Newest Review: ... most famous work. In my opinion it is certainly his most potent. Heart of Darkness is the 2nd of 3 books written by Conrad that make use ... more
Heart of Darkness
Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
Member Name: annaroos1
Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
Advantages: It makes you think
Disadvantages: The ambiguity can be annoying at times
Joseph Conrad’s own African experience was of relatively short duration, a little less than six months. Still, this journey must have made a deep impression on him, so much so that ten years later he interrupted two other projects to write Heart of Darkness. The novella was an attempt to describe his experiences in Africa but it is not altogether autobiographical. Most importantly, Conrad added a completely new storyline to the novella in Marlow’s attempt to find the elusive Mr Kurtz. The search for this Mr Kurtz is the main plot in Heart of Darkness and to be able to find him, Marlow has to travel ever deeper into the darkness of the African jungle, into the ‘heart of darkness’.
The outline of the story is as follows: Marlow leaves Europe to go to the Congo. He is to be the captain of a ship on an expedition to pick up one of the company’s ivory-collectors, Mr Kurtz. After a long voyage from Europe, having seen many examples of the cruelty of colonialism, Marlow arrives at the Central Station. Once there he has to wait even longer before he has the chance to meet Mr Kurtz, for on his arrival he discovers that the ship he was to be in charge of has been sunk. The Manager promises Marlow that the steamer will be ready to set off within three months’ time. Even though Marlow is not happy to wait, that is all he can do. It is inevitable that the reader suspects the Manager to have something to do with the sinking of the ship even if that is not openly suggested by Marlow.
The Manager seems to be envious of Kurtz and it is possible that he is hoping that an extra three months in the jungle might render Kurtz fatally ill in one of the feared African fevers. One of the first things we hear about Mr Kurtz is the fact that he has an extraordinary way with words. While Marlow is held up on his way to see Kurtz, his eagerness to meet this remarkable man increasingly grows. To both Marlow and the reader, Kurtz at first seems to be the ultimate representative of the nineteenth century. He is very successful in collecting ivory; he paints and is an eloquent speaker.
After almost exactly three months, the ship is ready to leave the Central Station to pick up Kurtz. When, after an eventful trip, they finally reach Kurtz’s station, they are greeted by a young Russian who is fiercely loyal to Mr Kurtz. The man, who Marlow calls the Harlequin because of his colourful clothes, asks Marlow to bring Kurtz away from there. His admiration for Kurtz is great but as Marlow listens to his story about Mr Kurtz, he seems to start to get a bad feeling about the situation. The Harlequin tells Marlow that Kurtz got his first ivory, not through trading but through raiding the country. Marlow seems to suspect something odd is going on when he asks, “Kurtz got the tribe to follow him, did he”. “They adored him” is the Harlequin’s answer. He goes on; “[w]hat can you expect? […] He came to them with thunder and lightning, you know – and they had never seen anything like it – and very terrible. He could be very terrible. You can’t judge Mr Kurtz as you would an ordinary man”. These words seem to disprove Marlow’s and the Manager’s unpronounced belief that Kurtz is the victim of aggressive, African tribes or stranded in the jungle as a prisoner and that, in fact, he is the aggressor.
As the Harlequin keeps on talking, Marlow holds up his binoculars and looks around. When he was still on the ship, he had been able to make out some sort of ornaments around the house. As he takes a second look at these, he realises that they are in fact human heads on stakes, turned towards the house. This, I think, can be connected with the colonisation of Africa. The cruelty used in Africa seemed to offer humans on the altar of ‘progress’. To be able to achieve this goal, humans, natives mainly, were sacrificed without much thought. Maybe it is also possible to see a connection between Kurtz’s decaying heads and how his own soul was rotten and had been sacrificed to ‘progress’. By the time Marlow sees the heads he must suspect that the man he has dreamt of meeting for such a long time might not be the miracle of civilisation he has expected to encounter. Nevertheless, Marlow is still eager to meet Kurtz and he is not overly upset about Kurtz’s unusual decorations.
When Marlow finally gets to meet with Kurtz the man is very weak from fever and as Marlow seems to have started to believe, something terrible has happened to the great man Kurtz is said to have been when he left for the Inner Station. Mr Kurtz has turned into some sort of evil leader of the native tribes. There are even suggestions that he is accepting, maybe even demanding, human sacrifices, but due to Conrad’s obscure way of writing, this cannot be satisfactorily proven. Certainly, there are mentions of “monstrous passions” and “unspeakable rites”. Marlow himself never gets to witness anything of the sort, but nonetheless seems to know what has happened and is still happening.
Kurtz has to choose between an African and a European career, and ends up choosing the European one as he agrees to leave the jungle. Indeed Marlow seems to have to convince Mr Kurtz that this is the best idea by assuring him that he will be successful man in Europe. Kurtz only mumbles “I had immense plans” possibly suggesting that he can now see what he has done through the eyes of European civilisation and is therefore trying to defend himself by saying that he did not set out to do harm. In any case, Mr Kurtz is taken on board the steamer to be brought back to the Central Station and treated for his fever but after a while, he tries to get back to the station, or rather, to ‘his’ tribe. It seems as if he cannot positively leave his station behind and with it all his “monstrous passions”. Even if he decided to leave Africa his soul is torn in different directions and Marlow is witnessing this struggle. Somehow, Kurtz’s soul has been destroyed or at least changed from his African adventure.
Shortly after his return to the ship, after a period when he struggles against the fever and against himself, Kurtz dies uttering his ominous last words: “The Horror! The Horror!”. Despite the many different explanations to Kurtz’s last words that critics have put forward, Marlow seems to have interpreted them as a sign of Kurtz’s understanding of the wrongs he has committed. The question of what the words mean is hard to answer. It seems to me as if Conrad made them ambiguous intentionally and thereby meant for them to carry several different meanings. Kurtz does not seem as a person likely to repent what he has done and maybe the words mean that Kurtz has seen what can go wrong within a person but also in the name of a ‘better’ cause such as the colonisation of Africa. Marlow wishes to see them as a sign of Kurtz’s regret for what he has done, maybe because the two of them are so closely connected to each other in many ways and he wants for Kurtz to ‘do the right thing’.
Marlow returns to Europe after the death of Mr Kurtz and now he too has fallen ill. However, he suggests that the illness might have nothing to do with a physical condition. He says that his aunt tried to nurse up his strength but he found this unnecessary because “it was not my strength that wanted nursing, it was my imagination that wanted soothing” suggesting that it was his meeting with Mr Kurtz and depravity which made him ill inside rather than anything else.
Although it may seem to some as if I have spoiled the ending of the story to those who have not read it this is not the very end and furthermore, what is important in the story is not the actual happenings as such but rather the characters reactions and the way you as a reader interpret them. The story in itself is not complex, it is only when you begin to think about the meaning of it all that you realise the complexity of it.
Conrad seems to have built Mr Kurtz’s character on several earlier literary characters, most notably Heathcliff. They are both very dark characters but with traces of redeeming features, in Kurtz’s case his good intentions when arriving in Africa. Kurtz has also been compared to a modern Faust the main similarity being that they both sold their soul to the devil. Kurtz’s devil is not the same physical manifestation Faust’s devil is but it is nevertheless just as real.
It has often been suggested that Marlow in Heart of Darkness is merely a sort of transparent medium through which colonialism and the degradation of Mr Kurtz is studied. However, I think that Marlow plays an even more important role within the novella. The voyage Marlow makes into the heart of darkness is both into the impenetrable darkness of Africa but also into the dark parts of his own soul. In the heart of both these darknesses, Marlow is confronted by Mr Kurtz. Mr Kurtz could be described as Marlow’s own heart of darkness and this is, I believe, of vital importance to the story told.
No matter what you believe it is clear that Marlow’s and Mr Kurtz’s stories are very much entwined and cannot be separated if they are to keep their meaning but they are vastly different as characters in many ways. One good example is the fact that Marlow’s main goal in Africa is not to make money, but he wants to fulfil a childhood dream of going into the blank areas of the map.
Heart of Darkness has two narrators, one of them tells the ‘frame story’ about the seamen on board the yawl Nellie. He introduces Marlow, the narrator of the ‘main story’ and throughout the narration, he sporadically comments upon Marlow and his storytelling. Marlow also addresses his listeners on a few occasions. The main part of the novella consists of Marlow telling the supposedly self-experienced story. Since both of the narrators in Heart of Darkness are first person narrators who relate their own experiences, it is possible that they are both unreliable. Whether they are or not makes a great difference to how you read the story and to what you believe is taking place. There is no unanimous opinion on whether the narrators are reliable or not but I for one believe that the anonymous frame narrator can be believed as his role is simply to introduce someone else and there is no suggestion that he does not do so truthfully. Marlow, however, is a great deal more difficult to decide on. He is very quick to make subjective remarks about things he experiences and it is obvious that he judges everything from his own set of values and prejudices. Besides this, he even tells us as a part of his story that he lied to Mr Kurtz’s Intended and also lied, or at least withheld the truth to save Kurtz’s reputation, something that would suggest that it is not impossible that he could also lie to the reader. It might not be a conscious lie but merely his telling the events as he experienced them. If someone else, Kurtz for example, had been able to tell the story from his point of view, everything might seem different. However, since Marlow’s is the only account we get of himself and Mr Kurtz we find ourselves looking through his eyes and judging them both using Marlow’s account as the only ‘evidence’.
The title itself is ambiguous and adds to the complexity of the story; it is possible to interpret ‘Heart of Darkness’ either as the darkness of a person’s heart or as the middle of darkness, because of the ambivalence of the genitive. Many a critic has taken it to point at both the interior of ‘darkest’ Africa but also to the corruption of Kurtz. Others have taken a near enough opposite view which refers more to the colonial statement that the novella may or may not make suggesting that it shows the Africans as innocent victims of the white man’s ‘heart of darkness’. On another level, however, it could also be Conrad’s intention to show that the Africans have the power to turn the white man’s heart black. I believe that this is one of many instances where Conrad is wilfully vague with his use of language so that readers can interpret it as they wish.
Heart of Darkness has been considered a masterpiece ever since it was published and has been embraced as compassionate and humane. It did not receive much critique concerning the way it describes Africa and Africans until 1975, when the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe vigorously attacked the novella. Achebe’s general theme was that “Conrad used Africa as a historyless and barbaric opposite to European civilisation, and that his treatment of the Congolese people were offensively stereotyped and unsympathetic”. Achebe went so far as to argue that Heart of Darkness should no longer be regarded a masterpiece, or part of the canon, and he famously even called Conrad a “bloody racist”. Furthermore, he was of the opinion that the novella, which up until then had been generally considered anti-imperialist, was actually pro-imperialist. He based this on the idea that the Africans in the book were pictured as savages in need of civilising, which in the end would mean that Europe needed to colonise the continent in order to ‘help’ its inhabitants.
Achebe’s views have been argued back and forth since and although there has been no real conclusion to this discussion I think it is fair to say that whereas the views expressed by Marlow may seem very strange from or modern perspective it may be unfair to label Conrad a racist based on this as it is unclear whether Marlow is a tool to convey Conrad’s own opinion and whether what he says is ironic or not.
Another point in this discussion that might be of interest is the fact that almost all the white characters in it are shown to be egoistic, mindless and cruel and therefore in the wrong suggesting that Conrad’s sympathies may not lie on the side of the coloniser. The portrayal of the colonisers seems of utmost importance as to whether the novella is read as pro- or anti-colonialism and the idea that an anti-imperialist opinion can be expressed, not by making the colonised characters more real and human but by making the colonisers less human and more ‘savage-like’, is very interesting. The discussion continues and it seems impossible to get a definite answer to the question. However, it seems as if the dominant view today is that Conrad is anti-colonialism.
Heart of Darkness is indeed a very complex story. Although it is short it requires a great deal of you as a reader. If you give it the time it deserves, maybe read some opinions about it and give yourself time to think through what you believe it is really about I think this is an amazing read. Part of what I have written here is from my dissertation and as I read this as one part of that I gave myself plenty of time to read around it and to study the language and the characters very carefully. I think this helped me appreciate it much more. I wouldn’t suggest this as light reading but I do think it is worth to give it a chance when you have the time.
Summary: A classic that is well worth a read