Friday, April 19, 2019
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Into the wilds of human depravity
Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness was originally serialized in 1899 issues of Blackwood’s Magazine before being published in a 1902 collection of Conrad’s short fiction entitled Youth: A Narrative, and Two Other Stories. The fact that Heart of Darkness wasn’t even designated the title selection of that collection is an indication that it did not garner a lot of notice when it was first released. Since then, however, it has become one of the most highly acclaimed and deeply scrutinized works of literature in the English language. The story is based on a trip Conrad made up the Congo River. In the novella, the river is unnamed, and the word Congo is never used to describe the setting, but the narrative clearly takes place in Africa.
Charles Marlow, a passenger on a Thames River steamboat, narrates the story to a group of fellow travelers. Marlow explains that he has often had an attraction for blank spaces on the map, and one day he selects one of these little explored regions of the world and decides to venture there. Marlow takes a job as a steamboat captain for a British trading company, but in order to take command of his vessel he must first journey to a remote trading post in the interior of Africa. The company’s primary business in Africa is to buy ivory from the natives, and no one brings in as much ivory as Mr. Kurtz, a company man who has apparently gone rogue, disappeared into the deep wilderness, and established an uncommon rapport with the native population. It is even rumored that the local inhabitants worship him as a god. As Marlow proceeds on his trek upriver, he gradually learns more about this mysterious Mr. Kurtz and develops a personal obsession with the man.
This obsession is not entirely contagious. So much of Heart of Darkness is spent proclaiming how extraordinary and astonishing Kurtz is, that when the reader finally meets him it is a bit of a letdown. Perhaps this reader has become jaded by the intervening century of adventure literature and explorer biographies, but the idea of a white adventurer in a remote wilderness “going native” and turning megalomaniacal in the process doesn’t particularly shock or surprise. One wonders if that didn’t happen quite often at the height of 19th century colonialism. The picture Conrad paints of European colonialism in Africa is frightening. He depicts frankly the horrible treatment of the black race by the whites, but he never really portrays the blacks positively either. The novella seems to have been written at a time period between the celebration of empire and the condemning of it, when it was enough to just point out the disgusting aspects of colonialism in a matter-of-fact matter without actually expressing any disgust, outrage, or sympathy.
Conrad is considered one of the all-time masters of the English language, and there is no doubt that the prose in Heart of Darkness is artfully crafted. Perhaps at times it is too much so. Though the book’s best quality is its creepy and dangerous atmosphere, too often this gets lost in a veil of flowery verbiage too pretty for its harsh subject matter. The idea that Marlow is relating this story out loud is ridiculous, since the language doesn’t at all resemble human speech but rather carefully constructed written prose. Almost every sentence in the book is quotable, but cumulatively it adds up to a whole lot of adjectives and metaphors being used to describe every mundane detail of movement or expression. There’s a difference between admiring a great work of literature and actually enjoying the reading of it, and too often Heart of Darkness falls on the wrong side of that line. Though it is worthy of respect, it is not always compelling.
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