Textual analysis of following paragraph in Conrad s Heart of Darkness

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1 Textual analysis of following paragraph in Conrad s Heart of Darkness...for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny. For the rest, after his hours of work, a casual stroll or a casual spree on shore suffices to unfold him the secret of a whole continent, and generally he find the secret not worth knowing. The yarns of seaman have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted) and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos, that sometimes, are made visibly by the spectral illumination of moonshine (Conrad, 1988: 9). This extract, which is to be found almost in the beginning of the novel, gives the reader a theoretical insight into the exceptional way the story is being told. It informs the reader that this tale will not develop to a simple narrative but a sequence of impressions. Therefore these lines introduce an adventure of writing, a selfconscious articulation of the possibilities of telling stories (Burden, 1991: 53). The subject of the extract is the untypical person Marlow and his exceptional way of telling a story. The first narrator, whose voice accompanies the reader in the beginning and in the end of the novella, refers to Marlow s story telling as opposed to the direct simplicity of the notorious yarns of seaman (Conrad, 1988: 9). Although, the used figurative terms such as yarns of seaman or the shell of a cracked nut (Conrad, 1988: 9) are based on traditional narrative skills, the reader is not allowed to expect a colourful, transparent tale with a beginning, ending and, most important, a deeper point. Rather, the reader is asked to follow the narrator not to the kernel but 1/7

2 to an outside understanding of the unseen, which can also be compared to the vagueness of the sea sensed by the seaman. Thus, the reader will not find a clear structure resulting in a revealing disclosure towards the end. Quite the contrary, in the end the reader must try to understand that the whole meaning lies within the shell of a cracked nut and that Marlow s tale is not centred on, but surrounded by, its meaning (Watt, 1979: 312). Consequently it is the narration itself, which must be seen as the meaning of the tale. However, in his novella Heart of Darkness, Conrad uses two narrators who tell the story in the first person. The language of the narrators is formal, suited to their class and position with a lack of colloquialism and abbreviations. In this extract Conrad uses long sentences with several sub clauses. This form complicates the meaning and acts in the way of obscuring and producing a more complicate picture of reality. This can be connected to the modernist way of looking at reality, where a clear point of view is not desired. Kenneth Graham identifies Heart of Darkness standing opposed to the positivistic, mechanical view of the universe that saw meaning as objective and single (Graham, 1996: 213). The tone in this extract is very vague and suggestive and produces a sense of insecurity and indisposition in the reader. The first narrator is not telling facts but using metaphors and figurative language to establish his point. Although the image of the misty halos, that sometimes, are made visibly by the spectral illumination of moonshine (Conrad, 1988: 9) is almost tangible, it is enclosed by vagueness and indistinctness. Once more reality is embodied as indefinite, which becomes even more vague when seen in an uncommonly light. This indefiniteness undermines the traditional solidity of the world and let the story appear as a sequence of dream like memories. For that reason the first narrator, who gives this account on Marlow s untypical way of story telling, is starting untypical himself. His voice, who frames the 2/7

3 novella, links the past memories of Marlow to the present setting on the cruising yawl Nellie in the same nebulous way as Marlow does. Apart from this framing and narrative position, the first narrator is also a listener on the Nellie together with the reader. Consequently he is in the same position as the reader and is also asked to unravel Marlow s tale. However, another attribute of modernism is the doubtful, uncertain and suggestive language. This style places Conrad in the vanguard of impressionist and symbolist writing (Burden, 1991: 45). Ian Watt points out that the distinctive qualities of storytelling are suggested metaphorically, and maybe roughly categorised as symbolist and impressionist (1979: 312). For him the abstract metaphor of the meaning of the story represented by the shell of the nut or the haze around the glow is symbolist and larger whereas the quality of the metaphor the mist and the haze is impressionist (Watt, 1979: 312). Therefore the impressionistic interpretation sees the haze as a more realistic effect than the reality of the glow. This modernist technique of impressionism and symbolism rather than realism is opposed to the simplicity of the seaman s yarns and the reader is asked to unravel the two narrators suggestive and symbolic language. Figurative phrases, such as describing the sea as the seamen s mistress, refer beyond a literal meaning of words and produce distorted images of reality. In the chosen extract, words like haze, misty, fog, spectral have this attempt to obscure. These words have the ability to guide the reader to a deeper symbolic landscape. For Robert Baker it is this use of words, which he regards as Conrad s essential subject. For him Conrad sees words as poetically exploitable, malleable and subtle (Baker, 1981: 337). Thus words do not only have one single meaning but a variety of possible interpretations and hidden senses. 3/7

4 Although these words may veil a transparent meaning they at least offer various different symbolic points of view. On the one hand the haze is seen as the symbol for the tale, which embodies the kernel of the story. On the other hand the haze can be seen as a symbol for the screen of moral values, prejudices and principles some readers eyes may cover. For Conrad, the central point is not an objective meaning but his essential aim is to evoke a subjective understanding. He sees his task as an author by the power of written word, to make you hear, to make you feel it is, before all, to make you see (Conrad, 1997: Preface). Consequently, the first narrator s attempts to make the reader see, cannot be categorized as objective. He demonstrates that personal experiences and prejudices change the way in which one sees the world as a whole (Watt, 1979: 316). The text passage suggests that a traditional seaman can be compared to a traditional reader. For both, a casual stroll or a casual spree on shore suffices to unfold the secret of a whole continent (Conrad, 1988: 9). The traditional reader and the seaman do not have the desire to obtain more than a glimpse of reality. Even this is more than enough and sometimes not even worth knowing. Whereas in a modernist point of view the reader is more interested in finding his whole personal objective reality, which of course does not exist. This contradiction with its various impressions starts in the chosen text passage and can be found in the whole story. Consequently a fuzzy and alienating effect is introduced which opposes every transparency. In addition, the breaking down of traditional stylistic conventions can be experienced in these lines. Conrad lets the reader jump, without any linking sentence or visual distinction, from one thought to a different one. There is no division between the thoughts of a seaman or a traditional reader and their superficial existence and the theoretical effort to introduce a new experimental method of telling a story. Only 4/7

5 this dreamlike story telling chains past impressions and nebulous facts together. The revealing of the narrators memories and reflections is Conrad s task for the reader. In exercising this process the reader increasingly strives to reach the kernel of moral and truth and can hardly accept the absence of it. This manipulation of the reader through such alienations can be seen as another characteristic of modernist writing. Although, with his account on Marlow s story telling, the first narrator gives the impression as if he has detected the right way of understanding and resolving the tale, he himself is captured in its nebulous effects. His point of view does not detain himself to seek an underlying moral understanding neither does it detain Marlow. Marlow actually accepts the existence of a deeper connection between himself and Kurtz, his shadowy other self. After all Kurtz is the central focus and the motivation for the storytelling (Burden, 1991: 53). The reader and all listeners on the Nellie including both narrators have to find out that in point of fact, Conrad s narration moves rather to final dissolution than to a universal revealing or resolution. This is an important revolutionary characteristic of the novella and another distinguishing mark that signifies modernism. The chosen extract, which can be seen as a hint for the listener, should point beyond these words of veiling to a way out of the darkness. Since every culture has its traditions and moral attitudes also the non-traditional reader might have difficulties to see. However, there is a chance of disguising Conrad s haze and glow. Both narrators themselves are captured within specific western and English perceptions. This seeing as a challenge, it is only the reader, who seems attainable to accept just the tale itself. The reader has the ability to see a tale, which is enveloped in prejudices and western understanding of subjective narrators and thus far away from any objectivity. Yet Marlow and the first narrator are not blameable to conceal modernist ideas, as free words do not exist, not even for the untraditional. Therefore, 5/7

6 the story is always challenging the idea of a single meaning, an objectivity, a modernism. The way Conrad treats ideas of reality requires a modern thinking and the courage to deal with experimental methods. The play with words and reflections, the use of the dream sensation, symbolism and suggestions produces this new feeling of disillusionment and intended manipulation. Marlow s complex montage of images, symbols and series of events intensifies the reader s world of feelings and understanding and thus creates an apparent lack of structural coherence and transparency of reality. The task of the passage right in the beginning is not to alert the reader but to request his full open-minded interest and even his willingness to overstep traditional boundaries. The text requires a reader, who accepts innovative methods and is willing to delve into all its experimental ways of expression. Textual Analysis Winter term 2005 Mark: B 6/7

7 References: Baker S.R. (1981) Watt s Conrad. An extract of Contemporary Literature 22. In: Conrad J, Heart of Darkness: An authoritative Text, Background and Sources, Criticism. Third Edition. Kimbrough R. (ed). W.W. Norton & Company Inc. New York. Burden R. (1991) Heart of Darkness: An Introduction to the variety of criticism. Macmillan Education ltd. Houndmills. Conrad J. (1997) Conrad J. (1988) The Nigger of Narcissus. Penguin Classics. London. Heart of Darkness: An authoritative Text, Background and Sources, Criticism. Third Edition. Kimbrough R. (ed). W.W. Norton & Company Inc. New York. Graham K. (1996) Conrad and Modernism. Joseph Conrad. Stape J.H (ed). Camebridge University Press. Camebridge. Watt I. (1979) Impressionism and Symbolism in Heart of Darkness. An extract of Conrad in the Nineteenth Century. In: Conrad J, Heart of Darkness: An authoritative Text, Background and Sources, Criticism. Third Edition. Kimbrough R. (ed). W.W. Norton & Company Inc. New York. 7/7

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