Called as a critique of colonialism, ‘Heart Of Darkness‘ by Joseph Conrad gives a horrific yet profound, account of human nature and the darkness within.
The nameless narrator of the novel recounts Marlow’s adventure in the Congo as a steamboat captain and how his experiences in the various colonial outposts over there and with Mistah Kurtz deepened his understanding of the world around him. Marlow narrates his own story on ‘a cruising yawl’ Nellie on the river Thames.
Critics have noted that ‘Heart Of Darkness‘ is based on Conrad’s own travels in the Congo and that Marlow is Conrad himself. Marlow does come across as the vehicle through which Conrad gives voice to his own worldviews. The novella too has a touch of being a travelogue as it consists predominantly of a journey-Marlow’s journey up the the snakelike river. Consequently it is replete with anecdotes-how Marlow made the journey, the steamers he hopped on, the stations he stopped at where he met a wide range of colonialists whose sole purpose seemed to be ivory and domination and who brought him closer to the idea of Kurtz and his ‘unsound’ methods. He eventually gets wrapped up in a mission to get Kurtz out of the way as he, despite being a ‘universal genius’ and a ‘remarkable man,’ got carried away and was doing more harm than good in providing the ivory to the Company. Yet at the end, Marlow realises through his talks with Kurtz that there is no proper right and wrong in this place (Congo), that there is darkness in every soul, in every human being, in every civilization. This profound knowledge that he gains leaves him scarred and as they sail away into Thames that sense of the inherent nature of evil in man imbues all who listen to Marlow’s story.
The novel is hailed for its revolutionary ideas and for its questioning of not just British Imperialism but also European Imperialism on the whole. Throughout the novel, the reader sees Marlow hesitatingly exploring the disadvantages of colonialism and how power and greed can blind men/ women to unthinkable cruelty and oppression. Conrad very subtly presents such complex notions on this theme. There is a constant juxtaposition and even mocking of the greatness of the white people with the wildness and the mess around them. Kurtz himself went to absurd lengths to acquire the ivory and even commanded a bunch of tribes to do his bidding to get more ivory but he in the end realised the horror of his deeds while the the authorities simply didn’t. What they call Kurtz’s ‘unsound’ methods is also what they themselves are perpetuating throughout the world.
Thus the novel takes a hard hitting look at the politics of power, greed as well as territorial, racial and ideological supremacy that is relevant in today’s global world where we are subject to a capitalistic or corporate colonialism
However, despite, ‘Heart Of Darkness‘ being an attack on the imperial powers, it is thoroughly grounded in those very ideologies. Thus, Marlow may have gained enlightenment about the darkness of the human heart, he still is very much a product of that very imperial superpower. Many of his ideas and views adhere to imperialistic ideologies. He seems to journey in his own contradiction of being questioning as well as open minded. This makes the novella very ambiguous as to whether ‘The horror! The horror!’ that Kurtz talks about is in fact a meditation of his own deeds or of the way of the ‘savages,’ and whether Marlow is indeed talking of ‘the heart of darkness’ of humans in general or of an ‘uncivilized’ place that creates this kind of greed and horror in them. The novel is racist, sexist and reiterates colonial notions undoubtedly. There is a tinge of racial superiority in Marlow and the others who constantly believe in the rightness of their actions. This was possibly the dominant way of thinking at that time and Conrad seems to have been influenced by it despite the ‘reality’ of the human nature he encountered there.
‘Heart Of Darkness‘ therefore provides a mix of two different attitudes. Conrad is trying to be liberal, transgress his colonial upbringing and throughout the novel, the reader does see the way he illuminates colonialism’s downside, yet that upbringing seems to be ingrained in him.
A powerful and profound read. Don’t let the size fool you. Its not a book for time pass. It will move you, hurt you and shock you and enlighten you as well.
P.S. : ‘Heart Of Darkness‘ was also transformed into a cinematic spectacle in the movie, ‘Apocalypse Now'(1979) directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring the famous Marlon Brando and the not so famous, Martin Sheen, who has given a brilliant performance nonetheless! What Coppola has done however is that he has used similar ideas and applied it to a different context all together. From the European imperialism he has used it to comment on the American high handedness during the Vietnam war. Its a splendid movie that captures the ‘essence’ of the book in a completely different context. It has the same sense of unreal, lunatic and dreamy, haunting feel that shocks the viewer doubly because it is now visual and accentuated by the breathtaking music that blends so well with the story from the Doors’ songs to the Wagner track. The movie can be a task to watch because it is 3 hours long but a complete cinematic treat to watch nonetheless. Reading the book and watching this movie will deepen one’s understanding even further about the message and moral of the book. The movie however is more political and clear in its stance.