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“To make you see”: Narrating identity, gender, and empire in The Good Soldier and Heart of Darkness

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  • In Heart of Darkness and The Good Soldier, Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford employ the narrative subjectivity inherent in their Impressionist technique to provide insight into the often-irrational processes through which political and individual identities are constructed through narrative. Contrary to traditional readings of Impressionism as a strictly aesthetic and politically neutral technique, I contend that Ford and Conrad developed their artistic method for highly political purposes. Both Ford and Conrad criticized the colonial mission and recognized that Victorian imperial ideology is instilled in the public through language, not only in individual interactions but also in the widely-circulated propaganda of the press and popular literature of the time. The two novelists respond to this dogma with an artistic technique that resists such simplistic moralizing and instead aims to honestly depict the processes by which imperfect and subjective individuals negotiate identity in the context of culture. Of such processes, this paper focuses most specifically on the act of gendering, for the performance of gender is an aspect of selfhood in which the intersection of national and individual identity is especially visible. Indeed, the concept of gender in this age was highly political. The formation of a national imperial identity rested on a construct of masculinity in which male community develops through exploration and conquest, and the ideal man’s dominance manifests itself not only in his possession of women and territory, but also in the self-possession acquired through his control of language. This paper explores the means through which Ford and Conrad interrogate the construct of imperial masculinity in their portrayal of a subjective narrator’s appropriation of traditional Victorian narrative conventions and ideology as he negotiates his identity. Through the narrators’ flawed, illogical, yet often oddly persuasive assessments, Ford and Conrad not only provide insight into the processes of delusion, rationalization, and distortion through which all individuals make sense of their surroundings, they also criticize the seduction of language and the imperial ideology of which Marlow and Dowell are products. . Despite their apparent reflectiveness, the narrators’ loyalty to eloquent, masculine figures proves their conformity and thus their complicity in the cruelty and horror that their idols’ rhetoric masks.
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