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Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (review)

From: Conradiana
Volume 42, Number 3, Fall 2010
pp. 85-89 | 10.1353/cnd.2010.0021

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D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke's introduction to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a concise, readable book aimed at general readers and students undertaking close studies of Heart of Darkness. This well structured volume is divided into five sections: Text and Contexts, Critical History, Critical Readings, Adaptations, and Further Readings. These sections are closely connected through cross-references that give the book a compact, coherent structure in which textual interpretation and contextual and critical material are set fruitfully in dialogue.

Framed in a crisp, accessible style, the book's first section ("Text and Context") offers broad, illuminating accounts of the literary, cultural, ideological, and historical contexts to which Conrad's novella responds. The wealth of material it furnishes should help the intended readers become familiar with various contexts and controversies surrounding Conrad's text. Goonetilleke in this well-informed, wide-ranging section discusses a host of issues, including Conrad's cultural identity, the affinities of Heart of Darkness with the adventure tradition that Conrad both adopts and subverts, the novella's transtextual connections (the influence of Dante, echoes of Virgil's Aeneid, Gothic echoes, Nietzsche's influence . . . ), the text's symbolism and narrative strategies, the issues of race, imperialism, and gender, and the history of the Congo. By usefully covering most of the major topics central to Heart of Darkness from varied critical angles, this section will no doubt be valuable to those seeking a wide grasp of the novella's thematic, ideological, and symbolic ramifications.

Interestingly, while providing an enlightening survey of the novella's themes and literary and historical contexts, this book's section brings in two original points to the debate. The first consists of Kurtz's place in the narrative. In his discussion of this specific issue, Goonetilleke clearly goes against mainstream criticism by considering Kurtz a more central character to the novella than is Charlie Marlow. I will not, of course, discuss at length this intriguing view, but will simply argue that to inquire which of the two characters is central to the text, as does Goonetilleke in this section, may not prove a particularly fruitful critical venue. The reason is that the main concern in this complex text is not so much knowing whether Kurtz is more central than Marlow, as to finding out how Conrad sets both figures in an interlocking process of characterization in order to articulate his central concern with the notion of duplicity in this novella (duplicity in relation to the major questions of being with oneself and others, race, culture, and imperialism). Indeed, because Conrad consistently presents the two characters as the antithetical sides of the same coin, any attempt to give primacy to one side over the other runs the risk of flattening out the characters' existential complexity as well as undermining the tale's essential narrative and epistemological indeterminacy.

The second fresh point brought home in this section relates to Conrad's cultural identity. Early in this section, Goonetilleke openly contests the traditional image of Conrad as a "homo-duplex" (Davies xxiii). He argues that both this "duplex" and subsequent "tri-lingual and tri- cultural identity" assigned to Conrad are "inadequate" (3). In his assault on these traditional images of Conrad, Goonetilleke rightly stresses that Conrad's identity is not only a product of the Polish, French and British cultures, but has also been shaped by the Asian and African cultures that his long experience at sea brought him in contact with: "These non-European cultures too exerted a strong influence on him and contributed significantly to shaping his sensibility. I would suggest that Conrad possesses a multiple identity that is the result of the influence of all the cultures he encountered" (4).

That Conrad has a multiple identity composed of both European and non-Western ingredients, as Goonetilleke notes, is unquestionable. However, it is important to remark, especially when discussing a book targeting those in their formative years, that it would be unwise to talk so dismissively of Conrad's "homo-duplex" identity (3). The reason is that this "homo-duplex" discourse has a history of its own and originated in a specific context which deserves close attention (Davies xxiii). Briefly put, Conrad issued...



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