Friday, June 17, 2011

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1902)

With this publication date, I instantly think of The Virginian, which was published in the same year. Hard to imagine two works of fiction so different. Both have narrators who head off to a frontier of one kind or another. Both meet a man there who captures their interest. One story is a romance, the other a dark, dark vision.

Plot. I was in college when I read this novella by Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) and surely must have understood only one-tenth of it at best. Reading for plot then, as one does at that age, there is not much to hang your hat on. The narrator, Marlow, captains a scow on an African River, and after many months of delays finally reaches an outpost run by an ivory hunter named Kurtz.

The Paris-based company both men work for regards Kurtz with undiluted awe. He is some kind of genius on the fast track to an upper-level executive position. So everyone says. Marlow is worldly wise enough to question the enthusiastic claims made for him. Nothing else he witnesses along the way is what he’s been led to expect.

Joseph Conrad, 1904
The natives who work for the company are used brutally as slaves, and efficiency of operations is less than zero. He sees waste of all kinds on all sides. The whites stationed along the river are intent only on personal gain and spend their time waiting for shipments of cargo or news that seems never to arrive. Only a bookkeeper is industriously employed, but it’s not clear that he actually accomplishes anything of value.

Always there are rumors about Kurtz, and for the reader, the mystery of the man grows in intensity. Marlow himself becomes obsessed with meeting him. The months-long journey up the winding river prolongs the growing suspense.

The ominous presence of the jungle pressing in on both sides is so full of warning you can’t miss it. That is unless you are 20, like I was, and blithely reading this as an adventure story along the lines of H. Rider Haggard. The portrayal of the colonial presence in Africa is itself full of horrors. But there’s no mistaking that truly unutterable and inconceivable horror lurks beyond the trees that line the river. Not the jungle itself but some Black Hole-scale evil mutely watches from the shadowy undergrowth.  

Steamboat on the Congo
Kurtz. When we finally meet him, Kurtz has not so much “gone native” as discovered his “inner savage.” Elevated to a kind of deity by the natives, he has permitted himself to act without shame or restraint. Like Wolcott in Deadwood, he has come to believe there is no sin – and with similarly nasty results.

Meanwhile, he is still an intelligent man, educated in Europe. He’s able to understand that civilization is no more than the thin veneer over a murderous criminality waiting to be granted free rein. The evil that inhabits the jungle’s darkness parallels the evil that lives within the darkness of the human heart.

More disturbing still is the trance-like worship into which Kurtz’s admirers fall. A wandering young man from Russia has had the privilege of learning at the great man’s knee. While he grasps that Kurtz is dangerous, he happily remains in his grip. He is an instructive study in the self-effacing devotion people gladly bestow on a demagogue.

Map of Africa, 1917
Kurtz fails to turn out to be a vastly overweight Marlon Brando. Instead he is wasting away and near death. He seems to have become a victim of his own excesses, eaten alive by them. Destroyed by his yielding to the worst in him, he dies with these words on his lips: “The horror. The horror.”

The story, of course, doesn’t stop there. Marlow returns home and pays his respects to the woman who was Kurtz’s “intended.” Fully absorbed in her own melodrama, she is in deep mourning for a heroic man who had long ceased to exist as she knew him. Preserving her romantic myth about Kurtz, Marlow makes no attempt to tell her the truth of what happened. The horror that lies at the heart of civilized men remains a secret.

Marlow himself. I’m sure this has been discussed by numerous literary critics and that I have nothing new to say. I can’t wrap up, though, without mentioning a couple things about the narrator of this horror story.

Here we have another Allan Quartermaine. An adventurer, he has seen a lot of the world, and his knowledge has made him something of a social misfit. His friends, who sit on the ship’s deck on the Thames listening to his story, don’t believe everything he says. He speaks with the irony of a man who has given up a lot of beliefs of his own.

Sunrise on the Congo, photo by Bsm15
For starters, nothing is what it seems. The colonies are not benevolent extensions of civilization’s finest achievements. The well-educated men of Britain and Europe don’t continue to comport themselves honorably once they get beyond sight of home. What makes civilization work at all is the restraint with which people hold their worst impulses in check.

Reason and science may have produced progress in the world, but material advancements don’t elevate the human spirit. They can be used for unspeakable ends (as those of us who lived through the 20th century well know). Marlow, ahead of his time, knows this, and we can sense in the telling of his story that the knowledge of it makes him an isolated and lonely man.

So that’s Heart of Darkness for me 50 years later. It is a powerful and well-told story that leaves you shuddering at the end. Unlike a lot of horror fiction, its vision is not one that recedes as the last page is turned. Its truth has an unsettling way of lingering. What's your take?

Heart of Darkness is available free online at Project Gutenberg.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Will Lillibridge, Ben Blair (1905)


  1. This is a favorite of mine and I've read it a half dozen times in the last 40 years. It's one of the great horror stories. Marlow is a great narrator.

    Conrad's life is a tale of adventure also. A professional sailor until about the age of 40, he then became one of the world's great authors. Though his fiction was in English, it was not even his native language!

    I love his work and HEART OF DARKNESS is Conrad at his very best.

  2. I read Heart of Darkness for the first time about a year and a half ago. Of course, I'd seen Apocalypse Now a dozen times or so and had read all the references of that movie to Heart of Darkness. For me, like Apocalypse, Heart of Darkness has a slow burning effect which if you stick with, you get the payoff.

    A few months after reading the book, I was in Haslams book store here in St. Pete, and a couple of young gals were discussing books they despised. One mentioned a book and the other girl responded: "Could never be worse than Heart of Darkness. Never."

    I guess at that age, I would have probably thought the same thing as well- the language is far removed from our time and the narrative is not a straight out hook. Yet age, I suppose, has pumped a deeper meaning of life into my veins.

    Maybe ten or twenty years down the road, I hope, one of these young ladies would give this book another chance and the light will come on, giving them another take on the human element.

  3. I liked it a lot. I do think it could have benefited from a bit more plot and a faster pace, but it has had a very big effect on me and on my writing. I didn't realize it was published the same year as the Virginian. Wow, you are right, talk about different books.

  4. Great review, Ron. I don't have anything to add that hasn't already been said. I certainly appreciated it more this time around than I did when I last read it 8 or so years ago. My only wish is that I'd chosen to just sit down and read it straight through. Breaking in and out of the story was a little difficult.

    I'm also amazed at how good a job the writers of Apocalypse Now (Milius and Coppola, if IMDB is to be trusted) did adapting this story to create that great movie. Taking legendary source material and adapting it to something different without ruining it is a rare feat, and they certainly pulled it off.

    Love your use of pictures in this review too. Top shelf all the way around!

  5. Your line "his knowledge has made him something of a social misfit" is a fascinating thing to behold. I've seen first-hand folks like these that have traveled and seen too much. Great review, Ron.

  6. Walker, this is one of those books so densely layered with meanings that you can read it many times without wearing it out.

    Mike, I like that "slow burning effect." Your girl readers are of an age when there's too little patience for that.

    Charles, the pace of the telling immerses you, I think, more deeply into the miasma.

    Chris, not everyone sees Apocalypse Now in the same way. In JARHEAD, the young marines watching it use it for an adrenalin overload.

    David, that kind of alienation makes an interesting comparison with certain characters in hard-boiled crime fiction.

  7. Well, it's been 35 or so years for me, but it is a powerful book and dark and one I should reread. I'm posting mostly at my "summer blog" now

  8. Terrific review, Ron! I greatly enjoyed HOD, sympathizing with many of Conrad's themes as you outlined them. I am equally a romantic, appreciating the role of reason and human ingenuity in overcoming the obstacles of nature. That said, this reading of HOD had me contrasting Kurtz (embracing his inner savage) with the character Leiningen in one of my favorite short stories (Leiningen Versus the Ants by Carl Stephenson) as well as Verne's romantic heroes in THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND.

  9. I confess my mind is a blank on Mr. Conrad's works. I know he was mentioned in a high school lit class, but I think it was Lord Jim the teacher was talking about. I may have read that one, but Heart of Darkness, not yet. Great post, Ron. Too many good books and not enough time.

  10. What a great and concise review. For those who enjoyed Apocalypse Now as a translation to film, try Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972). Although not touted as such, I feel Aguirre has more resonance as a cinematic companion piece.