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is sitting on the Thames. The group includes a Lawyer, an Accountant, a Company Director/Captain, and a man without a specific profession who is named Marlow. The narrator appears to be another unnamed guest on the ship. While they are loitering about, waiting for the wind to pick up so that they might resume their voyage, Marlow begins to speak about London and Europe as some of the darkest places on earth. The narrator and other guests do not seem to regard him with much respect. Marlow is a stationary man, very unusual for a seaman. The others do not understand him because he does not fit into a neat category in the same manner that the others do. He mentions colonization and says that carving the earth into prizes or pieces is not something to examine too closely because it is an atrocity. He then begins to narrate a personal experience in Africa, which led him to become a freshwater sailor and gave him a terrible glimpse of colonization. With the exception of two or three small paragraphs, the perspective shifts to Marlow, who becomes the main narrator for the rest of the novel. Marlow has always had a passion for travel and exploration. Maps are an obsession of his. Marlow decides he wants nothing more than to be the skipper of a steamship that travels up and down a river in Africa. His aunt has a connection in the Administration Department of a seafaring and exploration company that gathers ivory, and she manages to get Marlow an appointment. He replaces a captain who was killed in a skirmish with the natives. When Marlow arrives at the company office, the atmosphere is extremely dim and foreboding. He feels as if everyone is looking at him pityingly. The doctor who performs his physical asks if there is a history of insanity in Marlow's family. He tells Marlow that nothing could persuade him to join the Company down in the Congo. This puzzles Marlow, but he does not think much of it. The next day he embarks on a one-month journey to the primary Company station. The African shores that he observes look anything but welcoming. They are dark and rather desolate, in spite of the flurry of human activity around them. When he arrives, Marlow learns that a company member recently committed suicide. There are multitudes of chain-gang types, who all look at him with vacant expressions. A young boy approaches Marlow, looking very empty. Marlow can do nothing but offer him some ship biscuits. He is very relieved to leave the boy behind as he comes across a very well-dressed man who is the picture of respectability and elegance. They introduce themselves: he is the Chief Accountant of the Company. Marlow befriends this man and frequently spends time in his hut while the Accountant goes over the accounts. After ten days of observing the Chief Accountant's ill temper, Marlow departs for his 200-mile journey into the interior of the Congo, where he will work for a station run by a man named Kurtz. The journey is arduous. Marlow crosses many paths, sees deserted dwellings, and encounters black men working. Marlow never describes them as humans. Throughout the novel, the white characters refer to them in animalistic terms. Marlow finally arrives at a secondary station, where he meets the Manager, who for now will oversee his work. It is a strange meeting. The Manager smiles in a manner that is very discomfiting. The ship on which Marlow is supposed to set sail is broken. While they await the delivery of the rivets needed to fix it, Marlow spends his time on more mundane tasks. He frequently hears the name "Kurtz" around the station. Clearly everyone knows his future boss. It is rumored that he is ill. Soon the entire crew will depart for a trip to Kurtz's station.
The Manager's uncle arrives with his own expedition. Marlow overhears them saying that they would like to see Kurtz and his assistant hanged so that their station could be eliminated as ivory competition. After a day of exploring, the expedition has lost all of their animals. Marlow sets out for Kurtz's station with the Pilgrims, the cannibal crew, and the Manager. About eight miles from their destination, they stop for the night. There is talk of an approaching attack. Rumor has it that Kurtz may have been killed in a previous one. Some of the pilgrims go ashore to investigate. The whirring sound of arrows is heard; an attack is underway. The Pilgrims shoot back from the ship with rifles. The helmsman of the ship is killed, as is a native ashore. Marlow supposes that Kurtz has perished in the inexplicable attack. This upsets him greatly. Over the course of his travels, he has greatly looked forward to meeting this man. Marlow shares Kurtz's background: an English education, a woman at home waiting for him. In spite of Marlow's disappointment, the ship presses onward. A little way down the river, the crew spot Kurtz's station, which they had supposed was lost. They meet a Russian man who resembles a harlequin. He says that Kurtz is alive but somewhat ill. The natives do not want Kurtz to leave because he has expanded their minds. Kurtz does not want to leave because he has essentially become part of the tribe. After talking for a while with the Russian, Marlow has a very clear picture of the man who has become his obsession. Finally, he has the chance to talk to Kurtz, who is ill and on his deathbed. The natives surround his hut until he tells them to leave. While on watch, Marlow dozes off and realizes that Kurtz is gone. He chases him and finds Kurtz in the forest. He does not want to leave the station because his plans have not been fully realized. Marlow manages to take him back to his bed. Kurtz entrusts Marlow with all of his old files and papers. Among these is a photograph of his sweetheart. The Russian escapes before the Manager and others can imprison him. The steamboat departs the next day. Kurtz dies onboard a few days later, Marlow having attended him until the end. Marlow returns to England, but the memory of his friend haunts him. He manages to find the woman from the picture, and he pays her a visit. She talks at length about his wonderful personal qualities and about how guilty she feels that she was not with him at the last. Marlow lies and says that her name was the last word spoken by Kurtz—the truth would be too dark to tell her. About Heart of Darkness A novella, Heart of Darkness is Joseph Conrad’s most famous work and a foundational text on the subject of colonialism. Heart of Darkness is based in part on a trip that Conrad took through modern-day Congo during his years as a sailor. He captained a ship that sailed down the Congo River. Conrad gave up this mission because an illness forced him to return to England, where he worked on his novella almost a decade later. The presence of ill characters in the novella illustrates the fact that Heart of Darkness is, at least in part, autobiographical. Many speculations have been made about the identity of various characters, such as the Manager, or Kurtz, most recently and perhaps most accurately in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost. But the geographical, as well as biographical, vagueness of the novel--which is one of its most artistic, haunting characteristics--make it almost impossible to pin down these details for sure. Heart of Darkness first appeared in a three-part series in Blackwood Magazine in 1899. It was published as a complete novella in 1904. It has since been referred to by many authors and poets. Its most famous lines are both from Kurtz: “exterminate the brutes,” and Kurtz's deathbed utterance, “the horror! The horror!”
Francis Ford Coppola directed the film version, Apocalypse Now, in which the action occurs in Vietnam in 1979. Major Themes Groupthink and Stock Characters This novella is unusual in that the author does not name most of the characters in his book, other than assigning them titles that describe their larger organizational goals. It is not quite an allegory, while he does allow them some individual characteristics of speech and dress, but they are for the most part stand-ins for larger groups. The obvious exception is Marlow, and his reaction against the colonial structures supported by people with names like “the Manager” and “the Lawyer” place him slightly outside this system. Groupthink is evident in named groups like the pilgrims and the natives. 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. Conrad critiques such patterns, in which individual in a society think like other members of their group without stopping to think for themselves. Although Marlow is by no means a heroic character, Conrad does illustrate the need for individual thought by singling him out. Primitivism As the crew make their way up the river, they are traveling into the “heart of darkness.” The contradiction, however, is that Marlow also feels as if he were traveling 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 traveling 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 colonizers and visitors. 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 let fly 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 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. Imperial Authority
Whatever the conditions in Africa may be, all of the characters agree that they are different from those of Europe. There is a feeling of anything-goes vigilantism that shifts the balance of power from the stewards in a “civilized” state (police, doctors, bureaucrats) to whoever is most threatening. Kurtz is physically quite a weak man, but he maintains enormous sway over the native population through his understanding of their language and his cultural and communication skills. He exploits their appreciation of him as an Other. Marlow’s men use a much more simple means of gaining authority, namely, firearms. This is the tragedy of imperialism in that the arrival of the white man heralds a new order, but in the creation of that order, they retain the tools and the authority. Black men in this book first appear as members of a chain gang, and they gain little power after that scene. 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. Jewelry Jewelry is a major presence in Heart of Darkeness. To begin with, it is the main reason for the presence of the colonists in Africa: they are there to strip the country of its ivory. There is a play on colors between the black people and this white valuable good. The most prestigious member of the African community and one of the only characters to be afforded individual characteristics by Conrad is the woman who is presumably Kurtz’s mistress. Her first appearance is impressive; she is covered in bangles and other “barbarous ornaments.” Her aspect has both attractiveness and ferocity, and she is the only character in the novella who wears jewelry. Despite it being the raison d’être of the novella, the other characters have little interest in jewelry, showing an almost Marxist detachment from the good they harvest. Illness Illness is a major factor in this novella. It appears in physical and mental forms. Marlow is hired to replace a man who committed suicide, and another instance of suicide is announced by a somber Swedish man. The first thing that Marlow does upon being hired is go to the doctor, who checks both his mental and physical health and provides a very gloomy prognosis. The specter of ill health, or of one’s body not standing up to the conditions, is a constant specter in the novella. The mental health issue is particular to Heart of Darkness, while the issue of wider health continues in the tradition of Victorian novels, in which men often travel to Africa only to come down with exotic diseases. In the end, it seems that Marlow is more mentally than physically taxed, while Kurtz is clearly both. A Racist Novella? Throughout its long history as a seminal text in the English canon, there has been a strenuous debate over whether Heart of Darkness is itself a racist book. That is, does the book itself, quite apart from the individuals in it, express racism? Or does any racism in the book express an opinion of Conrad’s? The first major work on colonialism, the novella is clearly written from the perspective of a foreign white man on a boat in a strange country. This in itself
creates problems for many readers, who see Conrad’s effort to write about Africa and Africans as presumption or even racism in itself. On the other hand, this perspective would taint every attempt to express what one has learned about another culture. A better question is whether Heart of Darkness leads the reader to support rather than to criticize the expressions of racism or colonialism that one can find in the novella. The most famous accusation that Conrad is a racist comes from the Nigerian novelist Chenua Achebe. In his essay “An Image of Africa,” Achebe wrote, “Clearly Conrad has a problem with niggers … his inordinate love of that word itself should be of interest to psychoanalysts.” Achebe also refers to the famous scenes where Marlow describes disembodied “black arms” waving in the bush, and Achebe asks ironically, should the reader expect them to be white? Although this minor detail is hardly enough on which to hang an argument, one certainly should note that Conrad’s fascination with the group movement of the black natives establishes these individuals as Others. It is unclear whether this is a function of racism or simply the wonder with which someone observes unfamiliar group activities. Conrad does not assign any personal will or agency to these characters as a group, yet this is not an uncommon way of describing any group. A non-African critic, Cedric Watts, takes issue with the characterization of Conrad as a racist. He argues that Conrad presents both the rapacious imperialists and the mute but always threatening natives with such cartoonishness that he must be lampooning the whole situation. Watts argues that Heart of Darkness is written with a guiding black irony: those who appear civilized are not actually civilized at all. Since Heart of Darkness remains a signal work of the Western canon, this debate is ongoing. Again, it seems that the central issue is the distance of Conrad from Marlow. The story of Marlow corresponds so neatly with Conrad’s own biography that it is easy to assume that Marlow registers Conrad’ own perspective, including his prejudices and perhaps racism. But on the basis of the novella alone, it is impossible to determine whether Conrad expresses his own views by simple transference or, as one might credit a great writer with doing, by lampooning the imperialists. Although the natives are often incomprehensible in the tale, they also are more innocent. To make one’s own decision about this issue, one should consider the overall themes of the work and how this issue relates to them—but also how Conrad would have expected his contemporary audiences, themselves of varying opinions about race and colonialism, to read his book.
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