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Updated Up To 18/01/2017
Volume 9, Issue 1 (July 2011) : 41-63
Bringing History to Fiction
Joseph Conrad and the Holocaust
Jeremy Hawthorn
Rubric A: History of Humanities
Rubric B: Then and Now



The article considers cases in which the reader’s knowledge of historical events enters into his or her reading of works of fiction published before these events took place, and explores the critical, ethical, and theoretical issues that arise in such instances. The topic is investigated with reference to the fiction of Joseph Conrad, and in particular to his works Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. Conrad twice went on record in declaring that the writer “writes only half the book; the other half is with the reader,” and yet what exactly the reader’s “writing” of a fictional work can or ought to consist of is a notoriously vexed topic. How may we distinguish “legitimate” from “illegitimate” readerly “writings”? What ethical objections to the incorporation of knowledge of actual historical events into our reading of fictional texts that predate these events must we take seriously? Should certain topics such as the Holocaust be treated as off-limits in the reader’s “writerly” experience of works of fiction?

          The article builds on a suggestion by the historian David Wootton that the writer creates a space within which readers may think, and asks whether literary critics should be more willing to add “thinking” to activities such as “responding,” “interpreting,” and “appreciating” when discussing what literary works allow, encourage, and enable  readers to do. It concludes that although seeing the world through our reading of fiction, and enriching our reading of fiction with our knowledge of the world, are both activities that involve ethical challenges and responsibilities, they are activities that are a natural part of the common reader’s engagement with works of fiction. They should, accordingly, be made open to discussion rather than subject to taboo and denial.

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