Part 2 of Heart of Darkness Review
Could a book like this exist today?
The book is well-crafted, but one still can doubt whether a book written in this style would be considered literature today. First, there is the high moral tone of the book. Morality tales rarely are considered literature today. What is ironic is that the classic morality tales of yesterday are considered a kind of barbarism today (a hint at the degree to which we have become a post-modern society?). Of course, moralism survives today in historical fiction, romantic literature, and perhaps religious fiction — but these are considered genre fictions and are often looked on as lower forms of literature for better or worse. One also can question whether Conrad’s use of alliteration and dramatic repetition would be considered literary.
One also has to wonder whether a character like Kurtz could exist in modern literature. Certainly, a character like Kurtz was used in the film Apocalypse Now. But what about a modern business man? Gordon Gecko wasn’t a Kurtz because he didn’t feel he had to negotiate two contradictory ideals. Greed was good, so there was never any internal conflict. Where would we go to find this internal conflict again? Modern development projects? War again? I saw hints of the Kurtz character, surprisingly, in a State Department official represented in The Kite Runner. If you have a chance to read the Kite Runner please pay close attention to a little scene toward the end of the book where the main character approaches a State Department official. I think this scene is illustrative (and will get you thinking again about good and evil in the modern era).
Another mechanism (trope?) that might not hold up by modern standards is the romantic invocation of the sea. Conrad writes, “for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself, which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny” (page 4). Would this stand up to modern scrutiny, or would we label this as something more fitting of historical fiction?
On the use of Marlow as a narrator
Marlow tells the story of the Heart of Darkness. Thus, the story is one long monologue often interrupted by Marlow’s own reflections on how the events of the story have impacted him personally. From the beginning, Marlow’s credibility as a narrator is thrown into doubt. Conrad lets us know that Marlow does not always understand the needs of his listeners (in other words, he is a self-centered story-teller. Then again, what story-teller isn’t?).
One could fault this story for breaking the rule of “show, don’t tell.” Marlow provides a lot of commentary, including his own interpretations of what is happening. One could think of a narrator as a kind of workaround of the old writing rule of “show, don’t tell.” A narration can be both dialogue and prose, pulling you into a story and out of a story into another story happening in the present; the two story-telling as a framing story can work with the original story in dynamic ways. In the case of Heart of Darkness, the story outside of the story gave me the impression that there would be many more kinds of darknesses as long as there were ships to go to faraway places.