Heart of Darkness (1902) by Joseph Conrad is considered by many to be one of the best novels written in the English language, a fact made all the more remarkable to me by the fact that Joseph Conrad wrote in not his first or second language but his third language, a language he learned after age 21. I would certainly agree that Conrad’s command of English is commendable. His writing is complex and his ability to create scene and convey emotion through mere words is truly remarkable.
The subject matter of his esteemed novella is more difficult for me to praise and relate to. A scathing critique of colonialism, Heart of Darkness can be read as both an exposé of the evils of imperialism and a rebuke of the hypocrisy of the Victorian morals. Further, it portrays an intensely negative view of human nature as purely self-interested and ignorant to the needs of others. It is a deeply uncomfortable book to read. Yet, I believe that as a historical work, it portrays a necessary perspective of turn-of-the-century internationalism.
Chinua Achebe claims that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) is a “deplorable book” and that Conrad is a “thoroughgoing racist.” His article clearly makes his point, and as I reflect on my reading of the novella and our book group’s discussion, I’m amazed at our own blindness to some of the demeaning attitudes towards race as we read the novel. This is not a novel that portrays Africa and Africans in a positive light.
But Heart of Darkness also does not portray Europeans in a positive light. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad reveals the hypocrisy of colonialism and imperialism by showing the darkness of every soul. As the narrator retells Marlow’s story, we are shocked along with him to hear Marlow’s passionless explanation of events. Although we don’t know the narrator’s occupation, we know that with him on a boat on the Thames, waiting for the tide, are the Director of Companies, an accountant and a lawyer, all men who had once been sailors but now worked in various occupations all relating, somehow, to imperialism. The narrator’s fascination with Marlow’s story reveals a horror at hearing the facts of colonialism in the context of the people being “colonized.”
I was fascinated by the impetuous for Marlow’s telling of his story: he compared the River Thames, a river considered at the heart of British civilization, one of the “dark places” on earth, a place before civilization.
“I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago…. Imagine the feelings of a commander of a fine—what d’ye call ’em?—trireme in the Mediterranean, ordered suddenly to the north; run overland across the Gauls in a hurry; put in charge of one of these craft the legionaries,—a wonderful lot of handy men they must have been too—used to build, apparently by the hundred, in a month or two, if we may believe what we read. Imagine him here—the very end of the world, a sea the color of lead, a sky the color of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina—and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sandbanks, marshes, forests, savages,—precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. … They were men enough to face the darkness. … There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination—you know. Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.”
Marlow’s subsequent story calls in to question which of the groups is truly civilized: the Europeans, who subject the natives to horrible conditions, or the natives, who try to live as they always have. The farther Marlow travels down the Congo River, the more uncivilized the Europeans seem. The river ultimately leads him to Kurtz, the man who epitomizes the heart of darkness in his own moral degradation.
Kurtz’s role in Africa was to obtain ivory and deliver it back to the Company. But as he lived among the people, he lost his morals, his good sense, and his grasp with reality as he abandoned himself to violence and greed. He has neither embraced African culture nor kept his European ideals of morality. He thinks the ivory is his; he thinks the river is his; he thinks the people are his to rule over. Kurtz is insane, right? But why then does Marlow praise him? Why is Kurtz considered a genius? I don’t have an answer.
As Kurtz returns toward civilization, he tries to prepare himself by dictating a journalistic essay that will make him famous, but it is clear his real thoughts (“Exterminate the brutes!”) have undermined everything else. Marlow believes he escaped the “sickness” of becoming corrupt, but if he has, he’s just barely made it. He obviously still dwells on the entire situation many years after the fact. While in the Congo, he was horrified by the moral degradation and the inefficiency of the workers, and their brutality toward a people who he was “surprised” to find quite humane (and that fact that he was surprised is why Achebe finds the book so offensive).
In short, I believe Heart of Darkness is about how power corrupts. When one takes a position of power over another people, whether it be the Congo, Vietnam1, the South, or Iraq, “civilized” morals are going to be lost in the natural human scramble of greed, power, and corruption.
There is much, much more to consider in Conrad’s work, from his negative portrayal of women as naïve to the deep symbolism inherent in the text itself. I didn’t like reading Heart of Darkness, but revisiting it with a book group helped me to better appreciate why many consider it a classic. The negative attitudes towards imperialism give it the feeling of an exposé. It really puts the ivory corsets of Victorian women into perspective for me, as I consider what it meant for Europe to be a group of colonial powers at the turn-of- the-century. It certainly makes me question what “civilized” really means.
What are your thoughts on Heart of Darkness?
- Apocalypse Now is apparently a retelling of Heart of Darkness in Vietnam. ↩