Forget what you think you know about Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Yes, it’s set in Africa. Yes, it’s an adventure story. Yes, it’s anti-colonialist. But really Heart of Darkness is the story of one outsider white guy obsessed with another outsider white guy. As a result, I found it underwhelming.
Marlow tells the story of his journey into the African interior to a group of fellow seamen as they sit at the mouth of the Thames waiting for the tide to turn. This is not a conceit or frame but the essential mechanic of Conrad’s novel. Marlow appears at several interruptions in his narrative not to care whether his fellows are listening or not. It is a story told because it needs to told, not because the audience needs to hear it.
The senseless-ness of colonial violence is present early in the novel when Marlow recounts seeing a French naval ship shelling an apparently unoccupied jungle. He notes how the disparity makes the scene comical: what could the French Navy possibly fear from some arrow-armed savages? It is less comical when he sees African men and women dying in a shady grove by the side of the road, literally discarded when they are too weak to be useful. Marlow isn’t the perfect narrator for an indignant expose: he’s far too racist and unwilling to question the assumptions he makes about African people. Even so, the casual and unthinking cruelty toward the Africans that Marlow encounters and perpetrates is disconcerting to modern sensibilities.
The problem with Heart of Darkness is that once Marlow reaches the company’s station, the novel becomes about intra-office politics. Kurtz, deep in the jungle, sends more ivory down river than all the other agents combined. He’s being considered for promotion and the manager wants the promotion instead. Marlow’s mission to transport supplies to Kurtz’s station and bring him downriver means he gets caught in the middle of these two men. He immediately sizes up the manager, but his fascination with the mythical Kurtz grows steadily.
Kurtz’s exploitation is only hinted at – no muckraking here – largely because Marlow is much more concerned with trying to understand Kurtz himself than his actions. Marlow, an Englishman working for the Belgians, is an outsider; The Harlequin, whose dress is surreal and devotion to Kurtz is unending, is an outsider; Kurtz himself having found success through presenting himself as a kind of divinity (methods which have “ruined” the district, from the company’s point of view) is an outsider. None of them are “proper” or Belgian; they are not “pilgrims.” The end of Heart of Darkness is Marlow’s mediation on the goodness and badness of Kurtz. Light and dark are Conrad’s major motifs and they return with a vengeance at the end of the novel in complicated and contradictory ways. The novel’s moral ambiguity is a virtue if viewed as a character study; a pitfall for anti-colonialism. More importantly, one white guy obsessed with another? I’ve read that story before.
Up Next: Letters To A Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (trans. M.D. Herter Norton)
Why? It’s short. And it’s reading period.
Preview of an additional coming attraction: My roommate is currently teaching The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton to her 8th graders. I’m going to follow along with their reading schedule (and worksheets). We’ll see what I have to say about the novel after studying it with Ms. Holmes!