Title: Heart of Darkness
Author: Joseph Conrad
Release date: 1899 (three-part series; republished together in 1902); republished in 2004
Publisher: Blackwood’s Magazine; reprinted by Borders Classics
Genre: Classic fiction
Formats: Audiobook and hardcover
Sources: Lit2Go and personal collection
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Heart of Darkness begins as a story among friends on a boat anchored on the River Thames. The narrator tells how Charles Marlow wonders aloud that nearby London, now the largest, most populous, and wealthiest city in the world, was once as dark and savage as Africa. Indeed, before the Roman conquest, London was “one of the dark places on earth,” Marlow tells his astonished companions.
As dusk settles around the group and they await the turning of the tide, Marlow begins recounting his experiences as ferryboat captain in Africa for a Belgian trading company. Though on paper he is supposed to transport ivory downriver, in reality Marlow’s task is to bring back Kurtz, an ivory trader with quite the reputation.
When Marlow arrives at the Central Station in Africa, he discovers that his steamship has been sunk. In a move that would make even my mechanic blush, Marlow spends several months waiting for parts before he is finally able to repair it. He and an assortment of disreputable men and disgusting cannibals—his crew—continue on their merry way.
Despite being subjected to a surprise attack by natives along the way, the group (save one, who was fatally wounded by an arrow) finally reaches Kurtz. Kurtz, though reportedly ill, doesn’t seem terribly uncomfortable; in fact, he’s gone native, leading raids for ivory into the surrounding area.
Kurtz consents to be brought aboard, however, and sets up shop in Marlow’s pilothouse. Throughout his journey, Marlow had built Kurtz up in his mind into an imposing, grandiose figure—becoming almost obsessed with him, really—and at first, Kurtz does not disappoint. However, Marlow quickly tires of Kurtz’s get-rich-quick schemes.
And then one night, Marlow finds Kurtz’s health has taken a turn for the worse. Kurtz shouts, “The horror! The horror!” and dies. Marlow is convinced that Kurtz’s final words are proof that the trader realized his sins on his deathbed, and when he meets the man’s fiancee, he tells her instead that he spoke her name with his dying breath.
And so Marlow’s story ends, and the English companions find themselves staring down a “tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth [that] flowed sombre under an overcast sky—[that] seemed to lead into the heart of immense darkness.”
I listened to Heart of Darkness on audiobook, and it was not very fun. The writing is expansive and often opaque, which can be distracting in the spoken word, and—more importantly—the narrator uses explicit language and makes offensive comments about Africans that were difficult to listen to.
Conrad is clearly trying to expose the complex levels of darkness in the world: the literal darkness of the Congolese people and their jungle; the immorality of the Europeans’ questionable behavior toward those natives; and, on a broader level, the capacity of every man for committing evil deeds. Furthermore, Marlow’s tale is set against his own environment of dusky skies and deepening darkness.
After having finished the book and examined these themes of darkness and evil, I can see why this would be an interesting story. All men are capable of evil, no matter how far we have come. However, Conrad’s premise that even civilized Europeans have savage leanings does a disservice to the wild Africans to whom he compares them.
Chinua Achebe has spoken about Conrad’s false depiction of the dichotomy between civilized Europeans and barbaric Africans. He makes that point far better than I could:
Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant beastiality.
In other words, Conrad never gives the black man a chance. His Africans are savage even when they remain loyal; when Marlow remarks upon how hungry his crew of “cannibals” must be, he wonders that they haven’t turned on them yet:
Why in the name of all the gnawing devils of hunger they didn’t go for us—they were thirty to five—and have a good tuck in for once, amazes me now when I think about it. They were big powerful men, with not much capacity to weigh the consequences, with courage, with strength, even yet, though their skins were no longer glossy and their muscles no longer hard. And I saw something restraining, one of those human secrets that baffle probability, had come into play there.
Imagine, Africans with restraint! Even after their skin has lost its shine!
Of course, Conrad is never precisely kind to the Europeans—his point is to condemn all men for the traces of evil in their souls—but he holds back from too sharp a judgment of Kurtz when Marlow sees a row of African heads that Kurtz had impaled upon poles:
I want you clearly to understand that there was nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there. They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him—some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence. Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can’t say. I think the knowledge came to him at last—only at the very last. But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for this fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things of which he has no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude—and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core. . . .
Even this statement contains a latent accusation against nature, against Africa. The land itself, not Kurtz, is guilty, for it provided Kurtz with the opportunity to satisfy his “various lusts.” Kurtz only responded to his hidden nature once nature brought it out of him—and, of course, his lack of restraint is only “some small matter.”
Like Wuthering Heights, Heart of Darkness is told as a story within a story. However, it was not as easy to understand on audiobook as that gothic tale. I was constantly wondering which man was speaking—though, when I looked through a hardcover copy, I was equally confused by paragraphs that spanned pages and a lack of quotation marks.
But more than for its dense moral and ethical questions, I found it difficult to finish the book because of its overt racist elements. Some might argue that the racism is the point, in a way, but Heart of Darkness is disturbing in a way that Huck Finn, for instance, managed not to be. In fact, I found myself questioning why this novella is considered a classic; though its attempt to show the shades of darkness in the world is admirable, it is heavy-handed and not very subtle. Though I found Conrad’s style of storytelling rather interesting, I just couldn’t get past his delivery.