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EP 182: Book Review: "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad

Introduction: Hi everyone! Today, R.N. Roveleh and I, who are writers, are going to be reviewing and analyzing Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” novella. Published in 1899, this novella is widely seen as a critique of European colonialism in Africa. It also examines truth, morality, and power dynamics.

To explore these themes, we will be asking various questions, starting with:

1. What prompted you to read this book?

Fortunus: I remembered that you, R.N. Roveleh, were inspired by the character of Kurtz from this book. I have long heard of this book but never bothered to read it, even though it’s been sitting on my shelf since 2016. I think the writing style really put me off, since it was so flowery and hard to understand.

Helevorn: I was, and I’ll soon explain why in the following.

The reason why I wanted to read this book is also the reason for which I find Joseph Conrad immensely inspirational for me: he is wasn’t a native English speaker (he was only fluent in his 20s) and yet he became one of the most acclaimed writers of English literature who is renowned, among others, for the depth of the language used.

That’s a tremendous achievement and he stands as proof that great writing doesn’t depend on language in the sense that many people believe: language use is a skill, and literature also means concept, structure, character building, human nature, things that don’t rely on language. As a Romanian who writes in English, Conrad’s books are motivational to me, in this sense and beyond it.

2. What is the book about?

Fortunus: The book is narrated by the English seaman Charles Marlow, who narrates the time he traveled to the heart of Africa. He has always been been fascinated by the blank spaces on maps. As such, he applies to work for the Company, a large ivory-trading organization working out of the Congo.

The book is essentially a flashback where Marlow talks about his travels in the Congo. As he sails up a river, he sees the brutality of colonialism, with many natives being forced to build railroads. He also hears about Mr. Kurtz from the Manager of the Company, a trader of ivory who is also the commander of a trading post. From what Marlow learns, Kurtz appears to be a multi-talented and charismatic man. However, he’s disappointed when he meets Kurtz, who is a cruel and egotistical man.

He also appears to be insane. Kurtz is leading a group of natives and waging war against other groups to steal their ivory. During this time, Marlow also meets a Russian trader and follower of Kurtz who he calls “The Harlequin” due to his colorful patched clothing.

As it turns out, Kurtz does not want to return home, and prefers staying in the village with the natives. However, he is bald, sick, and ill, so Marlow carries Kurtz back to his ship. As they get further and further away, Kurtz’s health deteriorates and Kurtz gives Marlow some letters and a photograph of his fiancee, whom Marlow calls the Intended. Marlow accepts Kurtz’s documents and photograph.

A day after this, Kurtz is “waiting for death.” He utters the words “The horror! The horror!” to Marlow before he passes away.

Once he returns to Europe, Marlow visits Brussels, the sepulchral city. He finds himself unable to relate to the sepulchral city because everyone is more sheltered than he is. He eventually meets Kurtz’s finacee, who is still mourning him a year after his death. Like the others, she has an idealized view of him and praises him for his virtues and achievement. She asks Marlow what his last words were, but Marlow doesn’t want to hurt her feelings, so he tells her that Kurtz’s last word was her name.

3. Historical and literary context.

Helevorn: The intersection between modernism and naturalism is something I am fascinated with, so this was on point for me.

The whole idea of the traditions of enlightened generations falling apart, the crisis of religious beliefs resulting in a breakdown of established moral codes, the relative morality - or lack thereof, the relativity of truth (as it poignantly appears here) were things I loved.

4. Narrative technique.

Fortunus: The Heart of Darkness is a story within a story, a framed narrative. It also has a double narrator - the real narrator of the story is not Marlow, but actually an anonymous narrator who is listening to Marlow’s story, who is observing Marlow as Marlow tells his story. He is hypnotized by what Marlow is saying and seems to consider Marlow enlightened, since he compares him to a “meditating Buddha.”

This begs the question: Why did Conrad choose an anonymous narrator? It’s to illuminate the capacity of words to deceive and confuse. The narrator has difficulty seeing Marlow’s face, just like Marlow struggles to understand who Kurtz - and by extension, colonialism, since Kurtz is a symbol for colonialism - is.

Helevorn: I really liked the narrative technique of the unreliable narrator. I think the double narration here makes it even clearer that Marlow is not a reliable narrator. His words, like his face, are obscured in darkness, especially to us, since we are experiencing Marlow’s story through the anonymous narrator. So we are thrice removed from the events in the book.

Fortunus: One of the reasons why Marlow isn’t a reliable narrator is because he doesn’t align with modern standards. As such, he’s not a stand-in for the modern reader, but everything is coloured through his perspective. The way he describes the natives really epitomizes this. For instance, he describes Kurtz’s mistress as “wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman.” He also describes the Africans he encounters as “savages,” despite his negative feelings about colonialism.

Accordingly, this book has been called racist, since Marlow does not decolonize all of his thoughts. As we will cover later in this book review, he still views native Africans in a racist light.

Helevorn: To better understand what technique does, let’s compare this selective omniscience vs. 1st person narrative: If, instead of seeing Marlow from the outside (like in an RPG) we would have Marlow describing his travels in the 1st person, we wouldn’t be able to see him as a “meditating Buddha”, for instance - so this technique also sheds light on Marlow, thus making him not a stand-in for the reader (which he couldn’t be, especially for us nowadays), but a man of his time. What if we would’ve had a full omniscience (a god-like narrator who shows us the perspective of every character and explains what’s going on)? Then, we wouldn’t have Kurtz. What’s brilliant about this character, is that we only truly see him at the end of the book, but we hear about him all throughout. That’s because we only know what Marlow knows. So, the selective omniscience is great in creating suspense and shaping characters. I think people

5. How does the character of Kurtz strike you?

Fortunus: Kurtz is a terrifying guy. He looks like a skeleton and looks very surreal, and he's capable of extreme cruelty.

He’s also charismatic and talented since everyone - other than Marlow - seems to be under his spell.

Helevorn: Kurtz is an enigmatic character, and the narrative technique helps build him and make him shine. The reader - along with Marlow - learns about Kurtz long before he appears in the novel, so we only know him from the accounts of others. And he is described in apparently contradicting ways: .

One of the themes in the book is truth, and I love how it's handled in these contradictory aspects of Kurtz’s personality and in the scene with Marlow and Kurtz’s fiancee.

Before he meets him in person, Marlow believes Kurtz to be a Renaissance man of great character. When he meets him, though, he’s quite disappointed - as it turns out, Kurtz is a cruel egomaniac who wants everyone to worship him. He also seems to be suffering from delusions of grandeur, since he’s essentially running a cult in the middle of the jungle. He’s leading a tribe to wage war against other tribes to steal their ivory.

After this death, people still worship him. The Intended, for instance, still mourns him a year after his death, and still venerates him for his achievements and virtues. This is why Marlow can’t bring himself to tell her the truth, that the last word Kurtz uttered wasn’t her name, but “The horror! The horror!”

6. How does Kurtz compare to your character, Yngvar? (asked by me to Helevorn)

Fortunus: They both can be terrifying, but in a different way. Both Kurtz and Yngvar are interested in art and knowledge and existential matters, although it’s not what one would expect from people like them. Moreover, both are both obsessed with "civilizing" people, but Kurtz is doing it to another people, while Yngvar is doing it for his own people, the Norse in medieval Norway. Also, Kurtz is able to be charismatic and hold people under his spell, and Yngvar can do that too, but it's for a much better and less self-serving purpose.

Helevorn: Excellent points. Indeed, the similarities decrease as Marlow goes up the river, since Kurtz proves to be more and more terrifying. Whereas with Yngvar it's the other way round: the reader, through the character of Aidan, learns that Yngvar is much less negative than he initially appears.

7. Is the Heart of Darkness racist?

Fortunus: Although the Heart of Darkness is a critique on colonialism, it can be constructed as racist since Marlow is depicted as someone who doesn’t question racist beliefs. Specifically, he doesn’t ever seem to critique the view that Africans are savages, although he dislikes colonialism. He seems to focus more on how Europeans shouldn’t be doing colonialism rather than the fact that colonialism is harming Africans.

Also, Marlow doesn’t see Africans as individual people. He always describes them as a mass of interchangeable people. He recognizes their suffering, but it’s always in a very generalized way. Meanwhile, every white person in the book is recognized as an individual.

Further, Marlow sees the Congo as an experience. Not only for himself, as a way to learn more about humanity and truth, but for the other Europeans too, such as the Russian and of course, Kurtz. Marlow never thinks about black people’s thoughts, only the other white people he’s encountered

For Marlow to be less racist, he would see Africa as a place in its own right, where black peoples can be protagonists. Unfortunately, black people are seen as cameos in their own land, while white people are the protagonists who get to decide everything. Kind of like how white American colonialists saw America as a “new land” to be “discovered” - despite the fact Native Americans were already living there!

But then again, the book is from Marlow’s perspective, and not necessarily a reflection of Conrad himself, since Marlow is a character. As such, it’s hard to say whether the book is necessarily racist. Kurtz and Marlow definitely are, though.

Helevorn: This is a very dark and pessimistic novel, full of heavy themes. You aren’t supposed to like any of the characters here. This book is extremely conscious of the horrors of colonialism and slavery, the hypocrisy and evil of people, and arguably the evil in the book is represented by white people and their politics.

You mentioned the “land” which is “discovered” - yes, here Marlow describes Africa as previously a “white spot” on the map which is now beginning to catch shape (because white people arrive there to map it), but he also says their arrival “darkens” it. We have a scene where white men talk about ivory and they “whisper the word, as if they’re worshiping it”. It’s this corruption, thirst for money and power and their unscrupulousness that corrupts Africa. Black people, on the other hand, aren’t depicted as good either - because the trope of “le bon sauvage” is just as racist because it’s being dismissive of their motives.

Could there have been a black character (an actual fleshed-out character) in the book? Absolutely. I think it would’ve enhanced the book greatly, if written in the same heavy and brutal manner in which every other character here is written; I would’ve loved to see how they conceptualized Kurtz and the ivory trade.

But was Conrad truly qualified to speak for black people? Was Marlow, who did not know any black people and could not speak the country’s language? Conrad - and Marlow, in the text - describe what they know first-hand: the colonialist mentalities of Conrad's time, which were undoubtedly racist, but in depicting the racism Conrad is pointing out as a “horror”. In this sense, the book is the opposite of racist.

I’ll quote Oscar Wilde, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written.”

8. What are the flaws of this book?

Fortunus: Definitely the flowery writing style and the long sentences. A lot of the time, it was hard to understand what Conrad was suggesting or describing. However, it’s understandable since English was his third language and he only became fluent in his twenties.

Helevorn: It is quite convoluted. When it comes to masters of literature like Conrad, I avoid pointing out flaws since authors like this knew what they were doing. This is modernism (early modernism), which means deliberately difficult to understand and convoluted. This is not for the lazy reader, you have to solve the puzzles and traps the author lays out and it’s part of the charm. But yes, it’s not something to read for relaxation and escapism.

We might also count the so-called racism as a flaw, since black people are presented more like a symbol than people. But like we discussed, this is also part of Conrad’s art.

9. What's your rating?

Fortunus: 4 out of 5 stars, or maybe 3 out of 5 when I have a headache, since the writing style takes time and energy to understand. This was generally a good glimpse into the cult-like behavior of colonialists, but I would’ve liked to see Marlow deconstruct his thoughts more. I would’ve liked to see him confront his own racist beliefs too, although that might be asking too much since this is a short story and it is from the 19th century.

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