tutorial, commentary, study resources, plot, and web links
The Idiots was Joseph Conrad’s first short story. It was written in 1896 during his honeymoon and published in The Savoy magazine later that year. It was later collected in Tales of Unrest, 1898. The other stories in the collection are Karain, A Memory, An Outpost of Progress, The Return, and The Lagoon.
The Idiots – critical commentary
It is difficult to see this story as anything other than a study in congenital abnormality. Susan’s father was mentally deficient; she herself bears four children who all have the same defect; and she ends up acting in a socially aberrant manner, first of all committing murder (though under strong provocation) then losing her hold on reality when she has been abandoned by her own mother. Finally she commits suicide. It is amazing to think that these gloomy, savage, and tragic subjects were chosen by Conrad for a story he wrote whilst on his honeymoon.
In 1883, Sir Francis Galton, the half-cousin of Charles Darwin, formulated the notion of what came to be called eugenics – the idea that the race could be ‘improved’ by removing unwanted elements from the genetic pool from which human beings are created. These unwanted elements tended to be anything which was unusual or abnormal – without any scientific evidence linking the abnormality to a genetic cause. (This was in a pre-DNA era). In the early twentieth century the notion of eugenics was used as a pretext for all sorts of social engineering, including forced sterilization and euthanasia – the sort of head-measuring pseudo-science that led to the Nazis and their absurd notions of a ‘super-race’.
The discovery of DNA by Crick and Watson in 1953 and subsequent developments in molecular biology have put paid to much of these notions, but it is interesting to note the congruence of the dates in Conrad’s story and the origins of these ideas, which were taken up quite vigorously at the time they were first publicised.
The Savoy magazine
It is also interesting to note that Conrad published his first story in The Savoy magazine. This was newly founded in the same year, 1896, and was established by Leonard Smithers, Arthur Symons, and Aubrey Beardsley – all rather controversial figures in what at the time was called the ‘decadent movement’, which embraced the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’. Other contributors to the magazine included W.B. Yeats, Max Beerbohm, and Oscar Wilde. None of these figures constitute the sort of artistic context we nowadays associate with Conrad.
The magazine was named after the luxurious Art Nouveau hotel on the Strand which had opened in 1889, built by Richard D’Oyly Carte with the profits from his successful Gilbert and Sullivan operas. As a publication of contemporary art, it became quite famous, with a policy that declared it was ‘a manifesto in revolt against Victorian materialism’. But like many small and influential magazines, it had a lifespan of only eight issues, running from January to December in 1896.
The Idiots – study resources
Tales of Unrest – CreateSpace editions – Amazon UK
Tales of Unrest – CreateSpace editions – Amazon US
The Complete Works of Joseph Conrad – Kindle eBook
Tales of Unrest – eBook versions at Project Gutenberg
The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad – Amazon UK
Routledge Guide to Joseph Conrad – Amazon UK
Oxford Reader’s Companion to Conrad – Amazon UK
Joseph Conrad: A Biography – Amazon UK
Notes on Life and Letters – Amazon UK
Joseph Conrad – biographical notes
The Idiots – plot summary
The story opens with a succession of mentally retarded children watching the narrator’s cart pass by. They are the offspring of a local farmer who is now dead. Jean-Piere Bacadou returned from military service to find the family farm run down. He decides to take over from his aged parents.
He gets married; his mother dies; and twin boys are born. The parents discover that the boys are retarded. Another son is born who is also retarded. As a reaction, Bacadou converts from a republican to Catholic royalist.
He feels it is a bitter injustice to have not just one but three retarded sons. When a retarded daughter is born, he regrets his religious conversion. He passionately desires a son who can take on the tradition and continuity of the farm. He takes out all his inner rage on his wife Susan.
One night Susan arrives at her mother’s house to announce that she has killed Bacadou, stabbing him with a pair of scissors. Since Susan’s father was ‘weak in the head’ her mother Mrs Levaille thinks there might be some hereditary curse, and she disowns her daughter. Susan runs off into the night, pursued by what she thinks of as the image of her husband.
One of the men from her mother’s shop pursues her, but she imagines in her panic and terror that it’s her dead husband. When he advances towards her in what she sees as a menacing manner, she throws herself off a cliff into the sea.
Joseph Conrad – video biography
The Idiots – principal characters
|I||the un-named narrator|
|Jean-Pierre Bacadou||a Brittany farmer|
|Marquis de Chevanes||a rich landowner|
|Madame Levaille||Susan’s mother, a businesswoman|
Joseph Conrad’s writing
Manuscript page from Heart of Darkness
The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad offers a series of essays by leading Conrad scholars aimed at both students and the general reader. There’s a chronology and overview of Conrad’s life, then chapters that explore significant issues in his major writings, and deal in depth with individual works. These are followed by discussions of the special nature of Conrad’s narrative techniques, his complex relationships with late-Victorian imperialism and with literary Modernism, and his influence on other writers and artists. Each essay provides guidance to further reading, and a concluding chapter surveys the body of Conrad criticism.
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Joseph Conrad’s writing table
Amar Acheraiou Joseph Conrad and the Reader, London: Macmillan, 2009.
Jacques Berthoud, Joseph Conrad: The Major Phase, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Muriel Bradbrook, Joseph Conrad: Poland’s English Genius, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1941
Harold Bloom (ed), Joseph Conrad (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views, New Yoprk: Chelsea House Publishers, 2010
Hillel M. Daleski , Joseph Conrad: The Way of Dispossession, London: Faber, 1977
Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan, Joseph Conrad and the Modern Temper, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Aaron Fogel, Coercion to Speak: Conrad’s Poetics of Dialogue, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1985
John Dozier Gordon, Joseph Conrad: The Making of a Novelist, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1940
Albert J. Guerard, Conrad the Novelist, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1958
Robert Hampson, Joseph Conrad: Betrayal and Identity, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992
Jeremy Hawthorn, Joseph Conrad: Language and Fictional Self-Consciousness, London: Edward Arnold, 1979
Jeremy Hawthorn, Joseph Conrad: Narrative Technique and Ideological Commitment, London: Edward Arnold, 1990
Jeremy Hawthorn, Sexuality and the Erotic in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad, London: Continuum, 2007.
Owen Knowles, The Oxford Reader’s Companion to Conrad, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990
Jakob Lothe, Joseph Conrad: Voice, Sequence, History, Genre, Ohio State University Press, 2008
Gustav Morf, The Polish Shades and Ghosts of Joseph Conrad, New York: Astra, 1976
Ross Murfin, Conrad Revisited: Essays for the Eighties, Tuscaloosa, Ala: University of Alabama Press, 1985
Jeffery Myers, Joseph Conrad: A Biography, Cooper Square Publishers, 2001.
Zdzislaw Najder, Joseph Conrad: A Life, Camden House, 2007.
George A. Panichas, Joseph Conrad: His Moral Vision, Mercer University Press, 2005.
John G. Peters, The Cambridge Introduction to Joseph Conrad, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
James Phelan, Joseph Conrad: Voice, Sequence, History, Genre, Ohio State University Press, 2008.
Edward Said, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 1966
Allan H. Simmons, Joseph Conrad: (Critical Issues), London: Macmillan, 2006.
J.H. Stape, The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996
John Stape, The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad, Arrow Books, 2008.
Peter Villiers, Joseph Conrad: Master Mariner, Seafarer Books, 2006.
Ian Watt, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, London: Chatto and Windus, 1980
Cedric Watts, Joseph Conrad: (Writers and their Work), London: Northcote House, 1994.
Other writing by Joseph Conrad
Lord Jim (1900) is the earliest of Conrad’s big and serious novels, and it explores one of his favourite subjects – cowardice and moral redemption. Jim is a ship’s captain who in youthful ignorance commits the worst offence – abandoning his ship. He spends the remainder of his adult life in shameful obscurity in the South Seas, trying to re-build his confidence and his character. What makes the novel fascinating is not only the tragic but redemptive outcome, but the manner in which it is told. The narrator Marlowe recounts the events in a time scheme which shifts between past and present in an amazingly complex manner. This is one of the features which makes Conrad (born in the nineteenth century) considered one of the fathers of twentieth century modernism.
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Heart of Darkness (1902) is a tightly controlled novella which has assumed classic status as an account of the process of Imperialism. It documents the search for a mysterious Kurtz, who has ‘gone too far’ in his exploitation of Africans in the ivory trade. The reader is plunged deeper and deeper into the ‘horrors’ of what happened when Europeans invaded the continent. This might well go down in literary history as Conrad’s finest and most insightful achievement, and it is based on his own experiences as a sea captain. This volume also contains ‘An Outpost of Progress’ – the magnificent study in shabby cowardice which prefigures ‘Heart of Darkness’.
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© Roy Johnson 2013
Joseph Conrad web links
Joseph Conrad at Mantex
Biography, tutorials, book reviews, study guides, videos, web links.
Joseph Conrad – his greatest novels and novellas
Brief notes introducing his major works in recommended editions.
Joseph Conrad at Project Gutenberg
A major collection of free eTexts in a variety of formats.
Joseph Conrad at Wikipedia
Biography, major works, literary career, style, politics, and further reading.
Joseph Conrad at the Internet Movie Database
Adaptations for the cinema and television – in various languages. Full details of directors and actors, production notes, box office, trivia, and quizzes.
Works by Joseph Conrad
Large online database of free HTML texts, digital scans, and eText versions of novels, stories, and occasional writings.
The Joseph Conrad Society (UK)
Conradian journal, reviews. and scholarly resources.
The Joseph Conrad Society of America
American-based – recent publications, journal, awards, conferences.
Hyper-Concordance of Conrad’s works
Locate a word or phrase – in the context of the novel or story.