Thoughts on Heart of Darkness

Contains spoilers.

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, is a short novel which seems to have permeated into the British consciousness.  I’d never actually heard of the book until a friend suggested studying it last year for a literature dissertation on imperialism, but the more I found out about it the more it began to crop up.  That image of a steamer trawling down a river surrounded by dense rainforest certainly resonates with other images I’d seem in the past.  I decided to read it after my favourite nerdy game released an expansion of the same name, and also because of my interest in Africa’s colonial past from my studies of South Africa in my Advanced Higher History course.  I wasn’t sure of Conrad’s viewpoint on imperialism before reading, so it was interesting trying to discern that as the story wove on.

Clearly, the novel’s central and generally sole theme is of imperialism.  It follows a frame narrative, featuring a sailor called Marlow recounting his experiences to his associates on a ship along the Thames.  The story then follows his experiences as a captain of an ivory-carrying steamer along an unknown river – probably the Congo – and his experiences with the indigenous African populations and his dealings with the enigmatic Mr Kurtz.

Firstly, it is really difficult to say what Conrad’s opinions are on imperialism.  It’s important to remember that the novel was published in 1902, so even slight deviancies from the Western perspective of ‘bringing civilisation and God to the savages’ could probably count as mild opposition to it.  It would be easy to mistake many of the references to ‘savages’, who Marlow repeatedly refers to as subhumans, as racism – indeed many African postcolonial writers, including Chinua Achebe, have understandably done so.  Yet, the book does at times seem harsh in its attitude towards colonialism.  Consider these two quotes, near the beginning:

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking away from those who have a different complexion or slightly fatter nose than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only”

“Your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.”

Neither of these paint a particularly pleasant picture of European involvement on the African continent, and both challenge the idea that Europeans were enlightened and superior, enforcing their rule upon Africa for the African population’s benefit.  Then at the end, when Marlow must submit Mr Kurtz’s report, he omits the crazed ending: “Exterminate all the brutes!”  I believe Marlow began to feel a sympathy for the Africans and, if he didn’t actively oppose the system of imperialism, he certainly didn’t advocate it.  It’s easy to criticise imperialism in retrospect but at the time just challenging this widely accepted view must have been quite revolutionary of Conrad.

I found the character of Kurtz a bit difficult to follow.  He’s built up as this enigmatic, wonderful man – in typical Victorian fashion – only to be revealed as a physically wizened figure who has been accepted into the African community.  He has kept his wit and intelligence but has abandoned European ‘civilisation’ – or that’s how I understood it anyway.  It’s an interesting idea: imperialism makes a slave of the oppressor, either literally or psychologically.  A similar idea was explored in George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant.  Though I don’t think that’s quite what Conrad was getting at.  To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what he was saying with the character of Kurtz.  Nevertheless, he certainly succumbs to Africa; it is explicitly stated as the cause of his death, in the famous line:

‘He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—”The horror! The horror!” ‘

Kurtz has been physically destroyed by this strange new continent, one beyond the European man’s capability to comprehend.  No description – a first for the novel – only, quite simply, ‘the horror’.

It wouldn’t be fair to call this a criticism of the book, but after a while I began to find Conrad’s writing style very difficult to read.  This isn’t necessarily a flaw of his – the work is incredible when you consider English was his third language, after his native Polish and French – but it did limit my enjoyment and understanding.  Perhaps the fact my reading was interspersed by hectic exam revision didn’t help.  I just found it rambled a lot and was unecessarily drawn out, particularly towards the end.  This is something I’ve struggled with a lot for Victorian literature – perhaps I’m just too used to the modern snappy style – but it’s particularly prominent in Heart of Darkness.  That said, Conrad does set up the scene of this colony well.  In that respect, I feel the novel is more successful.  It presents an idea, an image.  The book is short, and perhaps the plot is only of secondary importance.  I also enjoyed the way he used the frame narrative, flipping back to Marlow on the Thames which gave the reader some ‘breathing space’.

In conclusion, I am very glad to have read Heart of Darkness and I would certainly recommend it, despite it not being the easiest read.  I’m not sure how much I enjoyed it whilst reading, but in retrospect my opinion is surprisingly positive.  It’s a fascinating period account of imperialism, a topic still of great embarrassment for Europe.

Final rating (if forced): 7/10

Also included in the copy of Heart of Darkness I borrowed from the local library was extracts from Conrad’s diary and his ‘Up-river book’.  I was surprised by how basic his diary was, often a rambled and incoherent series of notes – though I don’t think his grasp of English was deep at that point.  The diary is useful in seeing how Conrad’s experiences as worker on a steamship himself influenced the story.  The ‘Up-river Book’ was a bit less interesting, presumably intended to be a series of directions for navigating up the Congo River only to stop mid-way in.  But still fascinating to skim over as a historical document.

Related article:
http://pbrigitte.wordpress.com/2013/05/20/an-image-of-africa-racism-in-conrads-heart-of-darkness-by-chinua-achebe/ (a detailed insight into Achebe’s perspective of the novel).

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