‘We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.’
The term ‘Heart of Darkness’ has become a cliched reference to distant lands and unknown places on a map. Those that have not read the book will be content in this ignorance. However, the true heart of darkness of the title is not the impenetrable jungle but the heart of man.
Heart of Darkness is a novel of ideas. It’s the simple story (told in fewer than a hundred pages) of a sailor called Marlowe who is sent by his employer, an unnamed European trading company, into the uncharted jungles of late-19th century Africa to make contact with a Mr Kurtz, an ivory trader who may, or may not, have gone rogue. Simple. So why is Heart of Darkness considered such a classic (and purportedly the most critically analysed) of modern literature?
‘Ah! But it was something to at least have a choice of nightmares.’
Perhaps no other novel contains so many themes in so few pages. It can be ‘read’ in many ways. Read it for the brilliant simplicity and clarity of Conrad’s language, such as his description of meeting the sickly Kurtz:
‘He rose, unsteady, long, pale, indistinct, like a vapour exhaled by the earth, and swayed slightly, misty and silent before me…’
‘…unsteady, long, pale, indistinct…’ It really draws it out, forcing the reader to slow down to the correct tempo (compare instead by stating only ‘He rose like a vapour...’ – good, but not great). And If I tell you that English was Conrad’s third language and he did not speak it fluently until his twenties do you appreciate it more that he is considered one of the greatest writers in English?
Read it for his attacks on rapacious 19th century European imperialism:
‘The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it.’
Read it for his description of the vast unknown of Africa:
‘But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land. And as I looked at the map of it in the shop window, it fascinated me like a snake would a bird – a silly little bird.’
I really like the addition of ‘a silly little bird’: we can almost see Marlowe wryly grinning and shaking his head at his own ignorance and naivete at what was to come.
Finally, and undoubtedly most powerfully, read it for his psychological insights into what power, greed and ambition does to the soul of a man:
‘Everything belonged to him - but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own.’
There are many more examples of literary treasure to be discovered throughout this book, like the buried ivory that the Europeans had come to haul away.
The Unreliable Narrator
‘For a time I would feel I belonged still to a world of straightforward facts but the feeling would not last long.’ For all that – which is more than in most stories - perhaps what makes Heart of Darkness truly great is the structure: a bored sailor’s tale (re)told from uncertain memory. Marlowe and his companions are stuck on a boat in the Thames, waiting for the tide to turn so they can continue their voyage. Marlowe, in the best tradition of true sailors accustomed to such delays, decides to pass the time by recounting his journey to Africa.
‘The yarns of seamen have an effective simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But, as has been said, Marlow was not typical...and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like the kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze…’
‘…as a glow brings out a haze…’ Often we don’t notice what’s around us – the bigger picture - until it is illuminated by smaller events.
Conrad is giving a clue that this will not be a wholly straight retelling of events. As Marlowe’s story continues, we sense that he is still trying to get the story right in his head by speaking it, almost as a kind of therapy to what he has witnessed:
‘It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream – making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams…We live, as we dream – alone…’
Again, this is a masterful observation: how can we convey to other people our thoughts and experiences when we can’t even make sense of them ourselves? Marlowe’s retelling is littered with ambiguities and confusion: the impenetrable depths of the forest, an attack on his boat during a heavy fog on the river, snatches of overheard conversation, his infamous first impression of Kurtz’s jungle hut, and culminating in his meeting with Kurtz himself.
‘The horror! The horror!’
These last words of the dying Kurtz are some of the most famous in modern literature, because they sum up the ambiguity of the entire novel: the horror at what? We can only guess. The ambiguity of Marlowe’s tale is continued right up to the very last page, when Marlowe visits the widow of Kurtz and she asks him to convey Kurtz’s last words. I’ll let you decide how what he chooses to tell her reflects upon not only Marlowe but on the story itself.
The Reliable Author
There is a view amongst some critics that the personal life of the author should not be considered when reading a story. After all, it is the writer’s job to make things up: direct experience should not matter. But what if, in the case of a story such as Heart of Darkness, the writer had previously had a long career as a sailor and had himself sailed on an expedition to the Congo and witnessed the atrocities committed by European powers. Does that give the writer’s opinions more credibility?
I say yes, definitely, absolutely. If nothing else it certainly adds to your admiration for a man who mastered not one but two careers, each requiring exceptional skill. Next time you read a book do a quick search of the author to find out their background and influences. Even better, try to watch an interview with them on YouTube to get their voice in your head as you read them. It will enhance your reading experience immeasurably.
Some film buffs amongst you may have recognised the name Kurtz. It is the name of Marlon Brando’s character in Apocalypse Now, an adaptation of Heart of Darkness which transfers the story from Africa to the Vietnam war. It’s a superb piece of art in itself and testament to the enduring themes contained within the book.