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conrad - lord jim & heart of darkness
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Between Proust and Stevenson: 

Conrad's Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness

While Conrad said there was no “justificative formula” for the novel’s existence, he saw the “novelist’s advantage” to be “the privilege of freedom - the freedom of expression and the freedom of confessing his innermost beliefs.” As Jameson has argued, Conrad’s novels mark a strategic fault line in the emergence of the contemporary narrative, “floating uncertainly between Proust and Stevenson.”

This institutional heterogeneity can be seen in both Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness. In Lord Jim, these twin narrative paradigms form the novels structural rift, while in Heart of Darkness the will to style is juxtaposed with Gothic Romantic conventions adapted to the adventure themes of imperialist narrative. In both novels, critics have suggested that the heroic ideals, while presented in an elegiac light, cannot be taken at face value. As Fothergill points out, Conrad often uses the Romantic genre for his own ends, and there is often a sense of being both “drawn to idealism and repelled by its hypocritical abuse” as Guerard puts it, a sense paralleled in the novels as Marlow is shown to be both fascinated and “sickened” by Kurtz’s voice and the Jim’s “vapourings”.

Conrad’s belief that “explicitness is fatal to the glamour of…artistic work” means that like Marlow his novels locate meaning “not inside like a kernel but outside.” As Brantlinger notes, the indeterminacy of Conrad’s style has often been read as a means of obfuscation masking nihilism, - “adjectival insistence” in Leavis’s terms. This obfuscation reaches its peak in the often cited sentence describing the heart of darkness, the “implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.”

Protagonists in both novels are shown as suffering from a lack of motivation evident in both Marlow’s capricious decision to undertake a journey and in Jim’s drifting life as a water-clerk. As Guerard has noted, it is Jim’s crime which brings him into the moral universe. Similarly Marlow’s story as Brooks has noted, only acquires plot through Kurtz, as he repeats his journey. Both novels describe the relationship between the crime and the inquest, through “a detective story gone modernist” as Brooks defines HD. Similarly, LJ borrows elements from the mystery genre, compelling reader participation to recover meaning. The quest to recover meaning is central to both texts, co-existing with Marlow’s quest for ‘blank spaces’, and Jim’s desire to begin with a clean slate. Foregrounding the malaise of modernity as Erdinast-Vulcan notes, both novels attempt to defeat it by a regression to a mythical mode, through depicting a search for lost vitality.

Both texts have been read psychoanalytically as depicting the struggle with the “destructive fate ready for us all,” with Guerard’s desciption of HD in terms of a night journey into the unconscious paralleled in readings of LJ as a psychological drama describing the hero’s battle with himself. Reading LJ as a universal tale about the break with a guilty past, Jim becomes the archetypal Romantic hero, often depicted through Promethean images, while in HD, several critics such have Trilling have argued that Kurtz is finally presented as “a hero of the spirit who has sinned for all mankind.”

However there is a tension between the metaphysical discourse and the often sceptical tone in both novels. Marlow setting up of Kurtz as the ideal of energy and will against the ‘flabby devil’ of idleness is subverted when, while admiring Kurtz as a “remarkable man” to the end, he recognises Kurtz as a false idol, and feels “robbed of a belief”. Marlow’s loss of faith in Kurtz can, Erdinast-Vulcan suggests, be read as his verdict on civilisation and the civilizing mission. In LJ however, Marlow is a more lenient witness . When Jim shows Marlow the moon “as if he had a hand in regulating that unique spectacle”, Marlow recognises that Jim has in fact ‘regulated’ many things in Patusan, although his willingness to believe in Jim’s redemption and the mythic society he has created is in tension with the ironic tone of the passage.

In both novels the tension between the ‘notion’ and the dream Jim and Kurtz represent and the reality implies that the attempt to reinstate the blank space or clean slate is destined to fail. As Williams has noted, readings of HD in particular have often emptied the novel of its social and historical content. However it could be argued that it is in part through the symbolic aspects of both novels that the political is foregrounded. As Edinast-Vulcan notes, Marlow’s identification with Kurtz and Jim can be read as “an assumption of responsibility for a rejected other” which represents a denial of the alienation of the modern predicament. Watt has similarly argued that the nihilistic strain in both novels is juxtaposed with the positive strain of commitment, and that Conrad’s protagonists are in fact always “largely determined by what they do in the world of world.”

In HD, Marlow links self-knowledge with work, which he argues gives you a chance to “find yourself.” The centrality of work and community is even more evident in LJ, where the phrase ‘one of us’ recurs constantly, underscoring the conflict between the ideal and the real which is in part represented by Jim’s recurrent betrayal of real communities (the passengers of Patna and the people of Patusan), in pursuit of an ideal community. Community in both texts thus surrounds the “Conradian roamer ostensibly alone with his dream” in Weinstein’s words.

As Achebe has argued in HD mythic readings of the text have often reduced Africa to the metaphysical battleground for the deterioration of the white European mind. In LJ this deterioration is reversed, while the symbolic dimension remains. Patusan represents not detoriaration but the possibilities of rebirth through the stereotypical connotations of finding peace, harmony and fusion in the East. As Africa is used to signify darkness and “the horror”, Patusan has been reduced to Jim’s Eden.

In both novels the story to be recovered is in part that of “the solitary white man …possessed by what he possesses” in Guerard’s words. In both novels however, reading the strategies of the narrative as either racist or anti-imperialist can be seen as simplistic, and problematic. Critics have often noted the paradox that the pervasive critique of empire in HD is time and again represented in ways that can only be characterised as imperialist. One example which has frequently been cited is in the recognition of kinship, Marlow feels with the helmsman – defined as a ‘remote kinship’. The double meaning in this feeling can be seen as a parallel to Jim’s recognition kinship with Dain Waris which is later subsumed by his identification with Brown, Jim’s paralyzing recognition of complicity an echo of the complicity indicated in Marlow’s morbid anxiety in discovering the helmsman’s blood on his shoes.

Throughout the novel, Jim’s heroism is implicitly called into question through the use of what Conrad referred to as ‘sideshows’ often offering ‘corrective juxtaposition’ as in the example of the Malay helmsman, and the French lieutenant. In HD, there is a similar problematising through form and style of the “distinction of being white” in Marlow’s recognition of the contingency of his world.

As Armstong notes, Marlow often denaturalises customary ways of seeing in trying to imagine how the crew sees the passengers, for example indicting the non-reciprocal approach symbolized in the image of the warship firing into a continent.

However, on the other hand, Marlow’s suggestion that to the African guard all “white men look the same from a distance” can be seen as an echo of his own denial of the difference and the individuality of the people he can only feel a “remote:” and terrifying kinship with. He is shown to be unable to distinguish between boy and man because “they all look the same:” In this sense, his attributing of an inversed version of his thoughts to the African guard can be seen not as a positive indication of his recognition of the guard’s subjectivity, but rather a re-imposition of imperialist order. While on the surface it seems to be a move towards reciprocity, it seems simultaneously to reveal what is suppressed while erasing it through re-inscription.

This can also be seen in the passage with the chain-gang, where Marlow indicts the use of the term “enemies” as a denial of reality – the chaingang seems to him too wretched to be described by such a hostile term. However, he rejects this mislabeling only to rename the group as “unhappy savages.”

This constant erasure and re-inscription in HD is evident on a larger scale in LJ, which can be seen as describing a circle from what De Koven refers to as Jim’s “foretop view”, through the jump from the Patna into the water symbolizing the “destructive element”. By the end however, the status quo is reimposed, although the description of Jim’s “pitiless wedding” to his ideal suggests its inadequacy. De Koven argues that throughout the novel Jim is linked both to the unstable status quo associated with the world of masculine adventure and notes significantly that he decides his career after a course of holiday reading. At the same time however he is part of this paradigm’s undoing through a modernist making visible of what is suppressed.

This interpretation of LJ inverts the usual readings of the structural rift in the novel as a loss of complexity, an escape from the deep philosophical questions of morality of the first part into a Romance and an adventure. Instead, the genre split from morality to adventure can be understood as an attempt to understand reality by way of a detour through the fictive.

At the same time that it would seem simplistic to call these novels empiricist adventure however, reading either novel in terms of a radical attitude which ironically undercuts the heroes idealism can be seen as ignoring the reactionary element of high modernism within them, as well as Conrad’s own identification with great empire-builders who like great artists are a “mystery to the masses.”

Both novels can be seen rather as recognising and mourning the dissolution of what Conrad refers to as the ‘sovereign power.’ This is evident in HD with Marlow’s disillusionment with Kurtz, and the discrepancy traced through the pamphlet’s contradictory messages, as in LJ where as Miller notes the discrepancy between what Jim seems to be and what he is questions the sovereign power.

In both novels it is the absence of a worthy centralizing power which results in a condition of spiritual anarchy, a sense that “anything might have happened – it was dark enough”. In both novels this is depicted through the symbolic language suggesting (moral) death: “walled up…in a roomy grave” with darkness in LJ, a sense of being “buried in a vast grave full of unspeakable secrets” in HD.

In LJ, while Jim’s death has often been read by critics such as Berthoud as the inevitable result of the exchange between the real self and the ideal self, Erdinast-Vulcan notes the problem is not that the illusion is overwhelmingly strong but rather that isn’t strong enough. Jim jumps from the Patna because he cannot live up to the ideal he seeks. Similarly in HD, the problem with the redeeming idea of imperialism is not its self-deceptive power but its inadequacy to deal with the “horror” of the human capacity for evil.

While Moser’s model of Conradian heroism, of “dreamers who idealise their self-deception” suggests a distinction between the real and the ideal, this is often problematised in Conrad’s novels where as Togovnick suggests, identity is itself revealed as a series of identifications. As Weinstein argues, Conrad’s proliferating doubles are often invasive figures who “express in caricature propensities that the immaculate protagonist can’t afford to acknowledge in himself.” The physical enormity of the German captian in LJ for example parallels Kurtz’s spiritual monstrosity, but ironically this use of grotesques rather than externalising the taint outside the main characters involves and stains both the protagonists. In LJ Jim’s jump suggests his subconscious complicity with the Captian’s view of the pilgrims as ‘cattle’, as in HD Marlow replicates the objectification he denounces in Kurtz.

Ultimately, the taint implicates not only the protagonists but Marlow, the audience, and the reader, as Marlow passes on his implication as naratee to the listeners, trapping them in a dialogic relationship. As Weinstein suggests, Conrad’s novels often express the “dependence of the fragile self upon the comprehending other.” In this context Conrad’s use of narrative frames can be seen as a way to indicate that as Miller argues, “the paradoxical relationship of a work of literature to a nonverbal reality it seek both to uncover and to evade in the creation of its own verbal realm”.

This simultaneous uncovering and evasion through multiple levels of narrative has been read in terms of the derealisation strategies of the modernistic text, which as Jameson argues, often involve a process of ‘sedimentation’ of meaning. While this seems to implicate Conrad’s modernist will to style in what Brantlinger calls the hollowness which can justify any injustice”, Conrad’s stylistic techniques can also be interpreted as an attempt to make accessible what is otherwise suppressed, appealing to a wider audience by inserting moral questions of empire and colonialism within what seems on the surface to be a heroic adventure.

As Simmons argues, HD can be seen as “enacting the dilemma of representing atrocity,” and in this sense its “contribution to the reform movement may lie…in helping to create a context” for belief, as “the scale of the horror to which it alludes cannot be adequately conveyed through fact.” As fiction, it paradoxically inspires a belief and a receptivity in the readers which bald statements of fact might not have found.

Simialrly, LJ can be interpreted in terms of its employment of the oral tradition in late 19th and early 20th century narrative as a way in Brooks words “to force the reader into a transferential relationship with what he may not want to see or hear”.

In this sense Conrad’s structural juggling of genre seems to indicate that the authors echoes the hope Jim has early on that “a meticulous precision of statement would bring out the true horror behind the face of things.”

In both novels however, the truth is not so easily recovered, nor so easily peresented. In HD, as Guerard notes, the insistence on the dreamlike quality of the narrative suggests that Marlow’s telling of his inconclusive story is a “vain attempt” to reach and touch his audience . While Watt argues that the fact Marlow is speaking to a particular audience “enacts the process where by the solitary individual discovers a way out onto the world of others,” Brooks argues that in contrast to the earlier novella Youth, intersubjective exchange in HD is suggested only to be blocked, in the audience’s disconnection from Marlow. This disconnection is pervasive and emphasised, as the narrator says “the others might have been asleep”. Again unlike in Youth, Marlow himself doesn’t even attempt to engage a response in his audience, ceasing only to ‘sit apart’.

In LJ, there is a similar sense in which as Said argues neither the hearer not the storyteller inhabit the world of fact. Jim does not speak to Marlow but in front of him, just as Marlow only speaks in front of the reader, as “what seems like a meeting of minds turns into a set of parallel lines.” Jim, unlike Marlow, does attempt to reach a conclusion, a ‘last word’ but simultaneously relinquishes it. “Tell them…no, nothing.”

Finally Jim “passes away under a cloud, inscrutable.” The recurring references to the unspeakable and inscrutable in both novels can be seen as part of what Christopher Lane refers to as ‘the trauma of colonialism’ in many of Conrad’s novels. What has been dramatized in both novels, rather than the possibility of recuperating truth, is as Togovnick suggests, the power of words to mask reality, and this involves an attack upon an art which like Kurtz , is hollow at the core.

In HD Marlow finally rejects Kurtz’s promise of achieving an illumination of “Stygian authenticity” in Trilling’s words, and does not reach the epiphany symbolized in the references to Kurtz eloquent voice, as in LJ he rejects the heroic myth symbolized in Jim’s description as a larger than life hero with a “Homeric peal of laughter.” Marlow’s retreat from the heroes, or anti-heroes, of both novels represent a shift which as Erdinast-Vulcan indicates can be seen as setting the scene for a modified view of the artist.

The artist in both novels, in the figure of Marlow, is presented not as omniscient creator but in an orphic role, returning empty-handed from hell, promising not an ultimate revelation but as Nettels notes, the possibility of a “succession of moments of insight, isolated, without causal or logical connection.” While Marlow’s quest to recover the story of another suggests a monistic quest for essences, the quest fragments into a series of potential illuminations which the novels refuse to synthesise, in Conrad’s belief that art can only be the “attempt to render… justice to the visible universe by bringing to the light the truth – manifold and one.


written: 2008
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