The story, Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad is considered to be a classic which has stood the test of time. I read the title story of the selected fiction included in the book.
It is the story of Marlowe who takes a steamboat trip up the Congo River into the wilds of Africa. His story is actually narrated as if he was the narrator, but in truth, he is not. It begins on the Thames River with the narrator speaking of four of them gathered on a yacht, including Marlowe who is telling his story to the group. This is an unusual way to present his unusually, dark story.
The words darkness and heart appear within the story countless times. His story begins as he speaks of the Thames saying, “And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth,” in preparation for the dark story he is about to begin. The narrator prepares his audience for what is to come by saying “…to him the meaning of an episode was not inside the kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it about only as a glow brings out a haze…” Thus we understand what Conrad himself is doing with his tale—enveloping us in his story—surrounding us with a mood of darkness, even as we begin it.
The two women in the Company office that Marlowe was signing up with to get his boat and go to the Congo were knitting black wool which seemed to me like an omen of something bad or the darkness to come. He also refers to the images on the map of the Congo River as fascinating like a deadly snake. There was another mention of a snake and of silly birds being attracted to it. He and silly birds being attracted to a snake seemed to be symbols that he was on a mission to explore that which was dangerous and fool-hardy. Even in the Company offices, he had a feeling of something not quite right.
So, in this manner, the reader is early on in the reading of the story invited to feel that something ominous is going to happen. It is a feeling that I never shook as I ventured further into the narrative.
The thing that kept my attention was that the reader keeps being tantalized by curiosity about the man named Kurtz whose reputation precedes him as Marlowe makes his way to meet him. Conrad maintains the dark images of dark primitive men, dangers in the jungle, at the side of the river, or in the interior of the place as we meander along the Congo River to this place—this very dark place in the world—this world that the Belgians are trying to make a fortune with by taking the ivory.
Never is Marlowe seen as a character wishing to take a profit from his exploration. His desire seems to be only to have explored and seen what has always seemed to him a mystery—the continent of Africa, more specifically, the Congo River. In doing so, he penetrates a land of sickness, of enslaved primitive peoples doing the work of taking the natural resource, ivory, from its natural source. The enslaved men seem almost devoid of humanity, yet Marlowe keeps mentioning their humanity and some of their strange appearances, their sometimes starving living conditions due to enslavement, but fearsome danger also accompanies those in the wild.
Marlowe mentions too the feeling of being at one with the first ages, the men of the first ages, so in this way, he does recognize the humanity of the primitive Africans he has encountered.
Of Kurtz, I had a building curiosity and then shock about his ability to make the local primitive people worship him and do his bidding. I came to feel the evil that he had become as he must have begun to be corrupted by the wish to get more and more profit and by his own ability to mesmerize the people around him. His ability to bring those he came into contact with under his power was especially sinister–made vivid when Marlowe sees the drying heads on posts. Kurtz seemed the very embodiment of evil, corruption, and of darkness in the Dark Continent in which he lived.
There are some pieces of information, which the reader is not given. For instance, Kurtz was ill, from an illness that had apparently claimed others, though we never know really what has made him ill. Also, the conversations between him and Marlowe though mentioned as important to Marlowe were never included in the narrative. Instead, the reader might take away the feeling that his illness was the result of the evil that existed both within him and within the environment.
Even Marlowe appears to have come under Kurtz’s spell in that he promises not to reveal to the world Kurtz’s evil and wants to keep the world’s opinion of the man who died clean and good. (Of course, it seemed that his final telling of the tale to the audience he chooses to tell it to would be in direct violation of that promise to himself.
Marlowe did allow Kurtz’s betrothed to keep her illusions about his goodness and told her that Kurtz died with her name being his last spoken word. In truth, he said “Horrors,” as if in the final moments he had seen the evil, in which perhaps the land, the dark land where he had ventured, had caused his soul to be twisted into something which it would not have been otherwise.
This book seemed to me to be mostly about the power that corrupts or allows corruption. Marlowe, with his simple wish to just see, does not fall victim to corruption but instead is its witness. He only becomes entranced by Kurtz but was not corrupted by him. I sensed this may have only been the case because Kurtz was dying and a longer association might have led Marlowe astray as well.
I did not really like the story. It certainly was not a joyful read, but it was one that leaves its impact and I sense that what I am writing now is only skimming the surface of it.
It is a study in symbolism and is often considered to be a book that well-read people should read. Therefore, often part of college curriculums.