“Heart of Darkness”

One of my favorite authors is Joseph Conrad. Brooke sparked me to read one of his stories again so I can talk to her about it. It is the tale: “Heart of Darkness”. Reading Conrad is no easy task. So much of the narrative is the record of the inner working of the minds of the characters, in this case the character Marlow.


Moving along the Thames on a yacht, the seaman Marlow shares his African experience with some friends. As a youngster the open spaces on the map of Africa beckoned him. He tries to get hired by a French firm to operate a ship along a river that comes out of the deepest Africa. He is so taken with the idea that he enlists an Aunt to help him get the job. He arrives at the mouth of the great river. He witnesses a group of black prisoners being herded along. We hear his thoughts as the white guard gives the knowing look of partnership to Marlow: “After all, I also was a part of the great cause of these high and just proceedings”. He is not.


At headquarters his reputation is enhanced because of the strings the aunt pulled to get him hired. The management staff puts him in the same category of persons as a man named Kurtz. Kurtz, “a remarkable man” sends in more ivory than all of the other traders combined. An overland hike leads him to the Central Station where he must begin repairs on the boat he is to Captain further into the interior. We read the word “nigger” used to describe a man beaten for starting a fire. After the beating he just disappears into the surrounding jungle. All of these events are shared to give insight to the thinking of the character Marlow.


He learns more of Kurtz from the jealous management of Central Station. Kurtz the “universal genius” has become the focus of the novel. He repairs the boat and off they go up river. Marlow overhears a conversation about Kurtz’s last shipment of ivory that came down the river in a fleet of canoes. Kurtz decided to turn back at the last moment but the ivory arrived. He calls the white men pilgrims. He and the pilgrims start up river with a crew of cannibals. On this journey we get his impressions of the natives on the shores. “The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us—who could tell?”


A quote that almost any visitor to the edges of African society can relate to is: “It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend.” Thus, the foreshadowing of Kurtz’s outcome builds. The phrase, though not in the book, is: going native.


They arrive at a hut with a note urging them to hurry but be careful. Eight miles out, they anchor for the night. The morning founds them surrounded in a fog. I remember a burning around the Mazabuka school during a basketball tournament that riled up a horde of bees. I was walking across a field noticing all of the young men throwing themselves to the ground. I only realized why as the bees began to buzz my head. This is what I thought about as I read of the attack upon the boat. Marlow watches as his crew is scurrying for cover around him while he is yet to realize that they are being assaulted by a fuselage of arrows. The attack inspires some shooting by the pilgrims, the wounding and death by spear of his helmsman. It was the tooting of the boat’s horn that frightens the attackers away. We learn later that it was Kurtz himself who had ordered the attack.


Marlow dumps the helmsman body over board and talks of the bond that the job had created between himself and the helmsman. We get more and more hints about Kurtz. A picture is beginning to emerge of a man left to his own devices who used his Western technology and his natural talents to gain ascendance over the tribes for the purpose of obtaining ivory. This power has created a lock on his soul that leads him into acts and thoughts that are more and more divorced from his European roots.


They reach Kurtz’s station. The pilgrims go ashore. A young Russian who has befriended the mercurial Kurtz comes on board and shares more insights about Kurtz to Marlow. He eventually disappears into the jungle with some gifts from Marlow after realizing that the pilgrims will not treat him properly. This is where we hear of Kurtz’s exploits with the tribes. The two sides of his existence are illustrated as we learn of the conversations between the Russian and Kurtz that illustrate the higher nobility of man and the base emotions that take Kurtz over even to the threatening with death of the one man who adores him and has nursed him through sicknesses. Marlow confirms this soulish struggle by viewing with his binoculars the skulls on poles surrounding Kurtz’s camp. We learn that they are only the heads of rebels to the rule of Kurtz.


The pilgrims bring Kurtz on a stretcher to the boat. His voice still commands authority over the natives as they bring him to the boat. It is here that we are given the description of the African woman in the finest attire that her society can provide. She comes to the shore before all of her tribesmen and is seeming to give a final cry for the return of Kurtz to her and what he has created.


Kurtz on board with his methods of procuring ivory disgraced in the eyes of the pilgrims waiting to die. Marlow wakes in the night to find Kurtz gone. He goes ashore in the dark and follows the trail and finds him. One word from Kurtz can bring his swift death by the surrounding natives. But, Marlow is able to get him back onto the boat. His description of his thoughts as he brings the man in is worth reading. The next day they take off down the river to a throbbing group of natives who do not have the heart to make an attempt to stop them. It was the sound of the horn that scatters them, all except for the one proud African princess who refuses to cower in fear.


Marlow hears Kurtz’s soul struggle fought out in his delirious condition. His desires for greatness and notoriety, his dreams, his betrothed and his new found African lusts and desires. His final words: “The horror. The horror”. Marlow is forever linked to Kurtz and his legacy. He had been entrusted with some documents by Kurtz before his death. His life will never be the same.

Home again, he has experienced something only able to be described this night on the yacht. He rebuffs attempts by the company to get Kurtz’s documents. He decides to give them to Kurtz’s betrothed. He visits her. She was greatly in love with the man. She was in love with his dreams. She was in love with his noble character. Marlow his friend. Present at his death. His final words. What were they? This woman who reminds Marlow of the African woman on the shore wants to know the final words of Kurtz, her beloved. Marlow lies:  “The last word he pronounced was—your name. All of these events are recounted with an examination of what Marlow is thinking.


We all live lives, thinking as we go. Joseph Conrad catches this and writes about it well.


About hansston

Pastor a church in Sparta.
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