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Two Tales of Gothic Adventure: She and Heart of Darkness
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Despite Fredric Jameson's view that Conrad floats "uncertainly somewhere in between Proust and Robert Louis Stevenson," many biographers and critics of Conrad have been more preoccupied with ignoring or denying the possible influence of popular literary conventions upon his work than with exploring the precise elements that set Heart of Darkness apart from formulaic fictions. Thus, in standard works on Conrad, Gérard Jean-Aubry, J. D. Gordan, and Jocelyn Baines, for instance, do not mention H. Rider Haggard at all, and Frederick Karl mentions him only to dismiss him along with other popular writers as a possible influence. On the other side of the court, Morton Cohen, Haggard's biographer, makes no reference to Conrad. The explanation for the apparent lack of personal and professional contact between the two writers may lie in Edward Garnett's recollection that in 1894 Conrad had attacked Haggard's works as being "too horrible for words."

However, Conrad's comment reveals that he was familiar with some Haggard before he began writing Heart of Darkness in 1898. She (1887) does contain the phrase "the heart of the darkness." Because it is clichéd that phrase lends only minimal support to speculations about Haggard's possible source value to Conrad, but it is only one of several remarkable parallels of phrase and incident in the two novels. Indeed, Allan Hunter notes numerous phrases that the two novels have in common. And as Steven Donovan points out, Conrad was not so far removed from the popular culture of his own time as had been previously assumed. A comparison of the two works reveals once again (as in the cases of Dostoyevsky's and Faulkner's respective uses of the detective formula, for instance) how a serious artist adapted the conventions of popular art to produce a recognized canonical masterpiece and confirms some general conclusions about the nonformulaic versus formulaic use of the Gothic adventure genre. As John Cawelti notes, "Formula stories affirm existing interests and attitudes by presenting an imaginary world that is aligned with those interests and attitudes." Haggard's work does that. Conrad's does not. Despite the influence of She on Heart of Darkness and with all due respect to Haggard's wonderful imagination and our newfound respect for popular culture, Conrad remains by far the greater writer.

In a brief but perceptive article in 1987, Murray Pittock noticed several parallels between the two works, and concluded that

Conrad's close interest in Haggard's methods, despite his scorn for his performance, shows us the way Haggard's plot may be at work in Conrad's story, albeit in a subtle form. Although in Haggard's case the mixture of the adventurous and the ethical shows in different proportion to that in the work of his greater successor, the influence of his conceptions on Conrad, noticed in general terms by several critics, needs more specific attention than it has hitherto received.

Pittock specifically notes several parallels of plot and character, as follows. First, both stories "concern journeys undertaken to meet a mysterious character in the heart of Africa, in both cases white, recalling the legends of Prester John" or of Mujaji, the white-skinned queen of the Lovedu tribes in the Transvaal. Second, "Both journeys into the interior are by river, and, like Marlow's, the helmsman of Holly and Leo is killed as a result of the action of the natives before either of the protagonists can reach his destination." Third, in both works, the great age of Africa is part of the mystery. Fourth, the "technological superiority" of the contemporary explorers is "a feature of both books." Fifth, "Marlow's first sight of Kurtz echoes Holly's last sight of Ayesha in She, as one terribly aged: 'I could see the cage of his ribs [and] the bones of his arms moving.'" Sixth, both Holly and Marlow witness secret rites: Marlow "encounters Kurtz in the wood during the rites of the African sorcerer..., which echoes Holly's solitary witnessing of Ayesha cursing her dead rival, Amenartas." And last, neither Kurtz's soul nor Ayesha's knows any restraint and both "yearn for power."

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