- A Set of Four:New Studies of The Novels of Joseph Conrad
Exploring the multiplicities that make up the work of a great writer is rather like the old Eastern idea of blind men feeling parts of an elephant and each coming up with a piece of the whole, each experiencing a relative but never complete truth. If Joseph Conrad is our elephant (begging his pardon), then the varying approaches to his work promise soon to yield a fuller picture—providing we do not confuse the trunk with the tail.
New insights appear each year and the four texts under review are a sample of the work going on. Joseph Conrad: Voice, Sequence, History, Genre forms part of the "Theory and Interpretation of Narrative" series published by the Ohio [End Page 267] State University Press. Conrad is a prime candidate for this kind of analysis, as the grouping headings suggest, and a volume enjoying the attentions of three such distinguished editors promises much. Their summary of the critical story so far is followed by a brief anticipation (under each heading) of the essays to come—all but one the fruits of a symposium on Conrad and narrative theory held in 2005.
Zdzisław Nadjer, to whom the book is dedicated, is probably the elder statesman among Conrad critics and his essay "The Personal Voice in Conrad's Fiction" opens the proceedings. As one would expect, this is erudite and informative, considering the standpoint of reader response as a neglected area. His discussion ranges over a number of texts, noting en route the paucity of knowledge we often possess about our narrators—rather like examining a portfolio of photographs without a picture of the photographer. He concludes: "The impulse to be in contact, to activate, to consort with the reader as a person—this goal is, I believe, to be recognized as a (if not the most) important organizing principle of Conrad's style and narrative technique" (38).
James Phelan confines his attentions to "Lord Jim and the Uses of Textual Recalcitrance," further explained as "Jim's Character and Experience as an Instance of the Stubborn." Here he revises key predecessors in the field, notes possible modern comparisons, and considers the relationship between the novel's artistic achievement and its difficulty. He especially comments on Marlow's inability to fully understand Jim and suggests that the questions Marlow poses are addressed as much to the reader as to Marlow's physical audience. In effect, our ability to understand Jim rests primarily on our ability to understand ourselves. Forty years ago I made a statement to someone and was asked why I had said it. Recently, meeting the same person, I realized the reason. If it can take forty years to work out one's own motivation for a single act, what chance is there for us to understand another's? Lord Jim, then, shows that Conrad was aware of this, and that Phelan prompts such musings is a testimony to the success of his essay.
In "Narration and Focalization in Under Western Eyes," Gail Fincham considers another flawed grasper after understanding—the Teacher of Languages. She relates his rationality to the Enlightenment and cites "the role of compassion or sympathy in balancing rationality" as a "characteristically Rousseauan notion" (63) foregrounded in the novel. Her argument follows the book's design, thus part 1 can be seen as "Enlisting the Reader's Sympathy"; part 2 as "Imaginative Seeing"; part 3 as "Verbalizing Solipsism"; and part 4 as "Imagination, Bewilderment and Self-Irony." She concludes that the language teacher is "both cognitively privileged and cognitively limited" (76). It is another useful contribution to...