Located at a cultural crossroads where European realism and imperialism collide head on, Joseph Conrad's novels have been central to debates over the meaning of modern literature for most of this century. That the arguments—and the monographs—continue to emerge with such enthusiasm is a fit topic for inquiry in its own right. For well over a decade now, from Said to Eagleton to Jameson to Achebe, Conrad's prominent position as the great demystifier of the imperial lie, popular racism, romantic adventure, and Victorian morality has become increasingly uncertain. Each of the three books under review here attempts a rescue operation of sorts, with varying degrees of qualification. None tells us anything radically new about Conrad's work—an inevitable risk in devoting yet one more book to so dense a field—but they all address important issues.
As his title implies, Bruce Henricksen focuses on the relation between subjectivity and narrative voice, discussing five of Conrad's major novels: The Nigger of the "Narcissus," Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Nostromo, and Under Western Eyes. Henricksen's approach derives from Bakhtin and Lyotard, in that the heteroglossia of non-authoritarian speech and the petits récits of non-authoritarian history are made to intersect in Conrad's prose. Henricksen also sees development from novel to novel: the "demise of romantic notions of the self" yields an increasingly decentered subject and, with Under Western Eyes, a rather redemptive "vision of the communal nature of selfhood and subjectivity." It is a familiar enough critical narrative—Western cultural hegemony is undone by a deconstructed subjectivity to produce a more open and giving community—that at times seems Procrustean. But Henricksen is admirably clear in explaining his theoretical tools and his readings of the novels are often insightful, especially as a challenge to critics, like Aaron Fogel, who stress the monologic drift of Conrad's storytelling.
On the whole, however, I do not see the degree of "speech diversity" Henricksen sees in Conrad, and I have grave doubts about the way Henricksen relates devices like narrative voice to notions of community and society that he takes from Tönnies. In Nigger of the "Narcissus," for example, we are supposed to see eight different "internal accents" that "'appropriate' the narrative authority": voices in turn ethnocentric, literary, [End Page 171] paternal, idealizing, historical, moralizing, disciplinary, and liberal reformist (an implied reader). Discounting the last voice, which is "absent" in any case, it is difficult to understand how these "constitute a spectrum of subject positions" in the novel. Most readers would be hard pressed to distinguish one from the other—where does the "paternal" stop and the "moralizing" or "disciplinary" begin?—and even Henricksen must hedge occasionally by calling them "modulations" of one another.
Things are even muddier when we turn to the traditional stylistic problem in Nigger of the "Narcissus": inconsistent point of view. Henricksen claims that "individualism and special interests" (that is, the capitalist Gesellschaft) are "suggested by the more individualistic tone of the 'they' narrator," whereas "older, communal claims" (the organic Gemeinschaft) are implied by the "we" voice; and that the "I" of the final pages reflects a conservative author trying vainly to write with sympathy about labor in a capitalist age. But the allegory, thin from the start, is also confusing. Henricksen later aligns the novel's "three-phased drift in point of view"—from omniscient (they) to a blend of omniscient and subjective (they and we) to fully individualized (I)—with an historical evolution that runs from the organic community to a transitional "balance" to a modern society riven by special interests. Now, it appears, the "they" narrator is associated with the organic community. Which is it? Unfortunately, the entire question of "community" remains rather blurry in Henricksen's...