Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is one of the great novels everyone is supposed to read. I read it. I also read lots of other novels you’re supposed to read. It did not stand out in whole, but in part.

The story is fairly well known and if you don’t know it and don’t like reading, you can watch Apocalypse Now and read the Cliff notes. They will not convey the same impression. I know because I did that. Sort of. The movie isn’t on netflix so I didn’t get to actually watch the film, but I did read the Cliff notes and a series of study guides. You see this was my very first book club book and I wanted to be prepared, especially since it was so… old. And slow. I will first give a short synopsis, then critique the writing itself, then move on to the story.

Marlow is an old man keeping late watch with his crewmembers. There is no wind and so they are stuck anchored at a rivermouth, somewhere safe and close to home. He begins to tell the story of his first command, on the Congo River during the period of Dutch colonialism. As a young man he yearned to explore the blank spaces on the maps and had alwasy been drawn particularly to the Congo River. He pulls a few strings and a friendly (but mostly well-connected) aunt lands him a captaincy on a steam ship destined for a station deep into the Congo. On the way to the mouth of the Congo Marlow begins to see signs of abuse; the ‘pilgrims’ who are supposed to be civilizing the natives are in fact killing and enslaving them, though under the names of ‘enemy’, ‘prisoner’, ‘rebel’, and ‘savage’. Once at the outpost where he is to assume command of the ship, he discovers it has since been sunk and must be repaired before he embarks. The time it takes to rehabilitate the ship gives Marlow a chance to get to know, then develop a thorough distaste for all the people working at this outpost. He finds that his mission is to go upriver and retreive an agent named Kurtz. Based on what the other agents have to say, Marlow decides he respects this rogue agent more than the self-serving men he’s so far met and develops an intense desire to hear him. Marlow and several of the other agents finally make it up the river only to discover that Kurtz, so far thought to be a man of noble intentions, has gone mad and set himself up as a god among the natives. They survive an attack and Marlow rescuse/kidnaps Kurtz in the middle of the night. Kurtz was extremely ill when they captured him and only lasts a few days more on the ship with Marlow and the other agents. His last words, made famous by the film Apocalypse Now, are ‘the horror! The horror!” Marlow finds himself thoroughly disgusted with the whole affair and decides to return home and take time for himself. He disburses Kurtz’s remaining personal effects to pseudo-intellectuals and Dutch Company agents (Kurtz had written what came to be a very famous treatise on the ‘savages’) and finally to his fiance he left behind. He visits her to provide closure, though for whom we can only guess. He tells her that Kurtz’s last words were her name as he can’t imagine telling a woman the truth, she’s too fragile. We are left at the end of a great story. There is action, adventure, unrequited love, insanity, moral ambiguity, and a story arc that cuts through an incredible backdrop of jungle scenery. Unfortunately, much of the potential in the story is stripped away by the too-obvious moralizing and explanations.

The book is remarkable for many reasons. It brings to light atrocities that up until then had been swept under the rug. At the time of publication, slavery had been abolished in Europe for some time but in the Belgian Congo and many other colonial territories, slavery still existed in a very real way, clothed in different names but the same beast within. It is also remarkable in that Joseph Conrad was not a native English speaker. His Polish heritage he eschewed for British citizenship and he adopted the language and culture. Rarely do we find a classic that was not written in the author’s native tongue. The novella is remarkable in that it was shocking, gritty, in much the way the movie fashioned in its image is shocking, gritty, and dark. However, the novel has not matured well.

The title Heart of Darkness is repeated verbatim some ten time in a hundred and twenty pages. That is only the most obvious of the problems and a symptom of the major flaw in this novel. The themes of light and dark might be interesting were they not so overemphasized. Even the light skin of the agents and the dark skin of the natives is used as a metaphor for culture and savagery. It is dark when Marlow ‘rescues’ Kurtz. The jungle is dark and dim any time Conrad wants to make the reader feel apprehension and is light when he wants us to be relaxed and delve into the supporting characters. The use of scenery to induce feelings is not bad, but the way Conrad essentially tells the reader how to feel based on the lighting conditions feels forced, as if we are reading with blinders, not allowed to see anything that might distract us. The most painful use of the light/dark theme is the final scene, when Kurtz’s fiance is dressed all in black, the room is dark, the only light is from the woman’s forehead. Conrad goes to great lengths to make a big deal out of this noble creature, tainted by Kurtz’s darkness but having that one vestige of light left. It just seems so forced.

The most obvious theme and the one most mentioned when discussing the book is the nature of civilization. Kurtz is painted as a man who was once great. He had hopes to convert and civilize the savages. He was one of the few who had a true vision and the oratory power to see it realized. His intensity of being leads directly to his corruption. All we see of his fall are the last few days and a few clues in a treatise he leaves behind. The essay is on how to civilize the savage and it suggests early on that white people should pose as gods in order to win them over and control them so we can teach them and bring them to the light (there it is again *sigh*). The work is brilliantly written right up to the end where a note in the margin reads “Kill the savages” denoting a severe mental break between the civilized agent of the Dutch Colonies and the crazed maniac who engages in unspeakable rites and sets himself up as some sort of divine agent. We are supposed to ask ourselves whether it is the chains of civilization that hold us together or the pull of savagery that draws us into madness. While the question may be posed, it seems obvious by Marlow’s actions that any relatively normal human will be repulsed by the savagery and comforted by civilization which pretty much ends that discussion before it can begin.

I dislike it when my emotions are manipulated so obviously. If I want to feel sad I’ll go listen to some soldier-themed country music. If I want to be angry I’ll browse /r/theredpill. If I want to feel smart I’ll read The New Yorker. I read this book because it is considered a classic. It’s supposed to provoke great discussions but I feel like the morals and lessons are so obvious it would take some creativity to draw good discussion from it. It’s supposed to shed light on incredible atrocities but I am with Chinua Achebe when he says that Conrad’s novels contribute more to racial stereotypes than to an understanding or remedying of the atrocities he mentions. It’s supposed to beg some questions about the nature of humanity and civilization but I feel force fed some moral truth, that civilization is important and fanaticism, given a moment of freedom, will return to madness and bestiality. I still want to see Apocalypse Now. The light and dark imagery so obvious in the book might take some actual noticing since it’s only background to a scene in a film. The relevance of the subject matter is pulled into the twentieth century by setting it in Vietnam instead of the Belgian Congo. This is one rare case in which the movie translation, because it is forced by its very nature to trim excess weight, might be better than the book. I’ll let you know.