Beyond the Bildungsroman: Character Development and Communal Legitimation in the Early Fiction of Joseph Conrad
Boes, Tobias, Conradiana
In what sense could "Tuan" Jim be said to have been "one of us"? (Lord passim). Marlow's sudden appearance in the fifth chapter of Lord Jim derails the form of what had previously seemed a conventional novel of disillusionment, and yet is motivated by nothing more than the urgency of his claim. It seems plausible to read into this urgency the repressed anxiety of an author whose relationship to his self-chosen national community remained open to question throughout his life, who after fifteen years in the most British of all professions still felt that his ability to pass for an Englishman was not taken for granted by everyone. In a classic study, Avrom Fleishman documented Conrad's affinity for post-Burkean conceptions of "organic" and self-contained national communities in meticulous detail (51ff.). More recent essays have applied his findings to Heart of Darkness and uncovered in that novel a profound meditation on the question of "Englishness." (1) Remarkably little attention, however, has been paid to Lord Jim and the way in which its central narrative rupture implicates questions of form and genre in Conrad's struggle for communal recognition and legitimation. (2)
The dominant model for such legitimation in the stories and novels that Conrad produced during the early part of his career is that of the Bildungsroman, a form that is still reflected in the opening chapters of Lord Jim. But already in these early efforts we can detect the attempt to express a model of human experience that cannot easily be incorporated into the classical framework by which the Bildungsroman mediates between the individual and his community. As a result of the inevitable crisis that resulted from these two antagonistic tendencies, Conrad turned to the "oral" tale as a way to reassert narrative authority and lead his protagonist back into the fold of a community that, although not explicitly described in these terms, nevertheless stands in as a metonym for that of organic English nationalism. Marlow's insistence that Jim was "one of us" is the signaling phrase that accompanies this change. Paradoxically, however, Conrad's status as a great modernist depends precisely on the ultimate failure of this endeavor. Marlow never definitively proves that Jim was "one of us," and in the process leaves us with an analysis of a human subjectivity that in its complexity transcends the simple binarism of communal inclusion and exclusion.
My study will be divided into three parts. In the first part, I offer a short overview of Conrad's political beliefs, develop a schematic model outlining how the nineteenth-century Bildungsroman mediates between the individual and his community, and then connect these two topoi in brief readings of the first four chapters of Lord Jim as well as the short stories "Youth" (1898) and "Amy Foster" (1901). The second part investigates Conrad's most successful early novel of community, The Nigger of the "'Narcissus," and shows how it already contains within itself elements of a crisis that comes to the foreground in the Patna incident of Lord Jim. To describe this crisis, I introduce some theoretical elements from the work of the Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben. The third and final part examines Marlow's intervention as a storyteller and the ultimate status of the claim that "he was one of us."
In February of 1899, a few months before he began working on Lord Jim in earnest, Conrad wrote an often-quoted letter to his close friend, the Scottish socialist R. B. Cunninghame Graham. Cunninghame Graham had invited the novelist to a peace meeting organized by the Social Democratic Federation and had even asked him to take the platform alongside Jean Jaures and Wilhehn Liebknecht. Conrad begrudgingly agreed to attend, but in the same breath stressed his fundamental animosity to the universalist aspirations of the peace movement: "I can not admit the idea of fraternity not so much because I believe it impracticable, but because its propaganda [. …