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An Experiment in Understanding: Narrative Strategies of Association and Accumulation in Conrad's Under Western Eyes Alison E. Wheatley Everything, sounds, attitudes, movements, and immobility seemed to be part of an experiment. Under Western Eyes From his earliest literary efforts, Joseph Conrad experimented with varieties of perception, interpretation, and understanding, sampling points of view and using perceptive if uncertain narrators. The centrality of Conrad 's most famous narrator, Marlow, in both Heart of Darkness (1899) and Lord Jim (1900) signals the primary importance of interpretation in these novels. Conrad's other two acclaimed novels build on these narrative strategies: Nostromo (1904) employs shifting temporal modes and multiple narrators interspersed with an omniscient voice, and The Secret Agent (1907) a limited omniscient narrator and ironic stance with shifting perspective among groups of characters. Conrad's most daring experiment in narration and understanding is Under Western Eyes (1911), his eighth and the last of his most widely praised novels.1 The narrative strategies in Under Western Eyes both borrow and depart from these earlier techniques: Conrad uses temporal shifts, varying perspectives, and a narrator whose voice alternates with the remembered or written voices of the other characters . As with most of Conrad's fiction, this novel's narrative style has JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory 30.2 (Summer 2000): 206-236. Copyright © 2000 by JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory. A« Experiment in Understanding 207 been widely discussed, with most attention focusing on the position and reliability of the narrator. Yet it is this narrator's interest in language and in both the process and possibility of interpretation that constructs the novel as an experiment in understanding. This experiment involves not only narrator and characters, but readers, as well. Conrad teaches readers of this novel how to understand the protagonist and the problems set up in this novel by using interconnected narrative strategies that are the focus of this essay. But first, the primary problem of the novel is that everyone associated with it—narrator, characters, and especially the reader—is trying to understand or be understood.2 Conrad describes the protagonist Razumov's anguished desire, "I want to be understood," as a "universal aspiration"(39).3 This is not a new theme in Conrad. The epigraph on the flyleaf to Lord Jim, published eleven years earlier, reads: "It is certain my conviction gains infinitely the moment another soul will believe in it.—Novalis." The climactic moment in Heart of Darkness occurs not at the utterance, but at the moment Marlow acknowledges Kurtz's summary interpretation of the human condition: "the horror! the horror!" Beyond this universal need to be understood by others, Under Western Eyes also experiments with complex efforts to understand, modeled by both narrator and protagonist, that require interpreting not only language but a variety of non-linguistic signs: not only what people say and write but what they do: how they move, how they look, how they pronounce their words. The narrator observes that "Everything, sounds, attitudes, movements, and immobility seemed to be part of an experiment" (265). As a teacher of languages, the narrator is explicitly concerned with language , ever mindful of its qualities and inadequacies. Nonetheless, the novel also insists on the importance of non-verbal communication, the extralinguistic and often unconscious movements, pressures, visual expressions , and verbal tones.4 All these signs are subject to interpretation, more or less accurate. As Jeremy Hawthorn cautions, just as "there are many deceptive , misleading, and misunderstood speeches in Under Western Eyes," so too, "posture and gesture are also liable to be misinterpreted" (Narrative Technique, 240). The novel explains a number of things about not only the process but the possibility of interpretation: yes, the practices of interpretation must be expanded beyond language, yet even with that expansion , the knowledge or understanding reached will never be final, but 208 INT simply the closest approximation at any given time. As with knowledge of external reality, "self-knowledge holds Conrad's interest because he suspects that beneath the surface of disjunctive self-images lies a coherent self . . . [Yet] Even though Conrad intuits this concrete referent, he still loses hope that it can ever be comprehended" (Whiteley 75). The novel's structure and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9248
Print ISSN
1549-0815
Pages
pp. 206-236
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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