The Conradian: Review

By Andrea White, California State University at Dominguez Hills

Allan H. Simmons, Conrad's "Heart of Darkness": A Reader's Guide London: Continuum, 2007. 176 pp. Paper £10.99/$15.95 Hardcover $90

D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke, Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness". London: Routledge, 2007 160 pp. Paper $95

Norton Critical Edition of Heart of Darkness (4th edn; 2005), ed. Paul B. Armstrong. New York: W. W. Norton. 416 pp. Paper $11.88

It is an irony, in keeping with the tone of "Heart of Darkness," that Chinua Achebe’s 1977 essay that denounces the novella as racist and imperialist and as such unworthy of its place in the canon should have so thoroughly “invigorated Conrad studies,” as D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke observes (61).

It seems not only to have added fresh life to Conrad studies but to have caused the focus of renewed critical attention to center on that very condemned novella, as can be seen from the fresh spate of works on "Heart of Darkness," among them these three. All of them not only acknowledge Achebe’s charges but do so by historicizing the novella, providing the multiple contexts in which those arguments might be better – or differently – understood.

While retaining Robert Kimbrough’s textual apparatus, his choice of copy-text, some of the useful appendices of the first three editions, and Kimbrough’s own article on “Textual History and Editing Principles,” this fourth edition has been thoroughly updated to reveal the impress of current studies in gender and race and reflect recent thinking about the significance to textual interpretation of historical contexts.

Paul Armstrong, this volume’s editor, has added more recent critical essays which address the debates that have dominated Conrad studies since the publication of the third edition in 1988, particularly the controversies about the novella’s racial and gender politics.

In his Introduction, Armstrong poses the following question that the new edition tries to address: “Is the novel’s formal experimentation a tool for critical inquiry that questions dominant ideologies and challenges conventional assumptions, or is Conrad’s preoccupation with innovations in narrative form a deflection from political questioning and historical analysis – an attempt to cover up real atrocities with fanciful artistic structures?” (x).

Most useful is the section devoted to “Nineteenth-Century Attitudes towards Race” that help the student/reader understand that particular cultural context well in order to cast a more illuminating light on the controversial issue of Conrad’s alleged racism. This new section that includes selections by Hegel, Darwin, Wallace, Galton, and Kidd, spanning the years 1830 to 1920, serves to reveal the concepts of race and racism as culturally and historically inflected rather than as monolithic absolutes.

In fact, in many ways, this is a completely different casebook in that it attempts to tell the story of Leopold’s Congo through contemporary voices, including articles by Roger Casement, Conrad’s letters to Casement about the cruelties practiced by the Congo Free State, a selection by Edmund Morel, founder of the Congo Reform Association and Morel’s campaign to end it all, selections from the 1902 and 1910 editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (which replace the more distanced views of historians writing retrospectively in 1961 and 1987), an extract from a piece by King Leopold II himself, and – a holdover from former editions – the open letter from the African-American historian George Washington Williams to King Leopold in which he denounces the Congo Free State’s cruelty and deceit. Armstrong continues the telling through the writings of more recent researchers, Adam Hochschild and Allan H. Simmons.

Again, to emphasize the novella’s historical context, the views of several contemporary writers are included: Henry James, E. M. Forster, Ford Madox Ford, and Virginia Woolf. In the same vein, five reviews written at the time of the books’ publication, have been added. Among them is the very influential unsigned review by Edward Garnett that recommends "Heart of Darkness" as “a page torn from the life of the Dark Continent – a page which has been hitherto carefully blurred and kept away from European eyes” (308).

While this edition omits the article by Wilson Harris, it retains such significant contributors as Albert Guerard, Ian Watt, and Chinua Achebe. The rest are new, written for the most part since the third edition’s publication; one new section is devoted solely to the topic of “Heart of Darkness” and Apocalypse Now. Among them, they engage the current controversies about the novella’s engagement with issues of gender and race and help address the question Armstrong poses in his Introduction.

This casebook would serve the upper-division or graduate classroom as well as interested general readers and scholars. It provides the sources for a thorough historicist understanding of this literary text in contexts political, cultural, aesthetic, and historic. Numerous references, bibliography, and photos illuminate "Heart of Darkness" as an aesthetic and cultural product and provide leads for those interested in continuing their study of this controversial yet richly moving turn-of- the-century novella.

D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke’s Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is part of the Routledge Guides to Literature series, and is aimed at those beginning “detailed study” of the novella, outlining the range of responses and critical opinions the novella has occasioned over the years.

To this end, the book assembles an array of contexts in order to understand the novella’s cruxes and controversies, both the cultural and historical, as well as the biographical, literary and intellectual. The treatment of these contexts is broader than in Armstrong’s casebook, but of necessity more abbreviated.

The book’s argumentative edge is on view from the first pages in which Goonetilleke argues against those who position Conrad as Euro-centric, racist, and/or imperialist and does so by contextualizing the work in ways generally familiar to readers of casebooks such as Armstrong’s and of much current scholarship.

However, Goonetilleke’s use of the biographical context provides a somewhat novel view of a writer who was not simply “homo duplex” but an unusually complex individual, shaped by his Polish past, his travels with the French Mercantile Service and then with the British Merchant Service, the literatures of Poland, France, and England, as well as his years as an English writer living on England’s south coast.

Goonetillike argues that we need to consider more closely how Conrad’s years at sea brought him into contact with non-European cultures of the various countries the merchant services took him to, with peoples of the West Indies, South-East Asia, Australia, and Africa. Unlike other modernists, such as Woolf and Joyce, who never traveled outside of Europe, Conrad, Goonetillike emphasizes, was a migrant writer who came to his subject in 1899 with more nuanced and informed thoughts about non-Europeans than most of his contemporaries.

I am intrigued by this view but also a bit sceptical since most writers on the subject aver that Captain Korzeniowski most likely confined his exploration of those foreign lands his years as sailor, mate, and master took him to, to the European-dominated ports in which his ships weighed anchor. But this is a fresh view, one that should be seriously considered.

In the second section, “Critical History,” Goonetilleke summarizes and comments upon the novella’s reception in six sections: the initial reviews, the period of 1930 – 1959 and the novella’s general rise, the period dominated by politics, philosophy and ethics from 1960 – the 1970s, the decades of the 1970s and 1980s that he entitles “Beyond formalism,” and a final section on “Post-colonial criticism” that he divides into early and more recent. This breakdown and the major contributors to and general observations about the nature of each period could serve the student/scholar embarking on a more formal reception study of the novella.

This guide is in conversation with major commentators on the novel: Edward Said, JanMohamed, V. S. Naipaul, and China Achebe, and he does so quite directly, using contextual evidence to refute or, at least, complicate -- many of their assertions about Conrad’s racism and imperialism. He discusses the cultural context of Social Darwinism and its attendant racism which, he demonstrates, "Heart of Darkness" opposes.

He argues that, unlike most of the adventure and travel writing of the day, in his fiction “Conrad breaks with nineteenth-century stereotypes of unrestrained savagery” (20) and locates the darkness in Europe rather than in Africa. He provides cogent external evidence that supports the many indictments of imperialism he locates in the work, among which was Conrad’s role in the Congo Reform movement (13). Indeed, Goonetilleke quotes E. D. Morel who headed up the Congo Reform Association as saying that "Heart of Darkness" itself was “the most powerful thing ever written on the subject” (14).

More surprisingly than his countering of some postcolonial views, Goonetillike even takes on Conrad himself and asserts that the chief character in the story is Kurtz, not Marlow, even though Conrad had written that the story should be seen as “something quite on another plane than an anecdote of a man who went mad in the Centre of Africa” (CL 2: 360).

While Goonetillike goes on to write with great insight about Kurtz and about what we learn about him, albeit indirectly through Marlow, I have never been sure what is to be gained by proving that Kurtz is more important than Marlow or vice versa. They seem to me inextricable, the narrated and the narrator who both come into being through Marlow’s telling. However, Goonetillike argues his point well that “Kurtz was no innocent who simply became a victim of Africa” but an extraordinarily gifted European who acts opportunistically and barbarously. In any case, he insists throughout on the separability of Marlow and Conrad.

Part of Conrad’s irony, he argues, is in his depiction of Marlow as something of a chauvinist and a misogynist. In response to those who have accused Conrad of sexism, Goonetillike argues that actually many of Conrad’s female characters are strong individuals and, in the case of Marlow’s aunt, have more social power than the men (43).

He goes on to make use of current work on Conrad from a feminist and gender theoretical view, that of Johanna M. Smith and Nina Pelikan Straus in particular (63), and in his third section, “Critical Readings,” Ruth Nadelhaft’s feminist perspective is included along with other seminal recent essays that represent a range of theoretical perspectives.

The fourth section, “Adaptations,” lists various versions of the novella, particularly and at some length the film Apocalypse Now. The fifth section, “Further Reading and Web Resources,” will serve students and interested readers well for it not only contains an up to date selected bibliography of critical print sources on the novella, as well as on his life, but also a useful list of web resources.

Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” by Allan H. Simmons, as part of the Continuum Reader’s Guides, explicitly sets out to aid the secondary student and general reader of Conrad’s novella. As such, it is a compact invaluable source for understanding the novella in terms of biographical, historic, and literary contexts. It is helpfully divided into 5 sections: Contexts; Language, Style and Form; Reading Heart of Darkness; Critical Reception and Publishing History; Adaptation, Interpretation and Influence; Guide to Further Reading.

The biographical context is a miraculously condensed but comprehensive account of Conrad’s early years in Poland, his years at sea, and his last thirty years as a writer in England. The historical, intellectual, cultural, and literary contexts are also effectively compressed accounts, invaluable to today’s general reader and student.

Its great distinction from other guides and casebooks is the actual reading of the novella that Simmons provides, explicating the narrative step by step while glossing literary and historical allusions unfamiliar to many of today’s undergraduates and general readers. While free of theoretical jargon and the miasmas of intricate scholarly debates, this discussion, as well as the volume generally, is well documented, substantiating claims and pointing the way to further reading.

He writes here and in the other sections as well with an ear open to the poetry of Conrad’s prose, to the novella’s suggestiveness, and its form and use of narrative strategies that mark it as a kind of originary moment of Anglo-American literary Modernism. Although explanatory, the reading is also, of necessity, interpretive. While it works to provide evidence for such claims as Achebe’s, it does so in an extremely even-handed manner: “'Heart of Darkness' is and isn’t a racist text – inevitably so in its historicized reality, it yet counters the attitudes of its time” (62).

While “Reading” is by far the longest section of this Guide, the chapter on “Critical Reception and Publishing History” provides an overview of these matters of help to the scholar and the curious non-specialist and insists upon the significance of the publishing context to an understanding of the tale as well as making clear the ways in which critical opinion since the novella’s publication necessarily affects our reading.

Here is mentioned the major actors, from Leavis to Guerard, to Watt, and also the major contributions by feminist, Marxist, post-structuralist, and post-colonial critical viewpoints. In like manner to the other volumes under review here, Simmons’s Guide discusses Achebe’s challenge as well as the novella’s intertextuality with writings by and about Leopold’s Congo, and the Congo Reform Movement.

All of the discussions in this Reader’s Guide are models of informative compression that would serve particularly well the undergraduate classroom.
All of these writers/editors are well established, influential Conrad scholars whose many published works on Conrad reflect current scholarship in the field.

All work to make us heed the importance of reading within historical and cultural contexts that need to be better studied and understood. That they are writing from the United States, Sri Lanka, and England, respectively, suggests the international scope of Conrad studies today. Indeed, it seems that recent challenges have only rejuvenated an interest in Conradian fictions and reinvigorated Conrad studies generally.

© 2008 Andrea White






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