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A Time Before Hollywood Endings Macbeth, The Raven, And Heart Of Darkness

Author : Paul Thomson

Submitted : 2010-07-14 23:14:03    Word Count : 777    Popularity:   26

Tags:   Macbeth, The Raven, Heart of Darkness, literature, William Shakespeare

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The twentieth century was the golden age of ambiguity. How many earlier works can you think of that top the subjectivity of Ulysses, the narrative inconsistency of Slaughterhouse-Five, the abrupt ending of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” or the… whatever that was of the entire six seasons of “Lost”?

Of course, abandoning the traditional narrative structure didn’t happen overnight. To get a feel for the process, let’s take a look at three different works of, say, horror across the centuries to see if we can spot a trend.

Shakespeare’s darkest play, Macbeth, is a good place to start. Written around 1600, the tragedy falls under the category of “ways not to get ahead in life” and, aside from being particularly gruesome / depressing, follows a pretty standard plotline. Macbeth, who is high on the royal ladder, gets his sights set on the top and decides to off the king. Which would be a much simpler task if people had the courtesy not to ask questions every time a dead body showed up at your house.

To address this problem, Macbeth decides to kill anyone who suspects him of murdering the king. And anyone who suspects him of killing the people who suspected him of killing the king. And anyone who gets his order wrong at Ye Olde Grub Hut until, finally, he himself is murdered and replaced by – surprise! – his own successor to the throne. At this point, Shakespeare dusts off his hands as he declares, “Done and done.”

Not so with our next tale. Written by Edgar Allen Poe in the mid 1800’s, The Raven inches creepily away from the traditional A-B-C storytelling format by delving into the mind of a madman. The story begins with our unnamed narrator recounting his sadness at having lost his love, Lenore. Enter the raven. The unexpected intrusion of a bird would seem harmless enough except that: a) it’s a dark September night; b) the bird is supposedly a harbinger of doom; and c) our narrator already has death on the brain.

Seeing as how the Wii had not yet been invented, the narrator attempts to entertain himself by talking to the bird. Which, as he quickly discovers, can only say “nevermore.” At this point, the narrator begins asking it a series of painful yes/no questions, wording them to ensure that the answers are thoroughly depressing. By the end of the story, the guy has resigned himself to a haunted existence and is presumably hugging himself in a corner as he rocks back and forth.

Unlike Macbeth, who self-destructs with finality, the narrator simply withdraws from the world into a kind of insane limbo. This doesn’t exactly wrap up the story with a pretty bow, but then again, it doesn’t require a lot of guesswork, either.

Which finally brings us to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a twentieth-century novel that uses the good-vs.-evil motif to plumb the depths of the ambiguous ending. Our hero protagonist, Charlie Marlow, is an Englishman in the Belgian Congo who has been assigned track down and retrieve Mr. Kurtz, a renegade ivory trader with a serious god complex, a standing army of native Congolese, and a lot of blood on his hands.

As Marlow narrates retrospectively, we watch him become increasingly obsessed with Kurtz’s evil. When the mission is over and Marlow is asked whether or not he admired the guy, a well-timed interruption cuts off his final answer. (Just think the end of The Sopranos.) Marlow’s fiancée even goes so far as to suggest that he didn’t just admire Kurtz, but actually loved him – though there’s no way for the reader to be certain.

What’s so unnerving about the ambiguity of Marlow’s personal transformation is that he, for all intents and purposes, started out as a pretty average guy. If Kurtz’s evil does indeed resonate with Marlow’s own hidden, average-guy darkness, it would imply that everyone has a dark side waiting to be awakened.

Except that we can’t be sure what Marlow’s feelings toward Kurtz really are, which means the essential nature of man remains open to the reader’s interpretation. The kicker? However the reader decides to interpret the ending says much more about his or her deeper nature than Conrad ever could.

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Shmoop is an online study guide for Macbeth, The Raven and many more. Its content is written by Ph.D. and Masters students from top universities, like Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, and Yale who have also taught at the high school and college levels. Teachers and students should feel confident to cite Shmoop.

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