From humble beginnings, Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, rose to become a classroom staple for much of the twentieth century. Its themes of racism and colonial exploitation within an evocative and enigmatic story, showcasing techniques that would influence later masters, ensured a prominent place for analysis. Whether it still retains its relevance is an open question. Despite whatever the novel’s shortcomings may be, and however confident we may be in our own moral superiority to the past, it is surely always a mistake to not examine and appreciate the past for what it was.
Four men aboard a yacht on the eastern Thames anchor for the night. The men are pensive, contemplative, in no mood for talk or games. But, somewhat expectedly, one of the men – Marlow – has a tale he wants to share.
Marlow tells them how, as a young man, he had a strong desire for adventure, for seeking out the edges of the known world, and had always felt certain perilous temptation when looking upon the serpentine shape of the Congo as it looks on a map.
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.
Marlow manages to get a job as a steamboat captain, replacing a man who was killed in an argument with natives. Arriving on the African coast, meeting with the company accountant, Marlow first hears of Kurtz; a name that will obsess him during his short time in Africa. Kurtz is a notorious agent for the company. He sends downriver as much ivory as all the other agents combined and an aura of mystery and expectation surrounds him. His success has won him great admiration and jealous enemies.
The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words – the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.
But Marlow has plenty to deal with of his own. First there is a 200-mile trek inland to reach the central station. Arriving, he finds that the ship he is meant to captain has sunk and it may take months to fish it out and repair it. They need to work fast; the stations upriver and deeper inland rely heavily on regular supplies from the central station. And Kurtz is said to be ill, his station in jeopardy.
Marlow finds himself rapidly becoming obsessed with this enigmatic figure. He desperately hopes to find Kurtz alive and to listen to what he has to say.
Heart of Darkness has a great opening. The writing is very pretty and the story is immediately evocative and transporting. You instantly feel as if you are one of those aboard the yacht, listening to the old seaman telling his tale.
One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same. In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance; for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself, which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny.
Once Conrad has put you at ease in this relaxed setting he lets Marlow’s story unsettle you with its sense of danger, mystery and ultimately, horror.
Racism, colonialism and imperialism appear to be key themes of the novel. Owen Knowles, who contributed the introduction to this Penguin Classics edition seems to agree. At the time of writing, in the late nineteenth century, European powers were in a scramble to systematically annex and exploit Africa, just as there had been earlier scrambles for the Americas, India and China. As in the previous cases, the argument that the European has a moral duty to ‘civilise’ the non-European served to both disguise and justify the exploitation. Stories about the crimes of exploitation were just beginning to filter through to the public. One interpretation of the novel is that Conrad, via Marlow, is speaking out. Within a few years of the publication of Heart of Darkness (1899) came the Boer War and the Atrocities in the Congo Free State and a noticeable shift in European attitudes.
They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force – nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get and for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, it is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.
That being said, Marlow is not immune to the prejudices that were pervasive to his culture and time.
And between the whiles I had to look after the savage who was fireman. He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind legs.
In addition, not everyone is as generous in bestowing credit to Conrad for raising consciousness on these issues. Notably, Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart, wrote an angry and controversial essay criticising Heart of Darkness, chiefly for its assumption of ‘civilisation’, as defined by the West with Africa and Africans outside of it, and the omission of any African voice speaking to the issues raised in the novel.
While I won’t be defending Conrad on these charges, I do want to say a couple of things that add to the complexity of how to read and interpret Heart of Darkness. The first is that Heart of Darkness is based heavily on Conrad’s own experiences in the Congo. Like Marlow, Conrad was also hired to captain a steamboat whose previous captain had been killed by natives. This edition of Heart of Darkness includes excerpts from Conrad’s Congo Diary. It shows that in Heart of Darkness the line between fact and fiction, between reportage and storytelling is blurred. While we consider the issue of how much the novel speaks out against racism and exploitation and whether it is able to completely escape racism itself, we should also ask to what extent it provides an accurate window into a time, a place and a people and to both the racism and abhorrence of it in that context.
Which leads to the second thing I wanted to say. Fiction has the power to transport the reader and allow them to vicariously experience and empathise with the lives of others. When fiction was written or set in the past it allows the reader to time-travel as well. It is not the characters and the author who travel to our time for us to judge them by our standards, as satisfying as some might find that. Rather it is the reader who is transported to their time to glimpse what that life was like. Understandably, some might not find it a pleasant experience in some cases. Some might also object to any suggestion that we should feel grateful for how far things have come, given how much is left to do and the fate of those born to soon, which is fine. But there is still much to learn from the past. At least, if we don’t wish to feel grateful, we should also avoid its mirror; complacency.
Heart of Darkness is often cited as an early example of the modernist style that would become prevalent in the coming decades. That is clear to see in parts two and three of the novella. While the novel had a beautiful beginning and an engrossing hook of mystery it soon becomes difficult. As Marlow edges closer to the edges of the map, his storytelling begins slipping into stream-of-consciousness, becomes disjointed, unstructured, dreamlike. I admittedly had difficulty following what was really going on and how to interpret it.
In the end, I can’t say I greatly enjoyed Heart of Darkness, but maybe my expectations were too high. Maybe I was expected Apocalypse Now in book form! It is interesting how this novella, largely ignored when it was first published, and even its author considered it to be a minor work, came to be seen as highly influential and a standard text for high-school and university students. Perhaps its effort to speak to racism and colonial exploitation made it more relevant as time went on, both for what it achieved in that regard and for where it failed. Perhaps its modernist technique lends it enough ambiguity to make interpretation futile and subjective, vulnerable to endless analysis and reinterpretation, leaving the reader to see what they expect to see in it. Or perhaps that same technique makes it an important study as an antecedent for those who came in its wake – James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner among them.