The Art of Joseph Conrad: A Critical Symposium

By R. W. Stallman | Go to book overview

ROBERT O. EVANS


Conrad's Underworld

*

WHEN T. S. Eliot prefaced "The Hollow Men" with the memorable, if brief, quotation from Conrad "Heart of Darkness,""Mistah Kurtz--he dead," he was commenting, for his own reasons, on the finality of Kurtz's descent into the underworld, much as preachers have been known to indicate Hell as the reward for sinful life. But the poem does not really deal much with "lost, violent souls," but rather with the "stuffed men," a category to which Conrad's Marlow perhaps belonged before he made his journey up the great river in Hades. It is not entirely clear from the story whether Kurtz also began as one of the "hollow men" or not, but that point is not important, for Conrad's hero is Marlow, and the story deals with change in his character. Kurtz enters the picture, as it were, only incidentally at the end as an agent in Marlow's acquisition of knowledge. The "Heart of Darkness," like Eliot's poem, is written for the futile ones "gathered on this beach of the tumid river"; it is not much concerned with eternal damnation in the sense that the inhabitants of Dante Inferno are dead and have gathered their deserts. The story is developed in terms of symbols, and it is, of course, not always possible to distinguish a clear separation between the symbolic and literal levels of meaning. For instance, Kurtz is plainly alive when Marlow begins his journey and still alive when Marlow reaches him, but symbolically there is no doubt that he is the arch-inhabitant of Hell or that Marlow, too, has been journeying through Hell, much as Dante did in the Inferno. Superficially there are differences; for example, Marlow travels alone while Dante had Virgil for his guide. But that Africa represents Hell and the great river, Acheron, Phlegethon, Styx, or all the rivers of Hell together is a traditional interpretation of the story.

Recently Miss Lillian Feder has pointed out a number of significant parallels with Virgil's descent in the sixth book of the Aeneid, but the "Heart of Darkness" is more than a reworking of an old theme in modern guise.1 There is no question that Conrad employed epic machinery borrowed from Virgil. Essentially the story is neither a recitation of Kurtz's awful degradation nor the simple history of Marlow's enlightenment. It is a journey through the underworld, for purposes of instruction as well as entertainment, calculated to bring into focus Conrad's moral vision, as it affects the mass of humanity struggling on the brink of the "tumid river." The story is really concerned with modern ethical and spiritual values and has far more significance for the reader than any transmutation of Virgil's descent could have. Clearly it was not possible for Conrad, writing in the twentieth century, to view the world with a disregard for Christian ethics, as Virgil had to do. Accordingly one would expect Conrad

____________________
*
From Modern Fiction Studies, II ( May 1956), pp. 56-62.

-171-

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The Art of Joseph Conrad: A Critical Symposium
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgements vi
  • Table of Contents vii
  • Introduction ix
  • Part One 1
  • The Art of Conrad 5
  • Notes 13
  • Notes 13
  • Notes 19
  • Notes 35
  • Notes 45
  • Part Two 59
  • Notes 87
  • Notes 96
  • The Nigger of the "Narcissus" 121
  • On Lord Jim(an Excerpt) 140
  • On Lord Jim 142
  • Notes 154
  • Marlow's Descent into Hell 162
  • Conrad's Underworld 171
  • Three Notes On "Heart of Darkness" 179
  • Notes 186
  • On "Typhoon" and the Shadow Line 190
  • On Nostromo 191
  • Notes 198
  • Conrad's the Secret Agent 209
  • Notes 227
  • Notes 234
  • Adam, Axel, and "Il Conde" 253
  • Notes 254
  • Notes 275
  • Notes 275
  • The Secret Sharer 289
  • Joseph Conrad: Chance 296
  • Notes 304
  • The Hollow Men: Victory 313
  • The Knight: Man in Eden: the Arrow of Gold 317
  • On the Rescue 323
  • On the Rover and Suspense 330
  • Notes 331
  • Appendix I 337
  • Appendix II 345
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