What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.
He was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? 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 …
In Joseph Conrad’s own words, Heart of Darkness is a “wild story of a journalist who becomes manager of a station in the (African) interior and makes himself worshipped by a tribe of savages. Thus described, the subject seems comic, but it isn’t”. The story opens on the river Thames with a few sailors listening to their mysterious companion, Charles Marlow, as he recounts one of his “inconclusive experiences”. The novella has practically no plot, its account is told in the style of reflection and describes Marlow’s trip down the Congo river to rescue a man called Kurtz who has been the most profitable of all colonists, bringing in more ivory than all of the others, but who has gone mad on his “ideas” and set himself up as a deity to the local native tribe.
Conrad’s writing is as beautiful and poetic as you have just witnessed, yet the “life-sensation” of Heart of Darkness was as imperceptible to me as the narrator, Marlow, claims his narrative to be. Perhaps that is just it — Conrad wanted to deliver a story which shows that no one can truly experience the story the way the story-teller experienced it. Heart of Darkness is fraught with ambiguities (perhaps that is why it is one of the most analysed works of literature to this day) to a point where as the Reader crawls into the depth of the story, he enters its own heart of darkness, “darkness” here serving as a synonym for obscurity, where no detail is disclosed freely and the character built up to be so vile, Kurtz, never quite shows his vileness. To me, this ambiguity removed some merit from the story. I love reading between the lines, but in this novella the lines themselves were quite obscure.
Don’t get me wrong — this book is beautiful, a brilliant exploration of some heavy thematic stuff, the dense human psychology, the whole imperialism thing (“progress”, “civilized society” … what does it even mean?), but I was only able to grasp it in full after reading two literary criticisms (perhaps it is my own deficiency?). One was included in my Penguin Classics edition, by Paul O’Prey, and was quite useful in establishing the author’s background and its connection to the story. Heart of Darkness is very much a personal reflection on Conrad’s similar experience of travelling down the Congo river, his initial excitement about the undiscovered African lands which Conrad lends to Marlow, and his consequent disillusionment with imperialism and “civilization”. Another I found online, here, which was very helpful in understanding some of the psychological themes and comparing Marlow and Kurtz. I suggest reading both even if you feel you’ve understood the story.
Ah, this novella was an inconclusive experience for me, as Marlow puts it. Soon after finishing it I could not decide whether I liked it or not, but now I know I am looking forward to rereading Heart of Darkness with a more analytical eye. Knowing that it was based on Conrad’s own experience adds a great deal of meaning to it, in my opinion. The ambiguity suddenly seems necessary and explicable, the reflections seem raw and true. I don’t know if this post (I can hardly call it a review — it keeps bouncing from my personal doubts to criticism and back to questioning myself) is praising Heart of Darkness or declaiming it.
Ignore my fluctuations. If you take away anything from this post, let it be this: Read this book. Keep an open mind. Whether you love it, hate it, or are left as undecided as I am, you will profit by the experience in one way or another (anyway it is only 100 pages).
Now for those who have read it, please tell me what you thought! Did the meaning come easy to you, or are you still pondering it like I am?