This week marks the birthday (December 3rd) of Joseph Conrad, one of my favorite authors. I love Heart of Darkness so much that I’m pretty much convinced it’s the greatest book ever written in my native language. And Conrad wasn’t even a native English speaker. He was Polish.
I’m going to let that sink in a bit: a man who was possibly the best writer in English was not a native speaker. Crazy, eh? If you’ve never read his masterpiece novella, Heart of Darkness, you must do it as soon as possible. It’s the sort of book where you start underlining a phrase because it’s so deep and amazing and before you know it, you’ve underlined six pages. For me, Heart of Darkness is the seminal book for my favorite era, an apocalyptic closing epitaph for the Victorian way of thinking just as the modern world intrudes.
The Victorians were an odd bunch, which is why I love them so much. On the one hand, they were marvelous explorers and catalogers of our world. They embraced science with a fervor that allowed them to create much of what we so rely on in this century, from medicine to transportation to entertainment to technology. They saw the rise of many of the schools of thought that now define how we see ourselves and others. But at the same time, they were oppressively colonial, racist and sexist. They were religious zealots and (at least publicly) sexual prudes. For every bit of the modern world they dove right into, there was something of the past they clung to tenaciously. They were, in short, a study in contrasts. Dickens’ opening lines from A Tale of Two Cities were meant to both describe the period of the French revolution, and his own world: it really was the best and worst of times, and a period for superlatives.
Joseph Conrad’s work, particularly Heart of Darkness, perfectly addresses the biggest themes of the Victorian struggle with themselves. He does this by allowing the story to be told to us by a single person, as a memory from a journey the narrator has taken. This is no omniscient author, but a man trying to understand his own society through the lens of his experiences in the jungle, in another world. Sometimes he nails the truth on the head, and sometimes he doesn’t.
Marlow, our narrator, tackles racism (generally pretty badly, but with some sympathy in place), colonialism (with greater success), and sexism (also pretty badly). At least, that’s how it seems at first. But if you read Marlow’s narration as somewhat unreliable, as human and prone to error, the book becomes something else entirely. Suddenly, Marlow’s own prejudices highlight the failings of his time, and Conrad hints throughout that Marlow’s views are both suspect and malleable. This ability to change his mind, to learn new perspectives and imperfectly apply them, makes Marlow a different sort of hero. He isn’t always right, but that’s the point.
For example, when Marlow tells us early in the story:
“It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over,”
we wonder at his blatant sexism, at his willful misunderstanding of all women. At the end of the book, when he meets the fiance of Kurtz, the man he left behind in the jungle, Marlow finds himself unable to tell her the truth of Kurtz’s last words, of his last realizations, simply because Marlow can hardly bear to know that truth himself. “I could not tell her,” he says. “It would have been too dark — too dark altogether…” This is sexist Marlow protecting the innocent world of which he was formerly so critical. That’s a bit of a shift, though, from seeing women as silly in their innocence to believing that perhaps the truth is so terrible, it isn’t worth knowing in the first place.
But once again, just when you think you have a handle on his ideas, Marlow proves to be unsure of his own beliefs. He tells his listeners that he later hears “the echo of [Kurtz’s] magnificent eloquence thrown to me from a soul as translucently pure as a cliff of crystal.” That soul is Kurtz’s fiance. So how does this innocent women, to whom Marlow can barely admit the truth, come to “echo” Kurtz’s terrible admissions? Could it be that Marlow is willfully and hopefully underestimating what she really understands about “the horror” that exists within all our hearts? When the fiance asks for Kurtz’s last words, Marlow doesn’t tell her that Kurtz said “the horror,” but instead tells her that Kurtz’s last words were of her. This lie, while kind on the face of it, shows us that the woman is part of “the horror,” a true “echo” of it. It becomes difficult to believe that Marlow really thinks she is “out of touch with truth.” It seems more likely that he’s deeply afraid she actually knows that truth, and that, even with her “translucently pure” soul, she may understand it better than he does. It’s much more frightening to realize that even an innocent woman is capable of barbarity in her heart, and it’s certainly not very Victorian to suggest that possibility.
So we can’t actually rely on Marlow as a witness to Victorian sexism. And we can’t rely on him as a witness to anything else, either. The astute reader realizes that Conrad has created a hero whose understanding of the world is necessarily limited. Marlow doesn’t speak for Conrad: he speaks only for Marlow, and that allows the author to tell us much more about his world than if he were issuing pronouncements from on high.
What Marlow really throws himself into is the battle between the highest, most “civilized” aspects of our nature, and the basest, most feral portions of ourselves. He does this with surprising clarity about who, in the end, embodies those qualities best. For a story set in Africa, he is relatively reasonable toward the natives of the area (or at best mildly dismissive), and hardest on the white men who travel there and exploit the landscape and its people (and yes, I’ve read Chinua Achebe’s essay on this novel. Obviously, I don’t agree with most of it).
What I like most about Heart of Darkness is that, while other Victorians worried endlessly over the Frankenstein-ian nature of our inner selves — were we really just civilized apes? — Conrad tackles the issue head on and decides that at our worst, we don’t become primitive beasts at all, but despotic gods. Marlow finds that the further he gets from civilization, the fewer checks are placed on the behaviors of the men around him, and the more evil they become. When he finally reaches Mr. Kurtz at the end of the Congo river, he finds that Kurtz has created a mini-theocracy, with himself in charge and terrible rites enacted in his favor. “The horror” that Kurtz sees as he lies dying is not about death, but about who we become when there’s no one around to stop our most grandiose desires. We need society, Conrad suggests, to keep us from becoming monsters. The Africans Marlow meets turn out to have a civilization, though it differs from his own. They aren’t in danger from the heart of darkness: it’s only the men who step outside the boundaries of their own cultures who end up beyond recall. The horror of Heart of Darkness is deliberately, ironically, not in “darkest” Africa at all: it’s in ourselves.
Marlow’s tale, though deeply disturbing, is also hopeful. Though he suggests that Kurtz’s perfectly civilized fiance is just as tainted as Kurtz, he also suggests that there is an alternative. If we listen to the story, if we hear the truth, we can save ourselves. Unlike the writers of a later generation, Conrad believes that we might all turn out okay, if we keep an eye on one another. He doesn’t reject society: he concedes that without it, we might all be tempted to give in to our hearts of darkness.
In the scene where Marlow meets the head of Kurtz’s company back in Belgium in order to give them Kurtz’s documents, the company head says this of Kurtz:
“‘… but heaven! how that man could talk. He electrified large meetings. He had faith — don’t you see? — he had the faith. He could get himself to believe anything — anything. He would have been a splendid leader of an extreme party.’ ‘What party?’ I asked. ‘Any party,’ answered the other.”
If that doesn’t foreshadow the dilemmas of the coming century, I’m not sure what does. Reading Heart of Darkness makes me think about the soldiers of Nazi Germany, about the militias in the Congo, about the greedy and grasping politicians of our own country. What happens to our souls when there is no one there to tell us “no”?
In his preface to the unfortunately-titled The Nigger of Narcissus, Conrad begins: “A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line.” What I love about his writing is that it does just that: justifies writing as art. Conrad wrote a very short little book that is, in my humble opinion, the greatest work ever written in English (Jane Eyre not withstanding). Ever sentence matters, every character means something, and the conclusion still applies — both to Conrad’s world, and to our own.
Happy birthday, Joe!