Youth, Heart of Darkness, and Lord Jim: Reading Conrad's Trilogy

By Nelles, William | Conradiana, Spring-Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Youth, Heart of Darkness, and Lord Jim: Reading Conrad's Trilogy


Nelles, William, Conradiana


Histories of modern literary theory generally agree that criticism has moved from "a preoccupation with the author" to "an exclusive concern with the text" to "a marked shift of attention to the reader" (Eagleton 74). (1) Brian Richardson argues that most of these reader response theories fall "into one of two camps, one largely monistic, fairly prescriptive, and generally compatible with a formalist perspective; the other subjective, personal, relativistic and said to be more theoretically current and politically progressive" (31). Establishing a middle ground between these two camps, which has for some reason proven theoretically unpopular, would require some model of interpretation that allows for a number of valid readings larger than one but smaller than infinity. One stipulation suggested by Richardson is "that critical analyses of reading and reception begin by trying to identify the multiple audiences that most texts address and to examine how these are valued and hierarchized" (46).

Conrad himself, replying to a reader's response to Lord Jim, declares that "the reader collaborates with the author" (Karl and Davies 394)When Conrad wrote this letter in 1902 he had just published The Inheritors, his first collaboration with Ford Madox Ford, and was just about to publish Romance, his second, so the term collaborate probably carried more baggage for him at that time than it does for most of us. But his choice of the word to describe the reader's role seems to envision our middle ground, offering substantial but not entire interpretive freedom. In a letter written later that year, this time replying to a reader's response to Heart of Darkness, he sounds at first like a relativist: "[E]very criticism that is intelligible ... must have some truth in it, if not the whole truth." But in the next sentence of the letter the other shoe drops: "I mean intelligible to the author of course" (Karl and Davies 460). (2) Conrad's stipulation that the author's intention is a factor to be reckoned with in assessing the validity of interpretations may sound like a throwback position, but one might also see it as coming full spiral rather than full circle. While no one wants to discard the reader in favor of a return to the omnipotent author, there may be merit in Conrad's model in which authors are collaborators rather than imperialists to be battled and overthrown. The consideration of the intentions of the historical author, rendered theoretically incorrect for so long by the famous obituaries delivered by Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, has recently been revived in Conrad studies by Chinua Achebe's similarly famous call for Conrad's expulsion from the canon on the grounds that he was a "bloody racist." (3) Shocked Conradians turned in droves to the biographical and historical evidence ignored by Achebe. Their success in defending Conrad has been such that one finds even committed cultural critics conceding, albeit in the footnotes, that "Conrad's private views on imperialism are far too complex to be discussed at length here and, to say the least, far more complicated ..." (Willy, 48 n. 26).

A test case for exploration of the role of authorial intention in reading Conrad is offered by the early "Marlow trilogy." It is well known that Conrad's intention was to publish Youth, Heart of Darkness, and Lord Jim together in a single volume. He began Youth and Lord Jim at the same time, apparently working on them more or less simultaneously, and even before completing Youth broaches the idea of what would have been a slightly different volume, including at least Youth, Lord Jim, and the story that would eventually become Chance, the "other" Marlow story (Karl and Davies 62). But once he hit upon the idea for Heart of Darkness, the plan for the three-story book takes shape and Chance is shelved for another decade or so. His first three explicit references in the letters to Heart of Darkness, also written during the composition of Lord Jim, all refer to it as in "the manner of Youth," and Conrad commits himself to a volume made up of the three Marlow stories by the time Heart of Darkness begins serialization (Karl and Davies 133, 239, 145, 166-68). …

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Youth, Heart of Darkness, and Lord Jim: Reading Conrad's Trilogy
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