Heart of Darkness
Hello and welcome to this installment of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). I’m tackling a few more novels before the end of this experiment. After blazing through some Cormac McCarthy I decided to take a plunge into a universal piece of modern literature: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
This novella, first published in serial form in 1899, should be familiar to students of literature or anyone who has followed the many ways it has influenced art since its release. While over the years there have been substantial criticism of this work (most notably the racist imagery), I felt this was worth the time to sit and read over the course of a few days. I’ll get to some of the critical considerations after we first take a look at some of the major lessons writers can draw from this work.
Use of symbolism. This is arguably the profound lesson to be drawn from this work. Conrad uses an amazing tapestry of words and images to describe Marlow’s horrific journey up the river to “rescue” Kurtz from his entrenched madness. This includes stunning passages involving the steamer enveloped in a white shroud of fog, and also terrifying illusions of the heads of “rebels” placed on spikes before the domain of Kurtz. Conrad was attempting to show the barbaric nature of the Belgian mission in Congo at the time, and while some have argued he should have gone more descriptive in this territory, I feel this lines up nicely with the next lesson.
Write what you “don’t” know. Conrad was taken to task by critics for specifically not describing some of the worst things Marlow sees on his journey, using such words as “inscrutable” or making it known that Marlow doesn’t even want to describe what he sees. While this is a tough strategy for an author to take, in my opinion the advantages can be many. Even a simple epigraph as Kurtz utters before he dies (“the horror”) can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. To me, this lines up with the essential unknowability of the human heart and its capacity for wondrous good and appalling evil.
Being open to interpretation. The fact that this landmark work can tell us things today should be an indicator of how deeply enmeshed into the human condition Conrad takes us as we journey along with Marlow (who in the story is regaling some other sailors outside London with the entire tale). Conrad made the deliberate choice to not be completely moralizing regarding the destruction wrought by Kurtz, indicated somewhat in the closing paragraphs of the tale when Marlow is forced to lie to Kurtz’s “Intended” so as not to besmirch his reputation.
All of that being said, there are still a ton of critical responses to this work, and I was lucky enough to read a few of them in the Norton Critical Edition I had. Of particular note is the African author Chinua Achebe, whose massively influential lecture on Conrad’s racism was included here in a revised form. Achebe’s major argument is that despite on the surface seeming to indict white European greed and recklessness, Conrad’s inability to show us much of the African characters (even refusing to allow them to speak very much) is just another form of the same problem. The entire essay was well worth reading and I would highly advise it as a counterpoint to this work.
Overall I would recommend this novella to anyone who wants to see a pristine example of how literature is supposed to operate. True, this story has accumulated a number of flaws over the years, but I feel the reader needs to at least engage with it and find out what he or she thinks before delving into the many levels of interpretation and criticism.
I should add that two other works I’ve encountered over the years have finally led me to reading Conrad’s original vision: Adam Hochschild’s stunning 1998 book King Leopold’s Ghost, and Coppola's 1979 film Apocalypse Now. I would also recommend engaging with these if you are planning a deep dive into Conrad.
This was a pretty short book so it leaves me time to cram one more novel into this year’s experiment. I’m taking another weird turn into a massively influential author I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read: Franz Kafka. A viewing some years back of Orson Welles’ film rendition of The Trial got this book on my list; I hope to read it and get an essay up by the end of 2017.
As always, thanks for reading.
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John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cat. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.