Irony Trade: Reader-Responsibilities in Heart of Darkness

Irony Trade: Reader-Responsibilities in Heart of Darkness

Harry Heuser

In “Darkening the Reader: Reader-Response Criticism and Heart of Darkness,” Adena Rosmarin, self-proclaimed spokesperson for the neglected reader, boldly asserts that “[o]nly with the advent of reader-response criticism has the reader been granted a mind” (155).  Readers of the 1970s, having been bestowed with such a generous grant, must have uttered a collective sigh of relief in light of this propitious advent, the end of a lugubrious past in which they were merely—and mindlessly—reading.  Well, perhaps not, especially since Rosmarin declares that “the reader need not and perhaps should not be conceptualized as a person” (168).  Is reader-response criticism, then, just another exclusive playground, a secluded literary property for a subscribing panel of scribes and analysts that selects a text such as Heart of Darkness to validate a certain set of theories? After all, Rosmarin seems to discuss Heart of Darkness because the novel “may not only be more than usually well read by the methodology of reader-response criticism but may also, more than most literary texts, function as an instrument for reader-response criticism” (167).

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness appears to be begging for reader-response case studies, since, as Rosmarin puts it, the novella “is rather obviously trying to dosomething to its reader” (151), which means that it is aware of its reader.  How applicable is reader-response criticism to the poetry of, say, Emily Dickinson or to The Diary of Anne Frank? Then again, the meaning of text, as reader-response critics argue, is not to be found in the written word but has to be experienced through the process—the event—of reading.  Literature is, according to Stanley Fish, defined “simply by what we decide to put into it” (11).  To anyone hoping to have a voice in the discourse – and as yet unpublished graduate students in particular, it would be downright reckless to dismiss reader-response criticism, which, as it turns out, is reassuringly undogmatic, considering that “the term . . . can refer to any number of critical approaches that focus on the process of reading” (Murfin 144).  It does not have to mean looking at a work of literature with the idee fixe of an ideal fit for a certain – or perhaps less than certain – theoretical approach.  Rosmarin and her colleagues deserve our response, as well, and, having been granted a mind, we might as well keep it an open one.

Reader-response criticism of Heart of Darkness provokes intriguing thoughts about the relationship between writers and their readers, since Conrad seems, indeed, to “have assumed and preferred a thinking reader” (Rosmarin 156).  In fact, Conrad invites his readers to question the written word, to realize at once the manipulative power of language and its limitations.  The single most successful device Conrad’s narrative employs to challenge its readers is irony; and, in its give and take, irony also demonstrates the utility of reader-response criticism as well as its shortcomings.

If Heart of Darkness really is what we put into it, if it is, as Rosmarin asserts, an “inconclusive or fragmentary literary work” (157) or “torso” (159), then we should also consider the reader-responsibilities that literature demands.  Can readers refuse to “put something into” Marlow’s tale? Could Heart of Darkness, in the minds of some readers, be nothing more—and nothing less—than a page-turner, an escapist yarn to get lost in? What is there to prevent us from gazing at the torso’s pectorals or getting lost in its navel instead of considering the heart, shoulders or backbone? Conrad must have been aware of this possibility, and he has shaped the body—or directed reader attention—accordingly.  As C. B. Cox puts it,

we are carried forward through moments of danger, escapes, unexpected attack.  But even on a first reading we are disturbed by a pervasive irony.  The journey appears to be a kind of parody of the romantic quest for the Grail.  Marlow ironically calls his debased, greedy companions “pilgrims,” and the manager even builds an Arthurian round table to prevent his subordinates from quarreling about precedence.  (32)

Rosmarin, who argues that Heart of Darkness, “more than most texts,” “raises and is comfortable with the question of multiple readings” (168), calls it a moment of suspense when Conrad lets Marlow describe the ornamental knobs on a fence, which, upon the approach Marlow restages, are revealed to be human heads.  That fleeting moment, unless memory fails us, is unique our first encounter with the text.  In subsequent readings, we may more fully appreciate how the passage—as text and journey—unfolded the first time around, but we can never again experience the excitement of the revelation.  What remains, and what becomes stronger with multiple readings, is the sense of irony that permeates Marlow’s tale, and, indeed, the entire narrative.

During our first reading, the ornaments described turn out to be—or, rather, turn into—heads, which elicits surprise.  In subsequent readings, the ornaments areheads, and that is how the demented Kurtz would see them.  Hitchcock’s Psychooperates in a similar way.  It invites multiple viewings after the original moments of suspense have been exhausted exactly when the irony that Norman is his mother materializes.  Thus, the reader is deceived into believing that severed heads are ornaments and is then un-deceived, made to realize that the heads, in Kurtz’s world, do serve as ornaments after all.  In the middle of this only initially gripping passage, Marlow tells his audience: “These round knobs were not ornamental but symbolic” (73).

“Symbolic indeed,” Rosmarin offers as a laconic comment, and adds: “symbols of [what] we are never told—as usual,” proving that she does not quite know what to make of this assertion, that she cannot “figure it out,” which is, as she justly claims, what Conrad’s novel demands (165, 159).  Rosmarin cannot “figure it out” because she focuses here on suspense rather than irony.  The ornaments/heads are a symbol of Conrad’s irony, they are, as Marlow continues, “expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing—food for thought and also for vultures.”  This is just how irony functions.  The literal meaning becomes food for vultures, a carcass of “dead text,” whereas the “implied meaning” turns into food for thought, coming to life through the reader’s perception of irony.

Another great irony in Heart of Darkness, to which Rosmarin alludes, is the fact that Kurtz, after having been discovered, does not live up to Marlow’s—or the reader’s—expectations: “Asked to switch gears so quickly, to transform Kurtz from a long-awaited god to a quickly disposed of ‘something,’ the reader cannot help but feel had” (165).  Again, Rosmarin focuses on suspense that does not seem to pay off for the reader.  The irony, however, enfolds as the reader realizes that Heart of Darkness is not a story about a Congo expedition mounted to find another Livingstone.  Instead, as Donald M. Kartiganer points out, “[d]espite his promise of personal insignificance, Marlow becomes the most conspicuous image in the story . . .” (163).  Similarly, Hitchcock’s Psycho turns star Janet Leigh into a McGuffin, sacrificing her halfway through the story, before it dawns on us that the narrative is not about the getaway of Leigh’s thieving character, at which point we are plunged into a disorienting world in whose center, we ultimately learn, is a schizophrenic killer.

In Heart of Darkness, objects, people, and concepts are never what they appear to be or how they are, by convention, symbolically represented through language.  A ship is presented as the home of the sedentary seaman; a great man, a genius is a lunatic; a lie is being told to save a presumably innocent person.  Yet more than paradox, through which a writer presents to the reader-receiver a clash of established opposites, irony transcends written text as it allows the writer to involve the reader.  Irony only works if the reader is able to perceive it as such; and whereas suspense is based upon deception, on a withholding of information, irony is ultimately based on an understanding, on a writer’s compact with the reader.  If the reader does not get it, does not perceive irony, the joint venture, the reading event, cannot fully enfold.  

The understanding that irony is at work here, that words or phrases can be used ambiguously or subversively, is predicated on a shared system of rules that may become subject to violation.  As Stanley Fish puts it in Is there a Text in this Class?:

If the speakers of a language share a system of rules that each of them has somehow internalized, understanding will, in some sense, be uniform; that is it will proceed in terms of the system of rules all speakers share.  And insofar as these rules are constraints on production—-establishing boundaries within which utterances are labeled “normal,” “deviant,” “impossible,” and so on—-they will also be constraints on the range, and even the direction, of response; they will make response, to some extent, predictable and normative.  (44-45)

This also means that a reader’s understanding of irony is predictable, rooted as it is in the same culturally established norms.  Inexperienced speakers of English who do not share the cultural background are less likely to perceive irony, as they tend to concentrate on translating texts to access their literal meaning.  Conrad, as a non-native speaker of English seems to have anticipated me, a fellow non-native speaker, which, to my mind, makes Heart of Darkness twice-told tale of learning language all over again.  The perception of irony, then, demands reader-responsibility rather than freedom, as well as a writer’s control over the reader-response.  In order to elicit this response, Conrad has to trust in his readers’ maturity, in their linguistic competence; he has to wean them from the literal meaning without surrendering control over the written word.  By employing the term “informed reader,” reader-response criticism acknowledges this relationship.  Since it is a shared experience, readers cannot fabricate irony, although they may detect unintended ambiguities and, breaking with the reader-writer compact, retreat into camp.  Those who choose to remain within the system set up by the writer do not merely react to irony but instead establish it through that writer’s promptings in the reading event.

The greatest, most comprehensive and engrossing irony of Heart of Darkness is its “closed set,” which, as a narrative structure, is sometimes referred to as a “Chinese box.”  By presenting a literary world that contains narrators, characters, as well as audiences, a realm in which Marlow is at once observer and actor, Conrad, at the heart of the matter, seems also to have a say in who may become members.  It is yet another layer of the open system that is irony, considering that Conrad needs the active participation of his readers so that the irony he orchestrates can play out as such.  Marlow may not be exclaiming “Reader, I buried him,” and he may be aware only of his direct audience aboard the Nellie; but Conrad makes sure that the narrative is not self-contained, that the narrator-character performs for an extended audience that includes the readers of Heart of Darkness.  Rosmarin notices this relationship between reader and writer, and comes, after spending much time in Plato’s cave rather than in his Republic, to the obvious conclusion:

The irony here should not go unnoticed: that by reconceptualizing the reader as an active if also emotional intelligence, the poet is implicitly also reconceptualized: no longer a block to the creation of thinking . . . men, he becomes perhaps our most powerful agent of this creation.  (156)

Conrad becomes the agent, the initiator, to say the least, of “this creation” that, through irony, becomes an act of co-creation.  By using the closed set, Conrad can direct us toward the signposts, or fence posts, of irony, toward the realization that there is more than one meaning to words and the worlds of characters, objects, and concepts they so imperfectly represent.

By dividing the protagonist into observer and actor, writers establish the act of interpretation as an explicit focus for whatever happens in the narrative.  The result is not only an insistence on the centrality of interpretation, but a formulation of criteria for that act brilliantly performed:  standards of an exemplary criticism.  (Kartiganer 167)

Conrad wants—and needs—his irony to be worked out.  It becomes at once the controlling device of the novel and the key to its message: nothing is what it seems to be.  Ultimately, that is all that Conrad shares with us.  What things actually mean we are never told because the point Conrad’s novel is making by messing with our heads is that very expectation of being told what things are is not only pointless but perilous.  Suresh Raval asserts that this “novel’s importance is in its disclosing ideal of affirmation to be an aberrant expectation” (19).  The informed reader can replay the moment of being undeceived and is encouraged to do so in the awareness of multiplicity – of duplicity turned complicity – that is irony.  “In this starkly ironic tale told by first person narrators, the form is the meaning,” L. J. Morrissey concludes.  The lasting appeal of Heart of Darkness, then, is rooted in the interdependency of reader and writer on which Conrad’s narrative depends, the paradox of a closed system operating as an open one.

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph.  “Heart of Darkness.”  Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness: A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism.  Edited by Ross C. Murfin.  St. Martin’s P, 1989, pp. 17-94.

Cox, C. B. “Heart of Darkness: A Choice of Nightmares?”  Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  Edited by Harold Bloom.  Chelsea House, 1987.

Fish, Stanley.  Is there a Text in this Class?  Harvard UP, 1980.

Kartiganer, Donald M.  “The Divided Protagonist: Reading as Repetition and Discovery.”  Texas Studies in Language and Literature, vol. 30, no. 2, Summer 1988, pp. 151-78.

Morrissey, L. J.  “The Tellers in Heart of Darkness:  Conrad’s Chinese Boxes.”  Conradiana, vol. 13, no. 2, 1981, pp. 140-48.

Murfin, Ross C., editor.  Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness: A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism.  St. Martin’s P, 1989.

Raval, Suresh.   The Art of Failure: Conrad’s Fiction.  Allen, 1986.

Rosmarin, Adena.  “Darkening the Reader: Reader-Response Criticism and Heart of Darkness.”  Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness: A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism.  Edited by Ross C. Murfin.  St. Martin’s P, 1989, pp. 148-71.