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  • "Under a cloud":Silence, Identity, and Interpretation in Lord Jim
  • Daniel Hannah (bio)

"It is certain my Conviction gains infinitely the moment another soul will believe in it"

(Lord ii)

The function of Lord Jim's opening epigraph from Novalis is twofold: it immediately establishes the text's concern with intersubjective exchange and simultaneously places a gap between statement and narrative that invites the reader's analytic involvement. The novel following this epigraph is chiefly concerned with communications of convictions regarding Jim's identity and the gaps or silences surrounding these communications. In the novel's epistemological schema, the social silence of one's private, open-ended, and publicly inaccessible conception of oneself functions as an interpretive space. This gap invites others' speculations about the self, speculations that open out aspects of the subject unavailable to the self but that also define and, consequently, distort one's image in the public domain.1 Correspondingly, on an aesthetic level, Joseph Conrad's novel, through its numerous levels of narration, examines the parallel silence of the author, removed from the text and subject to the reading public's interpolation. While in both cases, silence proves an inevitable barrier to understanding, the novel, building on the epigraph's communicative optimism, also suggests that silence in the social world may offer a space for interpretive agreement. Potential correlation between one's private and public self-constructions, between the author's and reader's versions of the text, can only be located in an uncertain, unfinalizable exchange across silence—"a nod, a smile, an elliptical gap. In a characteristically Conra-dian move, Lord Jim opens out a space for the construction of meaning and identity in the "destructive element"—"to use Stein's famous formula from the center of the novel—"that threatens to dissolve the possibility of intersubjective exchange (Lord 212). [End Page 39]

By foregrounding a dualistic model of silence as both the realm of inaccessible, internal conceptions of the self and meaning and also the uncertain medium for both confirmation and negation of these constructs, I am seeking to call into question current critical paradigms concerning the ambivalent or paradoxical nature of silence in Conrad's writing. In his recent work on Conradian language and narrative, Michael Greaney attests to Conrad's "ambivalent conception of silence" and Lord Jim's "brilliant transvaluation of ideas of moral and narrative failure, in which 'embarrassing' jumps, breaks, silences, gaps, and inconsistencies are transformed into the very language of modernist fiction" (5, 97). Similarly, Richard Pedot argues that Conrad's paradoxical treatment of silence can be traced in Lord Jim's dramatization of "the enigma of rhetoric," its "modernist awareness of the radical instability of (literary) language, an awareness of the nothing it is writing about" (185, 194).2 For each of these critics, the tensions underpinning Conrad's treatment of silence are ascribed to the contradictions and inconsistencies of ambivalence and paradox, the waverings of a writer on the uncertain cusps between Victorian realism and modernist experimentation. But Conradian silence, in which doubt and the exigency of interpretation go hand in hand, can, I would like to suggest, be more productively imagined through the lens of Schlegelian romantic irony. Anne Mellor defines romantic irony as a "philosophical conception" or "artistic program" in which the universe is perceived as chaos, a "never-ending becoming," and in which the ironist strives to "affirm and celebrate the process of life by creating new images and ideas" in spite of an awareness of "the inevitable limitations of his own finite consciousness and of all man-made structures or myths" (4-5).

Silence, in Lord Jim, occupies this chaotic, uncertain, yet affirmative space, and, furthermore, through the placement of crucial gaps in the narrative, Conrad's novel insists on the reader's involvement in this romantic-ironic exploration of silence. Readers are called on to fill the novel's various layers of absence or structural silence: the central lack of details surrounding Jim's crucial jump from the Patna; the gaps that mark transitions between different narrative voices (the third-person omniscient narrator, Marlow as storyteller, Jim as confessor, Marlow as letter-writer); the largely absent presence of Marlow's...


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pp. 39-59
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