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

Figure and Ground in "Heart of Darkness"

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

Figure and Ground in "Heart of Darkness"

Article excerpt

THE SUPPOSED SINKING of the Patna in Lord Jim illustrates the power of belief. Fearing that the ship is sinking, Jim and other crew members jump overboard. Then, shivering in a lifeboat, and thinking they have narrowly escaped drowning, the shaken men focus on shoring up their belief by narrating the sinking of the ship. The picture they draw of the ship going down contrasts with the unfigured reality of the severe consequences for abandoning the ship if it doesn't sink: professional disgrace, and possible prosecution for breach of maritime law. Awaiting rescue, they swear to each other that they saw the ship go down, that "the lights were gone":

"I saw her go down." ... "I knew from the first she would go." "Not a minute too soon." "A narrow squeak, b'gosh!" ... She was gone! She was gone! Not a doubt of it. Nobody could have helped. They repeated the same words over and over again as though they couldn't stop themselves. Never doubted she would go. The lights were gone. No mistake. The lights were gone. Couldn't expect anything else. She had to go. ... It seemed to cause them some sort of satisfaction. They assured each other that she couldn't have been long about it - "Just shot down like a flat-iron." (89-91)

Here Conrad describes the incantory power of speech to confirm belief. The emphasis is on the emotional state of the "survivors," and the cruel irony that makes them hope for the loss of the ship and many lives in order to save their honor:

The chief engineer declared that the mast-head light at the moment of sinking seemed to drop "like a lighted match you throw down." At this the second laughed hysterically. "I am g-gglad, I am gla-a-a-d." His teeth went on "like an electric rattle," said Jim, "and all at once he began to cry. He wept and blubbered like a child ." (91)

These victims of a mysterious collision believed that they saw the ship go down. However, as it turns out, the Patna did not sink. They perceived the space taken up by the ship as an empty seascape, as if the mind had improvised an obscuring haze, the "confounded imagination" evoking "all the horrors of ... a disaster at sea" (70-71). For "as with belief ... or even the visual aspect of material things, there are as many shipwrecks as there are men" (95), suggesting the way in which individual perception, imagination and belief may run up against an intransigent and incompatible external reality, resulting in conflict or disaster.

As William Freedman notes, "the insistent haziness and evasiveness of many of Conrad's novels and shorter tales has provoked readers ... and generated much comment and complaint" (2010: 1). Like the obscured ship in the pivotal episode of Lord Jim, obscuring fogs and wilderness can be seen in "Heart of Darkness" as symbols of barriers to knowledge, and yet there is an equally insistent sense that the reality beyond these impediments is knowable; for even when the barriers seem "impenetrable," sounds filter through, suggesting something on the other side, as "drums behind the curtain of trees" (79), "A steady droning sound. came out from the black flat wall of the woods" (111) and a note "of desperate grief . behind the blind whiteness of the fog" (86). Rather than representing an epistemological void, or insoluble enigma, there is discoverable - a ship, so to speak - enveloped by the fog, hence the invitation to "Come and find out" (54).

Indeed, rather than "making a virtue out of not knowing what he means" (Leavis 1948: 180), the frame narrator in "Heart of Darkness" advertises where the meaning of Marlow's tale can be found: "the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze" (45). In this simile, the relationship between the tale and the haze is analogous to the relationship between figure and ground in painting (also called positive and negative space), with the events of the story constituting the figure, and the haze comprising the ground. …

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