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What is so elusive about him is that he is always promising to make some general philosophic statement about the universe, and then refraining with a gruff disclaimer.... Is there not also a central obscurity, something noble, heroic,
beautiful, inspiring half a dozen great books; but obscure, obscure? These essays [Conrad's Notes on Life and Letters, 1921] do suggest that he is misty in the middle as well as at the edges, that the secret casket of his genius contains a vapour rather than a jewel; and that we need not try to write him down philosophically, because there is, in this particular direction, nothing to write. No creed, in fact. Only opinions, and the right to throw them overboard when facts make them look absurd.

E. M. Forster, Abinger Harvest, 1936


[Marlow's perspective] can be summarised along the following lines: the physical universe began in darkness, and will end in it, the same holds for the world of human history, which is dark in the sense of being obscure, amoral, and without purpose; and so, essentially, is man. Through some fortuitous and inexplicable development, however, men have occasionally been able to bring light to this darkness in the form of civilisation-a structure of behavior and belief which can sometimes keep the darkness at bay. But this containing action is highly precarious, because the operations of darkness are much more active, numerous, and omnipresent, both in society and in the individual, than civilised people usually suppose. They must learn that light is not only a lesser force than darkness in power, magnitude, and duration, but is in some way subordinate to it, or included within it: in short, that the darkness which Marlow discovers in the wilderness, in Kurtz and in himself, is the primary and all-encompassing reality of the universe.... In any case, neither Conrad nor Marlow stands for the position that darkness is irresistible; their attitude,
rather, is to enjoin us to defend ourselves in full knowledge of the difficulties to which we have been blinded by the illusions of civilisation.

Ian Watt, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, 1979


Conrad's innovation-or, in any case, the fictional technique that he exploited with unprecedented thoroughness-is the double plot: neither allegory (where surface is something teasing, to be got through), nor catch-all symbolism (where every knowing particular signifies some universal or other), but a developing order of actions so lucidly symbolic of a developing state of spirit-from moment to moment, so morally identifiable-as to suggest the conditions of allegory without forfeiting or even subordinating the realistic "superficial" claim of the actions and their actors....

The problem is, of course, Kurtz. It is when we are on the verge of meeting Kurtz that Marlow's "inconceivables" and "impenetrables" begin to multiply at an alarming rate; it is when we have already met him that we are urged to observe "smiles of indefinable meaning" and to hear about "unspeakable rites" and "gratified and monstrous passions" and "subtle horrors"- words to hound the reader into a sense of enigmatic awfulness that he would somehow be the better for not trying to find a way through.... Unhappily, though, the effect... is to bring to mind and
penetrate Conrad's magazine-writer style as well as the hollowness of Kurtz's sentiments.

Marvin Mudrick, "The Originality of Conrad," 1959


"The Secret Sharer" is forthright in structure and simple in style, as direct and immediate and frightening as any very personal diary. Heart of Darkness, on the other hand, is evasive in structure and even uncomfortably wordy. Words! At times Conrad and Marlow seem to want to erect (as does a psychoanalyst's patient) a screen of words between themselves and the horror of a half-remembered experience.

...But both stories are also dramas of consciousness and conscience, symbolic explorations of inward complexity. They are... stories of youth's initiation into manhood and knowledge, dramatized testings of personal strength and integrity, psychological studies in half-conscious identification. Why does Marlow seek out and remain loyal to the unspeakable and savage Kurtz in Heart of Darkness? Why does the narrator (the "I") of "The Secret Sharer" protect the criminally impulsive Leggatt? Both have identified themselves, temporarily, with these outcast and more primitive beings; lived vicariously in them. In the unconscious mind of each of us slumber infinite capacities for reversion and crime. And our best chance for survival, moral survival, lies in frankly recognizing these capacities. Albert J. Guerard, "Introduction to the Signet Classic edition, 1950


Usually, in the face of a work improperly understood, critics blame one another; but in this case the work itself is at fault. Although "The Secret Sharer" is a fascinating and provocative story, its details are at times so vaguely portentous that readers are seduced into hunting for a complex symbolic consistency which the work does not possess.... Because of its insistent promptings and seductive detail, "The Secret Sharer" has become everybody's
Rorschach test.

Lawrence Graver, Conrad's Short Fiction, 1969

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