Saturday, 22 February 2014

Review: 'Heart of Darkness' by Joseph Conrad

117837Heart of Darkness is the kind of novel that splits an English degree class in half. There is those who like it, fervently, and those who hate it, passionately. The same happened to my year when we read this novel in one of my modules about Victorian literature. I found myself among those who were surprised by the novel and found themselves defending it. This novel is also on my 100 Classics list

Dark allegory describes the narrator’s journey up the Congo River and his meeting with, and fascination by, Mr. Kurtz, a mysterious personage who dominates the unruly inhabitants of the region. Masterly blend of adventure, character development, psychological penetration. Considered by many Conrad’s finest, most enigmatic story.
Before getting to the actual review, I want to discuss the throughI had about this novel before I even got to reading it. Heart of Darkness is one of those books you know about, have heard about but have never read. You have talked to people about it who haven't read it either and together you have decided that it is a racist empirical novel that cannot be liked by anyone who believes in equality. Although I might be presenting it a bit extreme, there are a lot of prejudices towards Conrad and his novel that hardly anyone ever fights against. While reading it, I found almost all of them disproved and I want to address perhaps the most important one. Yes, there is racism in this book and it is at time quite shocking. The narrator, Marlow, and the author, Conrad, are products of their time and therefore, to a certain extent, share their age's ideas. However, the novel is one of questions. Joseph Conrad and Marlow slowly lose a conviction they never really believed in as they travel down the river into the heart of darkness. Marlow is the foreigner here, the one who intrudes and doesn't fit in, and I believe this is partially what triggers his doubts. By the end of the novel, any difference that Marlow sees between himself and Africans is self protection, because once he accepts them as equal, the behaviour he has seen around him and tolerated becomes blame.

The novel starts out in London, on the river Thames, where Marlow and some other marines are waiting for their next journey and it is on that ship, waiting, that Marlow tells his tale. In the beginning he is occasionally interrupted, but once his story takes him away from England everyone else is silenced. Because Conrad makes it explicit that Marlow is talking, you cannot help but question whether he is a reliable narrator or not. Is he trying to present himself or others in a better light? Quotes like the one below makes this question more complicated:
'They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force — nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind — as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only.' 
This quote doesn't present Marlow as a very big Empire-supporter. Rather, he seems to see the flaws of the system, the corruptness and lies that lie at the centre of the ideology, but doesn't know how to respond to them. All his life, Marlow has dreamed of exploring the blank spaces on his maps and now that he has come so close, he realizes that there is a darkness in these "blank" spaces and he had no right to assume there was nothing there. The violence with which the British forced themselves upon Africa is judged severely in this book as disproportionate and deluded. The 'idea' Conrad mentions was the "belief" among some that it was Britain's duty to spread democracy and education to other, less developed places. Although the latter is to be recommended, the first reminds of modern-day America which has damaged itself and its international reputation by throwing themselves into the limelight as Democratic Country Nr. 1.

The narrative and theme of the novel, which will possibly throw some people off and undoubtedly start an argument, distracts from Conrad's style of writing, which is absolutely beautiful. Marlow, as a narrator, talks very emotively and is very descriptive. His increasing frustration over his situation and his alienation from his surroundings become clear in the text and in the way he writes it. The repeated mentioning of the 'silence' in the jungle surrounding Marlow is oppresive to both him and the reader but also seems like 'a deep breath before the plunge'. The entire novel seems to have an air of suspension, as if a major change is about to come yet no one knows when and how. As such, the reader accompanies Marlow on his journey and for me, I was definitely changed at the end.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!!

This is the kind of novel that you will have to think about. It is a trigger for a lot of conversations but also simply a beautifully written novel. Conrad's prose is elegant and honest, without oppressing the reader with grand ideas. I recommend it to everyone, even if you think you might dislike it like I initially did. It is a novel I will pick up again and again, reread with purpose and just when I want to read something beautiful.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your wonderful thoughts on Conrad, Juli. I'm a huge fan of Graham Greene, and several years ago, a friend referred me to Conrad's "The Secret Agent" - mentioning its influence on Graham Greene (among many others.) The novel in turn had a huge impact on my own writing. Conrad has a way of thinking in his approach to characterization that is absolutely inimitable. I came away with a profound sense of awe at his mastery of characterization and his descriptive techniques. When you get around to reading another Conrad, if you haven't read this one, I recommend it highly. It has his trademark skepticism and melancholy, and he leaves the reader with a sense of having consumed a feast in a few bites. I have read it and re-read it, and still turn to passages when I need a bit of inspiration. Graham Greene said of him, ''That blasted Pole makes me green with envy because he writes literature when he's trying to write journalism and I write journalism when I'm trying to write literature.'' Janice Graham (aka Juliet Gael)