To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.
Heart of Darkness
By Joseph Conrad
Heart of Darkness is a novella by Polish-British novelist Joseph Conrad, about a voyage up the Congo River into the Congo Free State, in the heart of Africa, by the story’s narrator Marlow. Marlow tells his story to friends aboard a boat anchored on the River Thames, London, England. This setting provides the frame for Marlow’s story of his obsession with the ivory trader Kurtz, which enables Conrad to create a parallel between London and Africa as places of darkness.
Central to Conrad’s work is the idea that there is little difference between so-called civilized people and those described as savages; Heart of Darkness raises important questions about imperialism and racism.
This is my January selection for the 2016 Classics Challenge
To say that Heart of Darkness is a divisive book would be an understatement. This work, originally published as a three-part story in Blackwood Magazine over a century ago, has been charged with nearly every literary crime one can think of. It is confusing, offensive, racist, sexist. It has even, despite the controversy, been called pointless and dull. Through all that though, it is still considered a classic, a must-read of literature. Misinterpretations, outrage, flaws and all, I agree with that view.
Heart of Darkness is a story within a story, the tale a seaman named Marlow tells his shipmates while they are harbored on the Thames. That structural choice takes some getting used to- the entire novella is written from the first-person perspective of one of Marlow’s crewmates, and thus Marlow’s tale (also in first-person) often relies on layered quotations within quotations. It can also be frustrating to place where his commentary is taking place. Is he narrating conversations of the past? Or musing during the present with his ship-board audience? It takes getting used to, but once you do the prose can be both beautiful and devastating.
Do not let the effort to read detract you though; the story itself is like an earworm once you get into it, forcing you to think hard on your own opinions regarding the noted grievances towards the novel. Are there offensive, even racist descriptions in this book? That depends on ones interpretation and contextual learning. Is its thesis, its damnation of Imperialism strong enough to counteract some of those claims? Does the story argue well enough that the men claiming to civilize the “cannibals” are actually the least moral of them all? That all men, absent of rigid 19th century society have the capacity to become the real monsters? I would, after long reflection, say yes.
The arguments that this book uses Africa and its inhabitants as shallow backdrops rather than fully fledged settings and characters are understandable. This novel could have taken place in just about any non-“civilized” European location. Conrad chose the Congo River in this case because he had personal experience with the location, himself captaining a steamboat a decade earlier. It is told from the perspective of a fictional captain of that same sort of vessel, who comes in with similar assumptions on the locals that many white Europeans held during the age of Imperialism. However, he is quick to point out the gross atrocities of his co-workers, as well as the hard-working qualities of the local natives in his crew. Marlow’s feelings and philosophies on the nature of civilization change as his journey progresses; his thoughts focused on Kurtz, the mysterious company man he is sailing to meet.
I don’t mean to turn this review into a full-on, spoiler-filled critique, so I will stop there as far as plot goes. I understand why this book is considered to be a Classic though. It asks so many different questions on the nature of greed, goodness, and enlightenment. On what happens to one’s mind when freed from the rigid expectations of society. It both damns Imperialism for the sake of greed and false moralizing, but justifies it in the search for truth. It has shallowly written women, and abundant African stereotypes. Through all this though, it is still talked about today, a polarizing work for the ages. It contains universal themes that have transcended a century; it stands the test of time.
I would recommend Heart of Darkness, because it is one of those books that really made me think. There are so many valid criticisms, yet it manages to challenge and engage. This is one of the longest periods I’ve taken between finishing a book and starting a review for that reason. How do I write about this? What do I say? It is unique in that I’ve undoubtedly spent more time thinking about it than I did reading it in the first place.