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Heart of Darkness

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Heart of DarknessCritical edition, 1963
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication

Literature form

Literary, historical fiction, intrigue

Writing language

Author's country

Approx. 38,500 words

Where the dark comes from

You think you know Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness even if you haven't read it in years, or ever. It's been widely taught in school, so its most famous lines ring with musty familiarity. Its plot has been adapted for all manner of media, though usually in wildly divergent stories or in parody. It's part of modern culture.

The popular notion is it's the story of a European ivory trader who has gone native in the jungles we take to be Africa (although the continent is never specified). This view may have been helped along in recent decades by the film Apocalypse Now, which was said to be based on Conrad's short novel, substituting America for Europe and Southeast Asia for Africa.

In the most racist interpretation, there is something about Africa, about the native Africans, about the primitive culture in the dim jungle, that has a near-mystical effect on civilized people who become enveloped in it. Our dark and brutal natures, hidden from sight beneath a superficial sheen of progress, are called forth.

By this reading, Kurtz's "horror! The horror!" is an insight into our savage natures or, much the same thing, into the nature of the savage world that shaped us.

Now Conrad doesn't rule out this understanding of the tale. In fact, he doesn't set down any rules as to what we are to take from the tale. Though there may be some guidelines that take us in another direction.

What we think we know

Look closer at the narrative structure of Heart of Darkness. It's often pointed out the story is not really about Kurtz but about how the narrator Charles Marlow reacts to his experience with Kurtz. Yet Marlow is not the only point of view we get. Heart of Darkness is a nested doll of narrations. We have the author Conrad, speaking in the voice of an unnamed man on board a boat waiting at the mouth of the Thames River in England, who gets around to introducing seaman Marlow, who gets around to telling his shipmates the story of his journey for a Belgian concern up river in a blank part of the map of Africa to find Kurtz. Part of his doubly related story is what's told to him about Kurtz by others, including the company's chief accountant and a Russian harlequin-like character who works for Kurtz.

Marlow's direct contact with Kurtz lasts barely a few pages before the enigmatic character dies. Much of what we think we know about Kurtz—his mysterious hold on the natives, his lofty ideals, his harsh methods—is secondhand at best.

When Marlow reports back on his expedition, he purposely misdirects everyone who inquires about Kurtz's activities. For Kurtz's naïve fiancée, who boasts she knew Kurtz better than anyone else did, he even replaces those epic last words with the expected sentimental cliché.

It's surprising when you tally it up how little, if anything, we know for certain about Kurtz. What exactly were his great inspiring thoughts? What was the magic of his words upon all who heard him? Marlow, like all others, gives few details beyond reading from Kurtz's notes a lightly sketched version of the standard white man's burden, a notion of whites ruling benevolently over lesser species. Marlow calls it a "beautiful piece of writing" that "made me tingle with enthusiasm" but his citation of it trails off in "and so on, and so on" and "etc., etc." More ominous is the addendum "Exterminate all the brutes!" Why the change?

And why did everyone, including those he apparently had viciously turned on, continue to adore him? We don't even know what happened to Kurtz that eventually led to his death. And long after Kurtz's death, why does Marlow continue to protect the man, who had apparently carried out unspeakably inhuman acts?

Of course, we never do tally up our uncertain knowledge. We're too caught up in the atmosphere Conrad creates around the trip up the river and in the plot developments leading up to and following from getting Kurtz out. Working through his various unreliable narrators, Conrad evades all factual questions, as though the details are unimportant. Whatever fine or brutal words were spouted, whatever impressive or revolting acts were carried out, it's important only that we realize they were so done. That those are the things that happen in those situations. And that Marlow has come to think Kurtz a victim of the system as much as a perpetrator.

Dark fantasy

It's often forgotten how much care Conrad gives to setting the stage for what transpired up river, long before Marlow reaches his target. He lays out through his primary narrator the colonial operation, starting in the white-sepulchred cities of Europe. His matter-of-fact description of the process of getting the commission can be read as a satire on the colonialist system and its fatuous officials. By the time Marlow has passed through all the minions and is finally chugging up the foreboding waterway, the entire enterprise has an air of dark and evil fantasy. Marlow's view of the local natives veers between terror and obvious sympathy over their horrible exploitation.

When we reach Kurtz we run aground at the exact point where the finest words produced by the system meet the naked reality. In the person of Kurtz, who is more a symbol of the best and the worst of that world than a well-defined character, we face the realization the highest ideals are bereft of meaning, as empty as Kurtz himself:

[...]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 the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had 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....

This is "the horror". Not the base nature of mankind or the evil deeds we are capable of, but nothing. Literally nothing.

But a particular kind of nothingness, if that is possible. Nothingness that arises from illusions being stripped away. It is the appalling contrast between the professed ideals and the actual agenda.

It's not necessarily a statement about human nature as hollow, but about humans who have been hollowed out—stuffed with high-flown ideas and phrases to serve the greed of some at the expense of others' miseries and, at least in the case of Kurtz (or is it Marlow?), having the great ideas and words exposed as worthless, leaving him at the end staring into an abyss.

The brilliance of the novella though is that this is not the whole story. The character of Kurtz is never fleshed out with any accuracy and he remains a mythic figure to the end and beyond. The larger story is how his trauma is related to the rest of the world.

As mentioned, the Kurtz portion of Heart of Darkness is rather small. Many more pages are given to the setup through the words of Marlow and the other story tellers, presenting first in innocence the civilization that makes the Kurtz episode necessary. And much effort is afterwards made to bring what we've learned from the Kurtz story back into that world now exposed as false, a world we see differently, a world we see now with an inverted morality.

As shown by the imagery of the last lines, the darkness has been brought home.

— Eric


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