Saturday, January 26, 2008

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad


Apparently, I am the only English major I know that has made it this far along without reading this book, so I suppose it’s about time I got around to it. If you haven’t read it, I should warn you that this contains spoilers.

Heart of Darkness is a long short story about a man named Marlow whose career as a boatman mirrors Conrad’s own. It opens with Marlow recounting a past trip down the River Congo to several other men on a ship called the Nellie. The text is told with a strange combination of English liberalism and racism that would later enrage the famous Nigerian author Chinua Achebe to speak out against Conrad, fifty years after his death.

While this book is well written and reeled me in, I still found it hard to swallow. Specific scenes, like Marlow finding some shade under a tree and then realizing the people sitting around him were not doing the same, but instead propping their emaciated bodies up against the trunks as they waited to die, were understandably disturbing. The thing that upset me the most was the character Kurtz. Everyone from the company was in awe of this man who had been sent not only to procure ivory but also to be a missionary who desired to better the lives of the natives. Some missionary… After running out of materials to trade with, he procured his ivory by raiding the villages with his guns. Furthermore, he did not bring God to the natives. Instead, he let them believe that he was some kind of god himself after he won them over by showing off the firepower his guns made possible to him. When Marlow and others from the company went to relieve him from his station that had run out of materials, he had the natives attack the company’s ship so that they would turn away because he did not wish to leave a place where he was held highly to return to a place where he was merely a man.

The story was exciting, though, minus the seemingly unending period where Marlow was waiting for rivets to mend his ship so that they could set off. Extinguishing fires! Sharing a ship with thirty starving cannibals! Dodging whizzing arrows! I can’t quite imagine than any combination of yoga or breathing exercises would get me through that trip.

My one disappointment with the book that had nothing to do with morals or the stripping of humanity from the natives of the Congo was that the reader does not get to hear much from Kurtz until he is on his death bed, fever dreaming. This man who “enlarges minds” and is known as a Voice above all other things, who seems to impart wisdom to everyone around him gives the reader none. Instead, what we see is an obsessive and flawed character through Marlow’s fixation with him. We see his hypocrisy but never get to understand why the other men of the company (minus the irked Manager) were so inspired by him, making their adoration slightly less than believable.

2 comments:

C. Aka: Christine, Celly, Crooke, or Crent said...

i think i got have way through the book and was still on Marlowe's promintions that things were not as Hunky Dory as things appeared. After that i got tired of the British formalities, and stopped reading it all together. So i definately admire you for seeing something in this story.

Brooke said...

If we are going to be honest here, I probably wouldn't have finished it if it weren't for the fact I was being tested on it in one of my classes later on this semester. When I got the book I couldn't wait to read it... but yes, the British formalities were frustrating and some of the foreshadowing was a little to heavy.