Literature05 Feb 2008 08:39 pm
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness ranks among the elite group of literary classics for good reasons. It boasts nothing less than the following: an epic villain, a famous narrator, an early critique of colonialism in Africa, famous last words, a memorialized river, a film adaptation that is elite in its own right, and a whole subgenre of literature inspired by it. (This perhaps explains why F. Scott Fitzgerald followed Conrad around like an awestruck schoolboy at fashionable London parties.)
The narrator of Heart of Darkness, Charlie Marlow, is a narrator in the great tradition of framed narratives—Moby Dick, Gulliver’s Travels, and the Arabian Nights are some other examples—wherein the main story unfolds inside a story featuring a largely separate cast of characters. Conrad exploits this literary device, also known as mise en abyme, to highlight the symbolic extension of the specific conclusions drawn from Marlow’s story, set in the jungle, applied to the real, “civilized” world of present day action.
Heart of Darkness is most innovative in its depiction of Marlow’s relationship to the novella’s villain, Kurtz; it has no single literary precedent. Readers cannot help but admit the undoubted talents possessed by the likes of Lucan’s Caesar and Milton’s Satan or even sympathize with the tragic downfalls of once-good men Victor Frankenstein and Macbeth, but, hitherto, all such villians ended in a position of total defeat, both with respect to their stories and in the assessment of audiences. Kurtz, embodiment of evil though he may be, exposes the hypocrisies and social masks intrinsic to civilization and ultimately forces Marlow, who personifies human reason, to abandon his faith in society—a desertion represented by his storytelling “pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes.”
The Janus-faced themes of mendacity and authenticity were increasingly important toward the end of the 19th C and are especially prominent in the literature and criticism of our own time. Earlier notions of the motivations that underlie individual and societal virtue have been compromised as our psyche has been thrown under the philosophical microscope. Marlow’s reaction to a humanity suspended in moral limbo—a kind of scarred, horrified paralysis—has been infrequently transcended.