This article proposes "atmosphere" as a new paradigm for theorizing literary modernism and the reading practices that accompany it. Joseph Conrad is a famously atmospheric writer, but many have regarded literary atmosphere as simply another word for impressionism. I show that Conrad's writing is memorably atmospheric because of the way he manipulates specifically narrative devices such as the embedded frame structure. We expect frames to differentiate textual layers, but in Heart of Darkness (1899) brooding gloom and enveloping fog creep across distinct geographical locations, temporal registers, and narrative perspectives. Readers, like the text's characters, find themselves surrounded by a prevailing atmosphere that is at once meteorological and affective. While the plots of many Victorian novels steadily build towards a grand revelation in the form of the fog being cleared up, Conrad's fog does not truly disappear even when it appears to lift. Within the worlds of Heart of Darkness and "The Tale" (1917), characters discover that fog cannot easily be cleared up—it must be sensed from within through processes of affective and bodily attunement. I argue that as readers we must realize the same: when it comes to atmosphere, established practices of "decoding" are insufficient. This article ultimately calls for a new set of atmospheric reading practices in which the vision and cognition of decoding give way to the phenomenology of affective attunement.


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pp. 336-358
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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