Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

The Proximity of Distance: Fascination, Reception, and Heart of Darkness

Academic journal article West Virginia University Philological Papers

The Proximity of Distance: Fascination, Reception, and Heart of Darkness

Article excerpt

Since 1899, when Blackwood's Magazine published three installments of what would become Heart of Darkness, readers have struggled to come to terms with Joseph Conrad's bestknown work. Approaching the novella from within the political context of fin-de-siecle Britain, early readers and critics perceived it "as an attack upon Belgian colonial methods in the Congo; as a moral tract; and as a study in race relationships" (Haugh 35), evaluations which overlap but by no means agree. Others treated Heart of Darkness as if it were a romance, similar in genre to Kipling's Indian stories or Henty's Under Drake's Flag (1883), or as an attack on the romance itself. Still others followed Conrad's lead in the preface to Youth: A Narrative and Two Other Stories and saw the novella--despite its heavy symbolism--in biographical terms. (1) By mid-century, Heart of Darkness had been read and reread by critics from across the critical spectrum, many of whom now focused on its psychological themes (see, e.g., Guerard 36-41). It would fall to Chinua Achebe, in a 1975 speech, to demonstrate that what the novella had to say about human psychology depended upon its erasing the psychology of native peoples. Those who initially responded to Achebe's charge that Conrad and his novella were racist often bypassed the part of Achebe's argument that shows how Heart of Darkness treats Africans as objects of fascination for civilized Europeans. To this day, Conradians have yet to give sufficient attention to the fascination that Achebe deplores and that Conrad represents so powerfully. (2) My goal here is to redress that situation by showing how Conrad uses self-cancelling narrative strategies to disorient his readers, especially in the crucial beginning of the narrative, so that he might redirect readers' attention from the narrator to the representational and affective force of Marlow's commentary on fascination. Towards that end, I use reader-response tenets to investigate what the narrative asks readers to do as well as how it positions them to feel. (3)

I.

Heart of Darkness begins with a group of friends resting at anchor in the Thames estuary. The language that establishes this setting is at once conventional and dispassionate. With laudable precision, it represents the place where Conrad will stage his novella. As the first-person narrator speaks, however, the introduction changes. (4) An affable tone now predominates as the unnamed--and, one should add, undescribed--narrator depicts the characters who will be the narrative's primary audience. The first of these characters is compared favorably to a pilot. But the Director of Companies, the Nellie's owner, isn't a pilot and therefore can't be "trustworthiness personified," as the narrator asserts. Such praise would be better applied to an experienced sailor who captains a ship rather than to a businessman safely at anchor on a mere yawl. The other two unnamed characters, the Lawyer and the Accountant, get the briefest of mention before readers meet Charlie Marlow. With his "sunken cheeks" and "yellow complexion," Marlow is either ill or recovering from an illness. Having observed the signs of that unease, the narrator likens him to an "idol," a lifeless object of worship. This comparison too is unhelpful, for Marlow is very much alive and shows little evidence, outside of his posture, of having a religious predisposition. "I have already said somewhere," the narrator remarks, by way of explanation and without benefit of quotation marks, how "the bond of the sea" is shared by the men aboard the Nellie (3). To whom the narrator is speaking and where that "somewhere" is go unexplained.

The strange obscurity of this beginning invites readers' scrutiny. What emerges from it is a sense that the narrator's opening discourse is not of a piece. Specifically, the realistic elements in the setting's description don't meld with the elliptical character portraits which seem positively out-of-place once the narrator, offering a welter of pathetic fallacies, speaks of the "mournful gloom, brooding motionless," the "brooding gloom" (3), the "gloom to the west, brooding," and "the touch of that gloom brooding over a crowd of men" (4). …

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