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The Book Club

Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness

1. Joseph Conrad’s grand expectations. Conrad had the hope to instil enough power in the sombre theme of the book that it would “hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck”. Tim Butcher, in his introductory section in the Vintage Classics edition of the novel, commented on the influence the text had after its publication, and its compelling themes given the historical context. Naturally, increased comprehension of the events in the Congo Free State during Conrad’s period would greatly increase the reader’s appreciation of the novel.

2. Understanding the brief historical context of the Congo Free State. The façade of humane colonial exercise – one tasked with civilising and facilitating humanitarianism – was staunchly maintained to the outside world; other than those workers or private company employees who had full access to the internal developments. Without appropriate checks and balances, and blinded by the temptations of riches and power, imperialism rears its ugly head as things begin to fall apart. The atrocities committed in the Congo Free State eventually led to various revelations of corruption and unsanctioned killings by white officials; the overarching theme paralleled in “Heart of Darkness”.

3.  The perils of imperialism. “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”.

4. Changing the romantic vision of Africa. During the era of nationalism, an assortment of literature was passionate in painting a dreamy and idealistic image of Africa; but experiences in Congo – right in thick of the exploitation and various abuses – changed that. “Heart of Darkness” was quintessentially a story that painted Africa as a dangerous and primitive continent. In another interpretation, Nigerian Chinua Achebe famously asserted in a lecture that Conrad’s text “dehumanised Africans, denied them language and culture and reduced them to a metaphorical extension of the dark and dangerous jungle into which the Europeans venture”. While some might contend that Achebe’s focus on Conrad’s portrayal of the Africans furthers the view of European racism, others have fairly emphasised Conrad’s description of the administrators as conquerors.

5. The conquerors. “They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force – nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others … 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”.

6. Pondering the narrative structure. The frame narrative’s advantages are quite straightforward: the reader is able to judge actions, events and characters based on dialogues and interpretations of their corresponding intentions. Judgement can be made independently by the reader, or through the eyes of Charles Marlowe. The different dimensions of narration also expand the concepts of the “heart of darkness”, respectively referring to the literal darkness of the Congolese jungle and river (in the text’s present, as Marlowe narrates his story), the darkness in the cruel treatment of the natives (through Marlowe’s personal observations, and interactions with other Europeans along the journey), as well as the darkness within the human heart (as Marlowe reflects upon the adventure, concluded with his meeting with Mr. Kurtz’s fiancée).

7. Nonetheless… Marlowe as a character can represent a middle ground between Mr. Kurtz and the company, in sense that his purported neutrality allows the reader to experience both extremes, and to identify with him. His experience in Congo exposes the dark side of human nature; however, this information and knowledge empowers him to share his story with anyone and everyone who has met, including the reader.

8. The shadowy figure that is Mr. Kurtz. Kurtz’s primary motive is the ivory trade, and goes to great lengths – empowered by his will to innovate and break new frontiers – to obtain the raw material in tremendous quantities. His multitude of actions – facilitated by his charm and charisma – grants him a god-like status amongst the Congo natives: he manipulates the value systems in the native communities for his personal benefits, but is ultimately astounded by his atrocious reputation because of the plethora of evil deeds committed in his name. He is idealistic with his larger-than-life plans and charismatic disposition, traits that remain with Marlowe even after Kurtz’s death; still, the reader cannot seem to form a proper psychological portrait of the man, even till the end.

9. Marlowe’s admiration for Mr. Kurtz. “This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it”.

10. Exploration of human morals and ethics. Kurtz attempts to “civilise” the natives he interacts with, by sharing elements of industrialisation and education; but the outcomes are less than desirous, in Kurtz’s perspective. Essentially, one cannot determine what is “right” and “wrong” in another community or civilisation that he does not belong too, because each group employs different moral and ethical yardsticks to distinguish between ideals. Kurtz does not understand that the natives view life and morals quite differently; but through Marlow the reader gradually comprehends these dissimilarities. The overlapping of cultures and societies do not yield the best results, when one attempts to assert superiority over the other based on its own standards and expectations. Conrad highlights humanity’s moral decay, especially when their moral compasses go haywire.

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About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.

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