Heart of Darkness
by Mark Dintenfass (2007)
Professor of English
The following is adapted from: www.mural.uv.es/rosegar/critica1.htm


What can I assume as you begin to read this paper…

I can assume, for example, that you already know that the British novelist we call Joseph Conrad was actually a Polish aristocrat with an unpronouncable name; that at an early age, seeking adventure, he "went to sea," as they used to say in those days; and that most of his works are based upon his experiences as a sailor on various ships in various parts of the world.
I can assume that you know that Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness in 1898, during the time when European colonialism was in its heyday and the cultural movement we call Modernism was being born.
I can assume that you know that, like Marlow, Conrad spent some time piloting a small steamboat up the Congo River, into the heart of a land that was then being ruthlessly exploited as the private property of King Leopold of Belgium, and that, like Marlow, the experience left him morally shaken and physically ill; although, unlike Marlow, there was no Mr. Kurtz waiting for Conrad at the Inner Station. (In other words, Heart of Darkness is in part autobiographical and in part imaginary. Such a statement, incidentally, can be made about all good works of fiction.)
And thus, assuming that you already possess these bits of information, I don't have to mention them.
Let us begin by confirming that we accept that life need not imitate art and art, in turn, is not necessarily an accurate mirror of life. In short, a novel is not a kind of orderly argument. It is addressed to the reader, not the student, and its ordering principles are of an altogether different, and more difficult, kind. For the novelist, it is the fullness of experience, not the abstract meaning of the experience, which counts.
In short, for Conrad, "truth" in fiction is not philosophical; it is, rather, like the truth in painting and music, an appeal to beauty and mystery and pain, an appeal to our capacity for delight and wonder and loneliness and fellowship - an appeal, in other words, to the fullness of all our multi-layered experience.
For Conrad then, as for most modern artists, the world as we experience it is not the sort of place that can reduced to a set of clear, explicit scientific or philosophical abstractions. Its truths, the truths of the psyche, of the human mind and soul, of experience itself, are messy, vague, irrational, suggestive, and dark -and it is these kinds of truths, says Conrad, that art, and art alone, can convey to us.
Note that Marlow supports this notion when he expresses a story-teller's exasperation at his own limited powers of communication:
"Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream - making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible, which is the very essence of dream . . .No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence--that which makes its truth, its meaning-- its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream--alone . . ."
We could even go so far as to say that one of Conrad's apparent intentions in Heart of Darkness is to undermine our reliance on abstract ideas, and abstract notions of truth, as they are generally applied to the real world.
If he seeks to lead his readers to an experience of the "heart of darkness" it is not to shed the light of reason on it, to analyse and define it in some abstract way, but rather to re-create, in all its fullness, his experience of darkness in our feelings, our sensibilities, our own dark and mysterious hearts.
Once you understand that, you will see that Heart of Darkness is not a coded message, a kind of complicated puzzle you are supposed to solve in order to get the meaning or message that is hidden in it. It is, rather, a re-creation in a pattern of words and images of a set of experiences that can, if you read it well, become a part of your own experience.
To put it another way, Heart of Darkness, or any good novel, for that matter, is a kind of small world unto itself
As a reader, your job is to enter into the experience it contains, to sit on the deck of the Nellie as night comes on and listen to the story Marlow has to tell; to be curious with Marlow about Mr. Kurtz; to smell dead hippo and hear the drumbeat of the natives and sense the impenetrable vastness of the wilderness, with all its multitude of claims upon us.
When I say that Heart of Darkness is a kind of small world which we can experience, rather than a system of ideas we must understand, I simply mean that there is no single right way of understanding it. I also mean that just as we try to understand our world through a number of different systems of thought, so, too, can we try to understand Heart of Darkness in various ways depending upon what sorts of questions we ask of it.
The book is also concerned, for example, with religion, and so we might want to examine the way Conrad plays with the concept of pilgrims and pilgrimages, or the role of Christian missionary concepts in the justifications of the colonialists, or the dark way in which Kurtz fulfills his own messianic ambitions by setting himself up as one of the local demi-gods.
Certainly Heart of Darkness is preoccupied with general questions about the nature of good and evil, or civilization and savagery. And certainly Heart of Darkness raises and elaborates upon some quite specific moral questions:
· What saves Marlow from becoming evil?
· Is Kurtz more or less evil than the Manager and the pilgrims?
· Why does Marlow think that lies are linked to mortality - that is, why does he associate lying with death and what is happening to him? Is he acting morally or immorally when he lies to Kurtz"s Intended?
· And what price must he pay for his lie?
A serious contemplation of questions such as these can certainly shed some light.
Certainly the way in which Conrad chooses to tell his story is unusual;
· we have someone, an outside narrator, telling us a story he has heard from someone else, Marlow
· The story Marlow tells seems to be about a man named Kurtz, but most of what Marlow knows about Kurtz he learns from other people, many of whom have all sorts of reasons for not telling Marlow whatever simple truths they might know
· Marlow has to piece together much of Kurtz's story, and make guesses to fill in the things he cannot know for sure. So do we really get to know anything about Kurtz?
· Is there, in fact, really a Kurtz about whom anything specific can be known?
· It is worth recalling here that one of the traditional connotations of the word darkness is ignorance and that one of the traditional connotations of the word light is knowledge.
· Is there the light of knowledge in the Heart of Darkness? What kind of knowledge? What kind of knowing? . . .

So where are we? A little lost, I suspect…

Does this mean that Heart of Darkness - like the real world - may turn out to be, in the final analysis, an incomprehensible and chaotic mess?
The answer to that question, I believe, is no.

The real world may indeed be a chaos, and all our attempts to reduce it to reasonable order may turn out to be ultimately futile, but works of art, I believe, always have an order of their own.
I would go so far as to suggest that Form is exactly what makes a work of art artistic - in fact, it is part of the definition of what we mean when we say art. And to appreciate the form of a work of art - which is important if you wish to see the work for what it is in and of itself - you have to stop asking abstract questions about what the work means and start noticing how formal patterns are used to give order and structure to the thing.
Given the limits of time I will limit myself to making only three brief suggestions about how to talk about the form of Heart of Darkness.

First, notice that the book is divided into three chapters. It might be worthwhile to ask what happens in each of those chapters, and why Conrad chooses to make the breaks where he does.
It is also worth noting that Marlow breaks off his story exactly three times: three times the outside narrator comes back to say something, once in chapter one, twice in chapter two, and not at all until the end in chapter three. I would like to suggest that it will be worth your while to see what Marlow is talking about in the page or so before each break, and how it relates to what the outside narrator says is happening on the Nelly, and to what Marlow says when he starts speaking again.

Are there other things that come in threes in Heart of Darkness? How about the three stations of Marlow's journey? Or the three women who frame his journey--his aunt, Kurtz's African girlfriend, and the Intended? And what about the three possible central characters: Kurtz, Marlow, and the outside narrator? I'm sure if you inspect the book closely you can find other patterns that come in threes.

The second aspect of form is what I'll call the Russian doll effect. Do you know those traditional dolls made in Russia which open up and there's another doll inside, and then you open that to find still another doll. You keep opening dolls until you're down to a little nubbin of a thing. Well, that's the form of the narrative of Heart of Darkness:
· At the center is the story of Kurtz,
· around that the story of Marlow,
· around that the story of the narrator, and, by implication,
· around that there is still another story going on, the story of your reading of the book.

As a formal device the Russian doll effect lends a particular structure to the book. What it signifies about the nature of the experience and how it relates to the the greater philosophical questions about life, I will leave for you to think about and discuss.

The third aspect of form I want to mention has to do with the book's images: those things that you are expected to see and hear and smell and taste and feel as you read. (Strictly speaking, images should be things that we see in the mind's eye, but by general consent of the literary professionals, one is allowed to call the smell of dead hippo an image: I suppose you smell it with the mind's nose.)

You are aware, I am sure, that the images of Heart of Darkness are not randomly placed, but are, to a great extent, arranged in patterns of opposition.

There are, for example, things that are dark and things that are light. There are also things that are black and things that are white. Moreover, many of the things that are light or white (the candle held by the Intended in Kurtz's painting of her or fading light on her forehead as Marlow talks to her) are surrounded by darkness, and many of the things that seem at first glance to belong to the dark or black side of things manage to partake of light and whiteness (Kurtz's jungle bride is described as glittering and flashing, and Marlow often notices the white eyes or teeth of the black natives - or a bit of white cloth around a black man's neck).

Similarly, although Europe at the time was generally thought of as the place of light, or enlightenment, and Africa was generally thought of as the place of darkness, Marlow insists that England, too, was once one of the dark places on the earth, and that the African landscape, like Kurtz's African bride, is often described in images of glittering light. And, along the same lines, don't forget that the book begins at sunset in the bright Thames and moves into a night so dark that the men on the Nellie can't see each other.

As the story is told we travel from the Outer Station to the Inner Station toward the heart of darkness and then outward again, presumably back toward civilization, just as we travel inward from the outside narrator to Marlow to Kurtz and then outward again until we are left with the image of that outside narrator seeing the whole world as belonging somehow to the realm of darkness. And let us not forget that the unnamed narrator tells us right away that the significance of Marlow's tales is not, as is typically the case with sailors, inside, like a kernal in a nut, but outside, like a haze around the moon.

If you must have a simple truth to put in your notebooks, it is that Heart of Darkness; in that it also exhibits these tendencies, is a modernist novel, which means that it is characterised by:
· a distrust of abstractions as a way of delineating truth
· an interest in an exploration of the psychological
· a belief in art as a separate and somewhat privileged kind of human experience
· an awareness of primitiveness and savagery as the condition upon which civilization is built, and therefore an interest in the experience and expressions of non-European peoples
· a scepticism that emerges from the notion that human ideas about the world seldom fit the complexity of the world itself

Multiplicity, ambiguity, and irony: these are not the easiest forms of expression to cope with when you are a student and asked to express yourself clearly and directly.

But as a final thought I might add that it is precisely because the world appears to us to be multiple, ambiguous, and paradoxical, that we must strive to speak and write clearly.
Otherwise there is only darkness, only confusion…


Heart of Darkness – some themes to consider

Groupthink
Very few of the characters in this novella are clearly identified as individuals; we have ‘the Manager’, ‘the Lawyer’ and ‘the Russian’. Groups are identified as ‘the pilgrims’, ‘the natives’ and ‘The Company’ and so on. These groups have a few outstanding members, such as the native woman of arresting beauty or the red-haired pilgrim drunk with bloodthirstiness, but they mostly move together, make the same decisions, and have the same intentions. The obvious exception is Marlow, and his reaction against the colonial structures that place him slightly outside this system. The same can be said for Kurtz. Conrad critiques such patterns, in which individual in a society think like other members of their group without stopping to think for themselves. So, although this story may be specific to the Congo, he is commenting on the ‘groupthink’ mentality of Colonialism as a whole.

Primitivism
As the crew make their way up the river, they are travelling (symbolically) into the “heart of darkness.” The contradiction, however, is that Marlow also feels as if he were travelling back in time. When Conrad wrote this story, scientists were learning that Africa is the seat of human civilization, and this knowledge is reflected in the fact that the trees are (almost prehistorically) enormous on the route down the river. The paradox of the novel, however, is that by travelling backwards in time, the crew do not move closer to the innocence and purity of the "noble savage" but farther away from it. Words like “pestilent” and “sordid” are used again and again to describe the natives and their land. Conrad seems to claim that the Christian belief that prehistory was untouched by obscurity or evil is a fallacy. Instead, there is “the horror.” In contrast, it seems, is the more advanced civilization of the colonisers and visitors – yet they are the ones capable of most of the horrors that Marlow is witness to.

Uncertainty
Nothing in this novella is described in very concrete terms. Shores are hazy, land looks like a spine sticking out from a man’s back, but is not described in topographical terms. Marlow is obsessed with Kurtz before he even meets him, without a clear idea why. A sense of danger pervades the entire trip, and it is mostly dictated by uncertainty. The natives do not seem inherently threatening. On one occasion, they shoot a series of arrows, but these even look ineffectual to Marlow. They are threatening because they might be poisoned. Similarly, Marlow has no clear idea of what the natives might do to him if Kurtz gave them free rein, and it is possible that this uncertainty increases his fear. Kurtz himself is an uncertain figure, ruled as he is by two separate impulses, the noble and the destructive. At the beginning of the novella, the reader perceives that the former is his dominant (or only) characteristic. But with vicious scrawlings on his manuscript and his ruthlessness in extracting ivory from the land, Kurtz proves himself equally capable of the latter. Marlow’s adherence to Kurtz until the end confuses the matter; one could judge him one way or the other. The idea of "darkness" expresses the theme of uncertainty in the novella.

Religion
Although there is controversy over whether Conrad is critiquing colonialism or not, it is clear that he is critiquing religion. The two groups in the novel, the pilgrims and the natives, are linked by having religious beliefs, and the pilgrims seem at least as bloodthirsty as the natives. The rite in the woods that Marlow describes seems alien but certainly no more dangerous than the ambush. One of the seemingly admirable characteristics of Kurtz, as presented by Conrad, is that he seems just as compelled by African religion as by Christianity but seems beholden to neither. Marlow genuinely admires his ability to independently critique religions. He may not agree with Kurtz’s evaluation, but he respects Kurtz's ability to have his own opinions in the face of the various religious traditions he encounters.