Everyone has secrets, some of them we share with our best friends and others we can take them to the grave, but they all have something in common, that they present a halo of mystery and concealment. A similar phenomenon occurs in literature with the enigmatic figure of the narrator. On one hand, it has the power to tell us a story in great detail or on the other hand, it can use different literary techniques to hide us information and make us distrust it, as we can see in the novels The Collector of John Fowless and Heart of Darkness of Joseph Conrad.
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The narrator is a key piece in the narrative as Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle well say in chapter ‘7. Narrative’ of the book An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory: ‘Our understanding of a text is pervaded by our sense of the character, trustworthiness and objectivity of the figure who is narrating’. Also, they add that narrators are ‘linguistic fabrications, textual creatures’ that gradually reveal the plot and create excitement in the reader.
Reading is an active task. Readers have to sharpen the senses because, as Frank Kermode argues in the chapter ‘Secrets and narrative sequence’ in Essays in fiction 1971-82, ‘stories as we know them begin as interpretations. They grow and change on the blank of the pages’. In addition, mechanisms such as ambiguity, suspense, and secrecy are some of the elements that stand in the way of readers who want to master the text, because ‘readers tend to want to resolve suspense [...] We want answers, and we want them soon. And there are all sorts of ways of terminating suspense, of closing it or resolving it’.
We can come across an omniscient narrator who knows perfectly the ins and outs of the characters and the action, as happens in the novel Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley, but… is the narrator always an authority figure in trust?
In the case of The Collector, we can ask this question since the narrator is multiple: the first part is narrated by Frederick Clegg, the second part through the diary which Miranda writes in his captivity and the end of the novel is again told by Clegg.
The existence of different narrators means that the same event is told from different perspectives and in the way, we will be able to fit all the pieces of the same puzzle. Therefore, it is the reader who must tie up loose ends of the story.
Frederick Clegg opens the novel The Collector relating his sick obsession with an art student called Miranda. The most surprising thing is that the boy is all the time justifying the kidnapping and he recounts it as an ordinary action. Clegg is an ambiguous character, William Empson defines the term ambiguity as ‘an intention to mean several things, a probability that one or other or both of two things has been meant, and the fact that a statement has several meanings’. So, on the one hand, he kidnaps Miranda, he makes us believe that it is to satisfy his sexual desires, but his behaviour is totally unusual, he is dedicated to conquering his captive by buying everything she wants. Couldn’t Clegg try to conquer Miranda in a more politely or try to suppress his wishes? This aspect of the novel is a mystery, as well as the identity of the boy which keeps the reader hooked on the story.
The story is revealed little by little, because in the second part it is Miranda, through her diary, who narrates her version of the story, filling in the fictional gaps that Clegg has left. Miranda, being locked up, loses track of time, which means that we do not rely on all the events she tells. This also implies that the perception of reality is subjective. The fact that Miranda is captive remains as a secret to the other characters, her parents, for example, who do not know her whereabouts. Besides, Miranda hides her true personality from Clegg, she always feels repulsion for the boy, but either way, she will make him believe that she is falling in love with him, as if she were a victim of Stockholm syndrome so that she can lowers her guard and can escape. As a result, this would put us in agony and concern for what will follow for Miranda.
The Collector culminates with an open end, allowing the reading in doubt about what will Clegg’s next play be, he leaves the door open for a new kidnapping and new secrets.
Most of the time, when we are reading, our curiosity is generated through secrets, understood and explained in a better way for Bennet and Royle as:
‘Specific aspects of the language of a text, particular patterns of images or rhetorical figures that a reader may not even notice on a ‘consumerist’ reading, but that are nevertheless present and which can provoke a sense of mystery’.
Then, the other novel full of intrigue and secrets is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. It tells the story of Charlie Marlow, a navigator who is relating his shipmates his experiences from London to Africa in search of the puzzling ivory merchant named Mr. Kurtz.
Mr. Kurtz’s character has been formed through people’s rumours. He becomes a mythical wise man surrounded by stories that will end up clashing with reality. He is portrayed as an over-natural being, who has unfortunately succumbed to a disease that keeps him on the boundaries between reality and madness.
Linked to the darkness presented by the image of Mr. Kurtz, the novel, with its continuous digressions, offers a broad description of the African forest. As we read, this mystery increases as Marlow goes deep into the heart of darkness, wild Africa. The great cruelty that European settlers have developed towards Africans, as well as the conditions of extreme barbarism and misery that they suffer from, begins to take centre stage in the novel and Marlow feels that, as we can observe in the following passage:
‘I had turned to the wilderness really, not to Mr. Kurtz, who, I was ready to admit, was as good as buried. And for a moment it seemed to me as if I also were buried in a vast grave full of unspeakable secrets. I felt an intolerable weight oppressing my breast, the smell of the damp earth, the unseen presence of victorious corruption, the darkness of an impenetrable night’.
We have to read the texts carefully in order to discover all the secrets that Conrad, Fowless and all the writers give us. Furthermore, we should be more open-minded and awake to learn about new experiences that literature implies, as Frank Kermode finally announces:
We glimpse the secrecy through the meshes of a text […] Hot for secrets, our only conversation may be with guardians who know less and see less than we can; and our sole hope and pleasure is in the perception of a momentary radiance, before the door of disappointment is finally shut on us.
- John Fowles, The collector (London: Vintage, 2004)
- Joseph Conrad, edited by Owen Knowles and Allan H. Simmons, Heart of darkness (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2018)
- Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle, ‘7. Narrative’, ’29. Suspense’, ’34. Secrets’, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, 5th ed. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016)
- Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, 1979)
- --------, ‘Secrets and narrative sequence’, Essays in fiction 1971-82 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983)
- William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, 3 th ed. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1963)
 Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle, ‘7. Narrative’, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, 5th ed. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), pp. 58-59.
 Ibid., p. 319.
 Frank Kermode ‘Secrets and narrative sequence’, Essays in fiction 1971-82 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), p. 135.
 Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle, ’29. Suspense’, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, 5th ed. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), p. 277.
 William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, 3th ed. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1963), p. 5.
 Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle, ‘34. Secrets’, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, 5th ed. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), p. 316.
 Joseph Conrad, ed. by Owen Knowles and Allan H. Simmons, Heart of darkness (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2018), p. 109.
 Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, 1979), pp. 114-115.
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