A reader would be hard pressed not to see Conrad's "tales of the sea" as representations of imperialism. The adventurous seafaring life that Conrad is most famous for depicting is relied upon the strong European merchant navy, which was the vehicle of the great colonial empires of the late nineteenth century. And, as Conrad declares, the European colonial venture is driven not by humanistic impulses but by the profit-seeking search for exotic products, in Lord Jim for pepper or in Heart of Darkness for ivory. While the earlier criticism of Conrad focused more on literary issues, such as Conrad's impressionism or the journeys of his flawed heroes, contemporary criticism largely devolves upon this historical context, debating whether Conrad is critical or supportive of imperialism, and whether he resists or reproduces the racial biases implicit in it.
However, while the general historical context of imperialism is essential to understanding Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer, there is a more specific context that decisively informs them and that has rarely been commented upon: professionalism. The ideology of modern professionalism helps to explain the motivations, actions, comportment, judgments, and loyalties of Conrad's primary characters. The characters that Conrad most privileges--Marlow and those with whom Marlow identifies, such as the unnamed auditors on the deck of the Nellie and some of the agents that he meets along his journey in Heart of Darkness, and the narrator's double in The Secret Sharer--are crucially figured as professionals. They mutually recognize each other in their adherence to a professional code of c...
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Glenn, Ian. "Conrad's Heart of Darkness." Literature and History 13 (1987): 238-56.
Johnson, Terence. "The Professions in Class Structure." Scase 93-110.
Larson, Magali Sarfatti. The Rise of Professionalism: A Sociological Analysis. Berkeley: U of California P, 1977.
Macdonald, Keith M. The Sociology of the Professions. London: Sage, 1995.
Parry, Noel and José. "Social Closure and Collective Social Mobility." Scase 111-21.
Scase, Richard, ed. Industrial Society: Class, Cleavage and Control. New York: St. Martin's, 1977.
Watt, Ian. Conrad in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: U of California P, 1979.
Williams, Jeffrey. "Narrative Calling (Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim)." Theory and the Novel: Narrative Reflexivity in the British Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. 146-83.
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