Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Heart of Darkness

I’m sure that almost everything that can be said about Heart of Darkness has already been said (except for someone writing a dissertation on some of the minutiae). But I’ll throw a few things together anyway.

First, the text can be found on Project Gutenberg.
A free audio reading of it can be found on LibriVox.
The Mercury Theatre (the drama company founded by Orson Welles) did a radio version of the novella, which can be found at the Mercury Theatre on the Air summary website. The Heart of Darkness portion of the broadcast is only about 35 minutes long, and relatively true to the book despite some liberties. The sound quality leaves a lot to be desired, but it is also part of the appeal.
Also, see the previous post for more resources on Joseph Conrad.

I had to read Heart of Darkness in high school and I remember liking it quite a bit, even with a few reservations. I would say this current reading made me like and appreciate it much more, but I probably have more reservations about it. As I’m sure many have pointed out, Conrad makes the atmosphere of the story palpable—you feel almost everything he paints. He clearly achieves what he outines in the preface to another book: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.” It is difficult not to hear, feel, or see this story when reading it.

The interplay between his concrete descriptions and their symbolism is fascinating to watch. One example is his visit to the company’s offices and the women there—he describes them so well I can see them, while their symbolic role as the Fates doesn’t feel forced. Multiple allusions for the same thing don't seem contradictory. The trip itself is alluded to as a descent into hell while at the same time the comparison to traveling back to a primeval earth is also apt.

The absurdities shown within Heart of Darkness are as laughable as they are pitiful. They pile up page after page: the French man-of-war shelling supposed enemies in the jungle canopy, the pointless blasting to build a railroad when all the equipment is rusted or broken, paying the cannibals with brass wire, the inability to get rivets to fix the boat while the previous station has rivets everywhere, the death of the previous captain over a disagreement about two hens, and on and on and on. However, the atrocities offset the humor that the absurdities offer. While there are many atrocities in the book, there seem to be many more hinted at yet never quite shown. The most moving for me had to be the “grove of death,” which Marlow accidentally stumbled through. Marlow uses several ghostly and ethereal descriptions of the forested section where natives crawled off to die, invoking one of many times that the experience feels like a nightmare. Together, the absurdities and atrocities highlight the disconnect between the stated mission in the Congo and the reality. Marlow sees partway through it before even getting there, informing his aunt that “the Company was run for profit.” At this point in the book, he can dismiss her gullibility since she is a woman.

What he can’t dismiss later on is the self-reflection and realization of the depths of human darkness. The parts about Kurtz had left me a little cold the first time I read Heart of Darkness. I didn’t understand the appeal of Kurtz for Marlow, why he felt driven to see him or to hear him talk. Part of me still didn’t quite get it in this reading either, but I see the changes within Marlow after he reaches Africa and can better understand the need to meet someone that is described as being above the absurdities and atrocities he is constantly encountering. Of course, after he reaches Kurtz, Marlow realizes the logical and nightmarish extension of everything he’s seen.

There is so much within the story that could be commented on: the thin veneer of civilization and what happens when that is stripped away from ‘hollow’ people is reiterated many times within the story, for example. The comparisons and contrasts are as forceful as I’ve read anywhere else, although sometimes a little heavy-handed. For example, the restraint shown by the starving cannibal boat crew in comparison to the rapacious behavior by almost all the Europeans almost overdoes things, yet it still drives the point home.

The last point I’ll focus on was my realization that the book is primarily about Marlow. Part of the frustration in reading through the book in high school was the delay in moving the narration along. But that is what made Marlow so effective in telling the story—he is still coming to grips with what happened and struggling to find the right language to convey what he experienced. For all the detailed images in the book, there are a lot of oblique descriptors: unspeakable, impossible, unfathomable, or inconceivable for example. Things are hinted at but not detailed by Marlow, either unable or unwilling to spell things out as he did the rest of his tale. A master storyteller, his frustration at certain points causes him to pause, lose himself in thought, seemingly interrupt or contradict himself, or even lash out at his listeners. The impact made on the writer, as relayed through his narrator, shows the power that lingers on even after escaping the darkness.

Next up in reading more Conrad will be Lord Jim, with a quick review of Mark Twain’s pamphlet King Leopold’s Soliloquy.

1 comment:

GFS3 said...

I agree that the weakness of "Heart of Darkness" (if it can be called such) is Marlow's fascination with Kurtz. Like you I don't understand the trigger -- what is it about Kurtz that completely captivates Marlow? Because I don't find it in the pages of the novel.

What I love about "Heart of Darkness" (and I don't like it as much as you do) is the way Conrad vividly paints his settings. Africa seems so alive -- you can smell it.

Nice insights though!