Essay on Changing the Meaning of Conrad's Heart of Darkness

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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...

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...tionary of the Bible. Ed. George Arthur Buttrick et al. 5 vols. Nashville: Abingdon, 1962-76. 3: 649-54.

Murfin, Ross C., ed. Joseph Conrad, "Heart of Darkness": A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism. New York: Bedford-St. Martin's, 1989.

The New English Bible. Oxford: Oxford UP and Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1970.

(The New Testament part first published 1961.)

The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Ed. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. 20 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.

Pherigo, Lindsey P. "The Gospel According to Mark." Laymon 97-177.

Stanley, David M., and Raymond E. Brown. "The Parables of Jesus." Brown, Fitzmyer, and Murphy 2: 788-90.

Stuhlmueller, Carroll. "The Gospel According to Luke." Brown, Fitzmyer, and Murphy 2: 115-64.

Thomas, Brook. "Preserving and Keeping Order by Killing Time in Heart of Darkness." Murfin 237-55.

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