Book review and analysis- ‘Heart Of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad

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Author– Joseph Conrad

Genre– Novella/ Fiction/ Roman-à-clef / Colonial literature/ Frame Story

Themes– Colonialism/ Racism/ Savagery versus Civilization/ Exploration/ Time/ Hypocrisy of European Imperialism/ Absurdity of evil

Introduction

Joseph Conrad (born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski), Polish by birth, was the only child of the Polish poet, writer, translator and political activist, Appollo Korzeniowski. Homeschooled by his father, he introduced little Conrad to the works of Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, and other Polish authors. His career as a sailor began in 1873. His first novel is ‘Almayer’s Folly’(1895). The novella ‘Heart of Darkness’, Conrad’s most famous, influential and controversial work, was first published in Blackwoods Magazine in 1899 as a three-part serial story and published as a book form in 1902.

Summary

Heart of Darkness begins on the deck of the Nellie, a British ship anchored on the coast of the Thames. The anonymous narrator, the Director of Companies, the Lawyer, the Accountant, and Charles Marlow sit in silence. Marlow begins telling the three men about a time he journeyed in a steamboat up the Congo River. For the rest of the novel, Marlow narrates his tale. Structured as a frame story, it is not a first-person- narrative but initially narrated by an anonymous person who listens to Marlow on the deck of Nellie.

Marlow begins by briefly explaining London’s dark history and the Roman invasion to his companions. Then, London might well have been a dark place where the Romans struggled to adapt. ( They had the bond of the sea between them. The Thames is described as a venerable stream, a conduit of history, of Romans, triremes, Gauls to the once dark England. It had served the great knights-errant of the sea like Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Franklin, the dark “interlopers” of the Eastern trade, generals of East India Fleets, bearers of the spark from the “sacred fire”( civilization).

Marlow was a seaman who”still followed the sea“. He was different from other seamen leading sedentary lives without an eye for the mystery and with a disdainful ignorance. But, for Marlow, ‘ the sea was the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny‘. He loved to spin yarns as hazy as the halo enveloping the glow. With his typical ascetic gesture, Marlow embarks on the story of his travel to the farthest point of navigation, the impact it had on him, how it enlightened his shadowed mind with the somber, pitiful light, though it was hazy.

Voyages had always awed Marlow and after a journey through the East, he hankered for an adventure, but to a relatively unexplored place, a blank space on the map that had captivated him as a child, a delightful mystery, later filled with lakes and rivers, a place of darkness. He was charmed by the huge snake with its head on the sea, its body curving, the River Congo, like a silly little bird. Marlow, with the influence of his aunt, got hold of an appointment as the captain of a river steamboat. He got the job in place of a Danish captain who was killed in an altercation with the natives( Conrad describes the Company building in Brussels as a “whited sepulcher“.This is an allusion to Mathew in The Bible. Similarly, he sees two women knitting as he enters the building. This is another reference to his sealed fate- The Greek Mythological Fates – or Moirai – are a group of three weaving goddesses who assign individual destinies to mortals at birth. Their names are Clotho (the Spinner), Lachesis (the Alloter) and Atropos (the Inflexible)).  Marlow had been told about the sublime nature of the captain who went out for a noble cause, that changed after the interactions with natives, transfiguring him to a killer( example of contradiction that Conrad uses in the novella). The natives left his body to rot, fearing the supernatural voodoo hoodoo possessed by white men and had fled the village.

Conrad uses the symbolism of the silent knitting women for the tight-lipped, know-all,  rules-based control of the Company over its employees. They are symbolic of sealed destiny, knitting black wool for a warm pall. ” Not many of those she looked at ever saw her again” The non-disclosure agreement that he signed indicates this and he got the air of something not quite right from the start itself. Even the clerk’s sententious, resolute reply and the doctor’s farcical questionnaires, zany actions and prescient warnings gave an eerie feeling to Marlow. From the start, it is clear that Marlow was not blindfolded by the specious appearance of the glorified Company as an ‘ emissary of light weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways’. He mentions how out of touch women like his aunt were, who got carried away by this rot let loose in print and talk.

Marlow left Brussels in a steamer and along the way, his perspectives of the coast of Africa and the natives began to unroll. The coast he glimpsed was featureless, still in the making with a monotonous grimness( in contrast to other places with an enigmatic appeal, mute with an air of whisper  ‘ come and find out’). He describes the forest with the huts dotted in the midst as ‘ God-forsaken wilderness‘. Even the names of trading places seemed to him ‘ to belong to some sordid farce acted in front of a sinister black cloth’. ( The symbolism is less like that of a percipient interpreter of the ambiance and more towards a prejudiced mind contrasting it as a mere backdrop with farcical characters). Marlow describes the native boatmen as having ‘ faces like grotesque masks‘, yet, realizing that they were vital humans still, took comfort in straightforward facts. But that wouldn’t last long as he witnessed a French warship insanely firing into the continent without any trace of an enemy. He describes the feeling like a “lugubrious drollery” (Another instance of oxymoron from Conrad). He got a general sense of death, of a vague and “oppressive wonder” as the steamer moved along the river, ” a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares”. The skeptical and cynical tone of the Swede captain about the activities of the Company staff roused him to be on the qui vive.

A rocky cliff, with houses and mounds of turned-up earth, reminded him of “inhabited devastation” where black, naked people moved like ants. He witnessed decayed machinery, rails, and mindless toil by the natives for no purpose other than just toil. The naked chained toiling men with “death-like indifference” were less like enemies, and more like criminals punished by an outraged law, an “insoluble mystery from the sea”. Though not prone to emotive excesses, the sight triggered a moral disquietude in him and he discerned the hypocrisy hidden among the lust of the red-eyed, rapacious devils committing a pitiless folly in the name of enlightenment ( Conrad satirizes the Company many times using his witty styled prose One example of this is the sentence in which he describes the purpose of a purposeless trench dug by the natives – ” it might have been connected with the philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do”). ( Another example of allusion is seen in the sentence describing the feeling he got when he stepped under the shade of trees- “it seemed to me that I had stepped into the gloomy circle of some Inferno” – alludes to Dante’s Divine Comedy). The natives were not enemies or criminals, not even humans, but black shadows of disease and starvation.

Marlow witnessed with horror, the collapsed, weak and dying men scattered on the earth and left to die. (Conrad’s descriptions and adjectives seem a bit inflated and egregious. He describes them as phantoms and creatures!!). The scene is contrasted with a well dressed, preened and primed colonist, an accountant that Marlow met in the station office, so uncanny that he took it first for a vision. Even the groans of a dying native or the buzzing flies in his office did not move him from his work. The kept-up appearance in that demoralization awed Marlow, something which he tallied with character, accomplishment, and backbone(Though a minor character in the novella, the Accountant mentioned above symbolizes the studied obliviousness and the blatant nonchalance of the Company towards the subjects). Marlow got an initial picture of Kurtz, described as a remarkable individual who sent much of the ivory from the Central Station, from the Accountant.

After a 200 mile grueling tramp, on the course of which he noticed the solitude of hills ablaze with heat, ruins of huts without the dwellers, Marlow reached the Central Station where he learned about the sinking oh his steamer. The meeting with the general manager, a successful, cold, blue-eyed man, with a stealthy half-smile brought the picture of the character, Kurtz again to Marlow. ( There is an allusion to the Arthurian round table here. This man had built a round table for dining, partly to fend off the altercation among his white staff as to who should sit where and partly to imply his sitting position, wherever it was, to be the first and the rest nowhere). He learned of the perils in the upper stations and to Kurtz and the much-needed exigency of action to evacuate the stations and Kurtz whose fate was unknown and guessed at. Marlow was assigned the task to regain the sunken steamer and mend it in three months’ time. He started working on it, turning his back on the goings-on there, still appalled at the “faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence”( an allusion to John Bunyan’s ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress‘), whose “imbecile rapacity for ivory blowing like a whiff from the corpse“.

Months passed by and the futility and hypocrisy of the Company dawned more and more on Marlow. (Conrad employs the symbolism of the manager carrying water in a pail with a hole at the bottom to douse a shed-fire that was blazing with all its might). He encountered Company ‘pilgrims’ with job descriptions on the face of it, but ill-intentioned to make wealth from the ivory trade, intriguing, plotting against, and slandering others, an unreal setting as feigned as the philanthropic pretense of the Company, their talks or show of work. He exclaims, ” By heavens! there is something after all in the world allowing one man to steal a horse while another must not look at the halter”. This would provoke sympathy and even the most charitable of saints would act in response. Marlow gradually got more information about Mr. Kurtz as an emissary of pity, science, and progress, yet the sensation of absurdity overcame him as he was unable to bring up an image to mind no more than one of an angel or a fiend. He stared with horror at how a native was beaten for the shed-fire and the black shadows moving listlessly on the station ground in the backdrop of a silent forest. The staves in the hands of the Company staff, the mystery, silence and the concealed reality of the place perplexed him. Marlow’s work of overhauling the steamer got suspended due to the nonavailability of rivets, a straightforward errand in itself, but taken precedence by other obscure missions in the station.

Marlow learned more about Kurtz from the manager who told him that Kurtz is supposedly ill. The dubious disposition of the manager and his feigned concern for Kurtz made Marlow suspect his involvement in wrecking the steamboat to intercept the supplies from reaching Kurtz. The suspicion turned true when he overheard the conversation of the manager and his uncle about the former’s fear of losing the managerial post to Kurtz and the latter’s assertion of the power of the jungle to do away with him. Having had the steamboat repaired, Marlow left for the Central station along with the manager, some agents and a crew of cannibals to take relief to Kurtz. Nearer to the Inner station they were attacked by arrows by some unknown natives which killed a henchman and Marlow got disappointed that Kurtz might have been killed by those natives as well. Marlow felt a kind of distant kinship and regret for the dead helmsman.

And when they reached the Central station, they encounter a half- English, half- French man, a frail. sick, bald man, Mr. Kurtz. He had lost his mind in the wilderness, where civilizational instruments of checks and balances are absent. Having been assaulted by the power of darkness, ordinary humans would not thrive there or else one needed to be an exalted creature, deaf and blind to anything but heavenly sights and sounds. Hence the faith and devotion in the back-breaking business of ivory trade. When Marlow met Kurtz, he was out of his nerves that caused him to preside over midnight dances and rites. Marlow found a pamphlet written by Kurtz in which he exhorts the Whites to appear as supernatural beings to savages and to approach them with the might of a deity. He had pictorialized an exotic immensity ruled over by an august benevolence. Amongst the eloquent, burning words and the altruism was the postscriptum ‘exterminate all the brutes’. Kurtz emerged as a composite character with the power to charm and frighten the savages and for commanding misgivings as well as camaraderie among the whites. Kurtz had a Russian assistant, who explained to Marlow the reason for the attack by the natives, they did not want Kurtz to be taken away, they adored him. As Marlow approached the hut, he distinguished the ball shapes on the stakes around it as human skulls.

The native’s heads, those of rebels, on the stakes struck Marlow as symbolic rather than ornamental and laid bare the brute who had done this for the gratification of lust or fulfillment of something wanting in him, though there was nothing profitable behind this act. Kurtz might have been bewitched by the solitude of the wilderness that avenged him for the invasion and echoed within his hollow core the deficiencies he harbored. The natives adored Kurtz to the extent that they crawled before him on all fours. The Russian, Kurtz’s last disciple seemed to fawn over him subserviently and exclaimed his feelings at how Kurtz was abandoned by the Company people.

Kurtz was taken on a stretcher to the steamboat and when the boat started to move, the natives and his mistress appeared at the shore. His health deteriorated and the steamer broke down the river, while he handed Marlow a heap of letters for safekeeping from the Company people. He died uttering the words “horror, horror” and got buried in a muddy hole.

The narration ends with Marlow visiting Kurtz’s fiancee and handing over the private letters and a portrait to her. When asked what his final words were, Marlow lied to her that it was her name. The anonymous narrator now resumes his narrative and the narrator looks at the overcast sky over the Thames that seemed to lead him into the heart of an immense darkness.

Character analysis of Kurtz

One of the most impenetrable characters in twentieth-century literature, Kurtz is an embodiment of oxymoron and symbolic of not just the darkness inside the empire, but an amplification of greed and lust harbored by all men. He is at the same time a brutal tyrant as well as a god-like cult figure among the natives. The evil at the core of the empire is personified as Kurtz. The Company feels his actions menacing as he turns out to display his intent without the sugarcoating of the ostensible enlightening narrative of the empire. Though his intent was philanthropic at the beginning ( enlightening the natives as the symbolism in his painting suggests), the coercive power of the dark jungle remolds him into the actual brute that he becomes.

His unsound methods in trading ivory without the veil of good intentions make him a thorn in the eye of the Company people. While Brussels is a white sepulcher of hypocrisy, Kurtz does their bidding brazenly. Marlow explains this clearly in the sentence ‘all of Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz’.

Review and analysis

Heart of Darkness tells the story of Charles Marlow, a contemplative sailor, who describes the journey up the River Congo into the heart of Africa to meet an ivory trader named Kurtz. The dark episodes and the absurdity of evil of European colonialism and imperialism are brought to light in this short novel. The characters are based on real-life that includes the novella in the Roman-à-clef genre. Like Marlow, Conrad traveled through Congo in 1890. He describes the novella as ‘ an experience pushed a little beyond the actual facts of the case’.

It is not an easy read, an intricate work of art, a Byzantine composition, intentionally made arduous for the reader to feel the grueling journey through the jungle, though Conrad’s witty slices are scattered throughout. Structured as a frame story, it is not a first-person- narrative but narrated initially by an anonymous person who listens to Marlow on the deck of Nellie. The narrator’s ideas of colonial Europe and its imperialistic exploits and ambitions, underpinned by lies, changes after listening to Marlow’s perspectives on the characters. Heart of Darkness fundamentally points to the darkness inside the heart of civilized Europe during colonialism. What makes it an arresting read, is the gradual unraveling of the horrors perpetrated by the ostensibly civilized colonizers that Marlow happen to encounter in Congo, one that instigates him to see through the facileness and dig into the shallowness, a self- seeking exercise in a way, and fathom out the darkness beneath the civilized whiteness.

The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century signified the heydays of European colonialism( a scramble for Africa and division of the continent under many European powers, though Belgium was the worst) and the concomitant atrocities and genocides. The accounts of Henry Morton Stanley about his travels through Africa ( Adventures and Discoveries in Central Africa and Through The Dark Continent) were best-selling books in Europe at the time and the greedy King Leopold II of Belgium colonized Congo under the guise of civilizing the people and dispensing largesse, in effect plundering its wealth(ivory and rubber) and capitalizing on slave labor, whipping them with chicotte (dried hippopotamus skin) and beheading them( The historian Adam Hochschild‘s book, ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’ deals with these atrocities). Conrad’s novella is the real-life scenario of Leopold’s Congo, the atrocities he had witnessed during his travels, slavery, murder, only the names altered, the events are a fervent recountal of facts that had existed in broad daylight.

The 1979 film, ‘Apocalypse Now‘ was inspired by this novella though the setting was changed to jungles of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The movie explores America’s military involvement in Vietnam and the figurative “darkness” that led to the apocalypse in the hearts of those sent there to fight. In T.S Eliot‘s poem ‘The Hollow Men‘, he uses a sentence from the novella, “Mistah Kurtz-he dead” as the epigraph. The essential hollowness in the core of the white colonialists is the gist of Heart Of Darkness. The work has inspired writers like William Golding ( The Inheritors), T.S Eliot( The Waste Land), Orson Welles, George Orwell (1984) Graham Greene (A Burnt-Out Case) and Francis Ford Coppola ( 1979 film Apocalypse Now). The capacity of his work to instigate debates, criticisms or even polemics and the staying power makes it one of the best classics in English literature.

The novella broke the generally embraced narrative conventions of the time for its ambiguity( “foggishness” in Conrad’s words) that Marlow uses for the subjective perception of conflicts and horrors. It’s somewhat interesting that Conrad, not a native English speaker, learned the language when he was in his twenties. He has once said that he would prefer French to the English language without clean edges and whose words are instruments for exciting blurred emotions. Ironically, this could be one reason for the palpable ambiguity in the novella. It is a classic that captivated many readers and irked a few critics like the British novelist, E.M Forster for the ambiguity and the Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe for the implicit and explicit racism in it. Achebe denounced it as the work of a bloody racist in his 1975 lecture. The eagle-eyed English critic F. R. Leavis drew attention long ago to Conrad’s “adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery.” Achebe dismisses Conrad’s adjectival insistence as not a mere stylistic flaw or felicity, but a trickery to induce a hypnotic stupor in the mind of readers by the bombardment of emotive words and though regular readers usually bypass such tricks and baits, here Conrad had chosen the subject astutely and assumed the role of purveyor of comforting myths- one that would not put him in conflict with the reader’s mind or one for which he would not have to contend with any resistance.

In Achebe’s words,” [Heart of Darkness has] Africa as a setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world”

“Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality. The book opens on the River Thames, tranquil, resting, peacefully “at the decline of day after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks.” But the actual story will take place on the River Congo, the very antithesis of the Thames. The River Congo is quite decidedly not a River Emeritus. It has rendered no service and enjoys no old-age pension. We are told that “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world. Is Conrad saying then that these two rivers are very different, one good, the other bad? Yes, but that is not the real point. It is not the differentness that worries Conrad but the lurking hint of kinship, of common ancestry. For the Thames too “has been one of the dark places of the earth.” It conquered its darkness, of course, and is now in daylight and at peace. But if it were to visit its primordial relative, the Congo, it would run the terrible risk of hearing grotesque echoes of its own forgotten darkness, and falling victim to an avenging recrudescence of the mindless frenzy of the first beginnings.”

“Although the work of redressing which needs to be done may appear too daunting, I believe it is not one day too soon to begin. Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth. But the victims of racist slander who for centuries have had to live with the inhumanity it makes them heir to have always known better than any casual visitor even when he comes loaded with the gifts of a Conrad”.( Source-http://kirbyk.net/hod/image.of.africa.html).

It is exactly the sort of mythologizing Africa( as a place of savages and cannibals) and racism sticking out like sore thumb amidst Conrad’s main purpose of unveiling the dark colonial legacy, that is rubbing up critics like Achebe the wrong way. In his 1958 novel, ‘Things Fall Apart‘, Achebe documents the spiritual history of Igbo people, their rich and civilized life before European colonization. The novel critiques Conrad’s work as not differentiating myths from facts when approaching the subject of Africa and seeing it through the white colonizer’s prism.

The title has aroused one of the most critical debates in the history of literature. Though from Achebe’s perspective, these allegations are true, more so as the reader attempts to step into his shoes and read the book, it is unjustifiable not to take into consideration the period during which the novella was written, the historical context and the zeitgeist captured during the middle and late nineteenth centuries when neither colonialism nor racism at their pinnacle was reckoned as ills or evil, but as run-of-the-mill and the travel writings and art projected and cemented the savagery as a pivotal and constant theme in them. A novel or any work of art was read/ seen for its literary qualities/ aesthetic values only. So, the then critics focussed on the form of the novel only. At the time Conrad, a creature of his time, would probably not have been able to present anything other than an imperialistic world-view. Though he criticizes imperialism, he finds it unavoidable in the end in part by vindicating Kurtz.

Contradictions and ambivalence abound in Conrad’s writing. Taking an example, Fresleven, the Danish captain has been described as a sublime soul who ends up murdering a native. Another example is the accountant, whom Marlow meets at the company station in Congo, who maintains an immaculately clean suit and coiffed hair despite the filth and chaos reigning the station- a light in the darkness. his views on life are ambivalent. Conrad begins the story by glorifying the idea of colonialism but shatters it by expounding on the horrors of Belgium Company in Congo. His justification of colonialism as “devotion to efficiency” transforms into”robbery with violence“. He repulses at how the natives are treated, still, they have never been conferred the equal human status as the colonizers. Near the end, Conrad describes life as ” that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose”– at once meaningful and meaningless. Whether these were adjectival flaws on his side or studied insertions are still debated.

The veil of hypocrisy employed in vindicating the purposes of imperialism is torn off to expose the nefarious activities of the company men. They describe their activities as ‘trade’ and ‘civilizing missions’ all the while suppressing and exterminating the natives. Though we feel that Marlow is trying to expose the hypocrisy, he has objectified and dehumanized them and they are just a framework for him to philosophically self-contemplate and expound on an existential struggle( Marlow refers to the native helmsman as a piece of machinery and Kurtz’s African mistress as a piece of statuary). This kind of implicit racism is much more sinister than the explicit one as per Conrad’s critics.

Kurtz’s madness is employed to gain the reader sympathy. Whether the Company or the natives are responsible for his madness is hazy. Similarly, Marlows moral confusion and absurdity in the judgment of evil, insanity and social values are evident in the part where Kurtz’s homicidal tendencies and a leaky bucket evoke the same reactions from him. Marlow is trapped between the devil and the rock and is forced to choose the lesser of the two evils- a hypocritic Company or rule-defying Kurtz.

The pointlessness and futility of the European mission in Africa are elaborated by a few instances like a French warship firing at an invisible enemy, the pointless attempt to extinguish a burning grass hut, and the random hole digging by slave laborers. The hollowness and moral bankruptcy of the colonizers is alluded to in the description of the chatty brickmaker with a forked beard and hooked nose (alluding to Devil) who he meets at the Central Station. He describes him as “papier-mache Mephistopheles” ( A demon in German folk-lore, he appears as the devil who tempts Faust into selling his soul in the drama ‘Faust‘ by Goethe and in the 16 th century English play ‘Dr. Faustus‘ by Christopher Marlowe). The brickmaker has ” nothing inside but a little loose dirt”. The same allusion is applied in the case of Kurtz. Marlow describes the African wilderness whispering to Kurtz-  “It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.” Later, as Kurtz lays dying, he is described as a “hollow sham” of his later self.

Heart of Darkness was not the only artistic work where critics missed the racial content during those times. The famous art critic John Ruskin did not acknowledge the racial content of JMW Turner‘s painting The Slave Ship. Though, there were westerners like the Alsatian polymath Albert Schweitzer who was a theologian, organist, writer, humanitarian, philosopher, and physician( he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952) who sacrificed his brilliant career to serve the people in the same heart of Africa that Conrad describes as the seat of savagery, during the same time frame. This equivocality of perspectives is something to give thought to, during the period when the book was written and also while reading this book at any time period.

The way by which a reader approaches a work, literary or art, depends on many factors like how subjective or objective he/ she is, whether biased or unbiased, level of emotiveness in sympathizing/ empathizing/ hating/ liking a subject/ character and so on.  The senseless murder by the character, Mersault in Albert Camus‘ ‘The Stranger‘, the imprudent murders by the character Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky‘s ‘Crime and Punishment’, the abhorrent repulsive transgressions and sin of the deluded pedophile Humbert Humbert in Nabokov‘s ‘Lolita’– these are a few characters that linger and blemish our mind like indelible blotches. We adore these masterpieces, yet, when we read them, we get to encounter the goods and evils alike but never can/ never do we vindicate the evils they had done, the reader should never be short-sighted to blindly follow what the characters say or do. Exactly so, as an unbiased and impartial reader, though I could think highly of this masterpiece, notably Conrad’s use of foggy adjectives, symbolisms and imageries, his virtuosity for story-telling, modernist style, attempts at tearing the facade of colonialism……..the apparently misplaced adjectives seem a bit convoluted when he describes the savagery of the indigenous people in ostensibly racist terms with contradictory symbolisms and imageries, as something so bestial as to be inclined to spawn madness in a white colonialist man. Never can I vindicate or sympathize with a character like Kurtz. We are reading it in the 21- st century, and hence it is absolutely impossible to ignore the explicit racism while Conrad describes the African subjects in the darkest of tones and be impersonal to his narrative, though his intent might have been sublime in exposing the raw Company and its deeds. It is hard to leave the racist tones out of the picture, though there is a specter of the intentional fallacy while judging and critiquing any artwork, more so something that has famously triggered debates, through the frame of reference of a historian or psychologist.

All of which eggs on the mind to question the definition and criteria of the civilized-  is it skin color? Is it the ability to read, write, communicate, dress up? Does it make the colonialists civilized or any better than a bunch of hoodlums, taking into account their hooliganism and plunder of the colonies, seizing hold of their wealth, thrusting them to indigence and ill-health? Naked, dark or savages, let them be, they never traveled west to invade or plunder the hypocritic, self-proclaimed “civilized society”. They led their own lives, followed their rituals or practices, living as units and families in communities without engendering any harm to the outside world, disconnected from the “civilized” society until the scramble for Africa took root, not for the ostensible humanitarian purpose but for looting and repressing them. Barring a few egalitarian souls like Albert Schweitzer, all of the “civilized” west from the Dukes and Monarchs to their minions in the lowest rung, men and women of letters including, literally and figuratively committed unpardonable, execrable barbarities in the colonies, which in itself is the single most reason to debar them from the canonical “civilized” society. And it is not cumbersome for the reader to discern, in whose heart the darkness dwells.

 

 

31 thoughts on “Book review and analysis- ‘Heart Of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad

  1. Thank you so much, Deepa, for reminding me of Heart of Darkness with your perceptive review. It is many years since I read it but it is still lurking on my shelves and I feel moved to take it down once more and delve into its disturbing depths.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Pete, thank you for reading and appreciating.
      So good to hear from you and glad that the review has prompted a re-read.
      This masterpiece is worth many re-reads, tbh. Love Conrad’s language skills and adjectival acrobatics. 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

  2. I remember our class studying this one in high school English. I don’t really remember reading it, but I still have my copy even though I haven’t found it (it’s somewhere in my bedroom, but I believe it’s buried under my stash of yarn and will take some careful “excavating” to find it). But in the years since high school, I have developed an interest in African history (which, unfortunately, was never really taught apart from Ancient Egypt when I was in high school). I definitely want to revisit this book at some point.

    A few weeks ago, I bought an ebook of “Congo: The Epic History of a People”, which is an extensive history (from prehistory to the early 2000s, just before the book was originally published in 2010; it was originally written in Dutch by a Belgian author, but was released in English a few years later) of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and includes the colonial period (and its atrocities) as well as Mobutu’s dictatorship and the two civil wars that ravaged the country. I’d like to read Congo and Heart of Darkness relatively near each other.

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    1. Hi Crystal. thank you for reading and responding. 🙂
      Its good to hear that such works have been included in the academic curricula. Heart of Darkness, though critics have voiced implicit and explicit racist references, is one the colonial era works that exposed the hypocrisy of colonial Europe. This book belongs to the canon of classics that are evergreen.
      ‘Congo – The Epic History of a People’ is in my TBR list. Its a good idea to read both the texts side by side. 🙂

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    1. That’s right, Ianus. It was heavy for me too. It took time referring the webpages for the meanings of symbolisms and allusions, paragraph by paragraph.
      I have not read any of Hesse’s works. Will read his work next. Thank you for the comment. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Librepaley, thank you for your heartfelt appreciation and for reading and commenting on the lengthy text.
      When you search for ‘Heart of Darkness ‘criticism in the web, Achebe’s is the first one that pops up. His viewpoints are very interesting.
      It takes some time to read the analyses, criticisms and other details.
      Whatever I have written is from these references only. 🙂

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    1. Thank you, Liz.
      I am glad that the time I had spent on the book, apart from gratifying my piqued curiosity, prods firends like you to re-read.
      I agree that the prose is difficult to be digested wthout aid from references. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for excellent analysis, Deepa. I would like to add something: Before Leopold II. could take over the Congo, he gave the mission to explore the potential colonial region of the southern Congo Basin to the German Hermann von Wissmann. Because of his experience, von Wissmann became later the Governor of German Eastafrica. As Leopold II., von Wissmann was an extreme rassist and despot. Now guess what: von Wissmann is also the great-grandfather of Franz Wissmann, the owner of the first street fundraising company in the world, which was originally based in Austria. Street fundraising firms are collecting donations on the street for different charities. We all know them as charity muggers or chuggers. For further informations: https://kevinbrutschin.wordpress.com/2020/03/03/original-charity-mugging-firm-owner-is-great-grandson-of-german-colonial-ruler-mar-2020/ https://kevinbrutschin.wordpress.com/2020/03/03/original-charity-mugging-firm-owner-is-great-grandson-of-german-colonial-ruler-mar-2020/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Kevin for reading the text, appreciating and responding with such a wonderful piece of information.
      I did not know this German connection and the ironical philanthropic posterity.
      Thank you for the new information.
      Hope to find more in the book ‘King Leopald’s Ghost’ by Adam Hothschild. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have read this book and found it deeply disturbing in places. I’ve read other Conrad novels including The Rover. A hugely impressive writer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading and responding, Daniel.
      True, the way he constructs the sentences is beyond belief, given that he learned English in his twenties only.
      I hope your health is going fine. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I haven’t read this book, but the story does have great appeal. And I do enjoy books that dig deep into the blind arrogance of those who feel righteous and superior and eventually discover the startling truth. Great summary, analysis, and review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Diana for taking the time.
      This book is somewhat singular among the colonial literature in that it rips apart the veil of hypocrisy of the colonialists, though there are racist sentences and words throughout.
      Its a thought provoking book and I am sure you will like it. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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