A rogue ivory trader gets lost in the African wilderness where a local tribe worships him as a deity. Sounds like it could be a comedy – it’s anything but.
Have you ever ridden the Jungle Cruise in Disneyland? If you have, you know how it’s an “adventure”-themed experience where you ride in a boat down the Congo River and have close encounters with animatronic hippos, elephants and even a vendor selling shrunken heads. It’s basically a kid-friendly colonial African safari, with nostalgic touches here and there such as pith helmets and cargo boxes with stenciled letters. It’s corny but fun.
Now imagine a novel set in colonial Africa that may at first seem like inspiration for the Jungle Cruise, but turns into a horror story instead. Add to this a cultural commentary that may seem to 21st century sensibilities outrageous in its politically incorrect description of native African people and yet at the same time is clearly critical of colonialism and even hints at its downfall. Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe decried the novel and wrote a famous essay about why it’s so racist. Many others have put it repeatedly on “Top 100 lists” for being among the best and the most important.
Yes, we’re talking about Heart of Darkness.
First of all, before launching into the book itself I have to give props to Joseph Conrad for writing a novel in his third language. That’s correct. Conrad was Polish, actually, and his second language was French. He didn’t learn English till he was twenty. That’s how old most of us are when we’re sophomores in college. And he wrote a bloody book that ended up becoming required high school reading!
That said it’s not the easiest of reads, despite being only 90 pages long. The main story is framed in another story, which means that almost the entire narrative is in quotes, with occasional random interruptions as the 1st-person narrator pauses to take a breath or cough into his sleeve. There’s a lot more philosophical rambling and a lot less action than one would hope for a story set in the African wilderness, but it was published in 1899, so there you go.
The setting is five crewmen aboard a ship that has just pulled into port in London. One particularly crusty veteran, known as Marlow decides now is as good a time as any to launch into a yarn about a disturbing experience he has had sailing a Belgian steamboat up the Congo River in search of a mysterious, missing ivory trader named Mr. Kurtz. He tells his tale as the crew all sit in the dim interior of the ship as the only feeble light there illuminates the craggy bags under his eyes. You can almost imagine an ashy cigar stub in his hand creating smoke wafts in the room.
“And this also has been one of the darkest places of the earth,” is the opening line.
Marlowe is referring to the fact London was once inhabited only by indigenous people, the Celts – much like how Africa is primarily inhabited by indigenous people at the story’s onset. However, there could be an ominous double meaning here: namely that London, while supposedly civilized, is every bit as dark as Africa – just in a different way. This signals the beginning of the onslaught of the words “dark” and “darkness” throughout the story, and their double meaning.
Marlowe’s initial descriptions of both the landscape and indigenous people of the African interior would create a knee-jerk reaction in most Millennials and those who are PC-minded. Put this way: one of the most common words he uses for the locals is “savages.” There is the more neutral-sounding “black” (contrasted with “white” for the European conquistadors), as well as “Negroes” and other words starting with the letter ‘N’ that I hesitate to type lest a left-wing activist stumble across this blog post, jump to conclusions in a fit of indignant wrath and ignite a social media shaming campaign against me.
The thing to keep in mind here, though, is that Conrad is more or less speaking out of the context of the life and times he hails from. It would be illogical to expect him to use much different terminology. When the reader tries to separate the particular stigma from these words that they have today and read them in a more neutral way, it will become clear that Heart of Darkness is, in fact, a critique of colonialism at a time when colonialism in Africa was at its height.
Here is Marlow (who is basically Conrad is a loose disguise) waxing philosophical while folding his legs together in “the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes”:
The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea – something you can set up to and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to…” (Pg. 8)
He suggests the reason people in Europe could justify doing what they did in sub-Saharan Africa is for the sake of something better and worthier, essentially means to a justified end. At the back of one’s mind, though, is this nagging feeling that somehow the ends don’t quite justify the means. This feeling can be traced to the realization that, however much we try to deny it, the human beings we take advantage of, are in fact still human beings. While these other human beings may seem primal and “backwards,” there really is a bit of beastly primal-ness in all of us – the desire to subdue and dominate others.
The earth seemed 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 your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. (Pg. 43)
Whatever the others aboard the steamboat think, it’s clear enough that Marlow is cynical towards the whole situation in Africa. That’s not to say he is a passionate human rights advocate, either. He is cynical towards everyone, and who wouldn’t be in his shoes, sailing up a river to find a greedy Ivory merchant while passing impaled heads on stakes and being assailed by a shower of arrows fired from people on the river bank? I don’t blame him. And naturally he starts feeling the slightest bit resentful towards Kurtz as a result.
The character of the rogue Ivory trader Kurtz is one who’s reputation seems to precede him. He hardly has any actual “real time” in the story, yet most of the plot is built up in the anticipation of meeting him. Well before he makes his entrance you begin to get a sense of just what a borderline psychopath the guy is, especially when you encounter his sycophantic little sidekick who blabbers on about Kurtz being such an incredible and brilliant individual, despite his insane level of obsession with hoarding ivory and the lengths he goes to do so – which includes threatening to kill anyone who happens to have ivory unless they hand it over to him.
When Marlow finally does manage to find Kurtz, he is living with a local tribe of people, his “adorers,” who apparently worship him as a god. Kurtz himself is mentally disheveled and very ill. He is already at the end of his final hours when Marlowe manages to steal him away from his adopted people and prepare him to board the steamboat to return to civilization. Kurtz’s ominous last words as he lies perspiring are: “The horror, the horror!” Soon afterwards he dies.
Marlow makes the journey back to London where he steels himself to face Kurtz’s fiancée (who also, for some confounded reason seems to think he is God’s gift to humanity) and finds her so sad and weepy that he doesn’t have the guts to tell her what Kurtz’s real last words were. In a feeble attempt to soften the blow and minimize the “horror” of it all he tells her that Kurtz’s last word was her name.
Now comes the inevitable churlish high school student’s question: “So what’s the point of this story, again? Why should I care?”
Well, the main thing is that it opens your eyes to the brutal reality that was the Scramble for Africa at the end of the 19th century. Though written from a colonial perspective it casts the colonists and their motivations in a questionable light. You really get two opposing perspectives from both the narrator as well as other characters, so it creates food for thought, as it were. Also, it makes for a bit of a psychological thriller. Perhaps the eccentric Mr. Kurtz in love with his ivory hoard represents the imperialist nations such as Belgium, France and England – this would explain why he had so many fervent admirers and defendants. But maybe he’s just a guy who goes nuts in the jungle from a bad case of the “green-eyed monster.” You can read it however you want to.
The language, while florid and rambling at times can be clever and humorous as well. At one point, for example, Conrad compares a hippopotamus swimming in the river to an “ichthyosaurus bathing.” I’m sure a linguist would have a field trip with the fact the novella is written in English by a native Pole. I can’t offer too much insight there.
“Language,” however, does seem to be an important theme in the book. Conrad hints that the dramatic differences in language between the conquering nation and the conquered is part of the reason the former sees the latter as “savage” and sub-human and feel justified in their brutal treatment.
The character of Kurtz is set up on a pedestal even above other the other colonists because of his gift of oratory and eloquence. Even Marlowe feels an inevitable connection to Kurtz at one point because he could “speak English” to him. The dark wilderness casts a deep spell on those stumbling through it, which he describes as “mute,” and capable of awakening “forgotten and brutal instincts.” And when Marlowe and his crew are trying to drag Kurtz onto the steamboat, the protesting natives on the riverbank shout “strings of amazing words that resembled no sounds of human language.” Apparently, language is the key to being considered civilized.
The great irony, though, is that Kurtz’s sophisticated language skills are exactly what allows him to get away with that awful stuff that he does:
The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently…was his ability to talk, his words – the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness. (Pg. 58)
So the title “Heart of Darkness” possibly has double meaning. Not only does it refer to the intimidating landscape of the African interior, which is only dark in the sense that it’s foreign and alien, but it is Kurtz’s rotten little heart which rationalizes his murderous, racist, Ivory-hoarding agenda to himself and to others as well. (No I did not get that from Cliff Notes, I extrapolated it myself. But hey, if you are inclined to interpret differently be my guest– that’s the beauty in the ambiguity of literature, after all).
In a satisfying completion of the narrative concerned with events in Africa the character who has the last word is not Kurtz but the black cabin boy who pronounces him dead. In stark contrast to Kurtz’s flowery verbosity are the cabin boy’s four staccato words:
“Mistah Kurtz – he dead.”
The kid might not be a whiz at English, but he is able to say what needs saying. And perhaps the stark simplicity of it adds even more oomph in contrast with the other characters’ rambling talking styles. Whether it’s an intentional or unintentional effect by the British-Polish author I find it delightful in a novel that otherwise doesn’t exactly “delight” the reader all that much. But it sure will give you a lot to talk about afterwards.
Maybe that’s why they still make high school students read it.