Conradian Eldritch: Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Joseph Conrad's "The Heart of Darkness"

By Watts, Cedric | The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.), Autumn 2012 | Go to article overview

Conradian Eldritch: Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Joseph Conrad's "The Heart of Darkness"


Watts, Cedric, The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)


"It is nineteenth-century up-to-date with a vengeance. And yet, unless my senses deceive me, the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which mere 'modernity' cannot kill."

Jonathan Harker's Journal:

Dracula (1897; 2003: 43)

I

A PERSON WHO had read Bram Stoker's Dracula when it appeared in 1897 and who later proceeded to read Conrad's "The Heart of Darkness" on its publication in 1899 in Blackwood's Magazine would have noticed a number of remarkable echoes of the former novel in Conrad's tale. Of course, the two works differ enormously from each other, which makes all the more intriguing the fact that Conrad, when depicting the corruption of Kurtz, repeatedly employs phrasing which evokes memories of Stoker's depiction of the "undead" (spelt "UnDead" in the original text), of the vampiric aggressor, and of the vampirized victim. Although there had been various earlier fictional works dealing with such material (one of the most celebrated being John William Polidori's The Vampyre), Dracula offered the most elaborate, sophisticated, and informative account.

When Marlow encounters Kurtz, he says: "You should have heard the disinterred body of Mr Kurtz saying 'My Intended'" (496). The striking word here is "disinterred." Kurtz has simply been retrieved from his trading station in the jungle; but the adjective, suggesting that Kurtz has, after burial, emerged from his burial-place, associates him with the vampiric and the undead (and, of course, with exhumed ivory). The association is predominantly metaphorical and ironic; but, as Marlow continues to use a vocabulary associating Kurtz with emergence from a grave, the repetition may cause the metaphorical to acquire the status of the literal. The recurrence of connected striking metaphors can make the figurative "vehicle" (to adopt I. A. Richards's terminology) sometimes dissolve the realistic "tenor" partly or wholly, and even replace it. The more the figurative gains literalization, the more the customary realistic and secular plot is challenged or eroded by the "Gothic" and "supernatural" elements of a shimmeringly tenuous covert plot. In this covert plot, Kurtz is envisaged as one of the undead, the victim of a form of vampirism who becomes vampiric in turn. In the latter part of the tale, this spectral material intrudes, briefly and fleetingly but effectively, on the dominant and far more extensive realistic secular plot.

Marlow continues: "They say the hair goes on growing sometimes, but this - ah - specimen, was impressively bald" (496). Here Marlow refers to the popular (though erroneous) belief that hair continues to grow on corpses, and makes the ironic point that this example (implicitly, this example of a corpse) was an exception to the rule, being bald. At this time, Kurtz is patently alive, yet Marlow is again half-jocularly soliciting the notion that Kurtz, like a vampire, is an animated corpse. The term "specimen" invites us to think of Kurtz as an instance of something peculiar for scientific scrutiny: an object for Van Helsing's scrutiny, perhaps; Van Heising being the Dutch "scientific" investigator of vampirism in Dracula. The baldness - "like an ivory ball" - enables Marlow to link Kurtz physically to the barbaric ivory trade and to the skulls on posts facing Kurtz's bungalow. Kurtz resembles in hue "an animated image of death carved out of old ivory" (639). Dracula, when Jonathan Harker first meets him, is remarkably pale, "without a single speck of colour about him" (22): "The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor" (25).

In a striking passage, Marlow tells us how Kurtz came to be as he is:

'The wilderness had patted him on the head, and, behold, it was like a ball - an ivory ball; it had caressed him, and - lo! - he had withered; it had taken him, loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation. …

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