First Thoughts on Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness is a novella by Joseph Conrad. At only 132 pages it is technically a novella and as I stated in a previous post, it was one of my favorite books in high school. It is written as a frame narrative with Conrad retelling the story of his main character Marlow, and his job as an ivory shipper on the Congo River. As Marlow floats down the Congo, he becomes almost obsessed with investigating Kurtz, an ivory-procurement agent. While brief the narrative of Heart of Darkness explores a variety of themes, most of which are, well, dark.  The darkness inherent in all men’s hearts, the evils of colonialism, racism, and savagery versus civilization all have parts to play here. I am going to be revisiting this book throughout the year, but upon my first read through in over 20 years I wanted to present some initial thoughts.

The first thing I was struck by, which I am sure went right over my head in Mr. L’s sophomore English class, is how deeply philosophical the text is. His constant juxtaposition of the wild and the civilized is really  more about man’s inner heart and outer facade. In a lot of ways it is reminiscent of Golding’s main theme in The Lord of the Flies: humanity stripped of its outer covering of culture is violent and frightening. At its core this is a religious theme about the inner fallen nature of man. As Marlow comes upon his first outpost along the Congo he sees this duality and remarks on it.

“And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck of earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.” 

Evil, or truth. The wilds of the Congo seem an apt stand in for man’s true nature which lies in wait for each of us. Civilization holds back the Congo- for a time. But in the end of course, Kurtz, Conrad’s symbol of composite man, is swallowed by that patiently waiting force.

This imagery comes back into play again and again, and as readers we are never quite sure of Conrad’s stance. While the rape and destruction of a native people is clearly on his mind, at the same time one can see his own moral ambiguity coming through the narrative. While on route to meet Kurtz for the first time Marlow’s steamboat is attacked. However, this is no fierce, animalistic repulsion of western civilization, but a pathetic and mournful affair.

“…from the depths of the woods went out such a tremulous and prolonged wail of mournful fear and utter despair as may be imagined to follow the flight of the last hope from earth.”

If Conrad wanted to show a proud and noble savage, the likes of which were both popular and familiar to his readers through such works as The Leatherstocking Tales of James Fennimore Cooper, he could have painted this particular scene in a much more flattering way. Instead there is a realism the presages a more postmodern take on the colonial impulse.

Since the point of this year’s reading experiment is to try to read less broadly and more deeply, over the next few months I intend to try to delve a bit deeper into Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Until then, if you have read this classic and have an opinion about it I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can find my on Twitter or G+.