[(essay date 1992) In the following essay, Rundle analyzes “The Tale” as “a story about failure in interpretation and the attempt to arrive at meaning through the act of narration.” She suggests that the commanding officer, in his inability to “read” the Northman’s intentions, calls attention to the ambiguities lurking in many aspects of life and literature.]
Much attention has lately been paid to the performative effects of narration, that is, the ways in which narrative functions both as an effect of a prior reading and as a trigger for subsequent narration. As Shoshana Felman argues, apropos of James’s The Turn of the Screw:
The very act of telling, of narration proceeds … from the potentially infinite repercussion of an effect of reading … Narrative as such turns out to be the trace of the action of a reading; it is, in fact, reading as action.(126)Joseph Conrad’s undeservedly neglected short story “The Tale” (1917) amply rewards an examination of the exigencies and effects of reading, for the narration of the central tale is precipitated by the narrator’s difficulty in interpreting two prior stories. The very opacity of these stories—their apparent unreadability—drives the Commander of Conrad’s tale to repeat them when prompted by his companion: ‘there is a story because there is an unreadable … Narrative, paradoxically, becomes possible to the precise extent that a story becomes impossible’ (Felman, 143). In Conrad’s text, the failure of meaningful narrative simultaneously and paradoxically engenders further narration. “The Tale” is a story about failure in interpretation and the attempt to arrive at meaning through the act of narration. Ironically, the story narrated by the Commanding Officer incriminates him by revealing his inadequacies as a reader. As his narrative unfolds, the Commander’s failure at reading is shown to have initiated not merely a second, subsequent narrative, but two moments of ethical judgment which provoke disastrous ‘real world’ consequences. In this way, “The Tale” foregrounds the fundamental importance of narrative motivation and the ethical implications of both telling and listening—issues which pervade the Conradian œuvre.
“The Tale” consists not simply of a single narrative but of at least three framed ‘tales.’ An unnamed narrator—whom William Bonney calls the ‘nonhuman narrative voice’ (73) and Jakob Lothe the ‘authorial narrator’ (75)—introduces a man and a woman who have apparently just broken off a passionate conversation. With the woman’s command or request, ‘Tell me something,’ another dialogue begins. This narrative becomes the ‘tale’ of the title. This tale—ostensibly about a third person, a ‘Commanding Officer’—is fairly obviously the male speaker’s personal experience, as evidenced by his slip into the use of ‘I’ as he describes the content of his story: ‘There was comedy in it, and slaughter. … And since I could find in the universe only what was deeply rooted in the fibres of my being there was love in it, too’ (61-62). Embedded within the Commanding Officer’s tale is an account told by the ‘Northman’ encountered by the narrator while on a wartime voyage. Additionally, Bonney argues...