I can applaud, and I do with great praise, the writing abilities of Joseph Conrad.
His ability to paint a canvas with words is truly extraordinary. You can feel, hear, smell, and almost taste the places he describes. It is pure poetry in prose.
His subject matter is not something I would ordinarily be interested in. British colonialism near the end of the 19th century. I suppose most of us has views of colonialism, much of it negative. Certainly, Conrad’s indictment is not shocking nor unusual, but for his time.
His time was the close of the 19th century. This novella was published in around 1904.
What adds another level to the mix is that Conrad too was a sailor aboard a small craft that plied the waters of the Congo. So there is a certain autobiographical air abroad as well.
Conrad speaks through Marlow, the teller of this tale. Marlow gets himself appointed as captain of a small craft which he is to engage at the major English station in the Congo and go in search of one Kurtz, an ivory hunter who works for the Company, but has gone off the reservation so to speak.
Our storyteller guides us to the adventure with wonderful words such as these:
“There it is before you– smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, `Come and find out.'”
Marlow is in some sense repulsed by what he sees. He is impressed favorably with the Company Accountant, who manages to remain “above it all” in a sense by keeping his suit clean, his cuffs starched and his English routines in order, all the while the native Africans are dying from disease, are being whipped to work, and barely fed.
This is perhaps what is most difficult here. Conrad seems largely unaffected by the plight of the African. In fact, they are nameless, faceless, and talked of in ways that suggest that Conrad didn’t stop to think about them much at all.
What we learn is that as Marlow begins his journey into the heart of darkness, the continent itself, Marlow senses and finds that he, like all before him, lose their own “civilization.”
This raises an odd feeling, for as the boat proceeds up the river, the scenery gets more and more primitive and simple. Layer upon layer of civilization fall away, but the replacement is an increasing savagery, and animalistic atmosphere. The natives are inexplicable, childlike, dangerous, but not rational.
Kurtz is eventually found and Marlow discovers that Kurtz has devolved most of all. He has “gone native” as it were, and apparently engages in the cannibalism (at least in the sense of posting the heads on spikes at his camp), and other rituals done by the locals. But his relationship with them is anything but simple. While he has become their leader in a sense, he is also grabbing up every single piece of ivory that can be found, stealing it for himself to the detriment of the Company.
Kurtz dies on the way back up the river, and Marlow returns to England where he meets Kurtz’s fiancée. He eases her grief by lying to her, telling her that Kurtz’s last word was her name. In fact, Kurtz dies saying what has become the calling card for the book, “the horror, the horror.”
Ultimately Heart of Darkness was captured in modern reality by Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, transported from the Congo to the Mekong Delta.
The story was not my cup of tea, simply because the subject matter was not to my liking. However, Conrad is a writer beyond measure, a true brilliance.
I am, and will be unsure about what he felt about the Africans. A charge of racism will most likely dog this book for all time. The answer will always likely be, that Conrad was a product of his time. But of course, change never occurs except and until someone speaks out about the “times” and gives voice to its errors.
Conrad surely did so as to colonialism in general, suggesting that it reduced the colonial master to the level of the colonized, but frankly, I think he missed a greater truism that he seemed incapable of even contemplating. Who was the more civilized? This Conrad cannot imagine apparently.
- Recommended Reads: Heart of Darkness (thereaderonline.co.uk)
- Blogging Heart of Darkness: Conrad’s Purpose (helenablogging.wordpress.com)
- Misconceived Reality (maryahallen.wordpress.com)
- Heart Of Darkness – Overview (monzishere.wordpress.com)
- Book II (lindsayorr.wordpress.com)
- The meaning of a lie (mkolich.wordpress.com)
- Heart of Darkness: Final Feelings… (oscarnorton.wordpress.com)