Joseph Conrad and James Joyce share an interest in the aesthetic qualities of bad eyesight. Drawing on recent disability theory, this essay shows how Conrad and Joyce make use of disabled or “low” vision to initiate what I call weak narration, the tendency to prioritize the sensory-rich experiences of diminished perception over the normative demands of narrative resolution. Relying on low vision for their hazy, impressionist atmosphere, Conrad's novels specifically form a response to fin de siècle degeneration theory, which links proper perception to a larger narrative of human development. Though Heart of Darkness follows such a formula by using the failure of sight to mark narrative decline, Conrad's later texts, especially The End of the Tether, disrupt any deterministic relationship between sight and progress. Joyce takes up a similar line in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where Stephen Dedalus's low vision draws his attention to sensations that repeatedly distract from his bildungsroman plot. The low-vision characters of Ulysses then offer a conclusion to this strategy in the way they altogether abandon progress to make a narrative of wandering sensations, revealing in the process the centrality of disability to the antidevelopment plot as well as to modernist aesthetics more generally.

You do not currently have access to this content.