Oh my gosh, where to begin?
I will start with the obvious: this is a great book. Despite its portrayal of Africans and how the African characters are used in the text, I do consider this book to be a classic mostly because of the depth, morals, and beliefs that it explores and counters. Conrad is a great storyteller and writer. The structure of this story is crazy and I love it. I love how Conrad/Marlow drops subtle hints of what’s to come at the beginning and then reveals what they mean as the story progresses. Sometimes the hints are so subtle that you don’t even notice them, if you are not reading carefully.
Heart of Darkness is basically an autobiography of sorts told by Marlow while aboard the yacht Nellie on which he reclines with his friends. One of the friends is an unnamed narrator who tells the story which frames the Heart of Darkness. This narrator provides the backdrop and situation necessary for Marlow’s tale to be told. The other friends aboard the yacht — the Lawyer, the Accountant, and the Director of Companies (captain and host) — are all respectable gentlemen with distinguished professions who do not say much throughout the story but contribute their stance on what Marlow says by their silence. The unnamed narrator is used to voice their beliefs and concerns. Throughout the story, they are only referred to by their professions and not by name because they represent the audience to which Conrad directs his story. It is obvious that Marlow is not totally a part of this group because he is given a name and further by the way he sits. While everyone else reclines on the yacht, Marlow sits as if he is a Buddha, the only enlightened one in the group.
After the unnamed narrator observes and praises the Thames river for being the source of many noble expeditions that have brought light and civilization to the unknown reaches of the world, Marlow replies, or counters, by stating, “And this too was once one of the dark places of the world.” With this statement Marlow refers to the past when the Romans visited England with thoughts of imperialism and intent to expand its borders. At that time, the Romans must have viewed the English region as one of the dark, uncivilized places of the world. Thus Marlow begins his story of his journey into the interior of Africa during his youth.
Marlow’s tale, Heart of Darkness, is embedded within the story that the unnamed narrator tells; therefore the story by the unnamed narrator frames Marlow’s story.
Marlow’s story overflows with symbolism. It seems as if there is a deeper meaning to everything discussed, each image shown, and every word used throughout the tale. Because he was always curious about the unexplored regions of the world, Marlow decided to embark on an adventure to the center of the world, the Congo (although he doesn’t explicitly state that it’s the Congo in the text). His aunt was able to help him secure a job with a Belgian company that was seeking a replacement for one of its officers. After visiting the headquarters of the Company, Marlow then goes off to get his head examined by a seemingly crazy doctor and then embarks on his journey. He sails to Africa where he is met with the grotesque truth of the Company’s missions in Africa. While they claim to their countrymen that they are bringing civilization to the dark continent of Africa, all Marlow encounters upon his arrival and during his stay is the death, destruction, and savagery that the Company inflicts upon the inhabitants and landscape of Africa.
***Try as I might to write a brief review of this book, it is proving to be a bit difficult. I am skipping over a lot of amazing details as I go along.***
Anyways, Marlow’s mission in Africa is to fetch the enigmatic Mr. Kurtz. He has to travel up the Congo, sailing deep into the “dark heart” of Africa to get to Kurtz, who is sick and a bit mad (madness is a motif/trend in this story). Apparently, Kurtz could not handle living without restraints. Like the other men of the Company, when they arrive in Africa, the land void of rules and restraints, they were unable to contain themselves and thus gave into the darkness of their soul. The scene in which Marlow finally meets Kurtz is very disturbing. The fact that he is frail and sick but is so addicted to the worship that the Africans dole to him that he crawls on all fours to their fire so that he can be worshiped is highly disturbing. Kurtz is a scary figure/character because he reflects the darkness, and the extremes, that all humans are capable of if there are no restrictions and if they are not able to restrain themselves; that’s why he is so…disturbing.
This quick, underdeveloped review does not do this book justice. I recommend that everyone read this novella, not just high-schoolers and college students. It gives great insight into human nature and makes the reader consider those societal restraints that people tend to take for granted. Much more than this is tackled in the story. It is an adventure story and it is also a historical story. It will make you want to know more about the history of the African continent, if you are not already familiar with it.
Interestingly, I just happened to take a 5 second break and skip on over to Twitter and came across this post by AdviceToWriters.com :
“Try to write about the darkest things in the soul”
— which is exactly what Conrad did in Heart of Darkness.
The full quote that AdviceToWriters has posted on their website is pasted below along with the Web address:
“I talk about the things people have always talked about in stories: pain, hate, truth, courage, destiny, friendship, responsibility, growing old, growing up, falling in love, all of these things. What I try to write about are the darkest things in the soul, the mortal dreads. I try to go into those places in me that contain the cauldrous. I want to dip up the fire, and I want to put it on paper. The closer I get to the burning core of my being, the things which are most painful to me, the better is my work.”
— HARLAN ELLISON