"Close, but without Touching": Hearing, Seeing, and Believing in Conrad's "The Tale"

By March-Russell, Paul | Conradiana, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

"Close, but without Touching": Hearing, Seeing, and Believing in Conrad's "The Tale"


March-Russell, Paul, Conradiana


Until the 1980s, "The Tale" (1917) was seen as part of a decline near the end of Joseph Conrad's career (for example, see Graver 198). The reappraisal of "The Tale" prefigured the gradual reassessment of Conrad's later fiction. Despite this reevaluation, "The Tale" has not attained the recognition of such stories as "Amy Foster" (1901) or "The Secret Sharer" (1910). Consequently, though the story is not as neglected as much as some of Conrad's short fictions, it is not as appreciated as others. This semi-recognition is oddly appropriate for a narrative concerned with the twin motifs of visibility and invisibility. While the text's structural complexity, moral opaqueness, and irresolution may have worked against its reclamation, these characteristics are often associated with the best of Conrad's fiction. They are also highlighted as virtues by the narrative theorists who first retrieved the story. Consequently, to understand the text's present status, I shall begin by reassessing the theorists' readings of "The Tale." I shall argue that their focus upon interpretation has devalued the story's ethical imperative. However, Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan's recent analysis of how sight functions within the story suggests ways in which this issue can be explored. I shall argue that the story's troubling of sight can be understood in relation to an artistic discourse upon vision that reached its zenith during the nineteenth century. Furthermore, Conrad's questioning of this discourse can be seen to prefigure the ethical criticism of theorists such as Maurice Blanchot and Emmanuel Levinas, in particular, Blanchot's concept of the neutral and Levinas's encounter with the Other.

In his reading of the text, William Bonney introduces the notion of concentric narratives (208-14). Instead of one tale, according to Bonney, there are four. First, there is the tale told by the anonymous, third-person narrator that describes the relationship between the commanding officer and his mistress. Within this frame-narrative, there is the tale that the commanding officer chooses to relate: the story of (what turns out to be) himself and the Northman, whom he suspected of supplying German submarines. Within this reminiscence, though, there is a further tale, the Northman's account of his misadventures. Instead of listening to the Northman, however, the commanding officer hears "an inward voice, a grave murmur in the depth of his very own sell telling another tale" (Tales 73). Bonney regards this "murmur" as the fourth tale. Jakob Lothe, though, sees it not as a separate tale but as constituted within the third as a deliberate misreading of the Northman's defense (74). The fourth tale may instead be the false information that the commanding officer gives to the Northman, which leads to the latter's destruction. If so, then this fourth tale highlights the story's subtext (deceit) and the question of when a tale becomes a lie.

Besides these concentric narratives, Jeremy Hawthorn has detected at least two lies (263). The first occurs when the commander tells the Northman that he has "no suspicions"; the second when he tells his officers, "I let him go," even though the Northman was instructed to leave (Tales 77). The initial lie convinces the Northman to accept the coordinates given to him by the commander; the second conceals from the officers what the latter has done. But, the directions are themselves a lie, since the commanding officer knows already of the hidden danger, the "deadly ledge of rock" (Tales 80). Hawthorn compares this deception with "the traditional way of testing whether a person was a witch by throwing them in a pool" (264). Nonetheless, if this tale is a lie, then to what extent are the other tales also lies?

Narrative theorists, such as Bonney, Hawthorn, and Lothe, supply a rigorous and indispensable analysis of the text. They successfully overturn the critical neglect of "The Tale" by drawing attention to its multi-layered structure and deliberately crafted lacunae. …

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"Close, but without Touching": Hearing, Seeing, and Believing in Conrad's "The Tale"
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