by Michaela Bronstein

Joseph Conrad’s Chance (1913) brought him public sales and success after years of relatively obscure work on the novels now considered his masterpieces. Conrad was working on Chance by 1905, but until May 1911 he worked slowly. The novel began serial publication in 1912. In 1914 the book form (published September 1913) outsold all his preceding novels and brought him wide recognition.[1]

The novel represents a break with Conrad’s earlier work. His most recent full-length novels had treated political revolutionaries: both The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes were written and published between the beginning and ending of the writing of Chance. In the new novel, Conrad addresses several social issues closer to the experience of his reading public: feminism and financial speculation. One character, Mrs. Fyne, is radical feminist: according to Marlow, she believes that “no consideration, no delicacy, no tenderness, no scruples should stand in the way of a woman … from taking the shortest cut towards securing for herself the easiest possible existence.”[2] In addition, the novel centers on the plight of a woman: Flora de Barral, daughter of a banker who lost others’ millions in ill-advised speculation. (The novel debates whether or not this was deliberate swindling or mere incompetence; the character is in prison for half the novel.)

Despite these new, more domestic and typically English topics, Chance also marks Conrad’s first full-length novel extensively treating life at sea since Lord Jim (1900). It is also distinguished by its complex narrative structure, which has drawn fire even from critics sympathetic to his other experimental works. Henry James criticized it in his essay “The New Novel” (1914) on the grounds of its multiplication of internal narrators: “It places Mr. Conrad absolutely alone as a votary of the way to do a thing that shall make it undergo the most doing.”[3]  The novel is narrated by a nameless acquaintance of Marlow’s, and he receives portions of the story both from Marlow and from another character named Powell. Marlow himself has to relate material he has acquired from others. That said, the story all these narrators are engaged in telling is never as obscure as Conrad risked elsewhere: there is no emphasis on the inadequacy of the mere facts next to real significance, as in Lord Jim, and there are no rapid leaps back and forth in time such as characterize Nostromo and The Secret Agent.

The Marlow of Chance is often distinguished by critics from the Marlow of Youth, Heart of Darkness, and Lord Jim, though Marlow is a slippery enough character that it is difficult to pin down an incontrovertible philosophical distinction. Structurally, however, he certainly fulfills a different role: he has fewer stretches of unbroken speech, and his narration is counterpointed by Powell’s, which is at times not filtered through Marlow’s collation of it. In addition, the anonymous narrator takes a very different tone to him than many of Marlow’s earlier interlocutors:

“… Luckily, people, whether mature or not mature (and who really is ever mature?), are for the most part quite incapable of understanding what is happening to them: a merciful provision of nature to preserve an average amount of sanity for working purposes in this world. . . .”

“But we, my dear Marlow, have the inestimable advantage of understanding what is happening to others,” I struck in. “Or at least some of us seem to. Is that too a provision of nature? And what is it for? Is it that we may amuse ourselves gossiping about each other’s affairs? You, for instance, seem—” (117)

Marlow’s sentence rolls along on its cynical track, clearly intending his parenthetical question to be merely rhetorical and his statements accepted as true. The narrator, however, not only expresses doubt but begins to gather his own philosophical head of steam, albeit with a more empiricist bias. There are two modes of thought at work: Marlow’s generalizing absolute “people,” as well as “this world,” where the demonstrative pronoun seems to assume a shared conception of the universe; against the qualifying specifics of the narrator, with his “some of us seem to.” Marlow has a match here; he is not an unchallenged voice, as he was in Heart of Darkness:

“… that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams. . . .”

He was silent for a while.

“. . . No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence,—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone. . . .”

He paused again as if reflecting, then added—

“Of course in this you fellows see more than I could then. You see me, whom you know. . . .” (94)

Here there is no possibility of someone questioning the sweep of his musings; not only does everyone silently acquiesce (or simply not care about) Marlow’s vision of the world, but Marlow himself is able to take control of what exactly they see and think, work them into his framework (“You see me”). Although for most of Chance, Marlow is in possession of the greatest part of the story, he is never unchallenged in his telling of it: “Do you expect me to agree with this?” the narrator interrupts, and gets the answer, “No, it isn’t necessary” (63). Marlow’s role as storyteller increases as the narrative goes on, but his narration remains more dialogic than is typical for him. The last paragraph involves him in implied self-questioning:

“This was yesterday,” added Marlow, lolling in the arm-chair lazily. “I haven’t heard yet; but I expect to hear at any moment. . . . What on earth are you grinning at in this sarcastic manner? I am not afraid of going to church with a friend. Hang it all, for all my belief in Chance I am not exactly a pagan. . . .” (447)

This relaxed colloquialism also marks the different stance the novel as a whole takes towards several of the major philosophical problems which tormented Conrad over the course of his life and writing career. The reconciliation of a subterranean opposition between faith and “Chance” suggests the way in which chance is worked around as a concept in this novel as opposed to its appearance in previous instances.

“Chance” hovers between referring to an opportunity for human will and activity, and an indifferent force which can reverse the significance of human action. The opening chapter of Chance is “Young Powell and his Chance”—where a chance similarity of name results in a chance at a good position on a ship. By contrast, in Lord Jim, Jones—first mate to the suicidal Captain Brierly—speaks of “myself a made man by that chance” (62)—that is, the suicide elevates him to command of the ship. In both cases “chance” is an event that happens to a character and an opportunity for the character to take hold of. But the primacy of one definition or the other is important: Jones is bothered because he can’t talk about an opportunity, but only about a tragic circumstance; Powell is elated because the glories of opportunity trump the haphazardness of how the opportunity it produced. The difference inflects itself through the plots—chance, rather than conspiring to put characters in the worst possible circumstances, seems to work out for everyone’s advantages. Powell, “a completely chance-comer” (426), sees the poisoning hand; his particular characteristics are such that he reacts in precisely the best way for the circumstances in not making the discovery public.[4] Chance, unlike the novels which precede it, is romance rather than tragedy. Its parts are entitled “The Damsel” and “The Knight”; Marlow—and Conrad—is beginning to see a way in which the absurd contingencies of existence might work to the advantages of man rather than his destruction.

An online text of Chance is available here.

  1. ↑ Zszislaw Najder. Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1983. Pgs. 316-317, 369, xx, 390.
  2. ↑ Joseph Conrad. Chance. London: Dent, 1923. p. 59. All succeeding references to this novel are to this volume; references to other Conrad novels are to other volumes in this edition.
  3. ↑ Henry James. “The New Novel.” Literary Criticism. Vol. I. New York: Library of America, 1984. p.147.
  4. ↑ Contrast, as only a few outstanding examples: the sequence of events which leads to Jim’s disgrace (the death of the engineer, the turning of the ship to make its lights invisible to him from the boat); Decoud choosing to use silver as weight for his suicide, which makes it impossible for Nostromo to return it without suspicion; Stevie in The Secret Agent tripping over a tree root and blowing himself to pieces.