"The Horror! the Horror!": Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as a Gothic Novel

Article excerpt

The only legitimate basis of creative work lies in the courageous recognition of all the irreconcilable antagonisms that make our life so enigmatic, so burdensome, so fascinating, so dangerous, so full of hope. They exist! And this is the only fundamental truth of fiction.

--Joseph Conrad (Qtd. in Swisher 12)

[The artist] speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives, to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation--and to the subtle but invisible convictions of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity--the dead to the living and the living to the unborn [...] My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see. That--and no more, and it is everything.

--Joseph Conrad (Qtd. in Swisher 34-35)

Joseph Conrad said much regarding his role as author to make you see the truth. However, he also said that he didn't like to explain what his books were about, because that would open him up to the criticism that he had failed as an artist to achieve understanding in the audience regarding what he could say the work was "really" about. Fortunately, the field of literary criticism, theory, and interpretation have stepped in to (ad)venture failure in explaining the meaning and significance of Heart of Darkness. This is another such (ad)venture into the teeming jungle of Conrad's long short story (or short novel), and the equally wild overgrowth of vegetation that is Conrad studies, criticisms, commentaries, and interpretations. According to the editor of the most recent Heart of Darkness casebook, "[t]he cutting edge of literary criticism seems to swing between formal and cultural-historical approaches every twenty years or so" with a pendulum whose swath swings (cuts) through postcolonialism, the adventure genre, historicism, irony, metaphor, the imagery of language, modernism, postmodernism, feminism, deconstructionism, psychology and psychoanalysis, authorial intention, and the philosophical branches of epistemology, morality, and metaphysics (Moore 7). Certainly no Castle of Otranto. Ironically, that is exactly what the lack and void is regarding this novel, where "the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine" (Heart 68). Not enough attention has been given to Heart of Darkness as a serious novel of horror, a prime example of the highest of British Gothic fiction. This hero's quest, then, is to examine the flaws and benefits of the more famous works regarding Heart of Darkness and then discuss the work as a Gothic novel, all in terms of the question, Can "traditional" examinations of Heart of Darkness do the story the justice that an interpretation of the novel focusing on its Gothic elements can?

Woe to Walter F. Wright, who in his 1949 essay "Ingress to the Heart of Darkness" wrote "[w]e perceive that Africa itself, with its forests, its heat, and its mysteries, is only a symbol of the larger darkness, which is in the heart of man." (Qtd. in Harkness, Conrad's 155) In 1975, all discussion of the Western literary canon, Joseph Conrad, and Heart of Darkness "burst into a blaze so suddenly that you would have thought the earth had opened to let an avenging fire consume all that trash" (Heart 90). Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, a nonfictional African raised in a nonfictional African society shaped by European colonialism, denounced Conrad as a "bloody racist" with "a problem with niggers"; Heart of Darkness as a portrayal of Africans as dumb brute (animal) rudimentary soul savages in a frenzy; and the Western world as a bunch of paternalists who think they can somehow comprehend what racism and colonialism has wrought on Africans (Achebe 190). …