Book Title: Heart of Darkness
Author: Joseph Conrad
Original Publication Date: 1903
Edition Read: Barnes & Noble Classics (1994)
Total Pages: 137
Genre: Classic Adventure Novella
Reason Read: Given to me by another Blogger, was also short enough to read between baby’s even shorter naps
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
“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. It was impossible – it was not good for one either – trying to imagine. He had taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land – I mean literally. You can’t understand. How could you? – with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbors ready to cheer you or to fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums – how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man’s untrammeled feet may take him into by the way of solitude – utter solitude without a policeman – by the way of silence – utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbor can be heard whispering of public opinion? These little things make all the great difference.” ~ Section II (pg. 85)
My friend Stacy @ Stacy’s Books gives away random used books from her collection every month or so. If you happen to be lucky enough to stop by her post early enough, you can simply leave a comment with first dibs on which one you would like. I raised my hand asking for Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” when she put it out there as a freebie. I didn’t know anything about the story, the author or even the genre. I just thought it sounded creepy and I was in the mood for something like that. And so she mailed it off to me and it sat near the top of my pile of paperbacks for quite some time. Newborns have a way of making reading time obsolete. But even my son Sammy’s short naps were long enough for me to complete a novella, so I finally reached for Conrad’s ominous sounding tale.
Written at the end of the 1800’s, serialized originally and then published in 1903, the “Heart of Darkness” has a sailor for a narrator named Marlow, weaving his tale of time in the Congo employed by the European ivory traders as a river steamboat captain. His mission was to sail up river and rescue an ailing station manager deep in the jungle. Mr. Kurtz was a remarkable man with a magnetic personality and a nose for ivory. Or so the rumors said. Marlow had heard so much about this Kurtz fellow that he was completely intrigued by the myth of the man. The journey to Kurtz was harrowing and dangerous. The rawness of the unruly jungle, the fear of the uncivilized natives and the ease with which connection to mankind is severed are all described in great detail. We also witness very uncomfortably the methods employed by the Europeans seeking to colonize regions for their resources rather than caring about the people (barely thought of as human) living there.
The big topic up for discussion in this brief book is humanity’s innate nature – are we good or are we evil when stripped of all other influences? Kurtz has gone mad with malaria and is on death’s door. But he also seems to have a heart of pure darkness. What civilization saw as a remarkable man – caring, intelligent, gifted – exists as a vicious beast when living in solitude. He wields his power with violence and terror, ripping ivory out of the hands of tribes and placing the heads of those who cross him on posts around the station.
Did Kurtz start off good and kind and turn evil when he lost contact with the world he knew? Or was he evil to the core but the civilized world kept it all in check? Should we be shocked by the man Kurtz was or became? Who is to say we wouldn’t turn out the same way if we were left to live only within our own minds, doing what needed to be done to survive?
Personally, I think that it depends upon how you come to be alone. If you go out on your own willingly looking for solitude, you are probably more mentally prepared for that kind of living. If you become lost or abandoned, I imagine you might approach the situation a lot differently. But the bottom line is, solitude can turn your mind. It is challenging to live only with yourself. It takes a lot of strength and faith to keep your wits, your ideals, your morals in check. And really, if you are truly alone, and you go mad, who cares? The only person you can harm is yourself anyway.
This is where I think the question of Kurtz is answered. Deep down, Kurtz was a jerk. He may have been stuck out at that station deep in the jungle up river on his own for a long time. But he wasn’t alone. There were native tribes around him. He communicated with them. He had followers out there. A rogue European wanderer considered him a mentor. Kurtz used his solitude to act out the way he had always wanted – there were no checks and balances in place out there other than his own morals. Being a hypocritical company man, pilfering the land and natives for the ivory cash cow and sweeping the slavery tactics under the rug was a shameful way to make a living. But blatantly doing the same thing without apologies did not make it a lessor evil.
I enjoyed thinking about the themes in this story. I finished reading it in the dark when we were surviving by firelight without the comforts of civilization ourselves thanks to an early snow storm. My husband asked me what I was reading and when I told him he went on to tell me that he read the book in school, re-read it a few years ago and that he preferred the other accompanying novella, “The Secret Sharer,” found in both my copy as well as his, that had been sitting on our bookshelf for at least a decade. So it turns out that I requested a book from Stacy that I already had sitting in my house. Oh well. I wonder what other books are hiding from me?
A final note – for you movie buffs – is that Apocalypse Now is a modernized interpretation of “Heart of Darkness” with Marlon Brando playing the role of Kurtz. That character always curdled my blood. Read the book if you would like to learn more about the inspiration.