The critical theory and literary practice of Joseph Conrad
Potter, Norris Whitfield Jr
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Joseph Conrad was not only a fascinating personality and a highly gifted novelist, but also a shrewd and discerning critic of his own and other men's works. It is the purpose of this study to abstract and arrange his critical theory in order to point out a generally unsuspected ability in Conrad, and to contribute to a better understanding of his novels. Since nearly everything that an author writes is in a sense an index to the man himself, it was felt necessary, in reconstructing Conrad's critical theory, to read not only his essays and letters, but all of his fiction. It was found useful to read, also, everything of importance which has been written about him, in order to check and illuminate the present writer's own estimate. This study attempts to cull out all the literary theorizing from Conrad's writings and arrange them, in a coherent fashion, to observe the fundamental principles underlying his criticism, to check his theory against his actual literary practice, to evaluate his critical ideas, and to place him among the critics of his generation. The principal loci critici in Conrad are the prefaces to his novels, where he is frank, compact, and thoughtful; his letters, where he is informal and sometimes hasty; his autobiographical books, especially A Personal Record, Notes on Life and Letters, and The Mirror of the Sea; his novels, where one can see something of his philosophical bent; and miscellaneous introductions to and appreciation of other men's books. In order to furnish a background for Conrad the critic, this paper describes briefly the literary scene in England from 1894-1924, with special reference to the English novel and English criticism. As far as literary criticism is concerned, there is a curious lack of direction and purpose in this period, an eclectic character, a general British distrust of ideas regarding the arts, a dependence upon personal tastes rather than upon critical principles, and a certain measure of insularity. Conrad's personal background is also discussed: his Polish nationality, his informal education, his life as a mariner, the transition from seaman to author, his naturalization as an Englishman, his English friends, his early literary tribulations. The effect of these forces on his character and general literary philosophy is treated briefly. Very early in his writing career Conrad felt the necessity of erecting for himself a theory of art, and in the preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus is his first important manifesto. The theory which he finally evolved was not a particularly abstruse or esoteric one, but for him it satisfactorily bulwarked the judgments which he made in literary matters. That theory is gathered from all sources by the present writer, and the material is arranged under five heads: Truth in Art, Restraint in Art, Imagination in Art, Reason and Reflection in Art, Morality and Special Purpose in Art. Having outlined Conrad's general, comprehensive theories, the author then discusses Conrad's "practical" criticism. Most of this section is devoted to Conrad's theory of what makes a good novel, and there is considerable analysis of Conrad's own novels in order to determine the extent to which he followed his own theory. The main topics are: The General Aim of the Novelist, Theory of Plot Structure, Theory of Setting and Atmosphere, Theory of Character-Drawing, and Theory of Style. Brief mention is made of Conrad's theory of the drama. His literary enthusiasms and aversions are next described. These are not only examples of his criticism, but a record of the men who interested him as he formed his own technique. The list includes Henry James, Stephen Crane, Daudet, Maupassant, Anatole France, Turgeniev, Dostoievsky, and various other writers from Chaucer to his own day. The concluding pages are intended to show Conrad's prevailing critical attitudes and prepossessions, and to place him among the critics of the day. The author devotes some detail to Conrad's empiricism, his impressionism, and his romanticism. Romanticism is defined as carefully as possible, and then various romantic elements in Conrad's critical theory are pointed out, the writer's conclusion being that despite his scorn of particular schools and dogmas in criticism, Conrad's prevailing critical tendencies are those of the romantics.
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