Essay Literary Modernisms

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Joseph Conrad with his Heart of Darkness in 1899, and James Joyce with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in 1916 both illustrate what Randall Stevenson argued about the influence of physical exile on modernist works, Joyce being the most thoroughgoing of all modernist exiles’ (Stevenson, p.190). Indeed, he sets his autobiographical novel in an Ireland under British colonization, from his childhood to the moment where he decides to leave his country. In Conrad’s novella, the reader follows Marlow’s journey into Africa, colonised by Europe, where his search for Kurtz ends up being a search for the meaning of the colonization process.

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This symbolism of meaning is important insofar as both characters of Stephen Dedalus and Marlow struggle to express it; the former for he needs to find it by growing up, the latter because what he discovers in Africa seems to be beyond words. Consequently, the struggle for meaning is intimately related to language and its role in modernist texts; two key features of Modernism, which aimed at questioning the pillars upon which society had been built. This shattering brought a reconsideration of literature and language, which is explored in Conrad and Joyce’s novels in colonial contexts. Firstly, this essay will focus on how language is presented as first and foremost a means of communication, allowing the characters to connect, as well as to disconnect with their environment. Then, the comparison will bring this essay to wonder to what extents language is a vehicle of knowledge. The last part will tackle the struggle of language towards meaning: how to say the unsayable?

First of all, the analysis will focus on language as the major means of communication, if not the means. It would be interesting to see what definition of language The Oxford Dictionary gives to see if it relates to people’s vision: The system of spoken or written communication used by a particular country, people, community, etc.,’ Thus, the common sense tends to consider language as merely a means of communication. In their work, both Conrad and Joyce explore this aspect, for the main characters, Marlow and Stephen have to deal with human relationships, which mostly comes across through speech. The first page of A Portrait directly shed light on language and its communicating role for young Stephen. The reader is not yet given access to the character’s mind but only to what he hears, and what he understands. This is reinforced by the free indirect style which focuses here on his perception; He sang that song. That what his song.’ (Joyce, p.3) alludes to the voice of who the reader guesses is the father. One can make such a suggestion thanks to the childish language used, which gives information on the nature of the relationship between these characters, that are at this moment, still unnamed. Conrad goes further by showing how connections can be made without any real encounters, simply through relative’s speeches. That is the way Marlow is introduced to Colonel Kurtz. He apprehends his personality through what he is being said and ends up considering that Kurtz is endowed with the gift of expression’ (Conrad, p.58), meaning that speaking, and the ability of language are key things in human relationships.

Not only does language help people connect with each other, but is proof of the connection with their environment. In Joyce’s novel, Stephen his profoundly marked by his Irish nationality, and from a very young age, to him becoming an adult, he associates himself with this Ireland he wants to leave when reaching adulthood. I am Stephen Dedalus. I am walking beside my father whose name is Simon Dedalus. We are in Cork, In Ireland’ (Joyce, p.98) says young Stephen. In Chapter V, when he has grown up he evokes the fact that This race and this country and this life produced me’. (Joyce, p.220). Through this sentence, Joyce demonstrates that language helps one to connect with one’s environment, insofar as it sculpts habits and expressive idioms’ (Stevenson, p.47). On the contrary, Marlow feels like a stranger when he arrives in Africa, as the following sentence suggests: In the empty immensity of earth, sky and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent’ (Conrad, p.16). He does not quite understand what is happening, and this feeling is rendered to the reader by the narrative technique of the stream of consciousness which describes the place as a no man’s land, and the inexplicable reaction of the ship.

Thus, these novels reveal that language is also a factor of disconnection. It might be relevant to recall the myth of the Tower of Babel in this part of the essay. Indeed, in this passage of the Bible, Humanity used to talk with an individual language, and as a consequence, everyone could understand each other. However, being conceited, human beings wanted to build a tower to reach the sky in order to show their power. God comes with the statement that a single language gives too much power, and decides to blend the language so that humans would not understand each other anymore. This is reminiscent of what we can find in Heart of Darkness where the difference of language between the colonists and the natives brings hostile relations. Moreover, Marlow describes the way Natives have to communicate as something prehistoric-like in the following sentence for instance:

But suddenly, as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse of rush walls, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. [] The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us who could tell?

(Conrad, p.43)

This first part has shown how did Joyce and Conrad explore language as a means of communication, able to connect as well as to disconnect people, especially in the colonial context.

If language can be a medium of communication, it is also a vehicle of all kind of knowledge as the second part of the essay will try to demonstrate. Firstly, because language inevitably has an audience. As a consequence, through the characters’ journey, the reader learns certain things on purpose on the part of the writer. Thus, both novels give their experience of colonies: Marlow being the colonist, and Stephen the colonised. The historical context is important because the novels give a vision from within as a complete critical insight into that world’ (Bell, p.17). This is perfectly rendered by using the characters’ reaction to their situations. Through Stephen’s language, the reader is given an example of what is like to be an Irishman under British colonization. In the same way, Marlow describes the colonization in Africa. Another scholar adds other factors important to language: the meaning, the style, and the addressee (Said, p.22). As a consequence, all the things that are said have an impact – thanks to the phrasing of the writer which constitutes the language – on the reader through the characters.

Moreover, characters are introduced to the colonial issues through their relatives’ speech. For example, Stephen discovers the tension about the question of independence during a Christmas dinner at the beginning of the novel. The irritation he perceives is quite important, for it shapes his future reluctance about Irish nationalism and his abandonment of religion.

Let him remember too, cried Mr. Casey to her from across the table, the language with which the priests and the priests’ pawns broke Parnell’s heart and hounded him into his grave. Let him remember that too when he grows up.

(Joyce, p.33).

Furthermore, Joyce’s whole novel is a way to show how things are introduced through language, in the learning of the language itself. On Chapter V, Stephen says His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech’ (Joyce, p.205). Thus, language is not only a vehicle of knowledge, but is also a knowledge in itself being learned and taught; throughout the novel, Stephen learns how to master the English language to the point where he finds himself better at speaking than the British dean of his university. Comparatively, Marlow is introduced to Kurtz during his journey through other people’s narratives. He then creates in his mind an idea of this man in spite of having not yet encountered him. Nevertheless, these speeches might be biased by the ongoing relationship they share with Kurtz.

The question of reliability of speech and language raises here. Is language always a vehicle of truth, or on the contrary can it have limits in what it shares? Indeed, a critical distance must be maintained to detect the real meaning of the text. In that way, when reading Heart of Darkness, one should keep in mind that Conrad used the point of view of a character shaped by a colonialist environment. This focalization makes a harsher critic of imperialism because the writer keeps an ironic distance’ in the novel (Said, p.27). If the reader reads without questioning, he may think that the book is a racist one, like Chinua Achebe argued in An Image of Africa. Other scholars argued that the language used by a racist character reinforces the critic of Conrad.

Marlow, for example, is never straightforward. He alternates between garrulity and stunning eloquence, and rarely resists making peculiar things seem more peculiar by surprisingly misstating them, or rendering them vague and contradictory. [] the net effect is to leave his immediate audience as well as the reader with the acute sense that what is presenting is not quite as it should be or appears to be.

(Said, p.33)

In this quote, it is important to notice that Said considers Marlow’s language as the key technique in Conrad’s purpose of criticizing the colonial process.

Thus, this part has aimed at showing that one must keep a distance on what one reads in order to spot the actual meaning of the book.

One thing remains here to explain: what relationship do language and meaning have? The historical context of modernism, a strong modification of the whole society, triggered the search for a real meaning in life. Colonialism and its possible ending might have pushed writers to write about this process and its meaninglessness. This apparent distinction between meaning and language is shown for instance in A Portrait when Stephen reflects upon what he has been taught on Catholicism, and its blurred meaning.

Ever since the message of summons had come for him from the director his mind had struggled to find the meaning of the message; [] and his mind wandered from one guess to another until the meaning of the summons had almost become clear.

(Joyce, p.167)

This passage is interesting to analyse for it shows that what is being told to Stephen is not clear even though he tries to find some sense in it, to no avail. Perhaps, this is the reason why he will give up on his religious vocation. Similar research is to be found in Heart of Darkness when Marlow deals with the atrocities perpetrated by the colonialist, bringing the following reflection, a dim suspicion of here being a meaning in it which you [] could comprehend’ (Conrad, p.44).

In order to express the failure of language towards meaning, modernist writers used different narrative techniques and challenged language itself. In both novels, the stream of consciousness is privileged by the writer. This process allows directly for the expression of the feelings of the characters, rather than what they could be able to say about the same situation. When Stephen decides to confess about his sins, he is utterly terrified about saying it aloud whereas he succeeds at saying it in his mind. To say it in words! His soul, stifling and helpless would cease to be’ (Joyce, p.154). Similarly, Marlow acknowledges the impossibility to express some things he sees,

He was silent for a while.

No, it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence, – that which makes its truth, its meaning, its subtle and penetrating essence.

(Conrad, p.33)

In the last part of A Portrait, the diary-like form reinforces this idea of the flow of idea given by the stream of consciousness as the followed example proves II April: Read what I wrote last night. Vague words for a vague emotion’ (Joyce, p.274).

Still, the essay has not yet evoked the climax that the absence of language constitutes. The French critic Roland Barthes argues that the limits of language have their own meaning insofar their aim is to make the reader think about what he has just read. Conrad’s novella is really representative of this impossibility to say things the way they really are, and especially in the case of the colonization in Africa. The spaces between and around words can have their unspoken resonances’ wrote Graham Swift. This is paradoxically applicable in Heart of Darkness, for the unsaid things are the more eloquent ones: they emphasise the fact that some things are unsayable. At the end of the novella, the only words put on the African situation are The horror! The horror! (Conrad, p.86).

The urge to express meaning emphasises the impossibility of language to say everything. If it allows indicating a huge range of things, some things are just too poignant, or too tough to be said. This part has aimed to demonstrate how the novels prove the failure of language in some situations.

In their exploration of language Conrad and Joyce give an ambivalent reflection on one of the most important feature of humankind. It is firstly presented as a way to establish relationships, by the conversation with others, the exchange of ideas, values, pieces of knowledge in order to build an identity. The colonial context in which these two novels are set highlights at the same time the limits of language for it allows rupture between people when they do not understand each other: when they speak a different language, or when the things said are unclear, or simply unsayable; silence becomes a better way to express the things the characters, and possibly the reader, are dealing with.

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Essay Literary Modernisms. (2020, Mar 23). Retrieved February 8, 2023 , from

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