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  • Heart of Darknessby Joseph Conrad
  • Yael Levin
Heart of Darkness. By Joseph Conrad. Fifth Norton Critical Edition. Edited by Paul B. Armstrong. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2017.

The history of the critical reception of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darknesshas transformed the text in a way that recalls one of its oft-quoted passages. For the young Marlow, the map of Africa is "a blank space of delightful mystery—a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over." Exploration and conquest spell the loss of this symbolic innocence and that blank space becomes "a place of darkness" (8). The proliferation of analysis and commentary on the novella since its original 1899 publication offers a reenactment of this process. Chinua Achebe's famous 1975 denunciation of its author contributed much to the fact that any reading is always a rereading of Conrad's text through the prism of its racial attitudes. Heart of Darknessis always already framed.

The Norton Critical Edition has the paradoxical function of both reinforcing and challenging this determinism. A large part of the materials accompanying the text is devoted to the Congo's colonial past, a history of violence that quickly overshadows the story. At the same time, new critical approaches ranging from terrorism to ecocriticism demand we think Conrad's text anew. The choice of a new version of the novella, an editorial decision grounded in recent genetic research on the history of its publication, is also indicative of a real attempt to rethink the work in light of recent critical developments.

Excerpts from David Van Reybrouck's recently published Congo: The epic history of a peopleprovide a welcome new supplement to the previous edition's selection in "Backgrounds and Contexts." The passages chosen present an interesting accompaniment to the fiction and shed light on some of its more elusive themes. The European practice of concubinage is one such example in that it offers a broader context for our reading of the character of Kurtz's African paramour. More pertinent, perhaps, is the description of the economic and political backdrop to the novella's action. Reybrouck opens with the 1884 Berlin conference of the major European powers to apportion territories for colonization in Africa. King Leopold II of Belgium is here authorized to oversee the "International Association of the Congo" in return for his pledge to eradicate slave trade and promote freedom of commerce. Free trade quickly translates into financial ruin for the monarch. To remedy a state of no return on his investment, Leopold nationalizes 99 percent of the land and exploits its emerging rubber industry for personal profit. The proliferation of violence that ensues brings about the devastation of the country's economy and culture. Reybrouck's narrative may end in Leopold's surrender of his power to the Belgian parliament in 1908, but the editorial choice to succeed the historical account with Leopold's "The Civilizing Mission" quickly recalls the reader to the horror of a colonial discourse that argues that "strong authority must be imposed to bring the natives… to conform to the usages of civilization" (124).

One of the significant contributions this section offers the uninitiated reader is an elucidation of Conrad's part in the effort to expose the truth behind Leopold's benevolent rhetoric. Conrad's reflections on his experiences in Africa as well as his writing on behalf of the Congo Reform Association leave little doubt as to his position. Allan Simmons furthers our education on this point by untangling the history of Conrad's encounter with Roger Casement, the British consul to the Congo who authored the 1904 report that played a central role in curbing Leopold's unchecked rule. For readers eager to play judge and executioner to Conrad's place in colonial history, this is an important find.

The critical corpus that cemented the novella's reputation as a canonical work of early modernism is well represented in the section on criticism. Albert Guerard's seminal study of the night journey into the unconscious provides a helpful reference to the subjective turn evident in modernist writing, a turn that finds its stylistic elaboration in Ian Watt...

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