Conrad vs. James
What’s Your Impression?
By Dynestee Fields
It’s eight o’clock on Monday morning, and you’ve somehow managed to wander into class just as the bell is ringing. Your English professor is speaking ecstatically as she paces back and forth behind the lectern. Briefly, you wonder what all of the hullabaloo is about before looking down at the papers neatly (and in some cases, not so neatly) arranged in front of your classmates. On closer inspection, you see that your course is moving on to the next module. Based on the weekly handout, this section will be exploring “Prominent 19th Century Novelists.”
“Excellent,” you think to yourself. Another module, another test. Another test, another opportunity to boost yourself from your lowly D average. (Hey, you’re not a slacker. You’ve just, ummm… been putting in extra hours at your part-time job as a professional sleeper… yeah).
Apparently, you’re supposed to read a book titled Heart of Darkness by some fellow named Joseph Conrad. Your professor’s schedule further instructs you to read a short story called “The Beast in the Jungle” that was written by Henry James. Whoever that is.
Well… you at least have to give the authors props for coming up with creative titles. Knowing that your grade is slowly dropping into a comatose state, you decide to actually apply yourself this time. Only, once you’ve returned to your dorm and started scrolling through Heart of Darkness on your Kindle, you find yourself face to face with an enigma. The words that form the novel are familiar to you… but they add up to absolutely nothing! The entire novel is just a collection of vague details!
With haste, you search for a copy of “The Beast in the Jungle” in the depths of the Kindle Library. You want to know if this work shares Conrad’s complexity. With horror, you realize that… it does! You’re doomed. You’re definitely doomed.
The scenario mentioned above is common to English majors across America (hopefully with the exception of the lack of passion displayed by the fictional student). Both Joseph Conrad and Henry James have a way of packing on the details and leaving some readers dazzlingly confused. But, if you dare to tackle their works and to persist to the very last word, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised. In Conrad’s story you will surely notice that no definitive standard is set by which to judge the narrator’s perceptions. These perceptions have amounted to the blurred image that was mentioned earlier. And, if you continue on the odyssey to the end of James’ work, you will find the barrage of details neatly summed up in a realistic depiction of the experiences of the narrator. Each of James’, and his narrator’s, details uncovers some feature of the real world.
It is the dense, detailed prose that makes the works appear to be similar.
However, in reality, they are vastly different. Conrad relies on impressionism to relay the adventures of the narrator of Heart of Darkness. James, on the other hand, sticks to realism to describe the process of a wasted life in “The Beast in the Jungle.” Let’s explore these differences that make the works of Conrad and James appear to be so similar, but in reality, differentiate them like freckles on one member of a set otherwise identical twins.
Impressionism is a hallmark element of Joseph Conrad’s storytelling. Even if you aren’t familiar with this literary style, it’s likely that you’ve experienced it in visual artwork. Claude Monet’s Woman with a Parasol is a well-known example, as well as Vincent Van Gogh’s ever popular The Starry Night. No doubt, if you’ve seen these works you have noticed their fragmented, unfocused design. Impressionism, arguably the first distinct, modern movement in the realm of painting, became prominent in the nineteenth century. These artists viewed reality as being imperfect and sought to portray it as such. Snippets of time, light, movement, and atmosphere were the images on their canvases. The eye ruled, not the intellect. Impressionism captures the essence, but not the reality of the thing.
Literary impressionists emerged from this movement, holding the belief that a fleeting moment is more valuable artistically than a cold representation of the facts. This explains why Conrad’s prose is considered by many to be confusing. Take for example, the following passage from the novel:
“I saw a face amongst the leaves on the level with my own, looking at me very fierce and steady; and then suddenly, as though a veil had been removed from my eyes, I made out, deep in the tangled gloom, naked breasts, arms, legs, glaring eyes – the bush was swarming with human limbs in movement, glistening, of bronze colour. The twigs shook, swayed, and rustled, the arrows flew out of them, and then the shutter came to (2).”
Here, Conrad’s narrator describes his impression of the African natives. Did the vivid, but less than substantial descriptions capture your attention?
James’ realism is situated on the opposite end of the spectrum. Like impressionism, this artistic style began to flourish in the nineteenth century when it was officially adopted as an aesthetic form. While these paintings, which reflect reality, are not as eye popping as those done in the impressionistic fashion, you’re probably still familiar with Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Considered to be prominent works in the realist movement, both of these paintings offer a detailed, no-frills look at their subject matter. The ideology behind this aesthetic is to present life honestly, unaccentuated by idealism.
The distinct elements that appear in the literary works of this movement include objectivity, detachment, accuracy in depictions of life, and criticism of social structures and customs. The following passage, which utilizes all four elements of this criteria, is derived from James’ “The Beast in the Jungle.”
“That was what women had where they were interested; they made out things, where people were concerned, that the people couldn’t have made out for themselves. Their nerves, their sensibility, their imagination, were conductors and revealers, and the beauty of May Bartram was in particular that she had given herself so to his case (3).”
In this excerpt, John Marcher, the story’s protagonist who lives in anticipation of some unknown event that he feels is destined to take place in his future, offers his wisdom on the female sex. He opens his statement with an objective, detached statement about all women. He then applies this information directly to May Bartram, showing his observations are an accurate depiction of real life.
Unlike Conrad, James offers details that describe a particular subject matter, and then proceeds to tie it all together by relating these details to the very concrete person of May Bartram. It’s a very focused passage with a very clear purpose. On the other hand, as said earlier, Conrad offers readers a very unfocused, chaotic look at an unclarified subject.
In Conrad’s tale, the African natives are present, but only through fragmented pieces of information. Brief physical stimuli. Rather than a detailed picture, all that we see are random limbs protruding here and there.
So, what’s the end result of both of these styles? Conrad’s impressionism leaves readers with, perhaps, more questions than answers. He loads on details, but ultimately describes the sensory heavy experience of one character that isn’t supposed to be the “final word” on reality. It’s the classic case of the unreliable narrator.
James’ realism is supposed to give the final verdict on the meaning behind events and opinions. It is simply what realists set out to do. John’s observations about women, and May, in particular, are intended to poke at a truth about the way that human beings interact with their environments and with each other.
Knowing the conventions of impressionism and realism will hopefully allow you to preserver through your reading assignments. Now that you understand more about the conventions behind Conrad and James’ works, I have to ask: What’s your new impression?
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