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This review is from: Heart of Darkness and Selected Short Fiction (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) (Paperback)Joseph Conrad is one of the greatest short story and novella writers, and this excellent omnibus has four of his best short works: "Youth," "Heart of Darkness," "Amy Foster," and "The Secret Sharer." All are essential for any fan or critic and an excellent place for the curious to start. However, all are available in many editions with widely varying supplemental material and prices. Readers must decide what edition suits their needs, but anyone wanting a representative selection with substantial supplementary material at a reasonable price could do no better.
"Youth" is one of Conrad's most famous and acclaimed stories but is in my view the weak link. Like the better-known "Heart of Darkness," it is told by the character Marlow through another first-person narrator, but the plot is more akin to the symbolic, adventure-esque seafaring stories of prior Conrad. There is more traditional excitement and suspense than in most Conrad, especially later work, which may attract those who usually dislike his fiction. However, as nearly always with him, symbolism is the real point. As the title suggests, this is a tale about youth and all it stands for and arguably one of its best literary representations. Marlow recalls the excitement and elation he felt when he first captained a ship, fondly recalling exuberance and naïveté long since lost. However, as so often in such situations, nearly everything goes wrong, and youthful ideals are put to experience's harshly dramatic test. "Youth" is thus a sort of mini-bildungsroman, though Marlow's mad rush for the symbolic finish at the end of his story proper shows he learned very little at the time. However, he is now wiser and older, and retelling the old story brings several ambivalent feelings. He sees how much he has conventionally grown and learned but cannot help lamenting the loss of idealism that is possible only in youth and that steadily dissipates with age to the extent that it becomes hardly recognizable. Many will unfortunately relate strongly to this, and there is a good dose of Conrad's always beautiful prose and, very unusually for him, even a little humor. "Youth" would easily be most writers' masterpiece but lacks the scope, ambition, and style of Conrad's best works.
"Heart of Darkness" is Conrad's most famous and arguably best work - not only one of the greatest short works ever but simply one of the greatest period. At once vividly realistic and profoundly symbolic, it on the one hand did much to expose the Belgian Congo's atrocities and on the other is a brilliant allegory whose precise meaning is still hotly debated over a century later. One would be very hard-pressed to find a text of such length with so many and various interpretations - nay, a text of any length; Shakespeare and a few other mainstays aside, hardly any other English language text has proven so malleable. It has been seen through lenses ranging from historical to psychoanalytic to seemingly everything between them - not least including biographical, as the scariest thing about the story is just how closely it is based on Conrad's experience. "Heart" is in many ways the culmination of early Conrad, which featured, among other focuses, a strong sea element and an emphasis on European colonialism in Africa and elsewhere. It fuses both into a dark masterpiece that works on many levels. Most simply and obviously, it can be appreciated as a sort of adventure story involving exploration and human endurance pushed to its limit; it has some fine suspense in this sense. Far more importantly, it is an unflinching look into the darkness of humanity's heart - a dramatization of just how low human nature can sink. This is most overt in the depiction of brutal inhumanity toward fellow human beings, but multiple symbolic layers make it all the more disturbing. Conrad shows that, for all civilization's supposed progress, the bestial instincts underlying humanity are only repressed - and quite weakly at that. It takes only an ostensibly primitive setting to bring them out, and when unleashed they can be at least as vicious as any wild animal's and worse in being malicious. Marlow's own harsh experience suggests all this, but it comes across most forcefully in the legendary character Kurtz. Like many ambitious but unethical Europeans of the era, Kurtz had no problem exploiting those in the Congo for personal gain, but the shocking conditions and enforced brutality eventually wear him down to the point where he snaps. It is debatable whether his days end in madness or some extreme guilt/shock combination, but his immortal final words - "The horror! The horror!" - sum up the whole story and all it symbolizes. The realization of just how bad things are hits Marlow so hard that he cannot bring himself to tell Kurtz's widow the truth, letting her think that his last words were her name, though he was so far gone that he had no time to even think of such things. As his final comment says, "It would have been too dark--too dark altogether..." Much the same may be said of the story itself, so realistically unflattering is its humanity depiction, which is a large part of the reason it is a masterwork. There are many others, not least Conrad's hauntingly beautiful and complex prose. Much of his reputation as a stylist comes from this, and it is simply incredible that he was not a native English speaker.
These factors among many others made "Heart" a standard of English curricula for decades, and its popularity shows no sign of lessening. However, it has been the focus of attention for another reason in the last few decades - racist accusations stemming from African writer Chinua Achebe's famous essay. Conrad was certainly prejudiced and ethnocentric, if not necessarily racist in today's sense, which is reflected in "Heart" and most of his other work. That said, for what it is worth, he was no more so than the average writer - much less the average person - of his day. Indeed, his experience as a Polish, initially non-English speaking outsider on ships around the world and in England gave him more empathy for those outside mainstream Western culture than nearly anyone else in it could have had. One can even argue that it is perverse to pick on "Heart" when racist overtones can be found in nearly every work from the Victorian era - nay, nearly everything right up until the last few decades - since it shows some empathy for Africans, is generally seen as anti-colonialist, and eventually helped lead to reform. Many also say that such a stance misses the story's larger point, racist or not. Yet there is much to Achebe's reading, and all serious fans should read it and make their own decision. Many editions include it, but all should seek it out.
This debate is also relevant to "Amy Foster"; Conrad's most underrated story, it shows the sufferings and uncertainties of outsiders in Western culture. Again inspired by Conrad's life, though considerably more dramatized than "Heart," it shows that he was keenly aware of just how alone even an ostensibly well-adjusted foreigner could be in nineteenth century Western Europe. Drenched in pathos, this is one of Conrad's most moving works and very thought-provoking. It is also of historical interest for those curious about the era's treatment of foreigners and other outsiders and abounds with anthropological significance. Including this is one of the collection's true strengths, as it is not as frequently anthologized as the rest.
"The Secret Sharer" is one of Conrad's final works of major short fiction and one of his best. It finds him returning to the sea after a long absence and has much of the suspense and adventurous spirit of his early works. Indeed, it may well be his most suspenseful and conventionally entertaining work of all; its influence on later writers is easy to see. This is so much so that it can be enjoyed by nearly anyone on this surface level, but as always with Conrad, there is deep symbolic value. "The Secret" again dramatizes outsider status, though more subtly and ambiguously than "Amy." It also deals with other important themes, including the clash of rules and personal morality, authority vs. individualism, etc. The story ends the collection on a very high note and will, along with the rest, lead readers to seek more Conrad.
Like all Barnes & Noble Classics editions, this has a wealth of supplemental material. Perhaps the most valuable is Conrad's own introduction, as his non-fiction pieces are always interesting and often insightful. Secondary material includes a long introduction giving an excellent overview of Conrad's life and thought, the historical context of the stories, and some critical analysis; extensive notes; a Conrad timeline; a rundown of works inspired by "Heart"; a summary of the stories' critical history; discussion questions; further reading suggestions; and even a map of the Belgian Congo. "Heart" aside, the stories are among Conrad's most accessible, but he can be a difficult read, making supplemental material necessary for most and invaluable for many. There are so many extras here that even hard-cores who already have the stories may be interested. That said, those who care not for extras will be able to find these stories - likely along with others - in cheaper editions, and those wanting more stories will also have to look elsewhere. All others can rejoice in this excellent collection.