Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, published first in 1899, is a deeply psychological, atmospheric story of a man’s journey up the Congo in search of a man named Kurtz.
But any recounting of the simple plot will miss the mark. Heart of Darkness is set in the Belgian Congo when it was the personal property of King Leopold II; one of the most cruel, hypocritical and savage of the imperial colonies. Kurt is ostensibly a agent for the Belgian company exploiting the ivory of the Congo, but is a shadowy figure who has caved into his own grotesque fantasies. Kurtz is an idealist who has, left along in the jungle to his own devices, has become a god and monster. The heart of darkness isn’t the deep jungle of the African continent, it is Kurtz and by implication Western civilization.
Most commentary on Heart of Darkness characterize it as anti-imperialist, morally ambiguous, and a bit prophetic of the 20th century (Kurtz authors a pamphlet on how to “civilize savage peoples” where he includes a footnote that simply says “exterminate the brutes!”). In other words, we tend to read into it our own time and problems and historical memory.
Conrad’s works are known for the paradoxical nature. Heart of Darkness is both anti-imperialistic and yet racist and sexist; it winds up being a sort of de facto imperialist. The morality and metaphysics of the novel are also paradoxical. This is what Conrad is most interested in. Marlow, the main character, is a close novelistic rendering of Conrad himself (who it must be remembered actually sailed up the Congro river in a rickety paddle-wheeler just like Marlow). Marlow is oddly attracted to Kurtz’s personality and mythos and yet repelled at the same time. Conrad is a nihilist who longs for a moral world and moral purpose, yet would reject any morality as ultimately false; he is trapped in a paradox.
It is also considered a novel that looks back to the the past and looks to the future. As we write for our own time, it makes the most sense to assume that Conrad was looking back on his own life, and the European experience.
The novel starts in a extra-normal setting: a lazy afternoon on the Thames, pillars of the community (an Accountant, a Lawyer, a company Director, and Marlow, the old sea captain, who is recounting the story for the others as a parable; it could almost work as a chapter in a larger novel about something else completely) relax on a sail boat.
Marlow (in the tale) makes his way to a city that reminds him of a cemetery or a ‘sepulcher’, and the headquarters of a large company in charge of the Congo. Things seem normal, but two knitting women who act as receptionists remind us of the Greek fates (but two this time instead of three) inject an air of destiny to the proceedings.
On the ship bound for the Congo, things are quickly not right. There are several large incongruities. The ship is constantly landing tax collectors and detachments of soldiers along the coast; a coast of undeveloped jungle; the theme is hit home when Marlow witnesses French warship shelling the jungle with no apparent enemy.
The men who staff the trading company are small minded, callow men who use the idealism of a civilizing mission as a cover to senselessly exploit the people and land of Africa. Hypocritical farce bordering on madness is the order of the day. At one point a far breaks out, and as the white trades men rush about (Conrad calls them pilgrims), one man, carrying a pail of water with a hole in it says that “everyone is behaving splendidly” and “everything is quite correct.” More then simply an introduction to the true horror of Kurtz, this is a scathing commentary on commercialism, imperialism, and the rhetoric of the “white man’s burden” . Conrad’s tradesmen/pilgrims are selfish and petty, but that causes them to insist on ‘keeping up appearances’ and empty gestures; jealous and futile scheming occupies the time of the colonizers.
The paradox of Conrad is part of the lasting appeal and power of Heart of Darkness. I wish more people could take its lessons to heart.