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  • Silence, Progression, and Narrative Collapse in Conrad
  • Brian Richardson (bio)

Silence is often a powerful presence and explicit theme in Conrad’s fiction; some of his works even seem to revolve around this intriguing subject. Nevertheless, the significance and value of silence in these texts have been widely disputed. Martin Ray generally attributes a positive value to silence in Conrad’s fiction, nonfiction, and in several late nineteenth century writers; for him, the salutary silences of Captain MacWhirr and of Old Singleton onboard the Narcissus and are exemplary; concerning the latter, the narrator ruefully notes that “the men who could understand his silence were gone” (‘Narcissus’ 25; cited in Ray, 57). By contrast, Sarah Dauncey points out that in “Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, and Nostromo, “the protagonists’ experiences of silent landscapes contribute to their epistemological and existential crises” (141); in Victory, “silence is associated with resistance. Heyst, Lena, Mrs. Schomberg, and Wang are connected as they challenge authority through their quietness” (143). Eugene Hollahan offers a more multivalent approach, noting that in Victory, “silence implies enchantment, reason, isolation, security, indifference, abandonment, inertia, boredom, uselessness, delicacy, paralysis, and infinity” (361).1 Conrad’s treatment of silence is in fact varied and multiform; nevertheless, it regularly traces a number of resonant patterns and repeated trajectories.

We can get a sense of these different valences in Conrad’s early story, “The Return” (1897). Here we find salient silences everywhere; they define the existence, partially determine the characters’ social relations, and powerfully affect Mr. and Mrs. Hervey’s personal interaction. Their marriage is predicated on a considerable degree of silence: “They understood each other warily, tacitly, like a pair of conspirators in a profitable plot” (Unrest 123). Entering the quiet, prosperous house one day, Hervey finds the note in which she says she is leaving him. After a very painful period, he decides not to travel but to “face it [End Page 109] out”; he is cheered by the thought that his role would be that of “a mute” and it would be an easy part for him to play (131); no decent person would be likely to converse with him about his situation. Then Mrs. Hervey returns. The quiet house seems to vibrate to the closing of the front door “more than to a clap of thunder” (138).

When they first meet again face to face they assume a long, painful, unnatural silence; although “the silence that surrounded them was the normal silence of any house”; in this setting, however, it is dreadful. Nevertheless, Hervey thinks “how much better it would be if neither of them ever spoke again” (141). He subsequently becomes complicit in preserving “the decorous silence, the pervading quietude of the house” even as it “became for a moment inexpressibly vile.” Soon, “they were afraid to hear again the sound of their own voices” (143). This takes its toll on Hervey: despite the apparent calm “within the grim silence of walls, the impenetrable and polished discretion of closed doors and curtained windows [,] immobility and silence pressed in on him, assailed him, like two accomplices of the immovable and mute woman before his eyes” (145).

Their conversation is anguished, forced, and above all, terse. Characteristically, Hervey chooses the path of deception and decides to act in public as if nothing had happened; he feels it necessary that the illusion should begin at home; even the servants should be kept in the dark. “The intense desire of secrecy; of secrecy dark, destroying, profound, discreet like a grave, possessed him with the strength of a hallucination” (170). But a life of deception quickly takes its toll on him; once again, he feels “the silence in the room was becoming dangerous, and so excessive as to produce the effect of an intolerable uproar” (171).

Furthermore, he cannot read his wife’s emotions; though he can perceive hidden meanings in her earlier silences (149), he has no idea what she is feeling, or how long she will act out her part in the charade. Her muteness is unnerving: “What did she feel? And in the presence of her perfect stillness, in the breathless silence, he felt himself insignificant and powerless before her, like a...


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pp. 109-121
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