one of the forerunners of modernism. As is well known, one of the main problems for modernist literature is time. It is interesting to study the work of Joseph Conrad in this regard. The purpose of this article is to analyze the problem of time in Conrad's work.

In the article, we distinguish two concepts of time - psychological or subjectively experienced and mythological or cyclic, eternal time.

First, let's consider the psychological concept of time, which is associated with the name of the outstanding French philosopher of the 20th century, Henri Bergson. Bergson distinguished two types of time: first, it is mechanistic time - the time of clocks, calendars and bus schedules, which is objective, precise and measurable. The second is subjective, internal time, which the philosopher called la durée, or duration. Duration - this is the time that a person experiences on an emotional level and the perception of which is influenced by a person’s subjective, psychological mood. This means that the internal time of a person does not often coincide with the objective time measured by the clock. Henri Bergson believed that if for scientists time is measured and always runs at the same stopwatch pace, to humans, time can speed up and slow down even more. A person perceives different periods of time in different ways, depending on his emotional state during specific periods of time. According to the Cambridge Handbook of Modernism, Bergsonian duration is time based on one’s personal experience and does not apply to an objective world outside the individual. Despite this, real time for Bergson is psychological, internal time, which has a qualitative rather than a quantitative nature.

The Bergsonian opposition between, on the one hand, objective time or reality, and on the other hand, the inner, emotionally experienced time of man can be found in many places in Conrad’s novels.

First, let’s consider how the psychological perception of time is presented in Conrad’s novel “Narcissus's Negro”. The plot of this work unfolds on the ship “Narcissus”, which is hit by a fierce storm. Although the sea calms, after the great battle, the exhausted and frightened sailors lose the ability to perceive time objectively due to the self-inflicted storm.

„Mr. Baker crawled back and forth along the poop several times. Some men fancied they had heard him exchange murmurs with the master, but at that time the memories were incomparably more vivid than anything actual, and they were not certain whether the murmurs were heard now or many years ago” [Conrad, 1979:50]

In this episode, the sailors seem to hear the captain of the ship and Mr. Baker whispering to each other, but the deadly storm has completely engulfed their minds, and they are lost in time, unable to understand whether they heard the captain’s whispers at the time being or if they are just memories of the past, an old story. In this passage, Conrad rejects the scientific objectivity of time, but describes the confusion in which the sailors find themselves with psychological precision. Conrad disrupts the reader’s sense of reality and objectivity and introduces Bergsonian time that is  subjectively experienced in its pure sense.

James Wait is the character of “Narcissus” Negro. He announces in advance to the ship’s crew that he is dying, thereby trying to evoke sympathy and avoid hard work. Crew members visited him often and tried to cheer him up. During one of these visits, James Wait remembers a girl he knew from Kenton Street, and it is at that moment that he leaves the real chronological time measured by the clock and moves into subjective, psychological time, where the flow of time is suspended or confused.

Conrad writes the following about James Wait:

“(James Wait) returned at once to the regions of memory that know nothing of time” [Conrad, 1979:92]

In the same episode we read as follows:

„He was very quiet and easy amongst his vivid reminescenses which he mistook joyfully for images of an undoubted future” [Conrad, 1979:92]

Confusion of time with Konrad is subjective. What is more emotionally alive and exciting to the characters is perceived as the present or the future, even though these feelings actually took place in the past. The internal time of the characters does not match the objective time.

In the episode we first mentioned, the storm-tossed sailors lose their sense of the present and perceive past and present events as one whole. And for James Veith, the memory of past happiness and the hope for the future become one whole, therefore, the chronology of time loses its meaning.

In the novel “Lord Jim” published in 1900, we also find psychological time. The main axis of the plot of the work is the incident that happened on the ship "Patna", when the captain and several crew members, including Lord Jim, thought that the ship was sinking, and saved themselves in a lifeboat - without warning the others, because they did not have enough time to do so. And not enough boats. However, the captain’s fears are not justified and “Patna” is saved while the escaped captain and crew members become world famous for their not-so-heroic behavior. Here is what Marlowe, the narrator of Conrad’s novel notes about this incident:

„Indeed this affair, I may note in passing, had an extraordinary power of defying shortness of memory and length of time: it seemed to live, with a sort of uncanny vitality, in the minds of men,  on the tips of their tongue.” [Conrad, 1996:84]

In this passage, Conrad suggests that certain events have the ability to overcome the usual flow of time, its duration. Because of their emotional or psychological significance, they are perceived in the human mind as constantly new and relevant. Lord Jim, who is tormented by his conscience throughout the play, tries to escape from the unpleasant memory of “Patna”, but wherever he goes, his past haunts him everywhere, as if time has frozen for him - he has neither present nor future. Ultimately, his efforts to escape his past and transform himself from the “anti-hero” of Patna into a hero ends in inevitable death.

Researchers - J.M. Kerzer and John Peters agree that time is subjective with Conrad.

In his work “Joseph Conrad and the Metaphysics of Time,” Kerzer notes:

„For Conrad, time is always in some sense “human time”… The world empty of human activity and judgment is a timeless void” [Kertzer, 1979: 303].

By “human time”, Kertzer means time subjectively experienced by humans. This is how we perceive and how time is given to us.

As for John Peters, he introduces the category of personal time in his article “Joseph Conrad’s 'Sudden Holes in Time': An Epistemology of temporality”. His research reveals that personal time is nothing more than what we call subjective or even Bergsonian psychological time.

Peters writes: “Personal time is time as human beings experience it. For Conrad, regardless of how objective time may be in essence, human beings cannot experience it as such. They never experience objective, regularized time” [Peters, 2000:420].

It is interesting to analyze Konrad’s novel “The Secret Agent” in this regard. Winnie Verloc takes revenge on her husband for the death of her mentally retarded brother and stabs him to death. It is worth noting that the murder scene, which lasts only two minutes, psychologically “stretches” for Winnie, and she cannot believe that only two minutes have passed since she last looked at the clock.

„She looked up mechanically at the clock. She thought it must have stopped. She could not believe that only two minutes had passed since she had looked at it last. Of course not. It had been stopped all the time. As a matter of fact, only three minutes had elapsed from the moment she had drawn the first deep, easy breath after the blow, to this moment when MrsVerloc formed the resolution to drown herself in the Thames. But MrsVerloc could not believe that. She seemed to have heard or read that clocks and watches always stopped at the moment of murder for the undoing of the murderer” [Conrad, 2020:269].

The clock “stops” for the horrified Winnie Verloc. Although the clock shows objective reality, Winnie no longer believes it. As we learn from the work, only three minutes have passed since the murder, but for Verloc, three minutes are equal to a whole century; moreover, she thinks that some phantasmagoric event has taken place, and this “stopping” of time in order to punish him for the murder of her husband was caused by the intervention of supernatural forces. In fact, Winnie’s internal, psychological time runs much more slowly than objective time. Conrad clearly shows the conflict between real and psychological time. In this case, it is clear that this resistance is due to the emotionally complex and special situation in which Winnie Verloc finds herself.

These examples, we think, revealed the presence of Bergsonian psychological time in Conrad’s work. It should be noted that Bergson was a contemporary of Conrad, even though we do not know whether Joseph Conrad was familiar with Bergson’s philosophical writings. In any case, research shows that Henri Bergson’s philosophy finds artistic expression in Conrad’s novels. It doesn't matter whether it happens with Conrad under the influence of Bergson or independently of him, Conrad discovers the psychology of time through literary intuition.

Conrad also has a mythological or cyclical perception of time. Mythic time is eternal, ontological time that has a cyclical nature. To elucidate, let’s make a reference to the Romanian religious researcher, Mircea Eliade who introduced the concept of sacred and profane time.

For Eliade, on the one hand, there are sacred time intervals characterized by cyclicity and repetition. He relates it mainly to religious festivals while on the other hand, there is a profane or common-time stream that has no religious significance. What is interesting for us is the sacred time that Eliade attributes to religious rituals. Unlike ordinary or profane time, sacred time has no end, it is not characterized by continuity. During a religious ritual - so, for example, every Christmas - the same story is repeated over and over again. It is a kind of mythical, eternal, Parmenidean time that is equal to itself, never changing and never ending.

Therefore, sacred time is the same mythological time that is opposed to chronological time. However, it must be said here that mythological time does not denote the time wrapped in a mystical veil. Our human history is also mythological in some ways, because it is characterized by repetition. Historical events are often so similar to each other that it seems to the observer that time does not move forward, but moves in a circle - in a cycle.

We find a description of mythological or, if you like, sacred time in Conrad’s masterpiece “The Heart of the Dead”. Here is a very unusual description of Marlowe’s journey into the heart of Africa:

“Going back to the river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world” [Conrad, 1995:40].

“We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore an aspect of an unknown planet” [Conrad, 1995:42]. As it can be seen from these passages, for Marlowe traveling to Africa is like traveling to the beginning of the world, to prehistoric times. It is strange what such associations must have evoked in the traveler of the nineteenth century who had not even seen the prehistoric world with his own eyes.

This passage suggests that it is not an ordinary but an archetypal journey that is being referred to here. We are left with the impression that Conrad is already aware of the philosophical paradigm that Mircea Eliade will establish half a century later. In particular, it should be noted that Marlowe’s journey does not take place in profane or ordinary time. This journey is not Marlowe’s journey simply to the territory of Africa, but a ritualized journey to the sacred, i.e. the same mythological time. Marlowe travels to prehistoric times and repeats the path of primitive man, or rather the scheme that is hidden in the deepest layers of the human psyche.

We read the following there:

"We couldn't understand, because we were too far, and couldn't remember, because we were traveling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign and no memories" [Conrad, 1995: 42].

Time travel to the primordial era is not possible in ordinary time, because people cannot go back in time, and Conrad was not a fantasy writer to narrate about time travel. We think that it is the mythological time that is being referred to here. Such a journey is allowed only in ritual or sacred time, when people do not return to the past, but currently repeat the path already taken by other people, our ancestors, heroes or gods.

Conrad notes that the memory of the primeval era does not exist and the traces have disappeared. If so, then a reflection of that age can only exist in the collective unconscious,which might be deepest layer of the human psyche that Jung discovered uniting us all.

This is what Conrad writes in “The Heart of the Dead”:

“The mind of man is capable of anything - because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valor, rage - who can tell?” [Conrad, 1995:43].

The writer seems to trust his intuition on what can be hidden in the human mind, in his/her psyche suggesting that there can be the past of all mankind, as well as the future. Eliade shows that sacred time is also fascinating in that the past, present and future unite there - everything converges there.

And as Jung showed, at the level of schemas, the humanity’s past—and in a sense the future—is indeed embedded in the collective human psyche since the human path is repetitive.

The cyclicity of time, its repetition with Conrad can be clearly seen in the above passages of “Heart of the Dead”. Marlowe’s journey to Africa is equated with a prehistoric journey, of which there are no physical traces, although, as Conrad notes, it still finds its place in our mind.

There has already been a mention of “Lord Jim” and ship “Patna”. For the  crew and passengers of the ship, who are Muslim pilgrims, time passes so dully and monotonously that it develops a cyclical, repetitive nature. Let’s see how Conrad describes the boat ride:

“Every morning the sun, as if keeping pace in his revolutions with the progress of the pilgrimage, emerged with a silent burst of light exactly at the same distance astern of the ship, caught up with her at noon... glided past on his descent, and sank mysteriously into the sea evening after evening, preserving the same distance ahead of her advancing bows” [Conrad, 1996:15].

Time in this passage has a mythological character - it is cyclical and always repeating. For the crew of a ship floating in the middle of the ocean, the landscape is unaltered and time seems to have frozen. Nothing changes except the sunset and the sunrise. The sun rising at the same distance from the ship is, in our opinion, a metaphor to show that even though ship Patna seems to move and move forward, nothing changes and time always returns to the same point.

As for another novel by Conrad – “Nostromo”, it is constructed in such a way that it convinces us of the mythology of the time. The events in the work take place in the fictional South American country of Costaguana. Peters rightly observes that there are many revolutions throughout Costaguana’s history, but all of these revolutions have the same result. The ones that come to power are repressive and only benefit the few, which in turn leads to new revolutions.

Researcher of Conrad, Garrett Jenkins formulates the following thesis about “Nostromo”: “We have in Part One a miniature version of what the book as a whole, in a series of circular movements brings out: that the future does not move away from the past but is doomed to repeat it. No real progress is possible; a change is merely an illusion that masks a fundamental reality of disorder” [Peters, 2000:429].

Although the revolutions described in “Nostromo” have different leaders and the revolutions themselves develop in different ways, the difference between them is small. The secessionist revolution, which aimed to separate Sulaco from Costaguana and seemed more civilized than other revolutions, finally ends in repression exploiting people. At the end of “Nostromo”, the excitement of the workers indicates that the revolutions will not end there and the same will be repeated over and over again in the future. It should be noted that the entire plot line of “Nostromo” is a kind of proof that for Conrad, time has the characteristic of repetition and circularity. It seems that the story with Conrad has a mythological character. Every attempt by the people of Costaguana to change history, to take a step forward, for the better, ends up with time constantly going back to the starting point, and they essentially have to fight the same war every time.

The examples from Conrad’s works clearly show that time occupies a particularly important place in the worldview of the Polish writer. Time is an intangible, metaphysical concept for people, which cannot be understood only mechanically through a clock. Conrad’s time is psychological; it is tied to the consciousness of Konrad’s characters. For Conrad, objective reality can only be described in terms of the subjective feelings of the characters. The writer stays true to this method even when the subjective perception of Conrad’s characters does not match the objective reality. At the same time, Conrad rejected the chronology of time and the historical progress related to it. Instead, Conrad’s time is cyclical, and what happened in the past repeats itself in the present. However, we ought to understand that this repetition has a symbolic implication in Conrad’s works. The writer tells us that nothing new happens in history and people constantly repeat the path they have already taken before.

We have taken examples from the following five pieces of Conrad’s significant works: “The Heart of the Dead”, “Nostromo”, “The Narcissus”, “Lord Jim” and “The Secret Agent”. Having discussed these examples, it is possible to conclude that Konrad had two concepts of time. These concepts are fully consistent with the theories of Henri Bergson and Mircea Eliade. C. G. Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious is also important, which was revealed in the work of Joseph Conrad as well.


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1979 The Nigger of The “Narcissus”, New York: Norton. 1991 Nostromo, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1995 The Heart of Darkness, London: Everyman. 1996 Lord Jim, New York: Norton. 2020 The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale, London: Vintage Classics.
Eliade M.
The Sacred and the Profane; the Nature of Religion, New York: Harcourt, Brace.
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Archetypes and Collective Unconscious, London: Routledge.
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