Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
Heart of Darkness is one of those books so famous that actually reading it seems almost unnecessary. The journey up the river; Mr Kurtz; “‘The horror! The horror!’”. It’s well known material.
Perhaps that’s why it took me so long to get round to reading it myself. It felt like I already had.
That’s not the cover I have, but it is an absolutely brilliant one that for me captures the book better than any other I’ve seen. My copy was a Penguin Classics edition that also came with the short story Youth, featuring the same protagonist and an essentially identical framing device. They make interesting comparison pieces, and if you can read them together I’d recommend doing so.
Heart opens with Marlow and his friends sitting on a boat on the Thames. They’re all aging ex-seamen with most having long moved on to other more illustrious careers. As the sun sets Marlow begins to tell the others a tale of his seafaring days. Youth opens almost exactly the same way.
As the sun sets on the Thames the narrator (an unnamed member of Marlow’s audience) reflects on its glory:
The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. […] Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. 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.
It’s a beautiful and sentimental scene, but then:
“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”
Note the use of past tense there. With that remark everyone settles down and Marlow starts to talk of the Romans and their Empire, and its then-modern British equivalent. Marlow reflects:
It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.
True enough, though many in Britain today would still find it objectionable. Whenever I’ve seen the British Empire come up in conversation (which isn’t actually that often, it ended a while back now) you can generally count on at least one or two people arguing that overall it was for the benefit of everyone involved, even if a few mistakes were made along the way.
Perhaps though Conrad’s contemporaries would have recognised the truth of his statement. It isn’t after all arguing that colonialism is wrong, just that the practicalities of it are often ugly. Those who’d been there might well agree.
The stage set Marlow sets off on his anecdote, which takes him to the offices of a European trading house and from there to a great river in an unnamed African nation. It’s never stated, but contemporary readers would have known just as much as modern ones do that it’s King Leopold’s Congo.
Marlow makes his way slowly upriver, stopping along the way at a trading station where he sees a ravine filled with corpses and dying men, all black. It’s the first real sign of the human cost of Leopold’s exploitation. The trading house itself has two white men within it, one the perfectly groomed chief accountant and the other a company agent lost to fever while returning home. The contrasts are surreal, as is the attitude of the accountant who casually remarks that the agent isn’t dead “yet” and comments on how when one has to keep accurate books “one comes to hate those savages”. On his surface the accountant is the epitome of European civilisation but he has hardened inside.
“He turned to his work. The noise outside had ceased, and presently in going out I stopped at the door. In the steady buzz of flies the homeward-bound agent was lying flushed and insensible; the other, bent over his books, was making correct entries of perfectly correct transactions; and fifty feet below the doorstep I could see the still tree-tops of the grove of death.
That accountant is the first to speak of Mr Kurtz, a legendary company agent who brings in more ivory than the rest put together. As Marlow heads deeper inland his misgivings grow, and so did mine.
The problem with Heart of Darkness that soon became apparent is that it is extraordinarily racist. The local population rarely get to speak (even in their own language) and when they do it’s mostly the savage cries of a frenzied mob. Marlow is appalled by the “grove of death”, but in the same way a modern person might be appalled by seeing chickens packed into a factory farm. There’s no sense he sees the blacks as being of the same nature as the whites. instead he refers to them as having a “taint of imbecile rapacity”.
Marlow encounters a company manager who is both untrustworthy and stupid; a man who only has his position because his exceptional good health preserves him from the fevers that strike down most of the whites. He’s an unlikable character, but he’s white which means he at least gets dialogue and he’s clearly the same kind of being as Marlow, just an inferior specimen of Marlow’s breed.
The blacks by contrast are portrayed as barely human. Marlow’s steamship crew are a group of primitive cannibals, one of whom works on the ship’s bridge:
He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind legs.
On Marlow’s account this “savage” understands that if the water in the steam-gauge runs low “the evil spirit inside the boiler would get angry through the greatness of his thirst, and take a terrible vengeance.” Later the fireman takes a spear to the chest and as he lies dying he gives Marlow a look “like a claim of distant kinship”. Marlow misses him as a shepherd might miss a sheep dog (perhaps not quite that much), even though he notes in an aside to his audience that he understands they may find it “passing strange this regret for a savage who was of no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara.”
That description of an “improved specimen” who even so is like “a dog in a parody of breeches” is as close to human as anyone black gets in this novel. Mostly the Africans are an undifferentiated mass of limbs and torsos, interchangeable savages. Marlow’s language, Conrad’s language, is riddled with hostility and contempt for the locals and much of it I can’t really repeat here without risking causing some fairly serious offence to those reading this.
I don’t have a problem with an 1899 novel about colonialist administrators consistently using horrifyingly racist language. It would be absurd in a way if it didn’t. I don’t believe these Europeans would have spoken kindly of the Africans they controlled and I’m quite certain they wouldn’t have regarded them as equals. I had however expected Conrad to be slightly more enlightened.
As it is however, the tragedy that comes across in Heart of Darkness is not the tragedy of the human cost to the Congolese of their occupation and exploitation. That’s just breaking eggs while making an omelette. The tragedy is that having to do terrible things hardens and brutalises the Europeans who do them.
Kurtz is a noble figure undone by his isolation in the heart of darkness. That darkness, that savagery, for Conrad/Marlow remains within us even in 1899 when Europe has long since climbed into the light. By descending back into it we risk reawakening the darkness in our own hearts, and becoming lost in it.
In the end I found this an ugly novel. Not ugly for the reasons I expected, but because it isn’t so much a searing indictment of colonialism as it’s an adventure yarn with a level of racism I’ve rarely seen in any fiction (and I’ve read a fair bit from this period). I’ll link below to an essay by Chinua Achebe with which I largely agree and which addresses the racism of the text far better than I ever could, but here’s one final quote to show how it crops up not just in the characters’ language but in the very descriptions of the local people:
Suddenly the manager’s boy put his insolent black head in the doorway, and said in a tone of scathing contempt –
“‘Mistah Kurtz – he dead.’
His “insolent black head”. The familiar language of prejudice and disdain.
The reason I recommend reading Youth with this is partly that it’s a fun story but more importantly that I think it undermines Heart’s status. Youth and Heart both consist of Marlow telling a story of dangerous and memorable adventure. The foreword notes that Youth is far less psychologically complex, and that’s true, but I wondered if for Conrad these were broadly similar nautical tales of adventure. Heart includes powerful elements of reportage and a degree of stylistic improvement, but it’s not a fundamentally different animal to Youth..
Heart’s critical acclaim came decades after its publication. It’s now an accepted part of the canon, but I question that. It’s a good book, well written and powerful in its depiction of one of colonialism’s greatest horrors. It’s also one of the most dehumanising and racist texts I’ve read, and its lack of empathy for anyone in the narrative who isn’t white is why for me it fails to be a great book.
None I know on the blogosphere, though I’m sure I’ve missed some. Achebe’s essay for those interested is here. It’s worth reading even if you don’t agree, and as I say above goes into much more detail on the racist aspects of the novel (for example the contrast between Kurtz’ black mistress and his white wife left at home, one an unspeaking savage and the other noble and even spiritual).