Irony Trade: Reader-Responsibilities in Heart of Darkness

by Harry Heuser

In “Darkening the Reader: Reader-Response Criticism and Heart of Darkness,” Adena Rosmarin, self-proclaimed spokesperson for the neglected reader, boldly asserts that “[o]nly with the advent of reader-response criticism has the reader been granted a mind” (155).  Readers of the 1970s, having been bestowed with such a generous grant, must have uttered a collective sigh of relief in light of this propitious advent, the end of a lugubrious past in which they were merely—and mindlessly—reading.  Well, perhaps not, especially since Rosmarin declares that “the reader need not and perhaps should not be conceptualized as a person” (168).  Is reader-response criticism, then, just another exclusive playground, a secluded literary property for a subscribing panel of scribes and analysts that selects a text such as Heart of Darkness to validate a certain set of theories? After all, Rosmarin seems to discuss Heart of Darkness because the novel “may not only be more than usually well read by the methodology of reader-response criticism but may also, more than most literary texts, function as an instrument for reader-response criticism” (167).

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness appears to be begging for reader-response case studies, since, as Rosmarin puts it, the novella “is rather obviously trying to do something to its reader” (151), which means that it is aware of its reader.  How applicable is reader-response criticism to the poetry of, say, Emily Dickinson or to The Diary of Anne Frank? Then again, the meaning of text, as reader-response critics argue, is not to be found in the written word but has to be experienced through the process—the event—of reading.  Literature is, according to Stanley Fish, defined “simply by what we decide to put into it” (11).  To anyone hoping to have a voice in the discourse – and as yet unpublished graduate students in particular, it would be downright reckless to dismiss reader-response criticism, which, as it turns out, is reassuringly undogmatic, considering that “the term . . . can refer to any number of critical approaches that focus on the process of reading” (Murfin 144).  It does not have to mean looking at a work of literature with the idee fixe of an ideal fit for a certain – or perhaps less than certain – theoretical approach.  Rosmarin and her colleagues deserve our response, as well, and, having been granted a mind, we might as well keep it an open one.

Reader-response criticism of Heart of Darkness provokes intriguing thoughts about the relationship between writers and their readers, since Conrad seems, indeed, to “have assumed and preferred a thinking reader” (Rosmarin 156).  In fact, Conrad invites his readers to question the written word, to realize at once the manipulative power of language and its limitations.  The single most successful device Conrad’s narrative employs to challenge its readers is irony; and, in its give and take, irony also demonstrates the utility of reader-response criticism as well as its shortcomings.

If Heart of Darkness really is what we put into it, if it is, as Rosmarin asserts, an “inconclusive or fragmentary literary work” (157) or “torso” (159), then we should also consider the reader-responsibilities that literature demands.  Can readers refuse to “put something into” Marlow’s tale? Could Heart of Darkness, in the minds of some readers, be nothing more—and nothing less—than a page-turner, an escapist yarn to get lost in? What is there to prevent us from gazing at the torso’s pectorals or getting lost in its navel instead of considering the heart, shoulders or backbone? Conrad must have been aware of this possibility, and he has shaped the body—or directed reader attention—accordingly.  As C. B. Cox puts it,

we are carried forward through moments of danger, escapes, unexpected attack.  But even on a first reading we are disturbed by a pervasive irony.  The journey appears to be a kind of parody of the romantic quest for the Grail.  Marlow ironically calls his debased, greedy companions “pilgrims,” and the manager even builds an Arthurian round table to prevent his subordinates from quarreling about precedence.  (32)

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