A Wilderness of Words: Closure and Disclosure in Conrad's Short Fiction

A Wilderness of Words: Closure and Disclosure in Conrad's Short Fiction

A Wilderness of Words: Closure and Disclosure in Conrad's Short Fiction

A Wilderness of Words: Closure and Disclosure in Conrad's Short Fiction

Synopsis

Beginning with a detailed discussion of Conrad's ambivalence toward the function of language and the meaning of fiction, Ted Billy explores the problematical sense of an ending in Conrad's tales and novellas. A Wilderness of Words is unique in its exclusive focus on Conrad's shorter narratives, ranging from the undisputed masterpieces (e.g., Heart of Darkness, The Shadow Line, "The Secret Sharer") to less familiar works such as "The Informer," "Karain," and "The Return." Billy demonstrates that Conrad's endings, instead of reinforcing the meaning of narrative or lending finality, actually provide a contrasting perspective that clashes with the narrative's general drift. Hence, Conrad's artistic endgames celebrate indeterminacy and uncertainty- both in life and in the fictions we create to give our lives meaning. Billy also grounds his study of Conrad's paradoxical strategy in a theoretical consideration of how the concept of closure has evolved since the Victorian novel. Ultimately, Billy maintains, Conrad wrote with two distinct audiences in mind: the conventional reader who relishes the sustained illusion of a comforting coda, and the more sophisticated reader who would appreciate the clash of contradictory perspectives.

Excerpt

The cost of living is disillusionment.

—Conrad and Ford, The Inheritors

Although Conrad is popularly recognized as the Polish expatriate who became an English sea captain before turning to fiction, he actually spent only a little more than one year as a captain (not counting his steamboat experience in the Congo) in a maritime career that spanned almost two decades (ZN, 162). It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that his sea tales should emphasize the illusions of anticipation and the disillusionments of accomplishment. “The Secret Sharer,” “Falk,” and The Shadow Line chronicle how unfounded hopes dissipate in the trials of a first command. Moreover, they dramatize an incomplete initiation as each narrator attempts to reconstitute his sense of self following his encounter with confounding human experiences. In general, the reason Conrad's characters seldom make progress in their lives is that they are victims of the linguistic illusions endemic to goal-oriented existence. In Conrad's fiction, goal orientation leads to a counterproductive, grail-hungry fixation that isolates the protagonist in a state of anticipation, and thus he makes the least of the present moment. The closing scene of these stories of a first command compromises the narrator's efforts to embrace triumph in a world where duplicity and emptiness reign supreme. Thus, Conrad . . .

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