Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)

darknessLegendary novella by a Ukrainian-born British subject. He took a fateful steamship voyage into the deepest jungles of Africa, an experience which forever changed him and this literary classic was the result. Marlow, the seaman narrator, tells the story of his journey into the heart of the African interior and his encounter with the natives and most notably, Kurtz, the ivory agent, a much revered white man. To me, the journey into the heart of darkness is the unraveling of what is inscrutably at the core of human nature.

One of the most dominant themes is the human need to dream. Conrad said it well, “We live, as we dream – alone.” A dream has an energizing quality that propels the way forward. It has an all-consuming life of its own. Yet for better or worse, it is an illusion that keeps a man alive. Marlow, newly appointed as skipper of a steamboat, was drawn by an alluring dream – to follow the river like “a silly bird” to the “lure of a snake”, to a destination that was to become for him the heart of darkness. The sinister nature of this dream was suggested by the powerful associations with death early in Marlow’s journey: his arrival at the white sepulchre city, the decaying rot of a murdered captain, greetings by two black hens and two women knitting black wool. Perhaps, the most poignant depiction of the false redemptive power of a dream was in Kurtz’s beloved, “My Intended”.

She saw in Kurtz the embodiment of inspiration and goodness, the sum total of all her happiness. Her quest to Marlow for Kurtz’s last words was heartbreaking. Would the truth have saved her? Perhaps, another theme is deception. Conrad successfully built suspense surrounding Kurtz, the gifted ivory trader. Kurtz was portrayed as larger than life and invested with demi-god status. He is the Voice to be heeded. Yet, Kurtz’s gift of expression was described as “the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.” Kurtz was in fact a ruthless ivory vampire who plundered the natives. Interestingly too, Marlow’s first glimpse of Kurtz was incongruently, a fragile wisp of a dying man. Conrad let it be known Kurtz is “hollow at the core”.

Kurtz’s evil is symbolized by human heads drying on staves outside his windows. Yet, the seduction of Kurtz’s power is so strong that the natives are grossly deluded even when they are victims of his rapacious savagery. Lastly, there is the unmistakable theme of death. The map that guides Marlow into the interior reveals a yellow patch that is described as “dead in the centre”. The ictus of the heart of darkness is death. Life is but a riddle. No pathos is more eloquent than in Kurtz’s final words, “The horror! The horror!” Conrad’s prose may not be immediately accessible but it is finely wrought. There is much one can relish in the palpable beauty of the African jungle rendered in hushed, almost hallowed tones. There is also subtle humour that lifts the looming shades of darkness that close in gradually as the story unfolds.

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