My second edition of Tough to Tackle Reads is not quite the bang that Gone with the Wind was, but I think I still managed to pick a doozy.
It’s difficult to think of a way to start discussing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Because it’s an allegory, a dense one at that, it is exceedingly difficult to talk about on a surface level. Even prepping for this post I found myself unpacking each part like I was preparing for an essay.
So I apologize in advance for the parts of this post that read like an essay. I used barely any of my notes in order to spare you, though I enjoyed myself. Word to the wise, these are merely my rudimentary thoughts as I have not consulted outside sources beyond the introduction in my anthology*.
This is my second time reading Heart of Darkness. I read it much slower this time around so that I could have long moments to mull each part separately and then as a whole. I loved it this go as much as I did the first time. There is so much going on on so many levels that you can never get bored reading it.
I know everyone beyond high school age already has an ingrained reaction to the title, but I hope I can convince you that this story is worth your time below.
Heart of Darkness is a novella, published in 1899, derived from Conrad’s personal experience in the Congo in 1890. It is as much a memoir, expanded beyond fact, as it is an exploration of human darkness, colonialism, and the ivory trade.
While it is set in Africa, it is framed in such a way as to be an oral story told aboard a ship called the Nellie which is docked on the Thames. A man aboard the ship, Marlow, who is essentially a pseudo Conrad, entertains the few members of the crew with a story about the time he sailed up the river into the centre of Africa.
If only the whole story was as simple as that.**
Joseph Conrad, 1857-1924, was born in Poland as Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski. His younger years were rather turbulent; his father was a Polish patriot exiled to Russia for his polish nationalist activities as Poland was under Russian rule at the time. He died young leaving Conrad to be raised in part by a maternal uncle. In 1874, at age 17, Conrad travelled to Marseilles, France and launched his sea-faring adventures, which eventually lead to his learning the English language (his third) and becoming a naturalized British subject. Also during this time he travelled to the heart of Africa up the Congo River, which lead to the later writing of Heart of Darkness.
There were some difficulties during his marine days and with the help of a sympathetic ear belonging to the novelist John Galsworthy, paired with the publication of his first novel Almayer’s Folly in 1895, Conrad ditched his sea faring life for that of a writer.
He settled in London and married an Englishwoman in 1896, using his many years of adventures in exotic locales to write a myriad of deep, questioning fiction. It is said that his geopolitical understanding, no doubt influenced by his upbringing and early life at sea, and his ability to bring psychological depth to any narrative, have left their mark on English Literature and influenced many important writers.***
I think the fact that this story is only around 30 000 words, or roughly 200 pages, makes it that much more difficult. So much is packed into such a small piece that unpacking it is hard. But so worth it. You might pick up this book and flip through the pages and think, “Heck, this will fill an afternoon.” You can absolutely read it in an afternoon, though you are going to be slightly cross eyed and brain-fried at the end. Or perhaps that’s just me.
This story is notorious as one you either love or hate. I give it a 4/5 as far as difficulty goes because while it is dense the language is clear. While no one writes a sentence like Conrad his prose are very straightforward.
I actually find the structure of the paragraphs to be the most difficult aspect of Heart of Darkness. One, they’re long. I mean long. Longer than Saramago paragraphs (have you read the opening of Blindness?). Two, back in the late 1800s there were not a lot of rules in regards to novels or short fiction since they were a relatively new art form. The beautiful dialogue breaks we all know and love are nowhere to be found in Conrad’s story –until the final scene which is written much like an interview (since that’s what it is).
The segmentation of the story and Conrad’s narrative choice also ensure that the story keeps you on your toes. All of this combined means you really have to pay attention. Heart of Darkness is not designed for light reading, but there’s purpose behind each choice.
Why You Should Read Heart of Darkness
It’s an early look at Imperial Criticism. On its surface, Heart of Darkness can read like any popular Victorian adventure tale. But as with many from that time period, like Gulliver’s Travels, Conrad is showcasing so much more.
According to my anthology’s introduction to Heart of Darkness, “Conrad had as a child determined one day to visit the heart of Africa” (2328). That dream was realized in 1890 and from that visit this story was born, well, really from the nightmares that Conrad witnessed firsthand, this story was born.
A few years after Conrad’s visit “…the appalling abuses involved in the naked colonial exploitation that went on in the Congo were exposed to public view, and international criticism compelled the setting up of a committee of inquiry in 1904. From 1885 to 1908 masses of Congolese men were worked to death, women were raped, hands were cut off, villages were looted and burned. What Conrad saw in 1890 shocked him profoundly and shook his view of the moral basis of colonialism, or exploration and trade in newly discovered countries, indeed of civilization in general” (2328).
Heart of Darkness is as much a firsthand witness account of evil as it is a moral story urging colonizers to truly look at what their actions result in. It is a working through of horror. Much like Marlow in the story, “The Congo experience permanently impaired [Conrad’s] heath; it also permanently haunted his imagination. The nightmare atmosphere of Heart of Darkness is an accurate reflection of Conrad’s response to his traumatic experience” (2328).
Conrad was mentally and physically altered by Africa, whether that was a good thing for him is debateable. However, I have no doubt that this story, added to the voices of all the others who condemned the exploitation of Africa and the treatment of its peoples, lead to the eventual cessation of such exploitation.
Before anyone jumps on me I know that this single white male individual did not stop colonialism or pull the Europeans out of Africa. I also know that Africa is still in pieces because of imperialism. I know that many Africans are still exploited. I do believe this story helped form a platform for other writers, like the inimitable Achebe, to write about imperialism and condemn the traces still felt in the modern age.
Allegory gives a story so much depth and they’re fun to dive in to! Ok, so I’ve mentioned allegory a couple of times here so I will define the word to ensure we are all on the same page. According to M.H. Abrams and Geoffrey Galt Harpham, “an allegory is a narrative, whether in prose or verse, in which the agents and actions, and sometimes the setting as well, are contrived by the author to make coherent sense on the ‘literal,’ or primary, level of signification, and at the same time to communicate a second, correlated order of signification” (A Glossary of Literary Terms. Ninth Edition. Wadsworth Cengage Learning. 2009. 7).
Clear as mud, right? Merriam-Webster online makes it a bit clearer: “a story in which the characters and events are symbols that stand for ideas about human life or for a political or historical situation.”
Heart of Darkness is rife with allegories on a number of topics, the main one being the colonization of Africa by Europeans, the exploitation of Africans by Europeans, and the creation of the ivory trade, whose legacy is still felt appallingly through Africa and Asia. It also delves into ideas of truth and lies and basic human good, but I’ll get to that later. Conrad himself wrote that Heart of Darkness is more than a story of a man that goes mad in the middle of Africa (2385), that’s the surface or “primary” story. The hidden meaning has to be fished out.
Looking at the first allegory, colonialism, Kurtz is the main symbol. Not only has he made a lair in the heart of the Congo (read the descriptions, it’s a lair), but he has convinced the Congolese people that he is a deity, and surely the only way to not incur his wrath is to bestow heaps of ivory upon him.
He was a man gifted with an enthralling voice, a voice of conviction, and he used it for evil purposes. Compared to all of the other employees of the Belgian company, Kurtz sends the most ivory back to Europe. Except his means have garnered the wrong kind of attention, which is why Marlow is piloting a boat into the heart of darkness to retrieve him in the first place. The company is not appalled with his tactics, he’s just using them at an inopportune time.
A second allegory involves the heart of darkness itself, that is, the heart of Africa. This ties in to Conrad’s exploration about basic human good, or morals, as mentioned before in the longer bit about colonialism. The force of the Congo, its isolation and oppression, force one to look deep into themselves. You can’t read this story and fail to see the power the setting has over every character, even those on the ship on the Thames. I’m going to share a long passage below because it’s my favourite one in the whole story and Conrad says it best.
As he relates travelling up the river towards Kurtz, Marlow tells his fellow crewmen:
“Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of the overshadowed distances….The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once—somewhere—far away—in another existence perhaps. There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare to yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect….When you have to attend to things of that sort, to the mere incidents of the surface, the reality [of piloting a boat]—the reality, I tell you—fades. The inner truth is hidden—luckily, luckily. But I felt it all the same; I felt often its mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks….” (2352-2353)
Marlow survives this immense look inwards. Though near the end of the story he admits that he did not leave the Dark Continent unscathed, “I found myself back in the sepulchral city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams. They trespassed upon my thoughts. They were intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretence, because I felt so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew” (2381).
As for Kurtz, he is an emaciated creature bodily removed from the heart of darkness once they find him, left with nothing but his voice; a voice that grows dimmer as Marlow steers him and the rest of the crew out of the Congo. You can imagine what his fate was; and as for his final comments on his own look inward: “The horror! The horror!” (2379).
Lastly, I want to comment on Conrad’s exploration of truth and lies. I haven’t quite wrapped my head around what I think Conrad was saying about both, and their interconnectedness, so bear with me as I try to figure it out.
Kurtz is obviously a liar. He has this supreme convincing voice that gives credence to the lies he spews because he utters words with so much conviction. He’s proven to be a liar; he’s actually proven to be a scared little man who couldn’t deal with the fact that deep in his heart he is not a good person.
I think this is an important aspect of the story because even before we meet Kurtz, Marlow tells his listeners, “I laid the ghost of his gifts at last with a lie” (2363), and then immediately backtracks to where he’s actually supposed to be in his narrative.
This sentence refers to the ending of the story, an ending that seems bizarre and inconsequential until you remember this line near its middle. Heart of Darkness concludes with an interview between Marlow and Kurtz’s fiancée. Through her, Marlow learns that Kurtz was seen as an extraordinarily good man before his venture to Africa. She tells him, “…his example…Men looked up to him—his goodness shone in every act” (2385).
It’s unclear whether her comments are those of a grief-stricken woman who wants to remember only the good of the man she loved, or whether her words actually hold some weight. Marlow plays along with her because she is horribly bereft at Kurtz’s loss. His final comments to her, and to us, which are an outright lie, lead me to believe that perhaps she isn’t simply sanctifying the memory of her fiancé.
“I pulled myself together and spoke slowly. ‘The last word he pronounced was—your name.’ I heard a light sigh and then my heart stood still, stopped dead short by an exulting and terrible cry, by the cry of inconceivable triumph and unspeakable pain. ‘I knew it—I was sure!’…She knew. She was sure” (2385).
After this rather ironic commentary, Marlow carefully leads us out of his story as he questions whether lying to Kurtz’s fiancée was the right thing to do. It was not the justice deserved to be delivered upon the memory of the man whose evil will forever leave a mark on the people of the Congo, but Marlow does not believe the poor woman should have to carry the darkness of his actions.
The truth is a heavy burden. Lies are easier, as Kurtz can attest. Speaking both has innumerable consequences. Is Marlow’s final lie an aspect of moral good or the perpetuating of more bad? Christians are supposed to answer for their sins, but are their loved ones supposed to answer too?
I’m a person who believes in truth but I also think white lies are important when it comes to not hurting people in some circumstances. The world is not black and white, neither are truth, lies, or morality. Perhaps that is Conrad’s parting comment. He did in fact write to a friend saying, “the last pages of Heart of Darkness where the interview of the man and the girl locks in—as it were—the whole 30,000 words of narrative description into one suggestive view of a whole phase of life, and makes of that story something quite on another plane than an anecdote of a man who went mad in the Centre of Africa” (footnote 2385).
The idea of self-analysis and looking deeply inward leads down an unexpected path in Heart of Darkness. Whether you’re a person who believes that people are fundamentally good, or you’re a person who believes the opposite, the story does not disappoint. I love how Conrad questions whether any of us will survive that ultimate look at our own hearts; and how he surprises us with who does survive it in the story. Yet everyone comes out of such analysis marked. I discussed this in detail above so I won’t bore you with repetition.
The construction of the story makes it lively. While some would say it’s fragmented, and I wouldn’t disagree, I like that aspect because it allows you to take a break from the horror and the philosophical exposition. The movement in time suits the story, since it is constructed like an oral history and we know that people aren’t completely linear as they remember facts.
The construction and demolition of false idols was not unexpected in a Victorian story, but how it relates to our current experience is uncanny. I am a big believer in secularism but I am also well versed in a few branches of theology. The pervasiveness of religion, mostly the Christian sort, is not quite the same thing in Canada as it is in the US, but there are still people throughout the world propped up as false idols in our reality. It’s hard to get into this idea in one paragraph –it deserves its own essay– but I think we would do well to heed the warning of Kurtz and remember he is just a loud, compelling voice spouting lies. Always look at the source, always look at the truth.
What I Had Trouble With
I appreciate Conrad’s criticism of the ivory trade and his dislike of those who exploit the people of Africa. I appreciate that Marlow affirms those attitudes. Yet it’s very obvious that writing this story was as far as Conrad was willing to go to go against it. Marlow himself would rather look away from the horrors he witnesses in the Congo than stop them, or stop to help those that are being brutalized by the Europeans.
That is likely a harsh commentary since one man against an entire system isn’t going to accomplish a lot. He did set a foundation of criticism, I’ll give him that. Sharing the horror instead of helping to cover it up is also more than a lot of others in his position would do, I suppose.
The blatant racism is unpalatable at times but, again, it’s not so much Conrad’s attitude as it is Europe’s attitude. Conrad was likely writing with an engrained sense of revulsion towards the other, but I think he did acknowledge it at times and showed that he was much more tolerant than others like him. Not that that’s much to be cheerful about. But he did live through his fair share of being the other considering he was a Polish individual living under the thumb of the Russian empire, which has not been kind to Poland or its people across history.
My next pick needs to not be racist. I need to remember this.
I said a lot about a lot of things above, so I’ll conclude with the physical act of reading. The easiest way to read Heart of Darkness is to imagine it is a play within a play. You need to actually visualize the group of men, grizzly English seamen (think Pirates of the Caribbean if that helps you), and imagine that one of them is a talker. I mean a real chatter, who likes to gesticulate like a madman.
Then you have to put yourself in the group of men. You are physically on that boat sitting directly in front of Marlow. He’s talking right to you because you’re one of those people who doesn’t know how to extract themselves from a conversation and he’s latched on to you like a lifeline.
Then you have to visualize that chatty guy as a younger man who makes his way to the coast of Africa and becomes the captain of a steamer. The hard part is taking note when he breaks out of his story, when he flips back between Old Marlow and Young Marlow. You have to watch for the clues. Watch his hands, if that helps.
If you read Heart of Darkness like it is a story being told to you, spoken to you, you will have a much easier time of the actual reading.
As for the allegory, if you feel like you’re missing it, don’t worry. Some people are better at reading into it than others. You can give yourself a couple of chances if you like so that you’re not distracted by the surface story when you go back and look at the hidden meaning. And if you really can’t see it, at least you read a really great story.
I hope you’re willing to give Heart of Darkness a try and I sincerely hope you enjoy the experience. Either way, let me know!
*“My anthology” refers to this text because it’s a lot easier to write: The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Major Authors, Volume B: The Romantic Period Through the Twentieth Century and After. Eighth Edition. Ed. by Stephen Greenblatt et al. W.W. Norton Company, New York. 2006.
**My comments under The Book are an amalgamation of information I derived from reading Heart of Darkness, the introductions in my anthology, Wikipedia’s entry on Heart of Darkness, and this CliffsNotes pages.
***Biographical information on Conrad is borrowed exclusively from my anthology, paraphrased and condensed.
****During my image search I stumbled upon Bookdrum.com. If you want a fully interactive, visual application to supplement your reading of Heart of Darkness, or any other book, I urge you to check it out. I was blown away.
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