Monday, April 4, 2011

Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness is a novella written by Joseph Conrad. Before its 1902 publication, it appeared as a three-part series (1899) in Blackwood's Magazine. It is widely regarded as a significant work of English literature[1] and part of the Western canon.
The story tells of Charles Marlow, an Englishman who took a foreign assignment from a Belgian trading company as a ferry-boat captain in Africa. Heart of Darkness exposes the dark side of European colonization while exploring the three levels of darkness that the protagonist, Marlow, encounters: the darkness of the Congo wilderness, the darkness of the Europeans' cruel treatment of the natives, and the unfathomable darkness within every human being for committing heinous acts of evil.[2] Although Conrad does not give the name of the river, at the time of writing the Congo Free State, the location of the large and important Congo River, was a private colony of Belgium's King Leopold II. In the story, Marlow is employed to transport ivory downriver. However, his more pressing assignment is to return Kurtz, another ivory trader, to civilization, in a cover-up. Kurtz has a reputation throughout the region.
This symbolic story is a story within a story or frame narrative. It follows Marlow as he recounts from dusk through to late night, to a group of men aboard a ship anchored in the Thames Estuary his Congolese adventure. The passage of time and the darkening sky during the fictitious narrative-within-the-narrative parallel the atmosphere of the story.
Eight and a half years before writing the book, Conrad had gone to serve as the captain of a Congo steamer. On arriving in the Congo, he found his steamer damaged and under repair. He became sick and returned to Europe before serving as captain. Some of Conrad's experiences in the Congo and the story's historic background, including possible models for Kurtz, are recounted in Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost.[3]
The story-within-a-story literary device that Conrad chose for Heart of Darkness—one in which Charles Marlow relates to other characters his account of his journey—has many literary precedents. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein used a similar device but the best known examples are Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, The Arabian Nights, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Boccaccio's Decameron.
Plot summary
The story opens with an unnamed narrator describing five men, apparently colleagues, on a boat anchored on the River Thames near London and the surroundings as dusk settles in and they await the turning of the tide. The narrator cites a passenger known as Marlow: the only one of the men who "still followed the sea." Marlow makes a comment about London having been, too, "one of the dark places on earth"; thus begins the story of Marlow and a job he took as captain of a steamship in Africa.

The Roi des Belges, the Belgian riverboat Conrad commanded on the upper Congo, 1889
He begins by ruminating on how Britain's image among Ancient Roman officials must have been similar to Africa's image among 19th century British officials. He describes how his "dear aunt" used many of her contacts to secure the job for him. When he arrives at the job, he encounters many men he dislikes as they strike him as untrustworthy. They speak often of a man named Kurtz, who has quite a reputation in many areas of expertise. He is somewhat of a rogue ivory collector, "essentially a great musician," a journalist, a skilled painter and "a universal genius".
Marlow arrives at the Central Station run by the general manager, an unwholesome conspiratorial character. He finds that his steamship has been sunk and spends several months waiting for parts to repair it. There is a rumor regarding Kurtz being ill; this makes the delays in repairing the ship all the more costly. Marlow gets the parts and he and the manager set out with a few agents and a crew of cannibals on a long, difficult voyage up the river.

Old Belgian river station on the Congo River, 1889
Marlow and the crew discover a hut with stacked firewood together with a note saying that the wood is for them but that they should approach cautiously. Shortly after the steamer has taken on the firewood it is surrounded by a dense fog. When the fog clears, the ship is attacked by an unseen band of natives, who shoot arrows from the safety of the forest, killing one of the crew. When they later reach Kurtz's station, they are met by a Russian trader who assures them that everything is fine and informs them that he is the one who left the wood and the note. They find that Kurtz has made himself into providence with the natives and has led brutal raids in the surrounding territory in search of ivory.
Marlow and his crew take the ailing Kurtz aboard their ship and depart. Kurtz is lodged in Marlow's pilothouse and Marlow begins to see that Kurtz is every bit as grandiose as previously described. However, Marlow finds himself disappointed with Kurtz's childish schemes for fame and fortune. During this time, Kurtz gives Marlow a collection of papers and a photograph for safekeeping; both had witnessed the manager going through Kurtz's belongings. The photograph is of a beautiful woman whom Marlow assumes is Kurtz's love interest, or, as Marlow calls her, "his intended."
One night Marlow happens upon Kurtz, obviously near death. As Marlow comes closer with a candle, Kurtz seems to experience a moment of clarity and speaks his last words: "The horror! The horror!" Marlow believes this to be Kurtz's reflection on the events of his life. Marlow does not inform the manager or any of the other voyagers of Kurtz's death; the news is instead broken by the manager's child-servant.
Marlow later returns to his home city and is confronted by many people seeking things and ideas of Kurtz. Marlow meets Kurtz's fiancée about a year later; she is still in mourning. When she asks him about Kurtz's death, Marlow tells her that his last words were her name, and not "the horror! the horror!"
The story concludes back on the boat on the Thames, with a description of how the river seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.
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!"
– Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
T. S. Eliot's use of a quotation from The Heart of Darkness—"Mistah Kurtz, he dead"—as an epigraph to the original manuscript of his poem The Hollow Men contrasted its dark horror with the presumed "light of civilization," and suggested the ambiguity of both the dark motives of civilization and the freedom of barbarism, as well as the "spiritual darkness" of several characters in Heart of Darkness. This sense of darkness also lends itself to a related theme of obscurity—again, in various senses, reflecting the ambiguities in the work. Morality is ambiguous, that which is traditionally placed on the side of "light" is in darkness and vice versa.

People gathered in the forest, at the passage of the steamboat “Roi des Belges” (“King of the Belgians”) in 1888. [4]
Africa was known as "The Dark Continent" in the Victorian Era with all the negative connotations attributed to Africans by many of the British. One of the possible influences for the Kurtz character was Henry Morton Stanley of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" fame, as he was a principal explorer of "The Dark Heart of Africa", particularly the Congo. Stanley was supposedly infamous for his violence against his porters while in Africa, although records indicate this was perhaps an exaggeration[5] and he was later honoured with a knighthood. An agent Conrad met when travelling in the Congo, Georges-Antoine Klein, could also have served as a model for Kurtz (in German klein means "small" and kurz means "short"). Klein died aboard Conrad's steamer and was interred along the Congo, much like Kurtz in the novel.[6] Among the people Conrad may have encountered on his journey was a trader called Leon Rom, who was later named chief of the Stanley Falls Station. In 1895, a British traveller reported that Rom had decorated his flower-bed with the skulls of some twenty-one victims of his displeasure (including women and children) resembling the posts of Kurtz's Station.[7]
Duality of human nature
But theory is one thing, practice is another. Idealism, which has a Utopian quality, is inappropriate in a world where corrupt interests abound and where there are many who go on all fours. The last sentence in the report, an added footnote--"Exterminate all the brutes"--refers us to the dark other side of his personality, "the soul satiated with primitive emotions"; it shows a descent and that his "civilizer's" concern for the distressed savages has turned to hatred. Of particular relevance is the significance of the portrait he has painted, the blindfolded torchbearer against the black background which could suggest (among other things) the simplicity of the ideal and the complexity of reality, the illusion of light and the truth of darkness. The monstrous prevails and the human and artistic potential miscarries. There is a downward tug in Kurtz's involvement with the wilderness and he descends into a brute existence. He is reduced to madness and his aggressive impulses take control of him.
In conclusion, Kurtz, no less than other neo-primitives, is an evolutionary throwback, the "man-that-was" (Dracula 231). He is an exemplification of the duality of human nature, of how darkness is a component of light, and when it prevails, brings anarchy and corruption of others as well as self. Appropriately, he ends up ignominiously: "Suddenly the manager's boy probably burlesquing the manager~ put his insolent black head in the doorway, and said in a tone of scathing contempt: 'Mistah Kurtz--he dead'" (71). Jung's definition of the "experience that furnishes the material for artistic expression" could well apply to Heart of Darkness and to each of the other novels: "It is something strange that derives its existence from the hinterland of man's mind, as if it had emerged from the abyss of prehuman ages, or from a superhuman world of contrasting light and darkness. It is a primordial experience which surpasses man's understanding and to which in his weakness he may easily succumb".
To emphasize the theme of darkness within mankind,[8] Marlow's narration takes place on a yawl in the Thames tidal estuary. Early in the novella, Marlow recounts how London, the largest, most populous and wealthiest city in the world, was a dark place in Roman times. The idea that the Romans conquered the savage Britons parallels Conrad's tale of the Belgians conquering the savage Africans. The theme of darkness lurking beneath the surface of even "civilized" persons appears prominently and is explored in the character of Kurtz and through Marlow's passing sense of understanding with the Africans.
Kurtz embodies all forms of an urge to be more or less than human. His writings show in Marlow's view an "exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence" and they appeal to "every altruistic sentiment." His predisposition for benevolence is clear in the statement "We whites...must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings....By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded". The Central Station manager quotes Kurtz, the exemplar: "Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing". Kurtz's inexperienced, scientific self in the fiery report is alive with the possibility of the cultivation and conversion of the savages. He would have subscribed to Moreau's proposition that "a pig may be educated".[8]
Themes developed in the novella's later scenes include the naïveté of Europeans (particularly women) regarding the various forms of darkness in the Congo; the British traders and Belgian colonialists' abuse of the natives and man's potential for duplicity.[10] The symbolism in the book expands on these as a struggle between goodand evil (light and darkness), not so much between people as in every major character'ssoul.
In a post-colonial reading, the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart, famously criticized Heart of Darkness in his 1975 lecture An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", saying the novella de-humanized Africans, denied them language and culture and reduced them to a metaphorical extension of the dark and dangerous jungle into which the Europeans venture. Achebe's lecture prompted a lively debate, reactions at the time ranged from dismay and outrage—Achebe recounted a Professor Emeritus from the University of Massachusetts saying to Achebe after the lecture, "How dare you upset everything we have taught, everything we teach? Heart of Darkness is the most widely taught text in the university in this country. So how dare you say it's different?"[11]—to support for Achebe's view—"I now realize that I had never really read Heart of Darkness although I have taught it for years,"[12] one professor told Achebe. Other critiques include Hugh Curtler's Achebe on Conrad: Racism and Greatness in Heart of Darkness (1997).[13]
In King Leopold's Ghost (1998), Adam Hochschild argues that literary scholars have made too much of the psychological aspects of Heart of Darkness while scanting the horror of Conrad's accurate recounting of the methods and effects of colonialism. He quotes Conrad as saying, "Heart of Darkness is experience ... pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the case."[14]

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