Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is a disturbing tragedy that exposes the horror of the Congo in the late 19th century. Conrad writes from experience, since he was one of the representatives civilized societies, particularly Britain, sent to “civilize” the natives in the area. But these representatives often grew brutal and militant while abroad. The action that ensues leaves one questioning the human capacity for empathy, community and morality.
The book’s main character, Charles Marlow, serves as its narrator who recounts his experience as captain of a steamer in the Congo. Marlow is Conrad’s literary self-portrait, and “Heart of Darkness” is a novel that came out of Conrad’s own trip to the Congo eight years earlier. Marlow is an extraordinary narrator. Beyond his natural talent for storytelling, readers cannot help but admire the strength of his conviction. He is naturally skeptical of others, which enables him to remain in control of himself while his fellow men fall to darkness. Marlow is a beacon of light in an intensely dark setting, which gives him the necessary vision to maintain his soul.
Before Marlow and his crew can set off on their journey to retrieve Kurtz, one of the company’s employees stationed in the Congo, and the ivory he collected in his time there, the steamer, Nellie, must be repaired. Marlow personifies the steamer because he feels most at home at sea, and therefore his ships are his closest companions. The steamer is physically broken down, which foreshadows the hundreds of broken people Marlow later encounters.
As Marlow and his crew journey deeper into the Congo, the dense forestation makes it difficult to see and navigate the steamer. This physical darkness is symbolic, representing the emotional darkness that overtakes the people — civilized and uncivilized — in the area. For natives, the civilizing troops settle like a dark cloud over the life they always knew and disrupt its function, or cause it to breakdown, just like the steamer in. And for the civilizing troops, taming the natives is a trying process, which gradually corrupts them.
What is disturbing about “Heart of Darkness” is that it calls into question what is and is not human. The company that employs Marlow employs many British men to civilize the Congo. But once they reach the area and begin to settle, they undergo enormous transformations, growing dark. But are these men reverting back to the natural human condition, or is the psychological trauma of their experiences there forcing them to distort the natural human condition?
The great irony here is that the men who are sent to civilize Congo natives appear to become less civilized during their time there. They begin to resort to brutality, grow power-hungry, and lose their sense of right and wrong. But since we think of these traits as “uncivilized,” it follows that what we think of as civilized behavior is unnatural: it is learned behavior that society enforces.
Arguably the most fascinating character in this novel is Kurtz, the company’s most revered employee. Kurtz was sent to collect ivory in the Congo, and enjoys extreme success in his mission. However, a man referred to as “The Russian” reveals to Marlow that Kurtz gains success by behaving as a wild man. He convinces the natives that he is a god, and then raids villages in the area for ivory. He is ruthless, keeping the skulls of men he slaughters and using them to decorate his garden. Kurtz highlights one of the most disturbing facets of human nature, which is the ability to lose oneself entirely. Kurtz enters a state of savagery in which he can no longer distinguish right from wrong because he does not care to try. He does not resemble the man he was when he left for the Congo, and it seems impossible for him to ever return to being that man.
What Kurtz demonstrates is not only man’s ability to override his conscience, but more terrifyingly how easily he is carried away once he does so. Kurtz striking a native down would startle a reader, but it is his total lack of regard for decency that deeply disturbs the reader and compels many to close the book forever. He does not merely abuse the natives for economic gain, but rather to assert his supreme power over them. He sadistically thrives on the knowledge of the destruction he causes. It is as if Kurtz himself begins to believe that he is indeed a god, with ultimate and divine power.
When Kurtz dies, his final words are, “The horror! The horror!” It is astonishing to see him return to a human state. Though it is tragic to see Kurtz die with a heavy, dirty conscience, it is relieving to see the flicker of something human in his soul. Between loathing his grotesque habits and sympathizing with his pained heart, one cannot help but feel overwhelmed by Kurtz’s struggle.
Marlow, who does not get sucked into the Congo’s darkness, resolves to preserve Kurtz’s memory upon returning to London. Before his experience in the Congo, Kurtz was a cultured man: a journalist, an artist, a beautiful musician, and Marlow determinedly protects that image. He tells Kurtz’s widow that his last words were her name, so that he may forever be remembered as the civilized man he once was and returned to in his dying moment. But the trauma of witnessing his transformation is permanent, and it stays with Marlow forever, just as Heart of Darkness forever haunts the reader.
Conrad writes through Marlow, who is a simple seaman and a wonderful storyteller. This combination enables him to use language that is both beautiful and articulate. He uses words that the common man recognizes, and he uses this limited vocabulary effectively to paint complete and beautiful pictures.
The novel is not plot-centric. Readers seeking a thrilling or complex plot will not find “Heart of Darkness” satisfying. However, the plot does serve to clearly and directly illustrate the points Conrad is making without feeling contrived.
Conrad wrote philosophy through a plot line. His mission was to harness his opinions on the situations he encountered and then manipulate them into ambiguous explorations of large ideas.
Difficulty: B (A: difficult, F: easy)
The wording, symbolism, and points of “Heart of Darkness” are all clear. However, Conrad thrives on ambiguity, and so he intentionally leaves many questions unresolved. The reader has to determine for him or herself why a character behaves a certain way or what exactly a phrase means. Conrad intended for readers to interpret his novels; he did not want to convey one meaning.
Next Week: “Notes from Underground” by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Lanie is a first-year. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.