Changing the Meaning of Conrad's Heart of Darkness
Unless one is aware of what the critics are doing in their redefining, one can easily be led, especially with Miller, into a reading of Heart of Darkness quite different from Conrad's. The redefinition of terms made by the three critics (Karl, Thomas, and Miller) increases in subtlety and danger. Karl is brazen in his redefining of metal and few, and he blatantly disregards Conrad's text in redefining artistic. By shifting from synonym to synonym in a redefining of lies and the reason for Marlow's hatred of them, Thomas is able to conclude that, in the end, Marlow accepts lies.
Miller puts more distance between his varying definitions, but it is in his redefining of aspects of parable that he is most crafty. He changes the explicit narrative of parable from commonplace to historical (and bizarre), he confines the implicit narrative to being oriented to the future (in spite of his principal illustration), and he changes the purpose from veiling to unveiling, while omitting opposing evidence that must have pressed upon him. He can thus conclude that Marlow is able to unveil only the process of unveiling--a conclusion made possible by omitting key parts of Conrad's texts. The redefining of terms emerges as a Protean activity.
At least Northrop Frye was obvious in his redefining of terms. When he defined illusion as "whatever is fixed or definable" (78), he ascribed to it a meaning not even remotely similar to any meaning appearing in the history of the word as recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. Three recent critics of Conrad's Heart of Darkness redefine terms in such a way that they range from being fairly close to Frye in obviousness to being remarkably subtle, thereby requiring great caution if one is to avoid being taken in.
With one paragraph in the interpretation by Frederick R. Karl, the text itself provides a warning about what the critic is doing. Within the context of metallic images, Karl offers by way of example "the smoothly metallic, white luxurious ivory itself" (128). Metal is here redefined so as to include the bone of an animal: so much for the distinctions of animal, vegetable, and mineral. Speaking in the same paragraph about the beauty of art and claiming that it is meant only for the "few," Karl offers by way of example, along with pyramids and tombs, "churches" and so redefines "few" to include the masses of people who have crowded into the churches.
In another part of the paragraph, we can benefit from remembering Conrad's text. The three activities Karl offers by way of illustrating Kurtz's "artistic propensities" are these: "he paints, he collects human heads, he seeks ivory" (128). Certainly painting is often a function of art, but while collecting objets d'art is also such a function, Kurtz killed his enemies and stuck their rotting heads up on poles so as to intimidate any other opponents, and thereby increase...