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  • The Moral Ambiguity of Conrad's Poetics:Transgressive Secret Sharing in Lord Jim and Under Western Eyes
  • Yael Levin (bio)

In a moment of self-reflexive lucidity, the narrator of Nabokov's Pale Fire muses that "[w]indows, as well known, have been the solace of first-person literature throughout the ages" (93). The narrator's words resonate with readers of Conrad, as a certain voyeurism clearly lies at the heart of his secret-sharing novel or short story. The intradiegetic narrator is always there, peering, observing, summing up, taking notes, a lone and often involved onlooker, a witness needing but not necessarily needed to commemorate.1 One cannot subscribe to peering into windows, however, without an accompanying sense of ethical unease.

An altogether different source of ethical unease is identified by Jakob Lothe in his book, Conrad's Narrative Method. In an analysis of "The Secret Sharer," Lothe claims that "the narrator's striking impression of similarity or even identity between himself and Leggatt blurs the moral issue" (62). The emphasis here is not on distance, but rather on the perverse proximity hatched in a doppelgänger drama. The game of doubling obscures the naked fact that, shunning the duty of his command and the judicial system he has sworn to uphold, the captain aids a murderer in evading justice.

Although in many ways contradictory, it is my contention that voyeurism and its associated detachment on the one hand, and doubling and its associated involvement, on the other, cohere in Conrad's poetics where, as intimated by the title of "The Secret Sharer," storytelling is the art of transgressing confidences. In my reading of Lord Jim and Under Western Eyes I will show that the storyteller is an acolyte who, as Jacques Derrida writes in his study of "Le Parjure," "is an accomplice, a second, a suppleant who accompanies, but without accompanying altogether, in any event, at a certain distance. He is someone who, repeatedly, assists, but not without giving someone the slip a little" (215). The storyteller, then, is always already a spy, a [End Page 211] hunter, a voyeur with an eye for exposing secrets. As such, his experiences are buffered through a proxy that allows the storyteller to remain intact and unscathed, a privileged yet secure onlooker who always lives to tell the tale.

As pertinent as this text is (insofar as it provides a case study of a recurring Conradian paradigm), "The Secret Sharer" is but a secondary intertextual model for my reading of Lord Jim and Under Western Eyes. The primary model that guides my analysis is rather Henry James's "The Aspern Papers." James's story introduces a more ironic tale in which art is commodity, and the narrator a capitalist set on making an exchange beneficial to himself. Here, ambiguity cedes before irony, as the protagonist holds that the attainment of the Aspern Papers is and must forever remain superimposed to any moral consideration: "I can arrive at my spoils only by putting her off her guard, and I can put her off her guard only by ingratiating diplomatic arts. Hypocrisy, duplicity are my only chance. I'm sorry for it, but there's no baseness I wouldn't commit for Jeffrey Aspern's sake. First I must take tea with her, then tackle the main job" (James 11–12).

Despite evident dissimilarities, "The Secret Sharer" and "The Aspern Papers" share an underlying premise: the two narrator-protagonists are both wanting. A transaction or a duplicitous relationship, and oftentimes these are one and the same, are needed—for there is no story without them. In the course of this paper I will show that the procurement of the story entails a process of appropriation which, following James's example, involves espionage and betrayal. Recalling "The Secret Sharer," this process also entails a game of doubling and doubles that ultimately proves that the meeting of secret sharing and storytelling is always already synonymous with transgression.

Conrad's Lord Jim and Under Western Eyes share a thematic kinship in the moral and psychological turmoil of their protagonists, Jim and Kirylo Sidorovitch Razumov, two individuals fighting a war against a merciless and intrusive fate. A...


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pp. 211-228
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