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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The novelist as geographer : a comparison of the novels of Joseph Conrad and Jules Verne Huggan, Graham


The works of Joseph Conrad and Jules Verne share a fascination with geography: concern with geographical issues made explicit in their non-fictional works is also implicit in their fiction. Unfortunately, limited knowledge of or interest in geographic theory on the part of the literary critic has made the relation between literature and geography a relatively unpopular focus; to redress the balance, it is necessary to outline briefly some of the ways in which geographical theory may usefully inform the practice of literary criticism. Areas to be introduced include geography and literature as spatial distribution, as spatial perception, as inscription on and description of the environment, as text, as cultural matrix. The above areas serve as a focus for the comparative analysis of a series of novels by Joseph Conrad and Jules Verne in which three issues are foregrounded: first, the interrelations between concentrated place and surrounding space in the sea-tales The Nigger of the Narcissus and Vingt mille lieues sous les mers; second, the reading and writing of cultural landscape in Heart of Darkness and Voyage au centre de la terre; third, the geopolitics of territory, boundary and landclaim in Lord Jim and L'lle mystérieuse. In each case, relevant geographical theory is drawn upon: in the first instance, the phenomenological notions of Yi-Fu Tuan and Edward Relph; in the second, the landscape evaluations of Carl Sauer and Courtice Rose; in the third, the geopolitical and politico-geographical definitions of Glassner, De Blij and Cohen. The first section (on The Nigger of the Narcissus and Vingt mille lieues sous les mers) explores the spatial notions of topophilia, placelessness and geometricity inherent in the relation between ship and sea. The second section (on Heart of Darkness and Voyage au centre de la terre) discusses the various connotations of landscape: cultural imprint (rewriting), false perspective (mis-reading), textual sign-system (encoding/decoding), which suggest that landscape can be interpreted as a controlling mechanism of and means of access to the text. The third section (on Lord Jim and L' Ile mystérieuse) outlines the geographical motifs of the two novels (division, (dis)possession, ascent and descent, etc.) and infers possible motives behind these motifs, relating topographical issues to personal and political ones and paying particular attention to the implications of island environments and communities and to the connections between imperialism, colonialism and narrative strategy. Finally, the 'literary geography' of Conrad's and Verne's novels is situated in its historical context and related particularly to the late nineteenth-century debate on the relative merits of positivism and phenomenology. In Verne's work, the doctrine of positivism, which has been constituted in terms of an ideology of science, is only celebrated in so far as its limitations are recognized. In Conrad's work, man's struggle to conquer Nature through a physical and verbal mastery of his environment is reinterpreted as an attempt to overcome his own duality. Conrad's predominantly phenomenological geography of the mind serves as a critique of positivist doctrine, but its fractured topography also suggests that the attempt to substitute 'more traditional views of the social and moral order' (Watt, 163) is, perhaps, little more than a saving illusion.

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