restricted access Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Skepticism, and: The French Face of Joseph Conrad, and: Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes: Beginnings, Revisions, Final Forms: Five Essays (review)
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Reviewed by
Mark A. Wollaeger. Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Skepticism. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990. 262 pp. $29.50.
Yves Hervouet. The French Face of Joseph Conrad. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. 354 pp. $59.50.
David R. Smith, ed. Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes; Beginnings, Revisions, Final Forms: Five Essays. Hamden: Archon/Shoe String, 1991. 173 pp. $25.00.

Although no overt thematic or methodological concerns unite these three works, each exhibits the continuing critical fascination with Conrad's incorporation of personal, literary/philosophical, and cultural/political backgrounds into his fiction. Such studies, of course, necessarily involve some emphasis on biography, but these critics avoid the temptation to assert facile parallels and obscure connections. The result is an impressive array of new perspectives allowing for a clearer understanding of Conrad in his various contexts.

Mark A. Wollaeger examines Conrad's interweaving of philosophical and literary skepticism in the major works, situating the writer somewhat tentatively in a tradition that includes Schopenhauer, Hume, and Descartes. The critic's argument is particularly strong in terms of the multiple levels on which skepticism functions: "Rather than simply offering commentary on skepticism, then, the narrative, descriptive, and generic modes of Conrad's fiction enact the operations of skepticism as a perpetual assessment of 'our constructions of the world.' " Conrad, that is, refused to allow himself (let alone his more fully developed characters) to accept as final any belief pattern, but continually re-examined epistemological and moral positions in light of different perspectives.

In his first chapter, Wollaeger discusses Conrad's development of the "sheltered retreat" trope as a defensive measure against the potential nihilism resulting from too harsh an application of radical skepticism. Not only do the characters themselves look for such shelters, but so too does Conrad, who adopted established patterns of literary modes in his early works and flirted with metaphysical transcendence in the form of a "negative theology" that served to balance the threat of skepticism. The outcome of this process was Marlow, the dramatized narrator whose refusal, or inability, to accept certainty about anything reflected Conrad's own skeptical position vis-a-vis his relationships with his characters, his readers, his profession, his universe.

Wollaeger discusses Marlow's role in "Heart of Darkness" as that of the skeptic longing to accept Kurtz's vision, yet seeking shelter in surface truth and dedication to the task. Marlow's narrating the tale reveals his desire to avoid "skeptical self-enclosure," or, to use the Bakhtinian terminology that informs this entire study, the monological voice, such a maneuver paralleling Conrad's own need to question the validity of authorship and the existence of "knowledge." Similarly, the multiple perspectives offered in Lord Jim serve to foreclose on a unitary viewpoint at the same time that the novel reveals a nostalgia for recovering the whole truth. Because "Marlow functions as a means of 'crisis management' by both expressing and mitigating Conrad's own skepticism," he rejects sheltering concepts such as Stein's and nihilistic ones such as Jewel's, ultimately failing to articulate a clear epistemological or moral stance. Wollaeger's discussion of Lord Jim, to which he devotes a large portion of his book, is the strongest reading of this complex novel that has appeared in some time. [End Page 778]

Not so strong, however, is his analysis of Nostromo and The Secret Agent. Because of the lack of dramatized narrators in these works, Wollaeger is unable to focus his argument as clearly as in the previous chapters, tending to abandon the philosophical context and to emphasize Bakhtin somewhat too heavily. Thus, he veers away from the originality of his own argument.

When discussing Under Western Eyes, where the existence of a dramatized narrator allows for more direct analysis of skepticism, and Conrad's later works, where the use of the sheltering retreat of Romance leads to inferior writing, Wollaeger is on more solid ground again. Overall, his study is an insightful one, especially as it locates Conrad's skepticism in the context of a philosophical tradition. Also, he must be given credit for providing brief synopses of the philosophical concepts he employs, thereby eschewing the fashionable critical presumption that...


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