Monstrous and Free

“Monstrous and free”…

The phrase arrested me as I reread Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

Marlow, the English river boat captain, is describing the jungle that surrounds him:

“…there you could look at a thing monstrous and free.  It was unearthly…”

I get the chills.

Landscape as literary device—Conrad uses it to characterize Kurtz, the rogue ivory trader, whom Marlow has come upriver to find.  Everything up there in the Congo River basin is “monstrous and free”. 

Conrad’s novel is a cautionary tale of “uncivilized” freedom.  Kurtz has attained god-like status by leaving conventional belief systems far behind.  He’s free…and feral.  It’s meant to freak us out.

And here I go, now, crawling out on a limb to propose that most satisfying stories direct the protagonist through a story heart that can be described as “monstrous and free”.

For the protagonist, the major crisis presents an existential dilemma that is both frightening and freeing.  I’m suggesting this as a way to view every story heart:

The heart of a story is a country both frightening and freeing.

I have no proof that Conrad was trying to tell us the same thing.  But here`s a personal story that places “monstrous and free” at the heart of my own story.

It happened in India.

We were seekers experimenting druglessly with altered states.  We put our personal identities to the test by asking ourselves:


Pairing up, sitting nose to nose, taking turns, Who are you?  “Well, my name is Reece; I have a B.A. in geography, I’m Canadian, I…my favourite book is, ahh… Heart of Darkness… I… ah…”  

Sounds simple enough at first, but it quickly devolves into speculation.  Who am I?  Easier said than done!  Try it.  After five minutes, switch.  Now, I’m listening non-judgmentally to my partner’s stream of consciousness.  Rivers of baloney!  Every 40 minutes, find a different partner.  Eighteen hours a day for three days. 

Day 2 and we are sick to death of our rationalizations, explanations, memories, hopes, dreams and delusions about who we are.  Our belief systems are a cover-up for…for what?  Something is trying to surface…something overwhelming.  We are terrified.  People are crying.  It’s a madhouse!  How can this be happening?  

I find myself allowing all that baloney to fall away…

Miraculously, I have no more thoughts about who I’m supposed to be…

I become a lion on the Serengeti Plain.

Did someone say, “MONSTROUS AND FREE”?  I have never felt such power.  I can see through people. 

Nearby herds of zebra and impala are in serious danger, although for the moment they are quite safe.  You see, I’m not hungry.  Not yet.  My sexual appetite (now that I’m a lion, hmmm…) is another issue.  I recall being mildly troubled by that.  And in the next moment not troubled at all! 

(Don’t worry—attendants kept watch over us.)

Power without a conscience, it’s not a safe state—that’s what I’m trying to say. 

Freedom can serve the monster…or it may serve a higher cause.

I had the support of my fellow adventurers within an arena of trust to guide me through this jungle.  But all the Marlows of the fiction world travel solo into the story heart.  Alone, they face the consequences of a monstrous freedom.

Little wonder that readers are so compelled by the fictional protagonist steaming upriver toward the story heart

I’ve been replaying my favourite novels and movies to see if “monstrous and free” applies to their story hearts.  I’ll analyse Casablanca in an upcoming post.  In the meantime, here’s a question to ponder:

Do all Marlows dread the story heart? 

And if so, why do they dock their boat and step ashore and risk becoming “monstrous and free”?


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  1. Don Meuse says

    I’ve read Conrad, a couple books and short stories, and I don’t think he had any concept of story structure that had any concern for a “story heart” as Reece suggests obliquely and directly. I’ve read criticism of Conrad with close attention, and all I seriously believed is that he strived for excellence in writing skills in English, which was extremely important to him as a Polish born writer, much more than he did for any conviction about story structure. Indeed, if you read a variety of criticism there isn’t even a glimmer of consensus on Conrad’s structural writing ‘modus operendi’ (excuse my inadequate Latin). In deference to Reece’s journey into the heart of the novel, which I believe he should conclude in manuscript form and publish – I have no doubt it would be published – Bobo should accept that that insights are achieved incrementally and that he has received an abundance of increment to write about. I’m not one to say what anyone should do, but I think that we should impose limits and take something to press before getting lost in the “great beyond” of ontological insanity. Put it to the people! I’ll buy it!
    There is a (where is my gin and tonic???) somnambulance of strict attention to detail to the theme when it becomes repetitive in allegience to the same end. How many animal stories do we have to go through before the jaws of survival bite back? Robbie Reece is on remote control! We get the point. OK!
    I want to know the details of what heart you were seeking when you embraced the flesh of Africa personally as opposed to vicariously through Conrad and other dead writers. There is no implication of behaviour lacking honour, as I know you to be an honourable man, but a there is a plea to come out of hiding from behind a psychic Kariba High Dam. I’m probably being a bit histrionic in my expectation and anticipation, but it is out of consideration for what remains behind the spillway that should be powerfully exposed without reservation, even if it means abandoning ‘structure.’
    This is just my opinion. I’m sure that others will quite rightly disagree.

  2. says

    Thanks for all that, Mr. Meuse… I will take it all under considerattion, especially because I’m not sure exactly where to apply my meager talents these days. I do fear getting lost in the “great beyond” as you call it. I can’t help it. Say… would you like to be my agent?

  3. says

    I like your link between Conrad and Monstrous and free – sans moral control – and ashram with moral contraints, then make links of my own:

    In the New York Times August 3, 2012 article The Moral of the Story, David Eagleman reviewed THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL:How Stories Make Us Human By Jonathan Gottschall. The moral component – and here we are talking beyond the narrowest definition – he sees as intrinsic to fiction.

    I too admire Conrad for examining in story form something that Victorian England couldn’t stomach. An example: the behavior of some fine English “gentlemen” who travelled with one of Stanley’s sorties into Africa.

    Writing I enjoy takes a daring look at assumptions, and these nuggets can be dropped anywhere in the narrative, or at the heart of the story – the writer’s choice. Structure not an issue IMO.

  4. pamela mcgarry says

    Thanks M. Muese for such a riveting critique of PJR’s tenacious hold on the theme of story structure to die for (is it killing him, do you think? A true martyr to the cause!) and seeking, in this instance to apply it to Conrad.
    A ponderable is the consciousness or lack of it (structure) in the writer when he’s hard at it getting his story written. I would say that the instinct and intuition map out a structure that later can be recognized as such, then analyzed and even offered to the ever growing zillions of writers out there who seek guidance or confirmation by being given a map – PJR’s is a good one, I’d say.
    Perhaps this is yet another step on the evolutionary path whereby we emulate and advance, incrementally, because of those bold explorers of jungles (inside and out) who return from the dark hearts of such scary places waving a newly mapped route and delivering it into the arms of civilization.

  5. says

    Hey PJ! Love those two words together, Monstrous, and Free. It’s barbaric beauty, in word form. Together, they take you somewhere. I first heard of this concept, of landscape as a literary device, over on The Write Practice. I have to admit it was new to me. In my writing practice, I applied it to my WIP. I plugged in the machine, delivered voltage, and shocked my book in to a giddy new (monstrous) awesome life! It’s a formidable device.

    In answer to your questions, our Marlowes only dread the story heart if they have a semblance of sense somewhere in their being! They dock their boats anyway because isn’t that the essence of being human? That we strive to be more. Even though it’s painful, and terrifying…

    PJ, did you check out my website yet? You feature in quote form, and of course I link to your blog… Do you think I can get away with the ‘minig-blog’ idea? It’s my cheaters way around the whole dilemma, to simply update the “my news” page once or week… Only time will tell I guess. But it feels good so far. And I’m freed from the constant preoccupation, ‘to blog or not to blog’ in order to do the real work, of writing my book!! :-)

  6. says

    “We strive to be more.”

    Yvette, i think that’s it! We don’t just want more Lady Godiva chocolate: “One for me, and one for me,” but we want more of what we don’t even know how to attain. How do we “be” more. We have no idea, but we have a hunch it’s out there at the end of a lot of effort. So we keep efforting, keep steaming up the Congo, until we find that our known world has been left far behind. I don’t think we know how “to be more”, and yet the striving goes on. I don’t know about you, but I find that astonishing. We move unknowingly toward our own evolution. Whew… I think I need a ouzo.

  7. Emilie Dierking says

    Sorry to come so late to the conversation. All I can think about is Andrew Davidson’s beautiful novel, The Gargoyle. Only when the narrator becomes monstrous does he attain freedom.

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