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Plot and point of view in Conrad's Nostromo Stronach, Eunice Esther

Abstract

Joseph Conrad's Nostromo is extremely complex in materials, methods, and attitudes towards life, and so is open to a number of approaches and interpretations. This paper, which is the result of an effort to see the novel as a self-contained literary form, is based on the judgment that, although the book has strong strains of realism and romance, it is essentially ironic both in its form and in the view of life which it embodies, as the terms "irony" and "ironic" are used by Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism. The paper undertakes to demonstrate some of the uses of plot and point of view in giving form to an ironic view of life. The study considers the form for its own sake as an artistic composition as well as its function in embodying an attitude towards life, insofar as these two aspects of form can be usefully separated. Certain lines in the plot-structure are traced throughout the book, but most of the paper consists of the analysis of a number of selected scenic passages considered as independent structures. This analysis is concerned with the function of the scenes as episodes in the plot, the technical methods covered by the concept of point of view and their effects, and the total effect of the scene. The paper deals primarily with the five characters: Mrs. Gould, Charles Gould, Nostromo, Decoud, and Dr. Monygham. It considers each of them as a protagonist in a line of the complex plot, and considers the treatment of each one in relation to the control of distance by means of the techniques of point of view. Mrs. Gould, whose story contains strains of both romance and irony, struggles to maintain her belief in the private values of love and compassion and in the traditional public values of integrity and reason. Each of the four men is engaged in a struggle to achieve or maintain a sense of his own value. The paper interprets this struggle in terms of the formation and transformation of identity in relation to symbols of authority, both private symbols such as parental figures and public symbols such as social class and country. The essential irony of the plot lies in two factors. The symbols of authority are either inadequate or corrupt, and the sense of one's own identity is an illusion, a belief with no objective basis. It is a psychic necessity, but it leads to self-deception and is frequently destructive. Nostromo's story, which combines strains of satire and romance, leads to a resolution full of ironic qualifications, but suggesting the triumph of the romantic egoist who rejects all symbols of authority. The handling of point of view is extremely flexible both in its use of implicated narrators and observers and in the variety of relationships between the impersonal narrator and his material. The fluidity in the handling of point of view has an aesthetic value and is also functional in presenting an ironic view of life. The use of implicated narrators emphasizes the discrepancies resulting from the insurmountable limitations of man's knowledge either of himself or of other people, and suggests that there is no ultimate truth within which these discrepancies may be reconciled. The control of distance also has ironic implications. The paper analyzes some of the technical factors in the control of distance, and finds that there is no really sustained attitude towards any of the chief male characters. The effects range from satire to tragic irony. The shifting distance is functional in creating an image of a world in which unequivocal judgments are impossible and in which, as Conrad said, "The comic and the tragic jostle each other at every step." Nostromo is an example on a vast scale of literature in the ironic mode, defined by Frye as "an attempt to give form to the shifting ambiguities and complexities of unidealized life." The working out of the complex plot and the remarkable fluidity in the handling of point of view dramatize these ambiguities and complexities but they do so in a way which helps to create artistic order from the materials of chaos.

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