One of Joseph Conrad’s later works, Victory
(1915) was initially regarded as an artistic failure, though a success from a sales point of view
. Conrad uses shifting perspectives and time-jumps to tell an allegorical tale reflecting on the value of love and affection in a human being’s life.
Axel Heyst was the manager of the now-defunct Tropical Belt Coal Company. Although the coal mine is now dark and abandoned, Axel continues to live there as a hermit, shut off from the world. He has become something of a legend to the local islanders who believe his hermitage is the result of philosophical searching.
Heyst’s story is different: Having never known his mother, his childhood in England was suffocating, dominated by his father’s low view of humanity. Having grown up believing human relationships to be worthless, when his father dies, Heyst uses his inheritance to travel the world, rootless and unencumbered by personal relationships.
He finds himself in Java, a Dutch colony at the time, where he meets Captain Morrison, who is in danger of losing his ship when he cannot pay a fine. Heyst takes a liking to Morrison and, moved by this unfamiliar sense of friendship, offers Morrison a loan with a nominal interest. His livelihood saved, Morrison becomes a grateful acquaintance. Although Heyst attempts to go back to being a loner, Morrison’s friendship continues to intrude on his solitude until he finally accepts Morrison’s presence in his life. Morrison tells Heyst of his plans to launch a coal mining company, asking his new friend to help him by investing and agreeing to be the company manager. Heyst agrees, and the Tropical Belt Coal Company is born on the island of Samburan. Although Morrison is the true businessman, Heyst manages the concern despite having no interest in the business.
Morrison visits England, and dies while there, leaving Heyst the sole owner. Heyst has no idea what he’s doing. After a brief initial success, he makes a series of mistakes and the company soon goes bankrupt. There, Heyst remains as we loop back to the beginning of the story.
A friend of Heyst’s, Captain Davidson arrives. Sensing Heyst’s ennui, Davidson takes Heyst on a trip to the mainland. At a hotel, Heyst sees Lena, a young woman who is part of an all-woman orchestra. Asking Lena to join him at his table on a whim similar to the one that sparked his friendship with Morrison, Heyst discovers that Lena’s life is difficult; the orchestra’s conductor and his wife treat her poorly, and the owner of the hotel, Schomberg, intends to rape her, making very little effort to hide the fact. Heyst decides he must help Lena. Conspiring with Schomberg’s jealous wife, Heyst sneaks Lena off the island, taking her back to his own island Samburan.
Schomberg is angry about the affair, but when three men come to the hotel—Jones, Ricardo, and Pedro—he is wary of them and worried about their intentions. They settle in and, using intimidation and violence, turn the hotel into a gambling house. To drive them off and take revenge on Heyst, Schomberg tells the criminals that Heyst killed Morrison and has a great deal of money buried on Samburan. Ricardo, Jones, and Pedro take a boat and head for the island, intending to torture Heyst until he reveals the location of the money, and then kill him. A storm blows up, however, and the three men almost die, just barely making it to Samburan.
Heyst, unaware of who the men are, helps them recover from their ordeal. He soon realizes that the men are dangerous; He discovers that his loyal servant, Wang, has stolen his revolver.
Ricardo sees Lena and attempts to rape her, but Lena fights with sufficient fury to fend him off. Ricardo, impressed by her spirit, falls in love. Lena, sensing that this gives her some advantage over their attackers, encourages the fiction that she might also fall in love with Ricardo.
Believing their situation is untenable, Heyst asks Lena to slip into the jungle to hide while he talks to Jones to try to ensure her escape. Instead, Lena returns to the house and waits for Ricardo, then seduces him into giving her his dagger. As she is allowing Ricardo to touch her and waiting for the right moment to stab him, Heyst and Jones arrive. Jones, who has an insane hatred of women, flies into a rage and attacks Ricardo, accidentally shooting Lena. Heyst rushes to Lena, believing she has betrayed him; she begs him to tell her that he truly loves her. He picks her up gently, and she dies believing she has attained victory by finally gaining his unreserved love.
Wang meanwhile has killed Pedro and pushed his body into the ocean. Jones, believing Ricardo intends to double-cross him, attacks and kills Ricardo, then is swept out to sea and drowns. Heyst decides he has nothing left to live for and commits suicide, setting fire to the compound.