The Arrow of Gold (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

The Arrow of Gold (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

by Joseph Conrad, David Greenstein

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The Arrow of Gold is Joseph Conrad's most romantic novel, literally a cloak-and-dagger tale set in the French port of Marseilles and the adjacent "sea of classic adventures." The principal characters are Monsieur George, a young sailor ready for love and adventure, and Doña Rita, a young woman of extraordinary wealth and beauty haunted by a mysterious threat. Supporters of a gallant but hopeless cause draw M. George into their dangerous gunrunning schemes by using Doña Rita as bait. The suspenseful story is told many years after the events in the form of a long letter from the seaman to a childhood friend. In Conrad's classic fashion, the "Two Notes" of the subtitle frame the story with multiple and clashing perspectives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781411431171
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Publication date: 09/01/2009
Series: Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 694 KB
Age Range: 3 Months to 18 Years

About the Author

Joseph Conrad (originally Józef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski) was born in the Ukraine in 1857 and grew up under Tsarist autocracy. His parents, ardent Polish patriots, died when he was a child, following their exile for anti-Russian activities, and he came under the protection of his tradition-conscious uncle, Thaddeus Bobrowski, who watched over him for the next twenty-five years. In 1874 Bobrowski conceded to his nephew's passionate desire to go to sea, and Conrad travelled to Marseilles, where he served in French merchant vessels before joining a British ship in 1878 as an apprentice.

In 1886 he obtained British nationality and his Master's certificate in the British Merchant Service. Eight years later he left the sea to devote himself to writing, publishing his first novel, Almayer's Folly, in 1895. The following year he married Jessie George and eventually settled in Kent, where he produced within fifteen years such modern classics as Youth, Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Typhoon, Nostromo, The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes. He continued to write until his death in 1924. Today Conrad is generally regarded as one of the greatest writers of fiction in English -- his third language. He once described himself as being concerned "with the ideal value of things, events and people" in the Preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus he defined his task as "by the power of the written word ... before all, to make you see."

Author biography courtesy of Penguin Group (USA).

Date of Birth:

December 3, 1857

Date of Death:

August 3, 1924

Place of Birth:

Berdiczew, Podolia, Russia

Place of Death:

Bishopsbourne, Kent, England


Tutored in Switzerland. Self-taught in classical literature. Attended maritime school in Marseilles, France


The Arrow of Gold is Joseph Conrad's most romantic novel, literally a cloak-and-dagger tale set in the French port of Marseilles and the adjacent "sea of classic adventures." At the time he wrote this work, Conrad was already recognized as a master of the English novel, an astonishing achievement for someone who learned English as his third language when he was already an adult. The principal characters are Monsieur George, a young sailor ready for love and adventure, and Doña Rita, a young woman of extraordinary wealth and beauty haunted by a mysterious threat. Supporters of a gallant but hopeless cause draw M. George into their dangerous gunrunning schemes by using Doña Rita as bait. The suspenseful story is told many years after the events in the form of a long letter from the seaman to a childhood friend. In Conrad's classic fashion, the "Two Notes" of the subtitle frame the story with multiple and clashing perspectives.

Like many of Conrad's novels, The Arrow of Gold is based on an embellished version of his own experiences. He was born Józef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski in 1857 in Russian-occupied Poland. His family was minor nobility, and his father was both a literary man and a leader of the Polish struggle for independence. Conrad's father's anti-Russian activities led to the family's exile to northern Russia where harsh conditions caused the death of his mother when Conrad was seven. His father died four years later and his maternal uncle took him in and saw to his education, largely by private tutors. At age seventeen, prompted by a longing for adventure and a desire to avoid service in the tsarist army, Conrad left Poland for France to become a seaman. Between 1874 and 1878, he was based in Marseilles and spent eighteen months at sea. Conrad's four years in Marseilles ended disastrously. He ran up large debts, lost money gambling, possibly encountered a romantic disappointment, and finally attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest. Fortunately, the wound was not fatal.

After Conrad recovered, he joined a British ship and spent the next sixteen years in the British merchant marine, only then learning English and eventually becoming a British subject. In 1886, at the age of twenty-nine, he became a captain and in 1889 he began his first novel, Almayer's Folly (published in 1895). Eventually he wearied of the sailor's hard life, and he gave up the sea entirely in 1894 to devote himself to writing. Among his fourteen novels and numerous novellas, short stories, and essays are Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes, and Victory. Conrad referred to himself as "homo duplex," the twofold man: Pole and Englishman, sailor and writer, believer in the hollow darkness that lay at the heart of life and believer in the surface truths that could sustain one through life. Joseph Conrad died in 1924.

Conrad wrote The Arrow of Gold in 1917 and 1918 during the final years of World War I when he was suffering from a serious depression owing to his poor health and inability to contribute to the war effort. The completed novel was serialized in Lloyd's Magazine from December 1918 through February 1920 and was published in book form in 1919. Although Conrad may not have actually lived all the adventures he ascribes to the young hero of The Arrow of Gold, the novel is clearly the sixty-year-old author's romantic revision of his 20-year-old self. Conrad repeatedly insisted that the action of the novel had been drawn from his life, although his personal chronology does not fit and historians have been unable to trace his alleged models. Nevertheless, readers can still trust that the work's emotion, reflected not in tranquility but in depression, is real.

The Arrow of Gold is an epistolary novel-a form more common in the romanticism of the eighteenth century than in Conrad's day. In the best tradition of those novels that claim to be drawn from "a bundle of letters," Conrad frames the story with two notes explaining that an editor has somehow come across "a pile of manuscript" meant solely for the eyes of a childhood friend. This anonymous editor explains that he has "pruned" the manuscript of extraneous material.

The editor of the Notes assures us that, "History has nothing to do with this tale." However, some Spanish history is central to The Arrow of Gold. The principal characters are all active supporters of a movement known as Carlism, a divisive force in Spain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At several points in the nineteenth century, Carlism gave rise to civil war.

The underlying cause of Carlism dates back to 1713 when King Philip V announced that the succession to the throne of Spain would follow the rule known as "Salic Law" which barred women from succession. (Salic Law was also a casus belli in Shakespeare's Henry V.) The issue came to a head in the 1830s when King Ferdinand VII reversed Salic Law to allow his only child-a daughter-to succeed him. Ferdinand's brother Carlos, who would otherwise have become king, left the country to launch a dynastic struggle that divided Spain into warring regions. The followers of Don Carlos (the "Carlists") were particularly strong in the Basque country, Doña Rita's native province.

The Carlist faction-which referred to itself as "legitimists" or "integrists"-supported reactionary positions against what they saw as the rationalist, egalitarian, and secular leanings of their rivals. The Carlists' slogan, "Dios, Patria, Fueros, Rey" (God, Country, Local Rights, King) emphasized their distance from a regime influenced by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. While fighting flared up intermittently, the Carlists also pursued their aims through diplomacy, international plots, and hoped-for marriage alliances with foreign rulers. There was still a strong royalist sentiment among sections of the French upper classes that had never reconciled themselves to the Revolution of 1789, and the revolutionary Commune of 1870-71 had also revived a reactionary mood in France, creating much sympathy for the Spanish Carlists.

The Arrow of Gold is set during the Third Carlist War, which lasted from 1872 to 1876. The reigning king in Madrid was Alphonse XII whose supporters were known as the Alfonsines. The Carlist Pretender was Carlos (VII) Maria de los Dolores, referred to in the novel as Don Carlos. At the time the novel takes place, Don Carlos had established a rival court in Tolosa, Spain. Carlism attracted many foreign adventurers, including the young Joseph Conrad.

The central story occupies a single year, between two riotous celebrations of Carnival. During that one turbulent year, a noble youth, "Monsieur George"(who has adopted the name of the knightly patron saint of England as his nom de guerre) delivers a beautiful young woman (if not exactly a maiden) from an ogre and is rewarded with a loving kiss. The central story is the education sentimental of the principal male character and the rescue of the principal female character from emotional and social imprisonment.

At the time of the first Carnival, M. George, a sailor back from a voyage to the West Indies and at loose ends in Marseilles, is an easy target for two Carlist plotters, the scholarly Englishman, Mr. Mills, and the American soldier of fortune, Captain Blunt. From the First Note, we see how cleverly they turn M. George, through the irresistible charms of Doña Rita, into a Carlist cat's-paw. Although M. George is often perceptive (quickly recognizing Captain Blunt, for example, as "fatal"), he is sexually naïve. He says, ". . . they were talking of a woman but I was yet at the age when this subject by itself is not of overwhelming interest." The woman he is referring to, Doña Rita, is only a few years older than M. George and is full of sensual magnetism and worldly experience. She soon draws him into the Carlist cause. Conrad sketches her in rhapsodic prose:

[She had] an indefinable quality of charm beyond all analysis and made you think of remote races, of strange generations, of the faces of women sculptured on immemorial monuments and of those lying unsung in their tombs . . . "something of the women of all time."

In fact, M. George speaks to Rita in words that sometimes approach the sacrilegious:

It was then that you took body in my imagination and that my mind seized on a definite form of you for all its adorations-for its profanations, too. Do not imagine me grovelling in spiritual abasement before a mere image.

On many occasions, M. George notes a hairpin that Rita wears: a golden arrow. Rita's hairpin-which M. George describes as "barbarous"-is related to the arrows of Cupid and Diana, a symbol of sexual provocation. He frequently dreams that she throws the arrow at him like a dart, but it always falls short of its mark. The ultimate trajectory of this arrow from Rita to M. George and finally to the bottom of the sea parallels the process of sexual initiation that is a principal theme of the novel.

Despite Conrad's occasionally inflated language, he has created in Rita (like the narrator's "M. George," her name, "Mme. de Lastaola" is her own invention) a remarkable, if damaged woman. She rises from a peasant goatherd in Spain, sexually molested by an older cousin, to the height of Parisian society. As the mistress from the age of seventeen and later the heir of aesthete-artist-collector Henri Allègre, she is not only one of the most desirable women in Paris, but also one of its wealthiest with several houses in Paris and Marseilles. One of these, the house in the street of the Consuls in Marseilles, serves almost as a Carlist fraternity house where M. George, Captain Blunt, and others live under the scheming care of Rita's crude and bigoted sister, Therese.

One critic, Robert Hampson, points out that Rita, like M. George, has been manipulated into the defining events of her life:

One of Rita's (apparently many) conquests following Allègre's death is Don Carlos, pretender to the Spanish throne. After their brief affair in Venice, Rita becomes a generous backer of the Carlist cause, making secret trips between France and Spain and financing the gun-running operations for which M. George has been recruited. Rita has committed her fortune and M. George his life to Carlism without either being a true believer. M. George gladly risks his life, but only for Rita's sake, while she is well aware that the attempt to enthrone Don Carlos will "crumble into dust before long."

Allègre's two paintings of Rita that we encounter at the beginning of the novel prepare us for the crisis that ends it. The portraits show both aspects of her personality: the peasant in "The Girl in the Hat" and the society woman in "The Byzantine Empress." As we learn, Allègre used Rita as a model only for the heads of these portraits. Their bodies were based on a headless dummy that M. George finds discarded in the house on the street of Consuls. The stiff and broken dummy symbolizes Rita's persistent fear for her personal safety until the mysterious threat has been neutralized. It is only then that she can turn to M. George as a lover.

The Second Note wraps up the story succinctly, leaving some of the most dramatic action off stage. In a remark that is vintage Conrad, the hero reflects, "In a twelvemonth I had travelled a long way in my mistrust of mankind."

The two notes make clear that the novel takes place in three distinct time periods and shows the reader three different viewpoints. The central point of view, which makes up the bulk of the novel, is a young man's story of love and adventure.

The second point of view is that of an older "M. George" who, years later, writes a long letter to a female childhood friend whom he has not seen since they were "very little more than children." This letter (which recounts the romantic central tale) is prompted by the friend's writing to ask him, "I should like to know the incidents on the road which has led you to where you are now."

Finally, there is the point of view of the somewhat cynical editor of the First Note and the Second Note, which frame the story. Conrad insisted that the two notes were important. In his introduction to a collected edition, he writes:

…these Notes are embodied in its very frame, belong to its texture, and their mission is to prepare and close the story. They are material to the comprehension of the experience related in the narrative and are meant to determine the time and place together with certain historical circumstances concerned in the transactions of the twelve months covered by the narrative.

The editor of these notes adds a critical perspective to our appreciation of the novel's other two levels. He points out that the author of the letter "had not only a memory but that he also knew how to remember" [emphasis added]. By this he means that the mature M. George, looking back on his callow youth, offers an already edited version of his story. For one thing, M. George, more mature than he was in Marseilles, apparently feels that the intimate description of a single crucial year is a complete answer to his friend's question.

Through the frame editor's jaundiced eyes, we learn, for example, that M. George's claim to be an experienced seaman is an exaggeration and that the nickname, "the young Ulysses" (which he seems to take seriously) is ironic. The editor brings M. George's persistent innocence and occasional obtuseness into sharp relief.

By 1919, when The Arrow of Gold appeared, Conrad was already recognized as one of the foremost novelists of the time. His early novels and stories were precursors of modernism, a movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that encompassed art, music, architecture, and social organization as well as literature. Like later modernists, Conrad moved beyond nineteenth-century Romanticism to emphasize multiple points of view and shifting perspectives. Modernists looked to the insights of Darwin, Freud, Einstein, Nietzsche, and Marx rather than to the Victorian verities of Newtonian physics, the Enlightenment, religion, and progress. In his early work, Conrad also simplified the elaborate, formal language characteristic of the Victorian novel.

Because The Arrow of Gold did not fit neatly into the modernism expected of Conrad, particularly because of the lush language in many passages, critical reaction was mixed. The London Morning Post called it "an extraordinarily fascinating work," and The Spectator deemed it "worthy of Mr. Conrad at his best," but the New Statesman regarded it as "something of a disappointment." While starting to write the novel, Conrad himself had had doubts. He complained to a friend that it had ". . . no color, no relief, no tonality, the thinnest possible squeaky bubble." He regarded the finished work, however, as unexpectedly successful.

Some critics and Conrad scholars have been harsh in their assessment of The Arrow of Gold. Neville Newhouse called the novel a "romantically sentimental and over-dramatized treatment of a young man's first love affair. It is best forgotten." Recent evaluations, however, consider The Arrow of Gold as more successful. Gary Geddes, emphasizing Conrad's abundant use of imagery from painting and sculpture in this novel, finds that it probes "that strange No Man's land between the sequential literary arts and the spatial visual arts." Contemporary readers can derive much pleasure from The Arrow of Gold. We are able-thanks to the corrective lens of the Notes-to enjoy a story of intrigue and derring-do while holding on to a second, more critical perspective. Certainly, Doña Rita is one of Conrad's most subtle female characters and M. George allows us to imagine the young Joseph Conrad as he would have liked us to see him.

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