Synopsis: Freed from the constraints of European morality, a man confronts the underlying nature of humanity. Madness ensures.
My Take: For quite a short novella, “The Heart of Darkness” has certainly prompted a lot of meta-discussion. The subject of critical attention as a part of the Western cannon, as a flash point in post-colonial literary debates, as a semi-autobiographical account of Conrad’s own travels in colonial Congo, and as an infamous adaptation by Francis Ford Coppola, “The Heart of Darkness” has been looked at from every imaginable angle in the last fifty years. However, as with most seminal books, the novel itself is worth a read if only so that you can make up your own mind distinct from the analysis.
Strangely enough, the “Heart of Darkness” is written in the format of a sea-story being recounted to an unnamed narrator (a framed narrative for the pedants). While the deck of a ship berthed in the River Thames at first seems to be a strange place to open a story about madness in colonial Africa, this device instils the book with the characteristic of a ghost story being told on a dark and stormy night – a perfectly fitting atmosphere for the novel.
Marlow, a steam-boat captain, tells the story of his travels in the Congo, and his search for the mysterious ivory trader Kurtz, with a ferocious emotional intensity. Marlow recounts the horrors he saw during his time in Africa – the instinctive violence of the Europeans towards the Africans and the savagery the local (‘cannibal’) inhabitants – with a pervasive philosophical reflection. Despite everything that Marlow faces during his search for Kurtz, the real conflict in “The Heart of Darkness” is internal. The most engaging passages of the book are Marlow’s internal struggles with what he confronts, to wit:
The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there — there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were, — No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it — this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity — like yours — the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.
Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you — you so remote from the night of first ages — could comprehend.
And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything — because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valour, rage — who can tell? — but truth — truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudder — the man knows, and can look on without a wink. But he must at least be as much of a man as these on the shore. He must meet that truth with his own true stuff — with his own inborn strength. Principles? Principles won’t do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags — rags that would fly off at the first good shake. No; you want a deliberate belief.
Marlow struggles to rationalise what he has encountered in the Congo, particularly the circumstances in which he finds Kurtz, and the flashes of self-recognition he saw as he peered into the abyss. This ultimately is the central philosophical question in “The Heart of Darkness” – what is it that separates man from savagery? The infamous ‘Horror’ of “The Heart of Darkness” is the conclusion that both Kurtz and Marlow reach that savagery is the natural state of the human condition and that the artificial moral constraints of civilised society are an unnatural, and impermanent illusion. Kurtz ultimately put the issue directly to Marlow, asking him to take his ‘choice of nightmares’ and live in a natural state of savagery and barbarity or an unnatural and repressed state of superficial moral constraint.
Probably the bleakest conclusion to a novel in the Western Cannon – but not one to be missed. Check it out for yourself.
I think the knowledge came to him at last — only at the very last. But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude — and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating.
Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror — of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision, — he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath — ‘The horror! The horror!’