Heart of Darkness

It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream–making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams…No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence–that which makes its truth, its meaning–its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream-alone…”

I’ve set myself some pretty interesting challenges on this blog over the last few months, but I can’t remember having as much trouble trying to figure out my thoughts on a book as I have with Joseph Conrad’s brilliantly written yet enigmatic tale of the dark side of imperialism and man’s obsession, Heart of Darkness. It’s a seriously ambiguous read, and one which I think would become much richer with the benefit of thoughtful discussion to unlock it’s many layers of subtext and possible interpretation (which is among the many reasons I can’t wait to start uni in October). It will certainly become better with subsequent readings, especially when I don’t have to keep taking myself out of the story to flick back to the footnotes. (Seriously – 76 footnotes in the opening 46 pages is not the most effective way to immerse a reader in a story, especially one that totals only 125 pages.) That said, I certainly liked the book, even without fully wrapping my head around every possible way the story could be interpreted.

If it isn’t already obvious in my reviews of Catcher In The Rye or Vanity Fair, I love books that play with their use of narrative voice for dramatic effect (and this is something which will become abundantly clear in my next review). Heart Of Darkness is told almost exclusively from the point of view of Marlow, as he regales his fellow sailors with his story while they are anchored on the River Thames. I tend to find framing devices rather a waste of paper – in my experience, they often add very little to the story and distract from the central narrative of a book. This one is actually pretty good, as framing devices go – it provides clear points of contrast to the central story (for instance Marlow and the sailors are anchored somewhere familiar while the story is all about exploration of places unknown, the Thames’ serenity and quiet contrasts with the Congo is intensity and sense of chaos, etc etc) but to be honest I’m not really sure to what end. Perhaps it intensifies the events of Marlow’s story through juxtaposition, except that the tale is really immersive and rarely breaks off to cut back to the framing narrative, so that argument doesn’t really hold water. I’m sure there are more profound insights about it, but for me it helps to draw focus to our narrator himself – his experiences, how he views what he’s been through, and the way he articulates what he’s seen and felt. It lends itself, too, to the almost mythical nature of many parts of the story, and casts a dream-like cloak of ambiguity over much of the story. Marlow states in the quote above that it is impossible to accurately convey a dream, and yet Conrad seems to have done so with remarkable success. To immerse yourself in the novel is to surrender yourself to a dreamlike web of nonsense logic and complex simplicity, a world of intrigue and questions were there ought to be answers.

Take the “Heart of Darkness” that forms the title of the novel – it denotes a singular heart, so it follows that it must apply to one thing. Yet there are many things referred to as “dark” in the novel, or even having a “heart of darkness” – at one point on his journey Marlow literally describes himself “[penetrating] deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness”. Even this, however, is ambiguous – could he be referring to the darkness of the jungle, or to the darkness of man’s greed and lack of compassion pervading in the jungle, or even his journey into his own personal darkness? As it’s the most metaphorical one, I of course am drawn to the latter idea, which leads me to form a conflicted opinion of our narrator – he suffers plight well, drawing my sympathy in the process, but then his obsession with Kurtz seems to me pretty much unfounded, and he produces no strong condemnation of the ill treatment of the indigenous population for profit which I would, ideally, like to have seen.

Does our author, then, pronounce judgment on our narrator, despite potentially sympathic viewings of his suffering? I look here to the novel’s coda, in which Marlow visits Kurtz’s widow and outright lies to her face about her late husband’s moral and personal degradation. Marlow seems not to want to confront the horrors of what he has encountered in the jungle, and so lies to her, and to himself, about the man they both idolised. The dramatic irony is obvious – Marlow condemns the natives for deifying Kurtz, and indeed Kurtz himself for pursuing this deification, and yet Marlow not only does the same but even encourages his widow to do so as well. Marlow’s obsession is his downfall, blinding him to the depths of evil hidden in the darkness of the jungle away from “civilised” (read “Western”) eyes, where all that is ugly about human nature is allowed to flourish to extremes.  Despite his eloquence and lyricism on the subject (and indeed a great many other things besides), I doubt he appreciates how uncomprehending he is of his and of Kurtz’s moral want, and I would ultimately classify him is a pretty unreliable narrator as a result.

And yet, in the manner of all brilliantly conceived characters, here I am speaking about him as if he were a real person. Kurtz seems to me more a shadow than a man, given how much he drives the plot while barely being present, and yet this works in the novel’s favour; this is Marlow’s journey, and to me the whole voyage upriver is simply a metaphor for his exploration of himself. And if that’s not the most “English student-y” response to this text there is, then I throw my hands up in surrender – and I look forward to discussing this book with brighter minds than mine someday.

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