Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Out of Our Depth: Physical Space and Frame Narration in Lord Jim

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Out of Our Depth: Physical Space and Frame Narration in Lord Jim

Article excerpt

IN HER ESSAY "Defining Frames: The Prefaces of Henry James and Joseph Conrad," Vivienne Rundle examines how even an author's introduction can "act as a narrative layer that the reader must necessarily traverse en route to the novel itself' (1995: 71) and thus "frame" the text it accompanies, much the same way Conrad's narrators often do. Although a discussion of frame narrative in Conrad is hardly groundbreaking, Rundle's application of this discussion to Conrad's "Author's Notes" certainly is. "Defining Frames" is not only arresting in its unconventional depiction of these brief introductions, but also in its interpretation of other atypical narrative devices as similarly unconventional frames. Her article bears special significance for Conrad's already-framed narratives, namely "Heart of Darkness," "Youth," and Lord Jim. If Conrad's narrative abnormalities are thus recast as frames, then they both complement and complicate the presence of conventional frame narrators in these works.

In Lord Jim in particular, such narrative abnormalities abound. A third-person, semi-omniscient narrator describes the early events of Jim's life and service on the Patna in detail, then abruptly disappears, reappearing only sporadically throughout the novel and leaving the bulk of the narration to Marlow. He, in turn, introduces minor characters, major digressions, and dramatic time lapses, detours that several critics claim obfuscate Conrad's art.1 However, this essay proposes that each narrative device envelops a second or even third device - just as Marlow's tales envelop independent episodes and Conrad's prefaces envelop the novels themselves. By virtue of simply starting and stopping, each device necessarily borders on another episode. Thus, these digressions are "framed" by the surrounding text, and themselves "frame" further episodes, forming an intricate and purposeful narrative structure.

The concept of multiple frames in Conrad is not, of course, new. Jakob Lothe refers to "Heart of Darkness" as "a framed tale presented as a set of nested boxes" (1989: 23), and goes so far as to diagram the opening and closing of these boxes, revealing a simple architecture of three nested frames. While the process of diagramming Lord Jim would be significandy more involved, the same approach is possible - although Lothe reveals that the cridcal approach has not taken this route.2 He later represents Lord Jim's narradve abnormalities as distinct devices, rather than resolving them into a single diagram. Again, what is proposed here is that the action of enveloping connects each of these apparently different narrative moves. The narration of one digression, character, or point in time envelops the narration of another, and what was once a single frame becomes a series of nested boxes - a complex set of stories within stories. Taken together, the entirety of the novel unfolds to be an architectural phenomenon of variously sized, overlapping frames which, if constructed, would resemble a Russian doll assembled by a lunatic.

Such an observation creates problems. First, having observed the complexity of the novel's construction, it is tempting then to interpret its structure as a puzzle to be solved. But this interpretation almost explicitly contradicts Marlow's famous approach to storytelling in "Heart of Darkness": "the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale that brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze" (280). To search for the innermost frame is to search for that single "kernel" of truth. And yet many critics have been drawn to what is intuitively the novel's innermost frame, where an interpretive key does seem to be offered - Marlow's interview with Stein.

It is not difficult to see why this episode has attracted such critical attention. The central chapter divides Lord Jim into the distinct worlds of Patna and Patusan, yet seems distinct from either. Marlow digresses from his narration of Jim's life to describe Stein's curious history, yet Stein himself turns into another frame narrator. …

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