The Water Margin, also known in English as Outlaws of the Marsh or All Men Are Brothers, is one of the most powerful narratives to emerge from China. The book, conventionally attributed to an otherwise obscure Yuan dynasty figure called Shi Nai’an, takes the form of a skein of connected tales surrounding various heroic figures who — persecuted, exploited, wronged, or trapped by venal officials — eventually band together in the fortress of Liangshan (Mount Liang), in the present-day province of Shandong.
Its influence has gone far beyond the usual genres of fiction, film, art, and theatre. The stories provide, even today, a point of reference for codes of honour, social and economic networks, secret societies and political movements.
Generations of China’s governments have sought to represent themselves as guardians of an often explicitly neo-Confucian order characterised by a fixed and morally-grounded political and social order constructed of hierarchical relationships. But The Water Margin represents another, equally real and representative, Chinese worldview. In this world, local injustice is the rule, and defence against cruel local authority is a matter of vengeance, stratagem, and violence.
From this universe, itself a highly mediated depiction of the rapidly decaying Northern Song dynasty in the 12th century, derive fictional worlds of errantry, struggle and righteousness that have gone through endless narrative and cinematic iterations.
Of these descendants, the most familiar today are the fictional worlds of Hong Kong writer Jin Yong, which remain the closest thing to a reading list for adolescents in the Chinese world, and the kung fu genre that has been the global calling card of Sinophone film since at least Bruce Lee.
Rebels with a cause
With printed versions dating back to the 14th century, The Water Margin largely follows the adventures of strongmen, innkeepers, footpads, peasants, vagabonds, fishermen, hunters, petty officials and local gentry. Surrounding these protagonists are the thousands of nameless followers and victims who are knocked off or maimed (just as they might be casually dispatched in Homer) in the novel’s thousand-odd pages.
Women, when they (not so very often) appear, are hard-nosed mistresses, pugnacious sisters, hapless wives, strategising helpmeets, or murderous innkeepers (one of whom has hit on Mrs. Lovett’s idea of baking humans into pies a full 800 hundred years before her). This also sets it apart from the mainstream of imperial fiction, which is substantially preoccupied with the passions and travails of high-born, talented women and their ambitious scholar swains, not to mention emperors and generals.
It is only a novel after a fashion: The Water Margin’s text is substantially the record of stories that had already been circulating at the time it was committed to the page. Shi Nai’an’s authorship is little more than a conventional attribution, and the text is far from stable, existing in various versions beginning from the 14th century, two hundred years after the events it depicts. It reached its usual present form in the 17th century.
In the Ming (14th-17th century) and Qing (17th-20th century) dynasties, the bandits of The Water Margin continued to influence all manner of groups operating far from the seat of power, despite periodic attempts to ban the book.
The fact that the villains of the novel are local officials, while the bandits remain at least notionally loyal to the imperial court, has proven an enduring inspiration. Many are the brands of rebellion that have found it practical to be on the other side of the law while retaining a claim to the values of brotherhood, honour, loyalty and patriotism.
The plot’s political relevance has never gone away. Having been adopted in the 1930s by reformers as a healthily anti-feudal narrative, it was later deployed in a major 1975 government campaign, in which the leader of the Liangshan bandits in the book, Song Jiang, was criticised for accepting the emperor’s offer of amnesty. Had he not given the game away? And was he therefore not guilty of coexistence with forces inimical to the masses, just as party members, late in the Maoist era, would be guilty of capitulationism if their fervour flagged?
This move, widely interpreted as an effort to head off the fall of the Gang of Four shows how centrally the characters have been retained even in modern and contemporary Chinese consciousness.
It’s commonplace to lament human transience and contrast it with the immutability of nature. But those going in search of the dense marshlands of Shandong —- where in the novel crafty fishermen might cause unwary inconvenient minor officials to disappear —- will be disappointed. The entire geography of the novel has been altered beyond recognition by river engineering and irrigation.
This of course does not prevent local governments continuing to put up buildings tagged to certain events in the novel, hoping at the same time that the message of righteous rebellion against local authority is never taken too literally. The formidable, impregnable, fortified mountain, Liangshan, rises just short of 200 metres in reality.
The place of The Water Margin has moved almost entirely into the imaginary, and it is the situations, the events, the stratagems and above all the characters – furious and righteous, looking to set the world right – that have left their mark on posterity.
An angry man stands at the crossroads and rails against the moral cesspit around him, teeming with sexual deviants and jumped-up immigrants. This is the image which the Roman poet Juvenal paints of the satirist castigating the vices of contemporary Rome.
Juvenal’s Satires provide a fascinating window onto the social melting-pot that was early second century CE Rome. But they also hold up a mirror to those whose feelings of alienation and disempowerment produce a bitter distortion of that society.
Juvenal wrote 16 satires, divided into five books. Most are between 150 and 300 lines in length, except for the monstrous sixth satire attacking women and marriage, which rants on for over 650 lines and takes up a whole book on its own. Each satire has its own theme or target, ranging from decadent aristocrats and hypocritical moralists to giant turbots (a fish) and Egyptian cannibals, but this theme only loosely constrains a free-flowing structure which follows the satirist’s fulminating stream of consciousness.
Contradiction is the essence of these poems. The satirist indignantly condemns Rome’s vices as he pruriently lingers on their salacious details. The sheer force of his outrage and the vigour of his rhetoric sweep the reader along at the same time as she recoils from his bigotry. In Juvenal’s own words, it’s difficult not to write satire, and once you are sucked into its twisted world, it is difficult not to read it. But working out what to make of it is really difficult.
The beginning of Roman satire
Roman satire bears only a distant family resemblance to the modern idea of satire. Instead of John Clarke parodically impersonating an incompetent politician, Juvenal and his predecessors take direct aim at the follies and vices of their day, lambasting any who deviate from social norms with moralizing fervour, scathing mockery, and stomach-turning obscenity.
The Romans admitted that they inherited all other genres of poetry — epic, tragedy, comedy, pastoral, and the rest — from the Greeks, but they proudly declared that satire was “totally ours”. It was written in hexameters, the lofty metre of epic poetry, but it always sets itself up as epic’s “evil twin”. Instead of heroes, noble deeds, and city-foundations recounted in elevated language, satire presents a hodgepodge of scumbags, orgies, and the breakdown of urban society, spat out in words as filthy as the vices they describe.
The first great Roman satirist was Lucilius, writing in the latter half of the second century BCE at the height of the free Republic. Only tantalising fragments of his work remain, but his reputation among later generations was unambiguous: a fearless exponent of extreme free speech who would lay into the powerful, stripping away the skin of respectability to reveal the foulness beneath.
Every later satirist lamented his inability to live up to Lucilius’ freedom and aggression. During the rise of the first emperor Augustus, as the free Republic gives way to the monarchical Empire, the poet Horace wrote satire whose buzzword was moderation, a contradiction in terms if ever there was one. Self-consciously playing it safe, his satirist chooses not to see — he even blames conjunctivitis — and not to talk about the death of political freedom.
Ninety years later, under Nero, the reclusive poet Persius turned satire inwards, boiling it down to dense, almost unreadable Latin which he doesn’t care if anyone reads. His image of the satirist is the barber whispering into a hole in the ground, “Midas has ass’s ears!” You can tell the truth, as long as you don’t need let anyone hear it.
Chariots of ire
With Juvenal, another half-century later, satire seemed to get its balls back. He dismisses epic and tragedy as tedious and irrelevant. Satire is the only possible response to the swamp that is Rome. Indignation is his Muse and the vices of Rome flow unmediated from the crossroads into his notebook. This is barely poetry at all. It is the unvarnished truth about Rome there on the page in front of you.
What folks have done ever since — their hopes and fears and anger,
their pleasures, joys, and toing and froing — is my volume’s hotch-potch.
Was there, at any time, a richer harvest of evil?
Except, of course, it isn’t. Juvenal goes through the same crisis as Horace and Persius. This isn’t the Republic and he isn’t Lucilius. It isn’t safe to tell it like it is when the rich and powerful can silence you. Juvenal’s solution is that he will only criticise the dead. The fearless satirist is compromised before he has even begun.
Yet it isn’t just his caginess about causing offence which problematises the satirist’s voice. His strident attacks on women, on homosexuals, on Greek and Egyptian immigrants are often put in the mouths of characters who sound remarkably like the satirist himself.
Satire 3’s panoramic view of a decadent Rome is presented through the skewed vision of Umbricius, “Mr Shady”, about to abandon the city because Greek immigrants take all the jobs.
I now proceed to speak of the nation specially favoured
by our wealthy compatriots, one that I shun above all others.
I shan’t mince words. My fellow Romans, I cannot put up with
a city of Greeks; yet how much of the dregs is truly Achaean?
The Syrian Orontes has long been discharging into the Tiber,
carrying with it its language and morals and slanting strings,
complete with piper, not to speak of its native timbrels.
But his main complaint is that they get away with the same things he tries.
We, of course, can pay identical compliments; yes, but
they are believed.
This isn’t moralising, or even simple bigotry, but sour grapes.
Readers take the first-person voice of the satires as reflecting Juvenal’s personal opinion in a sort of autobiographical confession. Indeed, we know nothing about him except what we can try to deduce from his poems. More recently, the satirist’s voice has been seen as a persona, a mask, a character just like Umbricius.
Is Juvenal satirising immigrants or the bigots who rail against them? The latter is certainly the more comfortable reading, but we need to be careful not to make the Romans too like us. Satire is meant to be uncomfortable.
Juvenal’s satirist doesn’t only “punch down” against easy targets. He also “punches up” and fights the corner of the little guy oppressed by the rich and powerful. Satire 5 condemns a rich patron for the humiliation he heaps on his poor client, though he acutely criticises the client for his complicity. Throughout, Juvenal’s main targets are hypocrites from all levels of society. The satirist stands outside and inveighs against what is wrong with Rome, but he has few suggestions on how to improve it.
In his later satires, Juvenal moves away from indignation altogether and adopts a new model. He will not be the philosopher Heraclitus, weeping at the state of the world, but another philosopher, Democritus, ironically laughing at it with a sense of detachment.
This is the spirit of satire 10, on the dangers of getting what we wish for. The satirist is not angry, but mockingly – and sometimes pityingly – amused by Sejanus, who got the power he wanted but was dragged through the streets on a meat-hook.
Now the flames are hissing; bellows and furnace are bringing
a glow to the head revered by the people. The mighty Sejanus
is crackling. Then, from the face regarded as number two
in the whole of the world, come pitchers, basins, saucepans, and piss-pots.
Frame your door with laurels; drag a magnificent bull,
whitened with chalk, to the Capitol. They’re dragging Sejanus along
by a hook for all to see.
Or the man whose prayer for long life is answered with impotent, incontinent senility.
The poor old fellow must mumble his bread with toothless gums.
He is so repellent to all (wife, children, and himself),
that he even turns the stomach of Cossus the legacy-hunter.
He loses his former zest for food and wine as his palate
grows numb. He has long forgotten what sex was like; if one tries
to remind him, his shrunken tool, with its vein enlarged, just lies there,
and, though caressed all night, it will continue to lie there.
The angry satirist hurls unconstructive abuse, but this new version has a suggestion for self-improvement:
Pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body.
Juvenal is the greatest Roman satirist. He, far more than Horace or Persius, defined what satire meant for most of the early modern period and it is translations and imitations of him by Pope, Dryden, Jonson, and others – not to mention Hogarth’s paintings – which dominate the great era of English Augustan satire.
His satires give us a ground-level view of a Rome we could barely guess at from the heroism of the Aeneid, the drinking-parties of Horace’s Odes, or even the histories of Tacitus. We cannot trust satire, but we can allow ourselves to enjoy it.
Recommended translation: Juvenal, The Satires, Oxford World’s Classics translation by Niall Rudd with introduction and notes by William Barr (1992).
Kahlil Gibran (original spelling at birth “Khalil”) is a strange phenomenon of 20th Century letters and publishing. After Shakespeare and the Chinese poet Laozi, Gibran’s work from 1923, The Prophet, has made him the third most-sold poet of all time.
This slim volume of 26 prose poems has been translated into over 50 languages; its US edition alone has sold over 9 million copies. Its first printing sold out in a month, and later, during the 1960s, it was selling up to 5,000 copies a week.
It has seemingly been able to speak to various generations: from those experiencing the Depression, to the 1960s counter culture, into the 21st century. It continues to sell well today.
What is fascinating about the Gibran/Prophet phenomenon is the bile of critics in the West in relation to the work. Outside of English-speaking countries, the Lebanese-born Gibran attracts far less disdain. Professor Juan Cole, from the University of Michigan, has noted that Gibran’s writings in Arabic are in a very sophisticated style.
The midwife of the New Age
The Prophet is interesting for a number of reasons, not only for its ability to sell. It is written in an archaic style, recalling certain translations of the Bible (Gibran was intimate with both the Arabic and King James versions) and has an aphoristic quality that lends itself to citation — for weddings, funerals, courtships — and accessibility. There are at least two high schools named after its author and it was quoted in a eulogy given at Nelson Mandela’s funeral.
The Prophet declares no clear religious affiliation, while at the same time operating in a quasi-spiritual or inspirational register. Many might even class it in that category of writing known as “wisdom texts”.
Gibran has been referred to as the midwife of the New Age, due to the role The Prophet played in opening a space for spiritual or personal counsel outside organised religion and its official texts. The Prophet appears to embrace all or any spiritual tradition (or at least to exclude none explicitly), and this vagueness or openness (depending on one’s reading) may account for part of its widespread appeal.
The book, which presents advice on a number of core aspects of being human — such as love, parenting, friendship, Good and Evil, and so on — employs a simple narrative device.
An exiled man, Almustafa, who has been living abroad for 12 years, sees the ship that will carry him back “to the isle of his birth” approaching. Filled with grief at his imminent departure, the townspeople gather and beseech him to give them words of wisdom to ease their sorrow:
In your aloneness you have watched with our days, and in your wakefulness you have listened to the weeping and laughter of our sleep.
Now therefore disclose us to ourselves, and tell us all that has been shown you of that which is between birth and death.
Gibran himself had been in the US for 12 years at the time of writing and, it could be argued, was in a kind of exile from Lebanon, the country of his own birth.
Among many subjects, The Prophet offers contemplations on marriage:
… stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts
for they have their own thoughts
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart must stand in the sun, so we must know your pain.
The woman behind the poet
Biographers have emphasised Gibran’s tendency to pretension, to self-aggrandising, to fictionalising his own history, and his relations with women such as his sister, Marianna (who supported him with menial work), and especially his patron and confidante, Mary Haskell.
The latter remained devoted to him her entire life and also financed much of his lifestyle, enabling his artistic projects up until and beyond his success with The Prophet. Haskell had a penchant for enabling the less fortunate (although she herself was not wealthy), and Gibran was not her first project of this kind.
She continued to edit his work discreetly well into her own marriage, to which she had resigned herself after their engagement stalled. Gibran had a tendency to get involved, as Joan Acocella writes in her detailed New Yorker piece, with older women who could be useful to him.
He was a beautiful, “oriental” young man. Having grown up, from the age of 12, in the ghettos of Boston’s South End, he survived by hoisting himself, or finding himself flung, into more privileged circles thanks to his looks, his talent (he could paint and write) and his “mysterious” appeal of being the “other”.
Anglo-Americans could, in other words, accessorise with him. And they did. He was “discovered” by Fred Holland Day, a teacher, who dabbled in the worlds of Blavatsky and the occultism that was de jour, and who liked to photograph young men, both in exotic garments and out.
In Gibran’s case, since evidence suggests that he evaded a sexual relation with Haskell, he at least did not leave her with the financial burden of children (not uncommon in his time). He ended his life primarily close to his sole-remaining sibling, Marianna and his secretary, and later biographer, Barbara Young.
Due to the extensive number of edits that Haskell offered on most of Gibran’s works across his career (including his first publication, a short poem), it is almost certain that “his” output — like many artistic achievements — might be more accurately deemed a collaboration. The enduring convention of signing works with a singular name has tended to result in the eclipsing of efforts of crucial contributors, often women.
Death and dualism
Despite the indifference of Western critics to Gibran’s work, Gibran’s credentials were not shoddy; he was a trained artist (at the Académie Julian) had his first exhibition at 21, and produced over 700 works in his lifetime, including portraits of Yeats, Jung and Rodin.
Gibran died young, at age 48, from cirrhosis of the liver, due to a propensity for large quantities of arak, supplied to him by his sister, Marianna. One wonders whether Gibran was able to find any solace in his own words in his final days of frailty.
In The Prophet, he (and, we could speculate, Haskell) write(s):
Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity … For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
Gibran has been criticised for his style of playing confoundingly but reassuringly on opposites, which, some argue, can mean anything. (One must note, however, that this unsettling of binary structures is a feature of enduring wisdom texts such as the Tao Te Ching, as well as recalling writings of Sufism and other traditions.)
Furthermore, for the son of destitute immigrants, who rose to fame via his beauty, talent and a blind conviction of his own specialness (which he nourished along with a small obsession with Jesus Christ, the subject of a later, and arguably better work), perhaps life had presented to him its own stark dualities: abjection/acclaim; poverty/wealth; indifference/desire; disdain/popularity; exoticism/racism.
For someone who undoubtedly “made it” (according to the grim criteria of the New World), Gibran may well have had more than a kernel of wisdom and know-how for those trying to survive its heartless, capricious climes. The fact is that millions of people have found momentary respite in his shifting, evocative words.
In a century where authority figures – whether political or representing various spiritual traditions – have seemed not only to fail their flocks, but to have actively betrayed them, Gibran’s perhaps fuzzy but lyrical advice has come to fill a vacuum of integrity and leadership. We need not badger readers of this work (who included, incidentally, the likes of John Lennon and David Bowie) who might use it to express their love, notate their grief, or ease their existential terrors.
The Prophet has worked as a widespread balm, as effectively as anything quick and concise can. Cheaper than an ongoing tithe to pharmaceutical companies, at $8.55, the going rate at Book Depository, it neither incites hatred, nor violence, nor religious divisiveness.
It says the kinds of things that we sometimes wish a trusted other might say to us, to calm us down. In these aggravated times, perhaps we can appreciate its sheer benignity and leave its boggling success be.
The Athenian poet Euripides was the last of the three great Greek tragedians (after Aeschylus and Sophocles) and also the least successful.
Greek tragedies were performed competitively at religious festivals in Athens in honour of the god Dionysus. While 18 of his 90-odd plays have survived, Euripides claimed only four festival victories. One prize was awarded posthumously, indicating that at the Dionysia, as with the Oscars, death could be a handy avenue to success.
It’s not difficult to see how Euripides estranged the festival judges. Unlike the intricate plotting of Sophocles, exemplified by the intriguing whodunit devices employed in Oedipus The King, Euripides’ interest lay in the psychological motivations of his characters. Some scholars accordingly describe his plays as more modern than his contemporaries.
Euripides challenged conventions by depicting strong, passionate female characters and cynical, often weak male mythological heroes. He was considered more of a social critic than his contemporaries, who disparaged his emphasis on clever women.
In Aristophanes’ comedy The Thesmophoriazusae, the women of Athens use an annual fertility festival to plot secret revenge on Euripides for his depiction of them as crazed, sex-addicted killers. The central joke is not that Euripides is defaming women in his plays, but rather that he is onto them and must be stopped before he reveals more.
Euripides’ dismissal by some as a misogynist sits uncomfortably alongside his complex and sympathetic female characters. Medea is a case in point: a sorceress and former princess of the “barbarian” kingdom of Colchis, she mourns the loss of her husband’s love, the hero Jason. To further his political ambitions, Jason abandons Medea in order to marry a Corinthian princess.
Medea confides her grief to her nurse and the Chorus of Corinthian women who sympathise, but fear her response; and these fears are well-founded. Medea takes horrible vengeance on Jason by murdering his new wife then slaughtering their own children.
The play ends like a brutal thunderclap as Medea escapes to Athens in a dragon-drawn chariot, flanked by the corpses of her sons, mocking Jason’s agony and revelling in her victory.
Jason predicts justice will pursue Medea (“The curse of children’s blood be on you! Avenging justice blast your being!”) but so complete is his defeat, this threat seems empty. Medea has inflicted savage sacrifices to wreak her revenge and now, revealed in all her supernatural splendour, no one can touch her.
The Athenians don’t seem to have responded particularly well to Medea in so far as the festival judges placed it third. This might in part be attributable to poor timing. Medea was performed first in the spring of 431 BC, a few weeks before the Spartan king Archidamus invaded Attica – initiating the 27-year Peloponnesian War that proved catastrophic for Athens. War had been brewing for a decade and in their state of profound anxiety perhaps Athenians were simply in no mood for the horrors Euripides was offering.
But there are other reasons for Medea’s failure. As a barbarian from the wild realm of Colchis (in modern Georgia) Medea would be inherently untrustworthy to an Athenian audience. They might sympathise with her feelings of isolation and homesickness (“Of all pains and hardships none is worse than to be deprived of your native land”) but she remained associated with the Eastern “other” that marched into Greece under the Persian king Xerxes and sacked Athens 50 years previously.
Traditionalists might also have objected to Medea’s sexual politics. In Medea more than his other plays (The Trojan Women excepted) Euripides depicts a world where the steadfastness and bravery of women count for nothing amid the machinations of men (“we women are the most wretched…I’d rather stand three times in the front line than bear one child”).
Medea’s lament may seem admirably subversive to a modern audience but it appears that the festival judges had little appetite for the gender conflict that so fascinated Euripides. It’s worth noting that Euripides’ plays grew in popularity after his death, so it’s likely their “salacious” content enjoyed a better reception outside the formal competition environment.
Despite Euripides’ popularity with modern audiences Medea remains a challenging play. Although scenarios of fathers “avenging” themselves on their wives through killing their children are depressingly familiar to us, the resolve of a mother to destroy her enemies through sacrificing her children is fundamentally distancing.
Medea may be a prisoner to her passion (“Oh, what an evil power love has in people’s lives!”) but she plans her vengeance with cold brutality. Only her female confidants sense with dread what she is up to and who can they tell?
Adaption of the classic
That said, Medea’s remorseless depiction of a woman forced to strike against an oppressive patriarchy did see it embraced by the 1960s counterculture. Pasolini adapted the play in his polarising style in 1969, but Medea’s themes were not borrowed to the extent of other Greek works during the American cinematic Renaissance of the 1970s (Roman Polanski, for instance, used Sophocles’ Oedipus as his canvas for 1974’s Chinatown).
A sympathetic depiction of a grieving mother killing her children to ruin her husband seemed too great a hurdle for filmmakers. Decades later, however, Ridley Scott channeled Medea’s denouement in having Thelma and Louise take violent revenge against the patriarchy and refuse to be taken – “escaping” in their airborne chariot, their male pursuers looking on impotently.
Medea is particularly cogent today in the context of the #MeToo movement’s assault on patriarchal power. Euripides’ fascination with women outscheming their “masters” and striking back lethally springs from an anxiety at the heart of Athenian society.
Medea, Hippolytus and Aristophanes’ comedies seemingly demonstrate that the cloistering of Athenian women did not result from a male assumption they were unintelligent or weak. On the contrary, it reflects a belief in a vicious cycle where the subjugation of women made them intent on revenge, making it a social necessity to oppress them further.
As a modern articulation of Medea’s themes, the play’s central message was distilled to its essence in Clint Eastwood’s 1992 revisionist Western Unforgiven. A “chorus” of prostitutes commission bloody revenge on men who mutilated one of their sisterhood.
When townsmen gather angrily outside the brothel after one of the murders, the group matriarch screams from above “He had it coming! They all have it coming!” To Medea, truer words were never spoken.
The latest TV adaptation of Thackeray’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair has polarised audiences expecting a traditional period drama. The first two episodes of Vanity Fair, co-produced by ITV and Amazon, received a mixed response on Twitter where viewers commented using the hashtag #VanityFair.
Comments seemed to broadly fall into two camps: those who admired the adaptation for its “fresh, modern take” on a period drama, and those who didn’t like what they saw as the needless modernisation of a period drama.
Interestingly, some of the features most identified as modernisations were actually from the original 1848 text: elements such as Becky Sharp throwing from her coach a dictionary she’d been given by her hated headmistress as she rode away from the school. Others took offence at Becky Sharp’s description of herself as a “secretary” – women were not secretaries at that time, one tweet protested. Meanwhile the frequent breaking of the fourth wall (Olivia Cooke, playing Becky Sharp, looks knowingly at the camera for dramatic effect) also caused a fair bit of angst.
These were not features that viewers associated with the genre of “period drama” and unfavourable comparisons were made with the popular BBC period drama Poldark (based on Winston Graham’s novels from the mid-20th century). That some viewers should so easily confuse historical accuracy with genre conventions is a striking example of the power of those genre conventions.
It is ironic, too, given that Thackeray subverted and satirised the conventions and tropes of his own time. This was true across his writing. In Pendennis, for example, a novel about the titular young gentleman making his way in London, Thackeray writes in his preface:
Perhaps the lovers of “excitement” may care to know, that this book began with a very precise plan, which was entirely put aside. Ladies and gentlemen, you were to have been treated, and the writer’s and the publisher’s pocket benefited, by the recital of the most active horrors.
In Vanity Fair, such subversions are frequent. In the first episode of the new adaptation, Becky Sharp – attempting to charm the wealthy and credulous Jos Sedley into proposing marriage – attends the Vauxhall pleasure gardens. This takes place in chapter six of the book, which Thackeray introduces satirically:
We might have treated this subject in the genteel, or in the romantic, or in the facetious manner … Or if, on the contrary, we had taken a fancy for the terrible … we should easily have constructed a tale of thrilling interest, through the fiery chapters of which the reader should hurry, panting. But my readers must hope for no such romance, only a homely story, and must be content with a chapter about Vauxhall, which is so short that it scarce deserves to be called a chapter at all.
Within the full version of that quoted passage, Thackeray offers suggestions of how the story might have been written in these different “manners”. He plays with these kinds of conventions to set up readers’ expectations, only to subvert and parody them. One of the century’s other great novelists, Anthony Trollope, wrote that Vanity Fair raised the fundamental question of “what a novel should be.” Trollope takes issue with some of the same things as modern viewers:
There are absurdities in it which would not be admitted to anyone who had not a peculiar gift of making even his absurdities delightful. No schoolgirl who ever lived would have thrown back her gift-book, as Rebecca did the ‘dixonary’, out of the carriage window as she was taken away from school. But who does not love that scene with which the novel commences? How could such a girl as Amelia Osborne have got herself into such society as that in which we see her at Vauxhall? But we forgive it all because of the telling.
Same story, different flavours
Like Thackeray, Lewis Carroll, the Victorian author of Alice in Wonderland, was also highly attuned to the way stories become categorised via genre, satirising this in an 1855 short story entitled Photography Extraordinary. Carroll’s story, presented like a newspaper article, reports an invention which literally transcribes narrative fiction directly from the human brain. Not only can Carroll’s machine “develop” a story onto paper directly from the brain, but the story can then be redeveloped into different genres. Story writing, Carroll seems to suggest, was a question of mechanically adjusting language to fit the conventions of distinct genres and meet readers’ expectations.
As 21st-century readers and viewers, we still consume media in this way. Our genres have changed – we are not likely to talk about “silver fork” novels, for instance – but our use of genres has not. If anything, we have only become more reliant on them as we create more and more sophisticated algorithms for organising our digital media.
We also risk letting our expectations shape our understanding of the past. One of the big divergences between Thackeray’s book and the ongoing adaptation is that the series’ producers have elected to depict the Battle of Waterloo. When his military characters depart for the battlefield, Thackeray lets them drift out of view, writing: “We do not claim to rank among the military novelists. Our place is with the non-combatants.”
Thackeray, in other words, is willing to disappoint and frustrate readers’ expectations – he does not feel the need to conform to expectations. It is – as the book’s subtitle warns us – a “novel without a hero” (and in its serial form, not even a novel, simply “pen and pencil sketches of English society). But, of course, to adapt for television is to adjust the story to meet a different set of expectations. In that sense, adapting Vanity Fair is a bit like churning it through Carroll’s fiction machine one more time.
A year-and-a-half into the presidency of Donald Trump, some see this administration as the stuff of dystopian nightmares. Trump’s apparent disrespect for truth is suspiciously similar to the manipulation of history in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. The crass, three-ring-circus texture of the current crowd in Washington recalls the degraded America depicted in Mike Judge’s 2006 cinematic farce Idiocracy. However, the English writer Aldous Huxley’s 1932 classic Brave New World might provide the best dystopian gloss on our contemporary predicament.
Like most good dystopian fiction, Brave New World is not a prediction but rather a diagnosis of dangerous tendencies in Huxley’s present. One of the most striking elements of Huxley’s vision of the future involves factories in which infants are designed to perform specific social functions.
These Stepford babies are later conditioned through standardised educational practices. This motif is not primarily a cautionary tale about the potential abuse of genetic engineering. Rather, it is a commentary on existing class inequalities and the use of education to reinforce social obedience. It exemplifies the fundamental tendency of capitalism to convert humans into commodities, interchangeable and bereft of genuine individualism.
Certain aspects of Huxley’s dystopian society strikingly resemble our current situation. A lack of respect for history, a population conditioned to consume goods at breakneck pace, a tendency toward globalisation, and the pacification of individuals via an entertainment culture curated to squelch any inchoate rumblings of critical thought: all of these are hallmarks of Huxley’s and our worlds.
An illustrious family
Born in Surrey, England, in 1894, Aldous Leonard Huxley was a member of one of England’s most illustrious intellectual families. He also went on to become one of the most important English writers of the 20th century, though he was also important as a social and philosophical commentator — and spent the last 26 years of his life living in the United States.
His brother, Julian, was a prominent biologist knighted by the queen. Aldous and Julian were the grandsons of well-known naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley, a leading 19th-century advocate for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Aldous himself considered a career in biology or medicine, though he eventually turned to literature instead.
By the time Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931, he was well established as a British novelist; works such as Crome Yellow (1921), Antic Hay (1923), and Point Counter Point (1928) arguably made him the most important English novelist of the 1920s, while also prefiguring Brave New World in important ways with their satirical treatment of British society.
A trip to the US shortly before the writing of Brave New World also contributed to Huxley’s formulation of his thoughts for the novel. (He moved there in 1937, where he would write more dystopian and utopian novels such as Ape and Essence (1948), Brave New World Revisited (1958) and Island (1962).)
History is bunk
In Brave New World, Huxley’s World State has arisen in the wake of a global war that nearly destroyed humanity. Its policies are officially driven by a desire to prevent a recurrence of this war at all costs. Stability and placidity in every aspect of life are of paramount concern. The public is protected from anything that might upset them and rock the social boat. However, the underlying goal is to ensure the smooth operation of the consumer capitalist economy and to remove any historical reminders that things might be other than they are.
Huxley presents us with the basic characteristics of his dystopian society through a loosely constructed narrative told largely from the point of view of Bernard Marx. An “alpha” who has been engineered and conditioned to be among the society’s intellectual elite, Bernard finds that his own individualist tendencies make him unable to function comfortably in this conformist society.
We are also introduced to Mustapha Mond, a “world controller” who attempts to explain to Bernard the rationale for the State’s policies, including its rejection of literature and history as sources of wisdom.
Also important to the narrative is “John the Savage.” Born biologically on a “Savage Reservation” and brought up reading the works of Shakespeare, John grows to adulthood outside the controls of the World State. He is eventually brought to London, where he finds himself so unable to fit in that he is driven to suicide.
The lack of respect for history in Huxley’s world is encapsulated in the slogan “history is bunk”. The phrase is but one of many slogan-like modules of prepackaged “wisdom” that pass for public discourse. This particular phrase is attributed in the novel to Henry Ford – the central cultural hero of the society – who was at the height of his influence at the time Brave New World was written. A true forerunner of Donald Trump (but a much better businessman), Ford is an honoured icon of American capitalism even today. Yet, he was also an admirer of Adolf Hitler and a philistine with no respect for culture.
It should thus come as no surprise that the devaluation of genuine understanding in Huxley’s imagined world includes the suppression of most of the great works of world literature. This is ostensibly done because they might trigger strong emotions. The true reason is that such works are not easily reduced to consumer commodities.
The World State is the ultimate consumer society, even if it cannot match the marketing sophistication of today’s global capitalism. Designed along “Fordist” lines, this society is devoted to economic efficiency, but only in the narrow consumerist sense of boosting sales.
Not only are individuals treated like commodities, but they live in a world that is saturated with the ethos of marketing. They are constantly bombarded by jingle-like slogans that encourage as much consumption as possible. Individuals are urged to replace rather than repair, because “ending is better than mending”.
Huxley’s vision of a World State underestimates the staying power of nationalist rhetoric, of which Trump’s “America First” agenda is but one example. Yet, amid the mad scramble to exploit all potential sources of cheap labour, we have established trade networks that extend into all the nooks and crannies of the global market.
These networks involve individuals and institutions from a wide variety of cultures. When combined with the current trend toward the globalisation of world culture, these networks are so effective that a World State seems redundant, if only in terms of capitalist business practices.
Culture is key to the functioning of Huxley’s entertainment-oriented society. The populace is numbed by happy-making drugs that have “all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects”.
Huxley’s future humans are fed a nonstop dose of popular culture. Designed to amuse and stupefy, this breed of pop culture neither challenges nor inspires. Content is delivered via high-tech mechanisms which foreshadow our own world wide web. Artefacts such as virtual reality “feelies” (echoing the then-new “talkies”) seem highly familiar to a modern audience. As does their effect on the general population.
In Huxley’s world, even human relationships have been made an arm of pop culture. Sexual promiscuity is encouraged and emotional attachments forbidden. Relations between the sexes are just another form of entertainment. Sexual reproduction has become obsolete. Motherhood is an unthinkable obscenity and the parent-child bond has been eliminated. These details differ from Donald Trump’s recent proposed changes to abortion regulations, but they are equally misogynistic.
Frighteningly, although the characteristics of Trump’s America differ from the World State, the differences almost all make 21st-century America seem worse than Huxley’s nightmare consumerist world, from racial hatred to a looming climate crisis.
We are not just in danger of achieving a Huxleyesque dystopia. We are in danger of blowing past it to something Huxley couldn’t possibly have imagined.
In our series, Guide to the classics, experts explain key works of literature.
Nothing about the reception of Emily Brontë’s first and only published novel, Wuthering Heights, in 1847 suggested that it would grow to achieve its now-cult status. While contemporary critics often admitted its power, even unwillingly responding to the clarity of its psychological realism, the overwhelming response was one of disgust at its brutish and brooding Byronic hero, Heathcliff, and his beloved Catherine, whose rebellion against the norms of Victorian femininity neutered her of any claim to womanly attraction.
The characters speak in tongues heavily inflected with expletives, hurling words like weapons of affliction, and indulging throughout in a gleeful schadenfreude as they attempt to exact revenge on each other. It is all rather like a relentless chess game in hell. One of its early reviewers wrote that the novel “strongly shows the brutalising influence of unchecked passion”.
Moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum claims, however, that “we must ourselves confront the shocking in Wuthering Heights, or we will have no chance of understanding what Emily Brontë is setting out to do”. The reader must give herself over to the horror of Brontë’s inverted world.
She must jump, as it were, without looking to see if there is water below. It is a Paradise Lost of a novel: its poetry Miltonic, its style hyperbolic, and its cruelty relentless. It has left readers and scholars alike stumbling to locate its seemingly Delphic meaning, as we try to make sense of the Hobbesian world it portrays.
The author remains as elusive as her enigmatic masterpiece. As new critical appraisals emerge in this, Emily Brontë’s bicentenary year, the scant traces she left of her personal life beyond her poetry and several extant diary papers, are re-fashioned accordingly.
Described as the “sphinx of the moors”, her obstinate mystery has lured countless pilgrims to the Haworth home in which she passed almost all of her life, and the surrounding moorlands that were the landscape of her daily walks and the inspiration for her writing. Brontë relinquished her jealous hold of the manuscript only after considerable pressure from her sister Charlotte, who insisted that it be published.
Wuthering Heights was released pseudonymously under the name Ellis Bell, published in an edition that included her sister Anne’s lesser known work, Agnes Grey. Emily was to die just 12 months later, in December 1848.
As Brontë biographer Juliet Barker writes, the writer stubbornly maintained the pretence of health even in the final stages of consumption, insisting on getting out of bed to take care of her much loved dog, Keeper. She resisted death with remarkable self-discipline but, “her unbending spirit finally broken”, she acquiesced to a doctor’s attendance. It was by then too late; she was just 30.
After her sister’s death, Charlotte Brontë wrote two biographical prefaces to accompany a new edition of Wuthering Heights, instantiating the mythology both of her sister – “stronger than a man, simpler than a child” – and her infamous novel: “It is rustic all through. It is moorish, and wild, and knotty as the root of heath.”
It is that property of wildness that has compelled artists from Sylvia Plath to Kate Bush, whose 1978 hit single, Wuthering Heights, was representative of the magnetic pull of Brontë’s fierce heroine, Catherine. The novel has maintained its relevance in popular culture, and its author has risen to a feminist icon.
The elusiveness of the woman and the book that now seems an extension of her subjectivity, gives both a malleability that has seen Wuthering Heights transformed into various mediums: several Hollywood films, theatre, a ballet and, perhaps most incongruously, a detective novel. Brontë’s name is used to sell everything from food to dry-cleaning products.
Film versions have tended to indulge in a surfeit of romanticism, offering up visions of the lovers swooning atop windswept hills, most famously in the 1939 movie, with Laurence Olivier as a dashing Heathcliff, a heavily sanitised re-telling of what the promotional material billed as “the greatest love story of our time – or any time!” Andrea Arnold’s gritty, pared-back 2011 film is the notable exception; bleak and darkly violent, the actors speak in an at times unintelligible dialect, scrambling across a blasted wilderness as though they are animals.
Contrary to Charlotte Brontë’s revisioning, however, Wuthering Heights was not purely the product of a terrible divine inspiration, emerging partially formed from the granite rock of the Yorkshire landscape, to be hewn from Emily’s simple materials.
Instead, it is the work of a writer looking back to past Romantic forms, specifically the German incarnation of that aesthetic, infused with folkloric taboos and primal longings. Her tale of domestic gothic is housed in an intricately complex narrative architecture that works by repetition and doubling, at the fulcrum of which stands Catherine, the supremely defiant object of Heathcliff’s obsession.
At the novel’s core is the corrosiveness of love, with the titanic power of Shakespearean tragedy and the dialogic form of a Greek morality play. Two families, locked in internecine war and bound together by patrilineal inheritance, stage their abject conflict across the small geographical space that separates their respective households: the luxury and insipidity of the Grange, versus the shabby gentility, decay, and violence of the Heights.
A claustrophobic novel
It is a distinctly claustrophobic novel: although we read with a vague sense of the vastness of the moors that is its setting, the action unfolds, with few exceptions, in domestic interiors. Despite countless readings, I can conjure no distinct image of the Grange. But the outline of the Heights, with each room unfolding into yet another set of rooms, labyrinthine and imprisoning, has settled into my mind. The deeper you enter into the space of the Heights – the space of the text – the more bewildering the effect.
The love between Heathcliff and Catherine exists now as a myth operative outside any substantial relationship to the novel from which the lovers spring. It is shorthand in popular culture for doomed passion. Much of this hyper-romance gathers around Catherine’s declaration of Platonic unity with her would-be lover: “I am Heathcliff – he’s always, always in my mind.” Yet their relationship is never less than brutal.
What is it about their unearthly union, with its overtones of necrophilia and incestuous desire, that so captivates us, and why does Emily Brontë privilege this form of explicitly masochistic, irrevocable and unattainable love?
Brontë’s great theme was transcendence, and I would suggest that it is the metaphysical affinity that solders these two lovers that so beguiles us. The greediness of their feeling for each other resembles nothing in reality. It is hyperreal, as Catherine and Heathcliff do not aspire so much as to be together, as to be each other. Twinned in that shared commitment and to the natural world that was the hunting-ground of their childhood play, they try, with increasing desperation, to get at each other’s souls.
This is not a physically erotic coupling: the body is immaterial to their love. It is a very different notion of desire to that of Jane Eyre and Rochester, for instance, in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, which is very fleshy indeed. Both Catherine and Heathcliff want to get under each other’s skin, quite literally, to join and become that singular body of their childhood fantasies. It is a dream, then, of total union, of an impossible return to origins. It is not heavenly in its transcendence, but decidedly earthly. “I cannot express it”, Catherine tells her nurse Nelly Dean, who is our homely, yet not so benign, narrator:
But surely you and everybody have a notion that there is, or should be, an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries … my great thought in living is himself. I all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be.
This notion of the self eclipsing its selfish form seems impossible for us to conceive in an age where one’s individuality is sacred. It is, however, the essence of Catherine’s tragedy: her search for her self’s home among the men who circle her is futile. Nevertheless, Emily Brontë’s radical statement of a shared ontology grounds the eroticism between the pair so that we cannot look away; and neither it seems, can the other characters in the novel.
The book’s structure is famously complex, with multiple narrators and a fluid style that results in one focalising voice shading into another. The story proper begins with Lockwood, a stranger to the rugged moorlands, a gentleman accustomed to urban life and its polite civilisations.
The terrifying nightmare he endures on his first night under Heathcliff’s roof, and the gruesomely violent outcome of his fear sets in motion the central love story that pulls all else irresistibly to it. Heathcliff’s thrice-repeated invocation of Catherine’s name, which Lockwood finds written in the margins of a book and mistakenly believes to be “nothing but a name”, works as an incantation, summoning the ghost of the woman who haunts this book.
Emily Brontë speaks of dreams, dreams that pass through the mind “like wine through water, and alter the colour” of thoughts. If the experience of reading Wuthering Heights feels like a suspension in a state of waking nightmare, what a richly-hued vision of the fantastical it is.
Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember…
This line, arguably the most famous in the history of Spanish literature, is the opening of The Ingenious Nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, the first modern novel.
Published in two parts in 1605 and 1615, this is the story of Alonso Quijano, a 16th-century Spanish hidalgo, a noble, who is so passionate about reading that he leaves home in search of his own chivalrous adventures. He becomes a knight-errant himself: Don Quixote de la Mancha. By imitating his admired literary heroes, he finds new meaning in his life: aiding damsels in distress, battling giants and righting wrongs… mostly in his own head.
But Don Quixote is much more. It is a book about books, reading, writing, idealism vs. materialism, life … and death. Don Quixote is mad. “His brain’s dried up” due to his reading, and he is unable to separate reality from fiction, a trait that was appreciated at the time as funny. However, Cervantes was also using Don Quixote’s insanity to probe the eternal debate between free will and fate. The misguided hero is actually a man fighting against his own limitations to become who he dreams to be.
Open-minded, well-travelled, and very well-educated, Cervantes was, like Don Quixote himself, an avid reader. He also served the Spanish crown in adventures that he would later include in the novel. After defeating the Ottoman Empire in the battle of Lepanto (and losing the use of his left hand, becoming “the one-handed of Lepanto”), Cervantes was captured and held for ransom in Algiers.
This autobiographical episode and his escape attempts are depicted in “The Captive’s Tale” (in Don Quixote Part I), where the character recalls “a Spanish soldier named something de Saavedra”, referring to Cervantes’s second last name. Years later, back in Spain, he completed Don Quixote in prison, due to irregularities in his accounts while he worked for the government.
Tilting at windmills
In Part I, Quijano with his new name, Don Quixote, gathers other indispensable accessories to any knight-errant: his armour; a horse, Rocinante; and a lady, an unwitting peasant girl he calls Dulcinea of Toboso, in whose name he will perform great deeds of chivalry.
While Don Quixote recovers from a disastrous first campaign as a knight, his close friends, the priest and the barber, decide to examine the books in his library. Their comments about his chivalric books combine literary criticism with a parody of the Inquisition’s practices of burning texts associated with the devil. Although a few volumes are saved (Cervantes’s own La Galatea among them), most books are burned for their responsibility in Don Quixote’s madness.
In Don Quixote’s second expedition, the peasant Sancho Panza joins him as his faithful squire, with the hopes of becoming the governor of his own island one day. The duo diverges in every aspect. Don Quixote is tall and thin, Sancho is short and fat (panza means “pot belly”). Sancho is an illiterate commoner and responds to Don Quixote’s elaborate speeches with popular proverbs. The mismatched couple has remained as a key literary archetype since then.
In perhaps the most famous scene from the novel, Don Quixote sees three windmills as fearful giants that he must combat, which is where the phrase “tilting at windmills” comes from. At the end of Part I, Don Quixote and Sancho are tricked into returning to their village. Sancho has become “quixotized”, now increasingly obsessed with becoming rich by ruling his own island.
Don Quixote was an enormous success, being translated from Spanish into the main European languages and even reaching North America. In 1614 an unknown author, Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, published an apocryphal second part. Cervantes incorporated this spurious Don Quixote and its characters into his own Part II, adding yet another chapter to the history of modern narrative.
Whereas Part I was a reaction to chivalric romances, Part II is a reaction to Part I. The book is set only one month after Don Quixote and Sancho’s return from their first literary quest, after they are notified that a book retelling their story has been published (Part I).
The rest of Part II operates as a game of mirrors, recalling and rewriting episodes. New characters, such as aristocrats who have also read Part I, use their knowledge to play tricks on Don Quixote and Sancho for their own amusement. Deceived by the rest of the characters, Sancho and a badly wounded Don Quixote finally return again to their village.
After being in bed for several days, Don Quixote’s final hour arrives. He decides to abandon his existence as Don Quixote for good, giving up his literary identity and physically dying. He leaves Sancho – his best and most faithful reader – in tears, and avoids further additions by any future imitators by dying.
The original unreliable narrator
The narrator of Part I’s prologue claims to write a sincere and uncomplicated story. Nothing is further from reality. Distancing himself from textual authority, the narrator declares that he merely compiled a manuscript translated by some Arab historian – an untrustworthy source at the time. The reader has to decide what’s real and what’s not.
Don Quixote’s transformation from nobleman to knight-errant is particularly profound given the events in Europe at the time the novel was published. Spain had been reconquered by Christian royals after centuries of Islamic presence. Social status, ethnicity and religion were seen as determining a person’s future, but Don Quixote defied this. “I know who I am,” he answered roundly to whoever tried to convince him of his
“true” and original identity.
Don Quixote through the ages
Many writers have been inspired by Don Quixote: from Goethe, Stendhal, Melville, Flaubert and Dickens, to Borges, Faulkner and Nabokov.
More than 400 years after its publication and great success, Don Quixote is widely considered the world’s best book by other celebrated authors. In our own times, full of windmills and giants, Don Quixote’s still-valuable message is that the way we filter reality through any ideology affects our perception of the world.
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – or “The Heart of Darkness”, as it was known to its first readers – was first published as a serial in 1899, in the popular monthly Blackwood’s Magazine. Few of that magazine’s subscribers could have foreseen the fame that Conrad’s story would eventually garner, or the fierce debates it would later provoke.
Already, in 1922, the American poet T.S. Eliot thought the book was Zeitgeist-y enough to provide the epigraph for his epoch-defining poem, The Waste Land – although another American poet, Ezra Pound, talked him out of using it.
Consider one final Heart of Darkness allusion, from Mohsin Hamid’s 2017 Man Booker-shortlisted novel, Exit West. In the novel’s opening pages, a man with “dark skin and dark, woolly hair” appears in a Sydney bedroom, transported there by one of the mysterious portals that have appeared around the globe, connecting stable, prosperous countries with places that people need to escape from.
The “door”, as these wormholes are called, is “a rectangle of complete darkness — the heart of darkness”. This is a more complicated kind of Conrad reference. Here, “heart of darkness” is a shorthand for European stereotypes of Africa, which Conrad’s novel did its part to reinforce.
Hamid’s line plays on racist anxieties about immigration: the idea that certain places and peoples are primitive, exotic, dangerous. For contemporary readers and writers, these questions have become an unavoidable part of Conrad’s legacy, too.
Up the river
Heart of Darkness is the story of an English seaman, Charles Marlow, who is hired by a Belgian company to captain a river steamer in the recently established Congo Free State. Almost as soon as he arrives in the Congo, Marlow begins to hear rumours about another company employee, Kurtz, who is stationed deep in the interior of the country, hundreds of miles up the Congo River.
The second half of the novel – or novella, as it’s often labelled – relates Marlow’s journey upriver and his meeting with Kurtz. His health destroyed by years in the jungle, Kurtz dies on the journey back down to the coast, though not before Marlow has had a chance to glimpse “the barren darkness of his heart”. The coda to Marlow’s Congo story takes place in Europe: questioned by Kurtz’s “Intended” about his last moments, Marlow decides to tell a comforting lie, rather than reveal the truth about his descent into madness.
Although Conrad never met anyone quite like Kurtz in the Congo, the structure of Marlow’s story is based closely on his experiences as mate and, temporarily, captain of the Roi des Belges, a Congo river steamer, in 1890. By this time, Conrad, born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in the Russian-ruled part of Poland in 1857, had been a seaman for about 15 years, rising to the rank of master in the British merchant service. (The remains of the only sailing ship he ever commanded, the Otago, have ended up in Hobart, a rusted, half-submerged shell on the banks of the Derwent.)
Sick with fever and disenchanted with his colleagues and superiors, he broke his contract after only six months, and returned to London in early 1891. Three years and two ships later, Conrad retired from the sea and embarked on a career as a writer, publishing the novel that he had been working on since before he visited the Congo, Almayer’s Folly, in 1895. A second novel, An Outcast of the Islands, followed, along with several stories. Conrad’s second career was humming along when he finally set about transforming his Congo experience into fiction in 1898.
Darkness at home and abroad
Heart of Darkness opens on a ship, but not one of the commercial vessels that feature in Conrad’s sea stories. Rather, it’s a private yacht, the Nellie, moored at Gravesend, about 20 miles east of the City of London. The five male friends gathered on board were once sailors, but everyone except Marlow has since changed careers, as Conrad himself had done.
Like sail, which was rapidly being displaced by steam-power, Marlow is introduced to us as an anachronism, still devoted to the profession his companions have left behind. When, amidst the gathering “gloom”, he begins to reminisce about his stint as a “fresh-water sailor”, his companions know they are in for one of his “inconclusive experiences”.
Setting the opening of Heart of Darkness on the Thames also allowed Conrad to foreshadow one of the novel’s central conceits: the lack of any absolute, essential difference between so-called civilized societies and so-called primitive ones. “This, too”, Marlow says, “has been one of the dark places of the earth”, imagining the impressions of an ancient Roman soldier, arriving in what was then a remote, desolate corner of the empire.
During the second half of the 19th century, spurious theories of racial superiority were used to legitimate empire-building, justifying European rule over native populations in places where they had no other obvious right to be. Marlow, however, is too cynical to accept this convenient fiction. The “conquest of the earth”, he says, was not the manifest destiny of European peoples; rather, it simply meant “the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves.”
The idea that Africans and Europeans have more in common than the latter might care to admit recurs later, when Marlow describes observing tribal ceremonies on the banks of the river. Confronted with local villagers “stamping” and “swaying”, their “eyes rolling”, he is shaken by a feeling of “remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar”.
Whereas most contemporary readers will be cheered by Marlow’s scepticism about the project of empire, this image of Congo’s indigenous inhabitants is more problematic. “Going up that river”, Marlow says, “was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world”, and he accordingly sees the dancing figures as remnants of “prehistoric man”.
Heart of Darkness suggests that Europeans are not essentially more highly-evolved or enlightened than the people whose territories they invade. To this extent, it punctures one of the myths of imperialist race theory. But, as the critic Patrick Brantlinger has argued, it also portrays Congolese villagers as primitiveness personified, inhabitants of a land that time forgot.
Kurtz is shown as the ultimate proof of this “kinship” between enlightened Europeans and the “savages” they are supposed to be civilising. Kurtz had once written an idealistic “report” for an organisation called the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. When Marlow finds this manuscript among Kurtz’s papers, however, it bears a hastily-scrawled addendum: “Exterminate all the brutes!” The Kurtz that Marlow finally encounters at the end of the novel has been consumed by the same “forgotten and brutal instincts” he once intended to suppress.
Adventure on acid
The European “gone native” on the fringes of empire was a stock trope, which Conrad himself had already explored elsewhere in his writing, but Heart of Darkness takes this cliché of imperial adventure fiction and sends it on an acid trip. The manic, emaciated Kurtz that Marlow finds at the Inner Station is straight out of the pages of late-Victorian neo-Gothic, more Bram Stoker or Sheridan Le Fanu than Henry Rider Haggard. The “wilderness” has possessed Kurtz, “loved him, embraced him, got into his veins” — it is no wonder that Marlow feels “creepy all over” just thinking about it.
Kurtz’s famous last words are “The horror! The horror!” “Horror” is also the feeling that Kurtz and his monstrous jungle compound, with its decorative display of human heads, are supposed to evoke in the reader. Along with its various other generic affiliations — imperial romance, psychological novel, impressionist tour de force — Heart of Darkness is a horror story.
Conrad’s Kurtz also channels turn-of-the-century anxieties about mass media and mass politics. One of Kurtz’s defining qualities in the novel is “eloquence”: Marlow refers to him repeatedly as “A voice!”, and his report on Savage Customs is written in a rhetorical, highfalutin style, short on practical details but long on sonorous abstractions. Marlow never discovers Kurtz’s real “profession”, but he gets the impression that he was somehow connected with the press — either a “journalist who could paint” or a “painter who wrote for the papers”.
This seems to be confirmed when a Belgian journalist turns up in Antwerp after Kurtz’s death, referring to him as his “dear colleague” and sniffing around for anything he can use as copy. Marlow fobs him off with the bombastic report, which the journalist accepts happily enough. For Conrad, implicitly, Kurtz’s mendacious eloquence is just the kind of thing that unscrupulous popular newspapers like to print.
If Kurtz’s “colleague” is to be believed, moreover, his peculiar gifts might also have found an outlet in populist politics: “He would have been a splendid leader of an extreme party.” Had he returned to Europe, that is, the same faculty that enabled Kurtz to impose his mad will on the tribespeople of the upper Congo might have found a wider audience.
Politically, Conrad tended to be on the right, and this image of Kurtz as an extremist demagogue expresses a habitual pessimism about mass democracy — in 1899, still a relatively recent phenomenon. Nonetheless, in the light of the totalitarian regimes that emerged in Italy, Germany and Russia after 1918, Kurtz’s combination of irresistible charisma with megalomaniacal brutality seems prescient.
These concerns about political populism also resonate with recent democratic processes in the US and the UK, among other places. Only Conrad’s emphasis on “eloquence” now seems quaint: as the 2016 US Presidential Election demonstrated, an absence of rhetorical flair is no handicap in the arena of contemporary populist debate.
Race and empire
Heart of Darkness contains a bitter critique of imperialism in the Congo, which Conrad condemns as “rapacious and pitiless folly”. The backlash against the systematic abuse and exploitation of Congo’s indigenous inhabitants did not really get underway until the first decade of the 20th century, so that the anti-imperialist theme was ahead of its time, if only by a few years. Nor does Conrad have any patience with complacent European beliefs about racial superiority.
Nonetheless, the novel also contains representations of Africans that would rightly be described as racist if they were written today. In particular, Conrad shows little interest in the experience of Marlow’s “cannibal” shipmates, who come across as exotic caricatures. It is images like these that led the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe to denounce Conrad as a “bloody racist”, in an influential 1977 essay.
One response to this criticism is to argue, as Paul B. Armstrong does, that the lack of more rounded Congolese characters is the point. By sticking to Marlow’s limited perspective, Heart of Darkness gives an authentic portrayal of how people see other cultures. But this doesn’t necessarily make the images themselves any less offensive.
If Achebe did not succeed in having Heart of Darkness struck from the canon, he did ensure that academics writing about the novel could no longer ignore the question of race. For Urmila Seshagiri, Heart of Darkness shows that race is not the stable, scientific category that many Victorians thought it was. This kind of argument shifts the debate in a different direction, away from the author’s putative “racism”, and onto the novel’s complex portrayal of race itself.
Perhaps because he was himself an alien in Britain, whose first career had taken him to the farthest corners of the globe, Conrad’s novels and stories often seem more in tune with our globalized world than those of some of his contemporaries. An émigré at 16, Conrad experienced to a high degree the kind of dislocation that has become an increasingly typical modern condition. It is entirely appropriate, in more ways than one, for Hamid to allude to Conrad in a novel about global mobility.
The paradox of Heart of Darkness is that it seems at once so improbable and so necessary. It is impossible not to be astonished, when you think of it, that a Polish ex-sailor, writing in his third language, was ever in a position to author such a story, on such a subject. And yet, in another way, Conrad’s life seems more determined than most, in more direct contact with the great forces of history. It is from this point of view that Heart of Darkness seems necessary, even inevitable, the product of dark historical energies, which continue to shape our contemporary world.