The narrative structure of Joseph Conrad’s iconic novella, Heart of Darkness, has his storyteller, Marlow, waiting with others on the deck of an ocean-going ship for that change of tide which will allow them to put out to sea. Darkness descends over the vessel and over London. Marlow uses the opportunity to describe to his companions his experiences in Africa when he visited that continent to master a river steamer for The Company.
Marlow’s arrival at his new home base confronts him with Conrad’s view of British imperialism. Native Africans are shackled by the neck and forced into labour in mines. Those whose health has been broken by the work are left in a wooded grove to await death without any interest or assistance from The Company. Everywhere are expressions British of greed, selfishness and wanton inefficiency. In the face of lazy indifference, Marlow must find the means to repair the very steamer he is to captain in its voyage up river.
His task is to relieve The Company’s greatest agent, Kurz, at his station at the extreme edge of operations. This man is spoken of in awe publicly, for his amazing effectiveness in his task, the gathering of ivory for the profit of The Company, and also for his depth of moral insight. In private his colleagues plot his destruction so that they may supplant him in official esteem.
When Marlow concludes his trip through a devastated continent he finds Kurz near death and having abandoned himself to savage activities. He has used a local tribe as a militia to gain ivory, not through intended trade for meaningless trinkets but by butchery and destruction. His followers have taken to degraded celebration involving human sacrifice to him. He resists the attempts of his countrymen to remove him from this site of his depravity.
Without comment, Marlow records the behaviour of other servants of The Company who have accompanied him on the trip. As tribesmen gather on the river bank to protest Kurz’s removal the Europeans aboard the boat ready to shoot them down for no other motive than enjoyment of sport. They protest petulantly when Marlow sounds the boat’s whistle, driving the game back to safety.
Marlow achieves his ultimate insight into the human condition. “life…that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself – that comes too late – a crop of unextinguishable regrets.” And then, back in Europe where he must pass on Kurz’s papers to a woman who waits to possess him he himself lapses into that same sentimentality he has so eroded in the telling of his story when passing on Kurz’s last words.
Clearly, Heart of Darkness is not a piece of light hearted entertainment and its interpretations have varied in scholarship down the decades. I still find myself incredulous that this explanation of the butchery of The Great War, the Nazi death camps, the pogroms of Stalin, the killing fields of Cambodia, perhaps some actions this century in which we were involved was written in 1899. In Conrad’s view of life, a capacity for such behaviour is not an aberration but springs from within the reality of human nature.
This new edition of the book has been brought out in the Collins Classics range. Like a similar program of publication begun by Penguin, the series makes available classic products of the great writers in English from the last century and a half. At amazingly inexpensive prices these approaches by two major publishing groups provide a wonderful opportunity to enhance a reading program.
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