Heart of Darkness and The Congo Diary
Penguin inaugurates a series of revised editions of Conrad's finest works, with new introductions
Exploring the workings of consciousness as well as the grim realities of imperialism, Heart of Darkness tells of Marlow, a seaman and wanderer, who journeys into the heart of the African continent to discover how the enigmatic Kurtz has gained power over the local people.
The story’s emergence as a twentieth-century ‘classic’ forms a first stage in the history of its remarkable after-life. A key moment arrived with T. S. Eliot’s use of a fragment from ‘Heart of Darkness’ as an epigraph to his poem, ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925). Eliot’s epigraph signals a temporary kinship and establishes a bridge between two works, but it also probably signifies a more intangible sense of indebtedness -- to Conrad as an important founder-member of a tradition of British Modernist writing.
The story’s major re-discovery dates from the 1950s when its apocalyptic symbolism and existentialist uncertainty seem to have entered the collective consciousness of a generation who lived through the Second World War or were coming to terms with its legacy. As one critic of the time put it, the story had become ‘a Pilgrim’s Progress for our pessimistic and psychologizing age’ (Guerard, p. 33). Its more recent impact has been equally dramatic, if more controversial. Now standing at the centre of a wider contemporary debate about race, imperialism and feminism, its æsthetic dimensions and experimental character have almost been left behind. It has acquired the character of an awkward problem-novel, a standard text in the classroom and -- for better or worse -- a litmus-test for a variety of theoretical preoccupations. As a modern quest parable translated into many languages, it has simultaneously had a powerful generative effect upon twentieth-century writers and film-makers, inspiring emulations, adaptations and counter-versions.
[The African workers] were dying slowly -- it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now--nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest. … Near the same tree two more bundles of acute angles sat with their legs drawn up. One, with his chin propped on his knees, stared at nothing, in an intolerable and appalling manner: his brother phantom rested its forehead, as if overcome with a great weariness; and all about others were scattered in every pose of contorted collapse, as in some picture of a massacre or a pestilence. (p. 00)
Like a poem by Wilfred Owen from the First World War battlefront, this heightened reportage quickly dispenses with the rattle of official verbiage in order to recover unreported facts -- in this case, of wasted African lives. The sense of waste is intensified by the wider context. Marlow has just passed through a rubbish-tip for discarded pipes and rusty machinery, and the implication is that the worn-out Africans have been similarly discarded: having served their function, they are thrown away like disposable objects. Crass labels discarded, Marlow assimilates the details of human waste into an extended elegy, with an invitation to complete it by recalling a picture of Bosch-like extremity.
Traditionally, the most immediate problem for readers has been that of adjusting to the tale’s dramatically changing character. Although Part 1 anticipates some of the terms of Marlow’s coming quest, it hardly foreshadows the ambitious symbolic method to be brought into play. In part, Marlow himself becomes an active symbol-maker, constantly seeking a figurative equivalent for his feelings. But in addition, the obscure nightmare in which he is embroiled increasingly determines the character of the story and embraces Kurtz as a significant part of its structure: everywhere felt but only occasionally glimpsed, the latter emerges as a strangely protean presence, forming and re-forming like the genie from a bottle. Achebe regards the story as involving a single ‘petty European’, but the symbol of dark nightmare also has a strenuously generalizing effect in suggesting that all Europeans are involved in the breakdown of the imperial dream.
Symbolic method also brings with it a new, and in some ways, problematic range of ‘secondary’ interests. In moving away from the symptoms of colonial rowdyism in Part 1, the tale is not thereby always less topical, but it now devises markedly wider tests in order to probe the originating credentials of the European mission in Africa. As a compendium of decadent excesses, the figure of Kurtz is obviously central to the tale’s free-wheeling and -- as some readers have felt -- erratically widening scope. His is the most comprehensive test and the most spectacular fall; in one of his many guises, he offers access to what might be called Europe’s political unconscious -- into the underlying obsessions and needs that both fostered and found relief in the imperial project. And finally, when Marlow returns to Europe, he brings with him a Kurtzian legacy that helps to shape an even wider vision of Western civilization and its discontents.
Early in Part 2, with the beginning of Marlow’s journey to the interior, the tale signals that the narrator’s own inherited British traditions will be the first to come under scrutiny. The terms of this ordeal would have been familiar to late-Victorian readers, since what is on trial is a principle at the very basis of their culture and underpinning its ‘mission’ in the colonies -- the work ethic as an agency of order and progress. In Britain, the gospel of work was associated with the Victorian sage Thomas Carlyle, in whose writings the principle gathered numerous moral, religious and philosophic resonances. As a British merchant seaman, Marlow’s tradition is a seamanly inflexion of the Carlylean gospel. Marlow spells out the tonalities of this humanistic ideal: ‘I don’t like work -- no man does -- but I like what is in the work -- the chance to find yourself. Your own reality -- for yourself, not for others’ (p. 000). For him, the notion brings with it a view the seaman’s life as involving the pursuit of an honourable vocation, the performance of a social obligation in the cause of human solidarity and the restraining of individuality by the collective ethic. Translated into the context of colonial ‘work’, the ethic also involves a tough, no-nonsense pragmatism -- the ability, as Marlow puts it, to bury dead hippo without being too bothered by the smell.
But even an immunity to noxious smells cannot defend Marlow from being challenged on several fronts. He is quickly made aware, when he becomes ‘one of the Workers, with a capital’ (p. 00), that a wider political machinery can itself be found to exploit the superficial rhetoric of the Carlylean work ethic to legitimize its ultimately criminal purpose. (In 1898, Leopold had required of his agents that they ‘accustom the population to general laws, of which the most needful and the most salutary is assuredly that of work’ [cited in Kimbrough, ed,. p. 79]). Once in Africa, he quickly learns that his work efforts are either rendered futile by a lawless inefficiency or part of a process ultimately devoted to base ends.
Even though Marlow tries to attend to practicalities involved with the job in hand -- the problem of acquiring rivets, tracking river-obstacles and efficient steering -- he is increasingly forced to question how far the job-sense is a necessary avoidance of a painful knowledge of the self and world. At a crucial point in the narrative, two documents serve to bring home his crisis of choice: on the one hand, the clear seamanly purpose he finds in Towson’s nautical manual, a symbolic reminder of his inherited traditions, or, on the other, the searing self-contradictions of Kurtz’s pamphlet, a signpost to the possibility of different kinships and allegiances.
In more senses than one, Marlow loses navigational clarity and purpose. The pressures put upon him reflect more widely on a tradition of liberal humanism that, when faced by the flinty actualities of wider colonial politics, has commonly suffered painful defeat and been left with a legacy of nervous irritation, panic, hysteria and frustrated silence. At the point where Marlow’s panic sets in, Kurtz becomes a more material presence; as the narrator begins to share empathically in Kurtz’s ordeal, their crises intermesh.
From a point of hindsight, Conrad himself seems to have been aware of the dangerous risk involved in the treatment of the tale’s presiding symbolic figure: ‘What I distinctly admit is the fault of having made Kurtz too symbolic or rather symbolic at all’ (Letters, II, 460). Even in the first part of the tale, the Kurtz who emerges through hearsay and gossip is a bewildering medley of possibilities -- now universal genius, now noted ivory-hunter, now confirmed solitary with ambitious plans for Africa and now threatening spectre. The problem of Kurtz’s shifting metamorphoses becomes more formidable as the tale progresses since this figure will become part of tumultuous content of Marlow’s nightmare, shaping its form and providing its climax. With each of his metamorphoses, moreover, Kurtz also contributes to a shifting sense of the nature and location of the ‘heart of darkness’. How various and plural are his main incarnations, and how are their meanings registered in Marlow’s narrative?
One of Kurtz’s symbolic identities memorably extends the ‘dark’ evidence of European rule in Part 1. Several descriptions focus upon his extreme deformity and grotesque, puppet-like movements in order to bring home the sense in which, as Europe’s offspring, he enacts the logic of its expansionist and acquisitive drives. In his restless energy as an explorer, conqueror and self-styled hero of Empire, he is a powerfully iconoclastic caricature. To the extent that he casts aside the need for any hypocritical pretence and unashamedly acts out the will to acquire vast amounts of ivory, he embodies a brute economic imperative as well as an unnatural idolatry of the material object.
Where some nations tended high-mindedly to regard overseas expansion as an organic extension of their destiny, ‘Heart of Darkness’ can suggest a powerfully alternative vision: of imperialism as a historical deformation, whose working-out involves an inevitable principle of degeneration. Central to this version is the presentation of Kurtz as a malformed seven-feet-long puppet-creature, who enacts a grotesquely choreographed ceremony. Kurtz has become so enthralled to the commodity he seeks that he is himself commodified, as though ‘an animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been shaking its hand’ (p. 000); or he is imaged as a grimacing open mouth, giving him ‘a weirdly voracious aspect, as though he had wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him’ (p. 00). He also acts out with psychopathic intensity the urge towards an autocratically governed empire -- ‘“My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my---” everything belonged to him’ (p. 000) -- in which, as the veritable Antichrist of its making, he exacts complete submission from his subordinates and can envisage a policy of what nowadays would be called racial cleansing: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’ (p. 000). The iconoclastic power of this portrait depends upon our recognizing that the ‘heart of darkness’ has its roots firmly in Europe and that Kurtz, as its malformed outgrowth, strikes Marlow as a symbol of present and active degeneration.
But overlaying this incarnation is another one, the object of Marlow’s most excited and unspecific fears -- the spectacle of Kurtz as a ‘lost soul’. This version presses us to attend to the fact that Kurtz has a pre-history. There had, it seems, been an ‘original Kurtz’ (no mere trader, but a person of considerable idealism and with talents as a painter, poet, musician, philosopher and orator), who in Africa has been exposed as a ‘hollow sham’ (p. 00). This transplanted European, originally the product of a cultured society and identifying himself with the high-minded mission of bringing ‘light’ to Africa, has been betrayed by a naïve belief in imperial watchwords and, with his inherited assumptions exposed as fictions, stands revealed as a morally bankrupt cipher. The image of Kurtz as a greedily devouring mouth is now replaced by one of inner vacancy: he was, says Marlow, strikingly, ‘hollow at the core’ (p. 000).
But for Marlow, the spectacle does not end there: it carries with it the added implication that Kurtz has undergone a spectacular ‘fall’ in Africa -- brought about by a hollowness so profound as to have resulted in his invasion by the dark atavistic forces of the land. Though the narrator has previously shown himself to have a healthy disrespect for potential obfuscation, he himself seems to acquire a taste for the frisson of metaphysical melodrama in describing how Kurtz’s ‘soul’ has become a battleground for the competing forces of good and evil. Marlow’s heated imaginings offer two possibilities: that Kurtz has been captured, as if in some illicit and vampirish love affair, by a ‘wilderness’ that had ‘taken him, loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation’ (p. 000).
Alternatively, he pictures Kurtz’s fall as involving a Faustian pact, in which the man has virtually sold his soul in order to enjoy ‘a high seat amongst the devils of the land -- I mean literally’. However, in the absence of substantiating evidence, the impact of the word ‘literally’ remains muted, and attention is instead re-focused on Marlow’s horrified sense of the ‘creepy’: ‘Everything belonged to him -- but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own. That was the reflection that made you creepy all over’ (p. 000).
There is some force in Achebe’s objection that the Africa to emerge in parts of the story belongs to a conventional picture of the ‘dark’ continent, a place of ‘creepy’ horrors and the traditional site of the ‘white man’s grave’. Certainly many of Conrad’s first reviewers, overlooking the disturbing implications of Kurtz’s hollowness, could comfortably regard the story as a version of a familiar type of late-Victorian novel, in which Africa’s strange ‘devils’ bring about the decivilization or ‘going native’ of a European colonist, who finally descends into madness.
To Marlow’s excited imagination, Kurtz simultaneously metamorphoses into yet another symbolic incarnation, that of a charismatic, oracular ‘voice’ (p. 000), whose utterances will eventually help to shape the spreading nightmare into significant form. Several problems accompany this fascination, not least the fact that Marlow is at such an early stage of his journey fugitively haunted by the sensation that its culmination will necessarily entail a redeeming ‘talk with Kurtz’ (p. 00) and confirm the rightness of his unconscious loyalty to him. Further, it is not entirely clear why Kurtz’s powerful voice -- the grandiloquence of which is often the object of Marlow’s suspicion -- should be so quickly valued as an unambiguous gift. There is often some confusion in Marlow’s mind about whether he has actively chosen a commitment to Kurtz’s voice or whether he is its fated victim. If the latter is true, then Marlow is possibly nearer than he thinks to the Harlequin, whom he regards as being dangerously captive to the power of Kurtz’s charismatic eloquence: ‘“We talked of everything,” he said, quite transported at the recollection. “I forgot there was such a thing as sleep”’ (p. 000).
In addition, Marlow has a growing tendency to be so obsessed by Kurtz’s ‘gift’ of eloquence as to relegate his actions to a secondary place: ‘Hadn’t I been told … that he had collected, bartered, swindled, or stolen more ivory than all the other agents together. That was not the point. The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words’ (p. 000). If there is some oddity here, it derives from the fact that the Marlow of the early narrative had learned that actions speak louder than words, which can rarely be taken at face value. Here he appears to be haunted by the growing idea that the promise of words from a special being can, in some sense, redeem or justify actions: the pathway to the ‘heart of darkness’, it seems, now leads to a powerful oracle.
As if in response to Marlow’s deepest wishes, Kurtz does finally emerge -- by means of a sudden death-bed redemption -- as a significant ‘voice’ and hero of the spirit. Marlow’s approach to the spectacle involves a somewhat awkward readjustment of his previous convictions. Perhaps drawing upon an established nineteenth-century view that genius and madness are closely allied, he tells us that Kurtz is no ‘lunatic’ because his ‘intelligence’ is perfectly clear, if intensely self-centred; but, he adds, ‘his soul was mad’ (p. 000). In a darkened cabin, the terminal Kurtz is seemingly allowed the privilege of the dying man to survey his entire life in flashback, with Marlow, his disciple, in attendance to catch the whisper of his final words, ‘The horror! The horror!’, this severely bare exclamation being apparently an involuntary one, as if ‘torn out of him by a supernatural power’ (p. 000). The emerging view of Kurtz combines elements of the Promethean quester, philosopher-outlaw and deranged genius, whose isolated self-absorption is the condition of both his eventual greatness and consuming madness. In addition, Kurtz’s death-bed scene brings with it the vindicatory suggestion that the ‘criminal hero’ discovers in the ultimacy of evil redemptive possibilities not open to average pilgrims of the world (‘It was an affirmation, a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats, by abominable terrors’ [p. 000]) and is therefore able to see into the essence of things, like the hero described by Thomas Carlyle: ‘A Hero, as I repeat, has this first distinction … That he looks through the shows of things into things. Use and wont, respectable hearsay, respectable formula: all these are good, or not good’ (p. 289).
Given the scarcity of substantiating details about the wraith-like Kurtz, the problems posed by his metamorphoses are especially acute. How, for example, do we identify a logic that can explain the development of a figure ‘hollow’ at the core into a veritable hero of the spirit? Is it possible to find any secure foothold in a simulated nightmare where Kurtz seems at once ‘without substance’ (p. 00) and is, at the same time, everything and everywhere in its formation? Some of the best known literary works are associated with what appear to be unfolding enigmas or riddles, like Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), a poem echoed in the story, and the developing ‘Heart of Darkness’ has some claim to belong to this tradition. In fact, Marlow himself uses the word ‘riddle’ to describe the form of ‘ultimate wisdom’ that makes of life a ‘mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose’ (p. 000). He seems to imply that riddles can have a pattern or ‘logic’, but that the pattern does not really signify anything -- it is fundamentally mysterious.
In many ways, the tale might be said to reproduce the riddle of a structured pattern that is growingly opaque. As Marlow’s quest evolves, the relationship between its early beginnings and its developing ‘secondary’ intuitions becomes increasingly enigmatic. But the medley effect inherent in the later stages of Marlow’s quest presents a further order of difficulty. As the spectral Kurtz forms and re-forms, some of his incarnations overlap and some have a parallel life, but others seem actively to quarrel with each other. This medley effect also, of course, makes for an uncommon mixture of styles and genres -- ranging from the spare style of polemic, through the excited stream of consciousness of a confessional, to the breathless fear of a Victorian sensation novel.
An equivalent sense of expressive riddle inheres not only in how we see things, but also in how we hear them. An episode at the beginning of Part 2 presents Marlow drowsing on the deck of his steamer and suddenly disturbed by broken fragments of a conversation between the Manager and his nephew, who are sometimes too far away for him to hear them properly. Marlow’s imperfect overhearing means that the conversation emerges without a connective logic. It brings him revealing but puzzling ‘snatches’ (p. 000) that only serve to generate further glimpses of Kurtz. A more important form of partial hearing arrives through the constant ellipses that steadily invade Marlow’s narration in the form of unfinished or interrupted sentences marked by agitated pauses and silences: ‘And I heard him -- it -- this voice -- other voices … Voices, voices -- even the girl herself -- now --’ (p. 000). The problem of what and how we hear operates at two levels here. Marlow’s struggle to decipher what he has ‘heard’ is directly relayed to readers as a problem in how we decipher his chosen ‘snatches’. Do his pauses signify a persistent confusion, a willed determination to leave something unspoken, or a panic-stricken sense of the unspeakable?
The fashioning of such glimpses into a sequential narrative has the constant effect of deferring any promise of full insight. So, at one point, Marlow with typical indirection peers through binoculars to catch sight of what appear to be carved balls stuck on posts or discovers a book with mysterious cipher pencilled on its margins. Only later does it transpire, with an accompanying shock and need for readjustment on the observer’s part, that the objects are shrunken heads and that the cipher is a form of annotation in Russian made by the Harlequin. In the case of the discovered heads on sticks, a further trap awaits the reader, since one puzzle is solved only to generate another -- when, that is, Marlow goes on to deem the heads to be ‘symbolic’ and adds that they were ‘expressive and puzzling … food for thought’ (p. 000).
The most extreme forms of expressive puzzle arrive with Marlow’s attempts to glimpse his own obscure motives. The causal logic of a narrative sequence usually depends upon the reader’s more or less clear perception of human motive. But Marlow the aspiring narrative-maker is sometimes defeated by an inability to fathom even his own governing motives. No explanation is given for his desire to confront Kurtz in isolation (‘to this day I don’t know why I was so jealous of sharing with any one the peculiar blackness of that experience’ [p. 00]) or why he wishes to visit the Intended (‘I had no clear perception of what it was I really wanted’ [p. 000]) or whether he has acquired the correct papers of Kurtz to hand to her (‘I was not even sure whether he had given me the right bundle’ [p. 000]). Such deferrals of meaning could not, it might be supposed, prolong indefinitely. Yet the tale’s ending tends to do just this when it returns to the point at which it began -- with the narrator sitting among his friends aboard a boat on the River Thames -- and implies that the end is but a beginning to another telling.
‘Come and find out’ (p. 00). The African jungle’s teasing invitation to Marlow is also projected to the story’s readers with the implication that, even with a full command of the evidence it has to offer, they will need to read inferentially and conjecturally. The history of ‘Heart of Darkness’ criticism vividly indicates how the invitation has been taken up by successive generations and how, in the process, the work has undergone constant renewal.
(In addition to the items listed in ‘Further Reading’, the following
Achebe, Chinua, ‘An Image of Africa’, Massachusetts Review, 17.4 (1977), 782-94.
Student Review by Lucy Bowes, Durham University.
Conrad’s Heart of Darkness speaks of Marlow’s journeys deep into the heart of the Congo in search of the mysterious Kurtz. Not only does his novel speak of the horrors of the colonial rule in the Belgian Congo and its futile intent, but in a more symbolic way of the human condition. Held in perfect equipoise between realism and modernism, Conrad explores consciousness in a manner which, if not entirely comfortable, is nonetheless fascinating. Infused with the echoes of both the gothic and the detective genre this book appeals to a variety of literary tastes.
I was captivated by the abundance of imagery and symbolism that haunt the pages of this dark novel. I found myself driven further on with an urgency similar to that of Marlow’s, both to discover and understand Kurtz. Deep and complex questions are raised and for a relatively small volume their significance is vast. Long after the last page has been turned these questions continued to linger at the periphery of our conscience.
Heart of Darkness is a classic that is not only a pleasure to read, but causes us to examine in new light the nature of our being.
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