Three types of irony in the novels of Joseph Conrad
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
Although the notion of irony occurs frequently in the criticism of Joseph Conrad's works, little effort has been made to discuss the various possibilities for different types of irony and their manifestations in the literature. This thesis is a textual examination of the different types of irony in the major fiction of Conrad. In the critical accounts of Conrad's irony, the notion of irony is usually synonymous with a straightforward form like satire with an accompanying contention of narratorial moral presupposition. However, in this thesis, three types of irony are explored: specific, general, Romantic (D.C. Muecke's terms). The irony issues from the sustained organising structures of the works - character interrelationships, dramatic irony, retrospective narratives, inconsistent narrators - and the verbal irony of the narrators in their act of narrating. The essential element of irony is a juxtaposition of incongruous elements - in either its structural or verbal form - which indicates that the ostensible meaning of a particular context is in need of dismantling and reconstruction. Accordingly, detecting irony constitutes a search for incongruity, paradox, contradiction, or ambivalence, and then determining to what extent the narrator has control over the linguistic duality. The three types of irony mentioned above have distinct functions: specific ironists admonish, general ironists acknowledge that a given character is in a predicament that deserves some sympathy, and Romantic ironists (whose source is the aphoristic thought of the German Romantic, Friedrich Schlegel) see all existence as illusory and seek a multiplicity of intellectual perspectives, eventually establishing the irony as dialectical. It becomes clear that the narrators, the architects of the irony, consistently explore the viability of an idealised identity in a harsh and uncompromising reality, external to the transmutations of an idealising imagination. Further scrutiny shows that the best way of exploring idealism in Conrad is through acknowledging the presence of a form of quixotism, by which several of Conrad's characters seek aggrandisement through a powerfully idealised notion of their identity, which fuels their sense of adventure even to the point of bizarre severance from their surrounding physical or social environment. Quixotism in Conrad's fiction does not deal only with a parodied chivalry; the notion is extended to apply more generally to the obsessive psychological commitment to an ideal. Although the notion of quixotism has been noted before in Conrad's fiction, it has usually carried with it pejorative connotations. Examination of the fiction indicates that while parody, as a form of specific irony, is linked with quixotism, the irony of quixotism at its most complex level becomes a sophisticated narratorial scrutiny of the various illusions by which characters fashion their identities. This type of irony generates in Marlow's two early narratives, Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, an incorrigible self-reflectiveness, which extends even to Marlow's self-consciousness in his role of narrator and instigates the scrutiny of the efficacy of language to convey effectively the complexity of experience. The early fiction is examined briefly, and it is shown that the essential ingredients of Marlow's irony are already present in the fiction, but several factors mitigate against the construction of elaborate ironic mechanisms. The rest of the fiction discussed is seen in contrast to the irony of Marlow's two early narratives, and it is shown that the fiction after these two novels, with the exception of The Secret Agent, does not sustain the same complex ironic structures.