Three Great Tales : Heart of Darkness - Typhoon - Nigger of the Narcissus Review

Three Great Tales : Heart of Darkness - Typhoon - Nigger of the Narcissus
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Three Great Tales : Heart of Darkness - Typhoon - Nigger of the Narcissus ReviewThis great collection has three of Joseph Conrad's excellent short novels -- The...Narcissus (Amazon won't allow the full title), Heart of Darkness, and Typhoon. This is not only convenient but a great value, making the book a great buy for anyone who can track it down.
Though not in Joseph Conrad's top tier, The...Narcissus (Amazon won't allow the full title) is an excellent novel that would be most writers' best. Conrad turned to writing when nearly forty after more than twenty years at sea, and his early work is dominated by what he experienced on his many voyages. This is no different but significant in coming after his last trip, thus serving as both a goodbye to the sea and a formal introduction to writing. It is not his first novel but is in many ways his most representative - the culmination of his early sea adventure slant and the real beginning of the dense psychological penetration characterizing his masterpieces. Conrad wrote that it was the book by which he would stand or fall as an artist, and so it is; nearly everything great about his later work is here, and there are bits of excellence to which he rarely or never returned. He stands tall indeed.
Like nearly all Conrad, the book works on two levels. The most obvious is a rollicking sea adventure. Those who love the picaresque voyages so common in nineteenth century literature will hardly find a better one; this has all the excitement, suspense, and drama one could want. The voyage has many trials: grueling challenges, hairs-breadth escapes, great tests of strength and stamina, and more. Nearly everything bad that could happen does, pushing weathered sailors to the max in a way that is both entertaining and a tribute to human will and endurance. Even many who find classic literature boring will be engrossed.
This aspect is also of great historical value as a fascinating peek into a bygone era. Life on a ship was practically its own world, often with little connection or similarity to life on land. Conrad vividly shows what a merchant ship voyage was like, painstakingly detailing every aspect from departure to arrival. We see ship life's ups and downs, its bright and dark sides, and also learn much about sailors; everything from daily routines to customs and speech are memorably and believably dramatized.
Here we come to the more important part - the book's dark symbolism. Oscar Wilde said that all art is at once surface and symbol and that those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril; this proves it. Few writers - nay, few people - have been as pessimistic as Conrad, and this lays bare much of his dark vision. While he clearly shows that people are capable of bravery, remarkable feats, and other conventional virtues, he also unflinchingly displays human nature's dark side. As he was always ready to reveal, this lurks always beneath even an ostensibly calm or formidable surface and can jump out without warning - often destructively. Moral ambiguity was his favorite subject, and this explores it profoundly. Specifically, it shows how a single dying black sailor unnerves a white crew - not because of the xenophobia one might expect but ironically because he elicits sympathy. This is in one sense moving, a tribute to human empathy that in many ways shows what is best in people - that, indeed, even the most outwardly selfish and shallow have latent humanity that can come out in extremity. However, the seemingly paradoxical fact that the same stimulus leads to arguments, fights, and near mutiny hints at the other pole of existence that Conrad never lets us forget. One of his great strengths is that, while he dramatizes a wealth of weighty issues, he never stoops to the heavy-handedness so common in writers handling such material and nearly always fatal. He raises the difficult question of empathy vs. unmoved strength and the consequent one of whether the former, however otherwise sublime, has any place in situations like ship life, where truly only the strong survive and even a tinge of weakness may prove disastrous.
This hints at some of the more notable ship life aspects that are still largely unknown - namely that, as in military life, a rare camaraderie is achieved among people who are often very different and would perhaps hardly get along otherwise or even have anything to do with each other. Also noteworthy is just how cosmopolitan ships were, making general concord all the more incredible. However primitive ship life was beside land life in many ways, it was certainly well ahead here.
Inevitably, this brings up the issue of the title, which seems not only politically incorrect but thoroughly perverse. Much has been written on Conrad's race views, and the issue is of great interest and relevance not merely to scholars but to anyone interested in his work. There are of course many who understandably will take the ostensible high road and refuse to read anything with such a title, and probably at least as many apologists are ready to defend Conrad against claims of racism or anything else. However, it is important to avoid knee-jerk reactions and recall a few essential facts. First, it is important to realize that the term as then used in England referred not to Africans or African Americans but West Indians; the character in question is from St. Kitts. Second, though it clearly had racist overtones, it was often used without conscious racism - perhaps even a majority of the time - as a way of designating race or nationality, much as one might say "Irishman" or "Yankee." That said, later sensitivity to the word and all it stands for is a positive development, and we must not excuse Conrad or the book as the product of an era, since there were after all even then some aware of the harm that could come from the word and its significations.
With this in mind, we can proceed to how things work in context. It is certainly true that James Wait, the titular personage, is presented in a way that is often clearly racist; such a characterization would now be near-unpublishable. However, there is far more going on than it first appears. Wait enters the story as an enigma, and the various whites view him with unsurprising distrust and suspicion. Yet it soon becomes clear that he is the subtlest character; though often described as variously primitive, he may well be the most intelligent and well-spoken and is certainly the most resourceful. This is reflected in how the narrator refers to him. The title slur is first used near-ubiquitously, and he is described in overtly racist ways. However, his real name or neutral references are used once his individuality becomes known; the pejorative and racist descriptions are almost gone by the middle of the book, never to return. This suggests that racism and xenophobia generally stem mainly from ignorance and gradually recede with familiarity, the outsiders in question becoming individuals rather than racial cutouts. Regardless of how far Conrad meant this to extend, Wait is anything but a Victorian stereotype and has many traditionally admirable qualities. Even so, like the other characters, we are never quite sure what to make of him. Is he sincere or a fraud? Loathsome and despicable or sympathetic and misunderstood? Conrad has no easy answers, but his nuanced portrait of a true Victorian outsider earns both our sympathy and our fascination and is remarkably subtle for its time despite the title.
Perhaps the foremost thing to remember is that the titular epithet refers specifically to Wait; the book makes no sweeping claims about race or anything else. Indeed, for what it is worth, many ethnic groups and nationalities are disparaged with pejoratives and other condemnations, all others being white. This may be a sign of Conrad's misanthropic streak but is above all simply realistic; he was devoted to realism however harsh the subject and would not have shrunken from showing how sailors really thought, acted, and spoke, however unwholesome to Mrs. Grundy. We can easily and legitimately debate his motives in using the title as well as insisting on it despite controversy. Perhaps he wanted attention or was being provocative, but it was again most likely a realist instinct. Even knowing all this, some may find it hard to buy or read a book with such a title, especially to keep it on their bookshelf - perhaps even only because of what the uninitiated may say. Those who like the book or want to read it but just cannot make the plunge can, if they choose, take the easy way out by getting one of many collections containing the work without including it in the title.
Wait is in any event not the only interesting character. This has one of Conrad's largest and most diverse casts, and all are drawn with memorable vigor. As anyone at all familiar with him would expect, he puts none on a pedestal. Most are indeed at least partly vile, again showing human nature's dark side, but there is something courageous or otherwise admirable - even noble - about most of them as well, giving further nuance. The penetrating psychological characterization of a single character so characteristic of Conrad is not here, but he distributes his artistry more evenly, which is about equally compelling.
Conrad certainly wrote many more seagoing tales, and themes dealt with for the rest of his career are largely anticipated here, but this also differs from other work in important ways. For instance, he is infamous for lacking humor, but this has many light-hearted elements, especially in regard to characters - some of whom are comical in a near-Dickensian manner - and their actions; Chapter One in particular is almost a burlesque. This gives some relief from the alternating high adventure and high seriousness that some miss in more representative work. Also, in great contrast to most later works, the narrative...Read more›Three Great Tales : Heart of Darkness - Typhoon - Nigger of the Narcissus Overview

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