A Set of Six: Marionettes

  • Daniel R. Schwarz


Except for ‘The Brute’, the six stories in A Set of Six (1908) address the subject matter of the three major political novels: revolution, class struggle, the cost of political activity, and how individuals may become caught in the web of history. Written in the 1905–7 period after Nostromo and either immediately before or after The Secret Agent, the five political stories stress how human impulses for love and tenderness are stifled by political ideology, arbitrary traditions, and established customs. In all six tales, Conrad explores the psyche and values of idiosyncratic personalities; except for ‘The Brute’ these personalities are defined by their political position, even if as in ‘The Duel’ that position takes the form of commitment to an anachronistic code of honour. Most of these stories examine the kind of fanatical and irrational behaviour which is at the heart of political activity in Nostromo, The Secret Agent, and Under Western Eyes. Throughout the volume, Conrad’s tone is one of ironic detachment. In the Preface to The Shorter Tales, he wrote: ‘The volume called A Set of Six … is very different in its consistent mood of clear and detached presentation from any other volume of short stories I have published before or after.’1 But Conrad was adamant that detachment did not imply cynicism: ‘The fact is that I have approached things human in a spirit of piety foreign to those of humanity who would like to make of life a sort of Cook’s Personally Conducted Tour—from the cradle to the grave’ (28 Aug. 1908; LL, vol. ii, p. 82). In the same letter, he takes umbrage at ‘those who reproach me with the pose of brutality, with the lack of all heart, delicacy, sympathy—sentiment—idealism’.


Secret Sharer Police Agent Secret Agent Human Impulse Sexual Humour 
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  1. 2.
    Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961 ), p. 308.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Mark Schorer, ‘Introduction’ in Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier (New York: Vintage, 1951), p. vii.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    My understanding of the dramatic monologue is indebted to Robert Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience ( New York: Norton and Company, 1963 ).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Avrom Fleishman, Conrad’s Politics Community and Anarchy in the Fiction of Joseph Conrad ( Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1967 ), p. 135.Google Scholar
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    See, for example, Graver, pp. 132–5; Leo Gurko, Joseph Conrad: Giant in Exile (New York: Macmillan, 1962), pp. 164–5;Google Scholar
  6. Jocelyn Baines, Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography ( New York: McGraw Hill, 1960 ), pp. 323–4.Google Scholar
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    See Baines, pp. 325–7. For a fine discussion of this tale, see James Walton, ‘MrX’s “Little Joke”: The Design of “The Informer” ’, Studies in Short Fiction, vol. iv (Summer 1967), pp. 322–33. In Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives, (Farrar, Straus and Wroox), pp. 588–9, Karl has a brief but perceptive discussion of this story.Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    See John Howard Wills, ‘Adam, Axel and “Il Conde”’, Modern Fiction Studies, 1 (1955), pp. 22–5;Google Scholar
  9. repr. in R. S. Stallman, ed. The Art of Joseph Conrad (East Lansing: Michigan State University, 1960 ), pp. 254–9Google Scholar
  10. John V. Hagopian, ‘The Pathos of “Il Conde”’, Studies in Short Fiction, vol. iii (Fall 1964), pp. 30–8.Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    Paul L. Wiley, Conrad’s Measure of Man ( Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1954 ), p. 90.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Daniel R. Schwarz 1980

Authors and Affiliations

  • Daniel R. Schwarz
    • 1
  1. 1.Cornell UniversityUSA

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