Semiotic drama: the expansion of meaning in Conrad's fiction

Wheatley, Alison Elizabeth, Department of English, University of Virginia
Levenson, Michael, As-English-Eng Lit Ops, University of Virginia
Winner, Anthony, Department of English, University of Virginia
Sokel, Walter H., Department of Germanic Languages & Literature, University of Virginia

Joseph Conrad focuses in his important early stories and novels on temporal, spatial and social contexts as contribu­tors to meaning, rather than simply on language as the sole direct access to truth. Sounds, silences, and other aurally perceived signs become prominent in this process. Newly significant elements of drama emerge in the search for a semiotics of experience. Drawing on writings of Belsey, Bakhtin, Wittgenstein, and others, this study examines the way characters, narrators, and ultimately readers must acknowledge ways in which language constructs versions of self and world. Narrative points of view or multiple viewpoints of characters complicate and refuse monologic understanding: the only viable approach to meaning is dialogic. The range of meaningful signs expands in ways that characters -- and possibly readers--have not previously expected. They now include silences, tones, poses, gestures and grunts. Through narrators’ self-conscious attempts to "get it right”; through repetitions of words and phrases; through occasional direct addresses to an implied reader, implying a complicity between the narrator and a “we” who shares the same assumptions; and through characters who question the stability of their perceptions, the reader is coaxed, along with the characters, into seeking meaning in unconventional ways.

Conrad's characters and narrators negotiate language, self and community. They have adopted the community's version of reality -- in language, in epithets -- as the only truth, but recognizing that language distorts in its attempts to stabilize an essential self forces them to seek an expanded semiotics. Subsequently, readers abandon their comfortable role as accomplices who are satisfied that language can lead to understanding, and begin learning the dialogic art of reading across time and across signs. Language is essentially paradigmatic, offering itself as the accurate reader of stable reality at any point in time. Conrad challenges both charac­ters and readers to abandon this myth of consistency and to substitute a syntagmatic, dialogic, and dramatic reading of the widest variety of meaning-producing signs.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Joseph Conrad, language analysis, linguistic interpretation, dialog, literary
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: