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  • "No need of words":Joseph Conrad's Use of the Typographical Ellipsis in Under Western Eyes and "The Secret Sharer"
  • Jeremy Hawthorn (bio)

"I must be very prudent with him," he warned himself in the silence during which they sat gazing at each other. It lasted some little time, and was characterized (for silences have their character) by a sort of sadness imparted to it perhaps by the mild and thoughtful manner of the bearded official.

(Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes 86)

The word frightened is fatal. It seems as if it had been written withought* any thought at all. It takes away all sense of reality—for if you read the sentence in its place on the page You will see that the word frightened (or indeed any word of the sort) is inadequate to express the true state of that man's mind. No word is adequate. The imagination of the reader should be left free to arouse his feeling.

(Letter from Joseph Conrad to Hugh Clifford, 9 October 1899; CL 2 201)

Silences, secrecies, gaps, absences: Conrad's fiction is full of them. But this characteristic of his work typically has two aspects. On the one hand, as my opening quotation makes clear, the silences in Conrad's fiction mirror and represent silences in the world about which he writes, a world in which it is dangerous to say too much but in which it is also necessary to learn as much as possible about what other people are trying to conceal. On the other hand, however, the gaps in Conrad's work constitute an essential aspect of his modernism, encouraging "the imagination of the reader" to become an active participant in the search for truth. Writing to Richard Curle late in his life (24 April, 1922), Conrad explodes in annoyance at Curle's use of biographical details from Conrad's own life to cast light on his fiction. [End Page 5]

It is a strange fate that everything I have, of set artistic purpose, laboured to leave indefinite, suggestive, in the penumbra of initial inspiration, should have that light turned on to it and its insignificance (as compared with I might say without megalomania the ampleness of my conceptions) exposed for any fool to comment upon or even for average minds to be disappointed with. Didn't it ever occur to you, my dear Curle, that I knew what I was doing in leaving the facts of my life and even of my tales in the background. Explicitness, my dear fellow, is fatal to the glamour of all artistic work, robbing it of all suggestiveness, destroying all illusion. You seem to believe in literalness and explicitness, in facts and also in expression. Yet nothing is more clear than the utter insignificance of explicit statement and also its power to call attention away from things that matter in the region of art.

(CL 7 456-7)

The comment is consistent with other comments on his fiction made by Conrad at the beginning of his writing career. In a letter to Nita B. Wall of the 22 of March, 1896, Conrad writes: "Therefore I thank You for Your letter with perfect gratitude which is the more great because I know very well that only half of the book comes from the hand of the author—the other half is only to be found in the heart of some rare and precious reader" (CL 9, 25). A year later Conrad expresses a similar sentiment in a letter to Cunninghame Graham (CL 1, 370).

Ellipses and Dashes

The typographical ellipsis and the dash represent and indeed constitute gaps at the micro-level of writing. As I will go on to argue below, they may on occasions be understood as "silence transcriptions," rendering pauses in verbal delivery in narrated written form. But they may have quite different functions from this, representing not a transcription of something else, but rather something in themselves, a sign created to draw attention to and comment interpretively upon some aspect of a spoken or written text or utterance. It is worth adding that even when an ellipsis or a dash represents some element in, say, a...


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