Heart of Darkness is a bit of a mystifying muddle for me. I’ve read it a couple of times now, and I’m still none the wiser about what exactly Conrad’s trying to say. I’ve read a fair few classics in my time and I normally find them pretty accessible, but this one has left me stumped. It’s not the language itself so much as the way it’s written. I found it really dense and hard going, which may have something to do with the fact that English wasn’t Conrad’s first language.
The basic gist of the story, which is about the only thing I understand, is as follows. Marlow is working for an ivory-trading company, and sails down the Congo on a steamboat to relieve one of their agents, Kurtz. He becomes a bit obsessive about Kurtz on the voyage, having heard a lot about him, but Kurtz is very ill when they meet and appears to have gone mad. It turns out that Kurtz was probably responsible for ordering the natives to attack Marlow’s steamboat, because he doesn’t want to have to leave his station.
I’m just not sure what to make of it, largely because I can’t work out what Conrad’s points are on colonialism and slavery. I’m not sure what impression I’m meant to take away of Kurtz – the natives are definitely fans of his in the book, and yet Kurtz’s station is surrounded by the heads of natives on poles, and Kurtz includes a postscript on his report for the ‘Suppression of Savage Customs’ saying “kill them all!”, or words to that effect. I can’t work out what Kurtz or Conrad’s stances are, and so I can’t really form an opinion. At least I’m not the only one confused by the ambiguity. Chinua Achebe caused debate when he accused the book of being racist and dehumanising Africans, but those who opposed his claim said that Conrad was presenting a sarcastic and therefore critical view of slavery and treatment of the natives. Was it sarcastic? I really just can’t tell, which basically means that the whole premise of the book is lost on me, and this makes me sad. If anyone’s able to enlighten me at all on basically anything that’s happening in this book, please, please do. I want to be able to understand it better. Maybe I’ll give it another crack in a few years, but at the moment it’s making me head hurt too much.
See also My Culture Mission, or read previous Book Review featuring Sebastian Faulks’ A Possible Life.