Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
By Gareth Rowlands
Joseph Conrad's short novel, or 'novella' Heart of Darkness was written in 1902 and is presented as a story within a story (frame tale). The protagonist, Charlie Marlow, recounts to a group of men an earlier incident in his life when he was working for a Belgian trading company in the Congo. (It is of interest to note the similarity of this technique to the technique used by Coleridge in his 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner', in which the mariner also begins the tale by addressing a listener about an ill-fated voyage.) Conrad must have drawn on his own experiences as a sea captain passing up the Congo river on a steam ship eight years prior to writing the book. Apparently he witnessed so many atrocities during that time that he actually quit his job.
Marlow is a complicated and philosophical character. He is essentially a guide through whom the reader understands the moral and behavioural extremes and complexities of the other characters and provides us insight into Africa, colonialism and the Company's activities. He is physically and mentally damaged by his experiences during the trip though he (barely) survives to tell the tale on his return to Belgium.
Marlow takes a job as a river captain with a Belgian trading company and is sent up the Congo to intercept another company employee, Kurtz. Kurtz is an intelligent and able yet deeply disturbing individual who during his time looking for ivory in the remote jungle has become an unrestrained and amoral megalomaniac. Marlow has a difficult passage up the Congo into the interior of Africa and one feels as though the river and the jungle are trying to repel this additional European incursion. This view is reinforced by the relative ease of his return from the inner station later:
During the trip up the Congo Marlow encounters the inefficiency of the Company's operations and brutal treatment of the natives and begins to question the morality of the system out of which Kurtz has emerged. He also starts to question the traditional European perception of the African natives as inferior though falls short of viewing them as equals. Marlow eventually arrives at the central station but gets stuck because his ship requires repairs and he hears that Kurtz is reportedly ill. There he meets the unsavoury manager and his colleague, the bricklayer, who are suspicious of Marlow.
Eventually Marlow is able to carry on with the journey and takes the manager, some cannibals and some agents along with him. The tension builds along the quiet and foreboding river and jungle. At one point they find stacked firewood on the river shore with a note saying it is for them but to be cautious. After going back to their boat the ship is surrounded by fog and they are attacked by natives. The African helmsman is killed but they continue on towards Kurtz.
Finally they reach the Inner Station where they first meet a crazy Russian trader who tells them that he had left the wood and that Kurtz is alive. The Russian trader says that Kurtz has enlarged his mind, freed himself of moral restraint and achieved god-like status with the natives. Part of this transformation has resulted in the use of brutal and violent methods in his search for ivory and the evidence of severed heads on posts at the inner station attests to this.
Kurtz is brought out on a stretcher by the agents from the boat. A large group of natives appear but Kurtz sends them away and they disappear into the forest. Kurtz is taken on board the ship and is joined by the Russian trader. A native woman with whom Kurtz has been involved appears on the shore and the Russian trader indicates that she has had a troublesome influence on Kurtz during his time at the Inner Station. The trader tells Marlow secretly that Kurtz ordered the attack on the ship to try to deter them from coming to find him and to give them the impression he was dead. The trader then flees the boat concerned that the manager of the central station might find this out. The ailing Kurtz also tries to escape separately that night but is found back on the shore by Marlow who returns him to the boat.
Kurtz's health worsens on the return trip but he confides in Marlow and hands him his personal documents including one on how he thinks the savage natives should be civilised, concluding with the shocking statement:
The boat is again delayed for repairs on the return trip and Kurtz dies in Marlow's presence uttering the famous yet ambiguous line:
Marlow himself later falls ill and barely survives before finally getting back to Europe where he goes to visit Kurtz's fiancée. She is still in mourning and, totally unaware of the reality of events in the Congo, thinks of him as virtuous and successful. So as not to dispel this myth, Marlow tells her the last words he spoke were her name.
Themes and Perspectives
This work straddles the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the modern era in a fascinating way. With regard to the former era it deals with the then common theme of imperialism and this underpins the work. Conrad describes the Victorian reality of European men adventuring far from home whilst European women were quietly tucked away in the domestic background, morally supportive but naive and oblivious to the outer reality, though materially benefiting from it.
However, in a more modern way, Conrad fiercely challenges imperialism and uses it to examine related existentialist issues such as the inner personal conflict between good and evil and the human issues of alienation, confusion, doubt, personal restraint/excess and morality in general. The result is intriguing and shocking. Conrad's view is that to prevent such an existentialist crisis, the individual must exercise self-restraint to avoid giving into basic impulses and going mad.
By the time Heart of Darkness was written the European powers had established colonies across most of the globe, though in the run up to the First World War they were already losing their political and administrative grip. The excesses, abuses and hypocrisy of the imperial system and the individuals within the imperial system are thoroughly explored. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, particularly when this is power over the fate of other human beings without the checks and balances of organised society. We are left wondering how to apportion blame towards the system (i.e. the Company) or the individuals within the system (i.e. Kurtz) and to what extent one individual is justified in criticising another (i.e. Company, Marlow and Kurtz).
The theme of darkness first appears in the title and recurs throughout the book. Darkness is applied in different ways such as to contrast the supposed barbarism of the African natives with the light of European civilisation. At an individual level the theme is applied to the spiritual darkness of some of the characters and the contrast between supposedly 'civilised' characters like Kurtz and 'uncivilised' characters such as the Africans. The concept of darkness is also related to obscurity and ambiguity, particularly moral issues which are not clear-cut. One of the strong messages of the book is that what may be initially/superficially considered or expected to be 'light' is 'dark' (in whole or in part) and vice versa. For example, London and Belgium are both described as dark and gloomy places suggesting that it is these colonial capitals not places like the Congo that the real heart of darkness exists. This concept was in conflict with the commonly perceived wisdom of the time that Africa was being enlightened by the colonising forces within Europe.
Apparently the readership of the time did not understand the inherent criticism of European imperialism rather interpreting the plot as dealing with an errant outsider (Kurtz) who abused the opportunities of an otherwise acceptable system. Kurtz's betrothed was seen as the upholder of the expected moral standards and Kurtz seen as an example of someone who falls by the moral wayside. In addition, the fact that the location is in a Belgian colony allowed British readers to further dissociate themselves from the morally unsavoury aspects of the book.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Penguin. 1994
SparkNotes. Heart of Darkness
Wikipedia. Joseph Conrad
© Gareth Rowlands, July 2006