First of all, get this straight:
Heart of Darkness
is one of those classics that you have to have read if you want to consider yourself a well-educated adult.
doesn’t count — if anything, it ups the ante, since that means you have to think about the similarities and differences (for example, contrast and compare the U.S. involvement in Vietnam with the Belgian rule over the Congo. Actually quite an intriguing and provocative question).
The prose can feel turgid, but perhaps it may help to know that English was Conrad’s third language. His second was French, and that lends a lyric quality which, once accomodated, can draw you into the mood of the story. Once you get used to that, this is a very easy book to read — tremendously shorter than
, for instance.
Even though it is so much easier to read, this short novel shares with Moby-Dick
the distressing (for many of us) fact that it is heavily symbolic. That is the reason it has such an important place in the literary canon: it is very densely packed with philosophical questions that fundamentally can’t be answered.
Frankly, I was trained as an engineer, and have to struggle even to attempt to peer through the veils of meaning. I’m envious of the students in the Columbia class that David Denby portrays in his 1995 article in the New Yorker
, The Trouble with “Heart of Darkness”
. I wish I had been guided into this deep way of perceiving literature — or music, or art, or life itself.
But most of us don’t have that opportunity. The alternate solution I chose: when I checked this out of the library, I also grabbed the Cliff’s Notes
. I read the story, then thought about it, then finally read the Study Guide to see what I’d missed. What I found there was enough to trigger my curiosity, so I also searched the internet for more.
And there was quite a bit. Like, the nature of a framed narrative: the actual narrator in Heart of Darkness
isn’t Marlow, but some unnamed guy listening to Marlow talk. And he stands in for us
, the readers, such as when he has a pleasant perspective on the beautiful sunset of the Thames at the beginning of the story, then at the end he has been spooked and sees it as leading “into the heart of an immense darkness”, much as the Congo does in the story
That symbolic use of “darkness” is a great example of what makes this book, and others like it, so great. The “immense darkness” is simultaneously the real unknown of the jungle, as well as the symbolic “darkness” that hides within the human heart. But then it is also something that pervades society — so the narrator has been made aware that London, just upstream, really should be understood to be as frightening as the Congo. And the reader should understand that, too.
The book is full of that kind of symbolism. When Conrad was writing, a much larger portion of the reading public would have received a “classical” liberal arts education and would have perceived that aspect of the book easier than most of us do today. Yeah, the book is so dense with this kind of symbolism, it can be an effort. But that is precisely the element that made the book a stunning success when it was written. T.S. Elliot, for example, referred to it heavily in his second-most-famous poem, The Hollow Men
— the poem’s epigraph makes it explicit: Mistah Kurtz- he dead.
(For more of that connection, see this short answer at stackexchange
, or track down a copy of this academic analysis
. An annotated copy of Elliot’s poem
here can be edifying, too.)
Not all of the symbolism worked for me. For example, my initial take on how ‘evil’ was dealt with seemed anachronistic and naive. Actually, it felt a lot like Wilde’s
The Picture of Dorian Gray
. In both books, the main character has inadvertently received license to fully explore their evil inclinations without the normal societal consequences, and yet they both pay the ultimate penalty for their lack of restraint. But my perspective on evil was long ago captured by Hannah Arendt’s conclusion after analyzing Eichmann
: evil is a “banal” absence of empathy; it isn’t some malevolent devilish force
striving to seduce and corrupt us. Certainly, there are evil acts and evil people, but nothing mystical or spiritual that captures and enslaves, much less transforms us from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde
Lord of the Flies
examined the question, but did it in a much more modern manner. (I strongly recommend it.) If people aren’t reminded by the constraints of civilization to treat others with respect, then sometimes they’ll become brutal and barbaric. But is their soul
somehow becoming sick and corrupted? The question no longer resonates.
Even Conrad actually didn’t seem too clear on that question. These two quotes are both from Heart of Darkness
— don’t they seem implicitly contradictory?:
The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.
Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror—of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? 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!’
The former denies any supernatural origin for evil, but the latter alludes to the tragic results of a Faustian bargain
— Marlowe sold his soul to see what mortals should never witness.
After pondering the study guide, I could see the allegorical content better. The mystical side of Heart of Darkness
isn’t the only thing going on. Like the kids rescued from the island after Lord of the Flies
, Marlow will forever be cognizant of how fragile civilized behavior can be, and how easily some slip into brutality — even those that have excellent motives and apparently unblemished characters. This is why he tells this as a cautionary tale to his shipmates on the Thames.
Marlow also received a clear lesson on hypocrisy. I hadn’t seen how deeply “The Company” represented European hypocrisy. Obviously “The Company” was purely exploitative and thus typical
of imperialism, but in subtle ways Conrad made it not just typical but allegorically representative
. One example Cliff mentions scares me just a bit: in the offices of “The Company” in Brussels, Marlow notices the strange sight of two women knitting black wool. Conrad provides no explanation. But recall your mythology: the Fates
spun out the thread that measured the lives of mere mortals. In the story, these are represented as women who work for “The Company”, which has ultimate power over the mere mortals in Africa. That’s pretty impressive: Conrad tosses in a tiny aside that references Greek (or Roman or Germanic) mythology and ties it both to imperialism, as well as to the power that modern society has handed to corporations, and quietly walks away from it. How many other little tidbits are buried in this short book? Frankly, it seems kind of spooky.
The study guide also helped me understand what had been a major frustration of the book. I thought that Conrad had skipped over too much, leaving crucial information unstated. Between Marlow’s “rescue” of Kurtz and Kurtz’s death there are only a few pages in the story, but they imply that the two had significant conversations that greatly impressed Marlow, that left Marlow awestruck at what Kurtz had intended, had survived, and had understood. These impressions are what “broke” Marlow, but we are never informed of even the gist of those conversations.
But Marlow isn’t our narrator: he is on the deck of a ship, struggling to put into words a story that still torments him years after the events had passed. Sometimes he can’t convey what we want to know; he stumbles, he expresses himself poorly. The narrator is like us, just listening and trying to make sense out of it, and gradually being persuaded of the horrors that must have transpired.
• • • • • • • •
Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
was written in 1899. A critical event which allowed the tragedy portrayed here was the Berlin Conference of 1884 (wikipedia
), where the lines that divided up Africa were tidied up and shuffled a bit by the white men of Europe (no Africans were invited). The BBC4 radio programme In Our Time
covered the conference on 31 October 2013. Listen to it streaming here
, or download it as an MP3 here
. Forty-three minutes of erudition will invigorate your synapses.
Oh, if you liked that In Our Time
episode, here is the one
they did on the book itself (mp3