Heart of Darkness is the haunting tale of a young man’s experience as a steamboat captain in Africa during the days of European Imperialism. The main character, Marlow, gains employment with an ivory trading company, and travels to the mysterious continent that has fascinated him since boyhood. Once there, he is faced with a dual culture shock: the strong, dark African natives are a foreign sight, while the foul condition in which they are enslaved strips away his naivety. Awaiting his mission, Marlow learns of a man named Kurtz. This man is stationed far up river and brings in more ivory than all other station chiefs combined. Kurtz has a near-legendary reputation and a mesmerising influence over many people. Eventually Marlow is sent on the several-hundred mile journey to Kurtz’s station. On the way up river, though he and his crew rarely leave the boat, the surrounding jungle becomes one of the characters in the story: dark, imposing, always watching and able to unleash death at any moment. Marlow discovers more about Kurtz. Though many question the man’s savage methods, and his rogue behaviour has seen him fall out of favour with company directors, his words and thinking are authoritative; Marlow begins to empathise with him. At Kurtz’s station they find him, frail and sickly, while still commanding the obedience of hundreds of native tribesmen. He is taken onto the boat, and amongst the disapproving crew he recognises an ally in Marlow. Kurtz commits to him his writings and his memory. His life and death affect Marlow; when he returns to Europe he is unable to view the world with the innocent eyes he once had.
Joseph Conrad dares to dig deep in Heart of Darkness. His portrayal of life in Africa shows the depths of human depravity: whether in the idol-worshiping, cannibalistic natives, or in the colonising Europeans, whose fine suits cannot cover their callous greed and barbarism. It is a disturbing picture, and one I recognise in myself. In moments of rare courage or extreme inebriation I have ventured to look inward and examine my own heart. It is dark indeed. What hidden motives I have unearthed, and these just below the surface. What lies deeper still? Law and “decency” guide me, but if my heart were unrestrained, to what evils would it run? What if I had no one to answer to, if I didn’t have to explain myself or look anybody in the eye? Suppose there were no consequences or rewards, no threat of Hell or hope of Heaven. I fear there would be no limit to my selfishness, cowardice, lust and violence. How quickly I would trade the lives of others to save my own, or even to gain some small convenience. What swift and cruel vengeance I would take against any perceived wrong. I would surely dive headlong into every carnal pleasure available, regardless of the effect on anyone else. It is a frightful thing to gaze down the deep, dark well and see the contorted reflection staring back. All estimations of my goodness and civility are shown to be as flimsy as a cardboard shelter in a cyclone. There is no righteousness of my own to stand upon, no untainted goodness to boast about. There is nothing but a sickening realisation of how close I am to falling and how far there is to fall. In such moments I quickly jerk back into facades and pretences, comforts and distractions, for to remain with eyes fixed on that dreadful sight would surely overwhelm me until I cried out with Kurtz, “The horror! The horror!”
But hey, nobody’s perfect, am I right?
I am told Heart of Darkness was the inspiration for a classic Marlon Brando movie. I’ve seen several of his movies and I’m not sure which one it is. On the Waterfront seems to be the closest, as they’re both set near water. If that is the case then I must say I am appalled. Not with On the Waterfront itself—it’s a fine motion picture—but rather with the producers’ butchering of the source material. Joseph Conrad goes and writes this brilliant work and then some big shot moviemakers come in and trash it to suit their tastes (and no doubt for big money). It’s a disgrace. Apart from the water, On the Waterfront is nothing like Heart of Darkness. The most memorable line from the book, Kurtz’s dying words, is replaced in the movie by Brando’s character saying he could have been a contender. Joseph Conrad must have been so disappointed. But that’s Hollywood for you.
Clocking in at a little over a hundred pages, Heart of Darkness grabs you by the collar, draws you in and knocks you over, and then it’s finished. It’s a powerful read. 7/10
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