Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Joseph Conrad's "Sudden Holes" in Time: The Epistemology of Temporality

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Joseph Conrad's "Sudden Holes" in Time: The Epistemology of Temporality

Article excerpt

"Eternity is a damned hole. It's time that you need."

--The Secret Agent

Throughout his works, Conrad investigates the human experience of time and its relationship to knowledge of the external world.(1) J. M. Kertzer has argued, "For Conrad, time is always in some sense `human time' ... The world empty of human activity and judgment is a timeless void."(2) In investigating time, Conrad shows how human beings experience time in an individual and contextualized manner. In other words, context determines the human experience of time. To demonstrate this phenomenon, Conrad looks at human time (time as human beings experience it) and mechanical time (time as a clock measures it)--and, more importantly, at how the two interrelate. In the end, Conrad identifies a gap between objectivity and subjectivity when experiencing time; he consistently reveals that time can only be accessed through the medium of human consciousness, and any attempt to organize time into a systematic entity is merely an act of convenience, not an actual representation of the workings of time nor a demonstration that time is anything but a relative phenomenon.


Human time appears in two forms in Conrad's works: personal time and cyclical time, and both blur the boundaries between time and its context. Personal time is time as human beings experience it. For Conrad, regardless of how objective time may be in essence, human beings cannot experience it as such. They never experience objective, regularized time; instead, time may speed up, slow down, move forward, backward, or even stop. But however time appears, its common feature is that it proceeds irregularly. With personal time, the context of physical setting and surrounding events influences how time is experienced, but human subjectivity itself also provides a crucial context for experiencing time. In this way, the distinctions between time and the person experiencing it blur; as subject alters object, object alters subject, and both are influenced by the context in which they appear.

The Secret Agent presents several examples of personal time as part of Conrad's general inquiry into the relationship between human and mechanical time in the novel. After murdering her husband, Winnie decides that drowning is better than hanging and determines to throw herself into the Thames. On the way, a few minutes on the clock lengthen into many hours in her mind: "`I'll never get there before morning,' she thought. The fear of death paralyzed her efforts to escape the gallows. It seemed to her she had been staggering in that street for hours. `I'll never get there,' she thought."(3) Adriaan de Lange argues, "From the earliest novels, through to Suspense, Conrad's fiction invariably deals with a bewilderment caused by discontinuities in the experience of space and time."(4) Winnie experiences such bewilderment as she staggers toward the Thames and experiences personal time and space. Despite the shortness of the objective time and distance involved, both seem endless because the context of Winnie's fear of death causes time to slow and space to elongate. Were the context to differ, her temporal and spatial experience would also differ.

Shortly before this event, Winnie has a similar experience with time slowed and finds it equally disconcerting: she "looked up mechanically at the clock. She thought it must have stopped. She could not believe that only two minutes had passed since she had looked at it last. Of course not. It had been stopped all the time. As a matter of fact, only three minutes had elapsed" (13: 268-69). Winnie cannot accept the idea of personal time and instead believes the clock has stopped because she "seemed to have heard or read that clocks and watches always stopped at the moment of murder for the undoing of the murderer" (13: 269). For Winnie, Verloc's murder takes a long time, but when the clock registers only three minutes elapsed, she realizes something is amiss. …

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