Conrad's dark heart

Joseph Conrad
March 19, 1999

Andrew Roberts's selection for Joseph Conrad is broad and varied, drawing on a wide range of contemporary literary theory with an impressive list of contributors. Besides a 24-page introduction which sets out the overall scope and construction of the book, there are valuable headnotes which entice the reader by giving the salient points of each excerpt, and also place each one securely within its critical context.

Many of the contributors offer original angles on Conrad's work. Terence Cave considers Under Western Eyes in terms of Aristotelian anagnorisis, and Padmini Mongia views Lord Jim as displaying many of the characteristics of a typical Gothic heroine. The style is lively and provocative and the reader can gain as much from disagreement as from being persuaded - attempting for instance to refute Mark Wollaeger's assertion that The Secret Agent is peopled by "wind-up toys", and that the narrator shows a "monologic indifference to the fate of the characters".

The book meets the most stringent academic requirements of undergraduates and teachers through its index, bibliography, and extensive footnotes. The editor has ensured however that readers less experienced in the field will not feel out of their depth; the glossary of terms and the notes on contributors make the volume accessible to Conrad followers at all levels.

At least one chapter is dedicated to each major novel, and those who equate Conrad with Heart of Darkness will be pleased to find that the latter appears in triplicate. Anyone who dislikes the prevalence of this equation should note that two of the three commentaries are serious attacks on its artistic standing. Nina Pelikan Straus suggests that any non-enthusiasm of female readers for the text may be significantly and justifiably related to their gender; and Chinua Achebe's classic accusation of racism is striking for its clarity and keenness - "Conrad's savages ... must in fact have had other occupations besides merging into the evil forest or materialising out of it simply to plague Marlow and his dispirited band". Devotees will have their appreciation sharpened by the need to counter these onslaughts; and although the third piece in the novella is abstracted from a longer source, those who are frustrated by the incomplete resolution of its ending can profitably turn to Allon White's book, The Uses of Obscurity: The Fiction of Early Modernists and study at greater length his ideas on deliberate obscurity in Conrad.

Achebe's essay gains force from being printed in its entirety, and is wonderfully free from technical jargon. It is however one of the great strengths of this collection that the denser contributions can, with the assistance of the headnotes and the admirable precision of the glossary, lead uncertain readers towards a more confident grasp of complex critical theories. The book is a welcome addition to existing critical anthologies.

Rodie Sudbery is a researcher and part-time tutor in English literature, University of York.

Joseph Conrad

Editor - Andrew Michael Roberts
ISBN - 0 582 24598 2
Publisher - Longman
Price - £15.99
Pages - 285

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