|Genre:||Literature & Fiction|
The Heart of Darkness is a story of a story. Conrad's narrator, Marlowe, recounts his experiences in Africa and briefly, in Belgium, and his feelings about the voyage to a group of other men while waiting for a rising tide along the River Thames. In the story the narrator is going down an African river for "The Eldorado Exploring Expedition" to bring back some of the valuable caches of elephant ivory. The journey takes him down the dark waters and deep and sometimes deadly jungles. The ultimate end of the journey is a personal fiefdom of terror run by a man called Kurtz.
Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella is familiar to many. Rereading it again I was struck by how much of the story delves into Marlowe's sense of assault upon not only the native peoples and his fellow men in the steamer, but his own psyche. Marlowe is as much a victim of war as the modern soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder might be.
But the wounds are totally psychological-- and not to be healed by being removed from the harrowing river journey. The mysterious, intelligent and ultimately enigmatic Mr. Kurtz, the leader of the ivory station--a highly civilized and capable man who is brilliant and at the same time savage and mad--has made him question the nature of humanity itself.
Marlowe cannot see civilization in the same way again, and has contempt for those who might judge his reactions to such terrors "with a policeman at one corner and a butcher shop on the other".
Civilization to Marlowe is a mere veneer. Its Conrad himself trying to express that difficult sense of total isolation in his own skin---he knows that London itself was a savage place to the first Romans who came to Britain. All places were savage once and parts of them can be again, without warning.
But there is something dark and evil within all men as well, and what circumstances might bring this darkness, a darkness perhaps beyond the control of the keenest intellect.
"Heart of Darkness" is a multi-layered novella that is a triumph of fiction and an authentic statement of the animal nature of human avarice.
Some think the book has a racist slant. But I believe, even if he was a man of his own time, Conrad is after something more profound than a tale of terror or a political statement on race. In condemning Kurtz and his dark deeds, and those of others along the route of colonial exploitation, Marlowe also sees something within himself, a savageness as dire as the heads of men placed on poles to encourage more ivory extraction.
Marlowe feels as alone as he was with his friends and listeners as he was back in Africa, at that ivory station hundreds or miles inland, standing over the body of the "great" Mr. Kurtz as he sums up the brutality within that heart of darkness:
"The Horror! The Horror!"
The book is based on the worst of colonies in the dire history of the great African land grab of the late 19th Century---King Leopold of Belgium's' Congo Free State of 1890. Conrad, a longtime seafarer with the French and later British Merchant services--served briefly as a fresh-water captain of a small steamship going upriver to meet up with an ivory outpost run along lines of brutality he later depicted in horrifying and psychologically subtle details.