Work, Unemployment, And The Exhaustion Of Fiction In Heart Of Darkness

1076 words - 4 pages

In the "Author's Note" that accompanied the second British edition of Heart of Darkness in book form (1902), Conrad responds to the "literary speculation" (9) that swirled around his surrogate narrator Marlow by describing their relationship as if it were an actual friendship rather than an effect of artistic creation. When Conrad hints at one point that with the disappearance of his creator, Marlow's "occupation would be gone and he would suffer from that extinction" (10), it is possible to take this as a bad joke, if one that anticipates later modern critical developments such as the emergence of the concept of the "death of the author."( n1) But what are we to make of the fact that Conrad's somewhat glib allusion to his proxy's potential unemployment occurs in the preface to a novella so fundamentally--and darkly--preoccupied with the themes of work, the extinction of work, and death? After all, near the beginning of his journey upriver, Marlow will encounter a set of figures who tread the line between work and extinction, but this time in a situation much less whimsical than that framed in the "Author's Note":They were dying slowly--it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now,--nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest. (35)Worked until they can work no more, until they "became inefficient," these native laborers have been abandoned to an "extinction" far more dire than the one predicted by Conrad for his character. Nevertheless, however different the tonal bearings of the two passages, in conjunction they intimate a subtle line of affiliation between the formal organization of the novella, pivoting as it does on the status of the frame narrator Marlow, and its setting and subject matter.We are accustomed to understanding Heart of Darkness as at once a dramatic announcement of the emergence of literary modernism and a vivid, if ambiguous, evocation of European imperialism at its moment of peak expansion. In this essay, however, I argue that it is also a profound and timely mediation on the changing nature of work at the turn of the century. In fact, it is Conrad's engagement with the concept of work that enables us to understand most vividly the relationship between the novella's innovative formal organization and its depiction of the dysfunction and depravity of the Belgian Congo. In particular, and consonant with both the "Author's Note" and the period in which the novella was written, Conrad's preoccupation with work manifests itself specifically, if somewhat paradoxically, in a fixation upon unemployment. Unemployment--especially as we find it in this text, with its images of obsolescence, issueless effort, and frantic...

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