Book of the Week

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Title: Heart of Darkness
Author : Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness was first published in 1899 as a three part serial in Blackwood Magazine. It is the story of a journey of exploration on the river Congo into the heart of Africa. Though the book has been condemned by some as a misrepresentation of the country, I would see it more as a journey of the protagonist, Marlow, into his own inner psyche, which is critical of the colonial culture among other things.

In the beginning of the story, Marlow states,

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking 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.

Marlow continues to have this stance through out the book as he journeys into the heart of Congo in quest of the elusive Mr Kurtz, who was not just an ivory trader but also  a remarkable man. When he finds Kurtz , the legendary figure is sick and on his deathbed. He gives Marlow a bunch of letters from his fiancee. Finally, when he died, he cried out  the horror, the horror. Was he denouncing a horrible vision he had, or the horrible life he had lead, or the horror of dying in the way he did? Just before he uttered these words, Marlow, who was with him  on the journey back , describes his last facial expression.

 I saw on the ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror — of an intense and hopeless despair.

Kurtz had been also doing a report on Suppression of Savage Customs. Just as the conquistadors in South America had exterminated the local population for gold, glory and God with advanced weaponry, the ivory traders were intent on conquering the local population for ivory, glory and God. Anything unfamiliar was seen as savage and, therefore, bad. It had to be replaced by customs acceptable to the ivory traders and invaders. To me, through this story, Conrad has successfully exposed how invaders not only loot the invaded country off it’s wealth but also destroy the local colour and culture.

Kurtz ‘s was an impenetrable darkness. The darkness highlighted in the book, I would say, refers to the blackness of the ivory trader’s  psyche which sees anything different as negative. It also refers to the intent of the invaders who defeats the local population to harvest their resources, in this case ivory, and drain the conquered country of their wealth. Darkness refers to the ignorance and obtuseness of the invader to the needs of the invaded, who living in harmony with the nature around them, have evolved a culture and lifestyle best suited to mankind in that environment. What goes on in the the name of development is a cultural imposition and not a harmonious cultural intermingling. And this is something that Conrad has critiqued repeatedly in this book.

Marlow himself fell sick. So, all the perceptions he has about the locals are from the perspective of a semi-conscious sick man. He had to be nursed back before he could return the letters to Kurtz’s fiancee, who is absolutely in the dark about Kurtz’s cruelty and viciousness( Kurtz had shrunken heads of natives on poles at a certain distance from his post in Congo). She only sees Kurtz as the penniless lover who went into Africa to make money and, thus, be accepted by her family. She says, Men looked up to him( Kurtz)–his goodness shone in every act.

Marlow keeps her in the darkness about his last words too and says he died with her name on his lips because she wants something– something–to–to live with. She is also the opposite of darkness and her hair glows with a golden light.

This is a book that makes me think. It makes me wonder if development means the same thing to all the people of the world, if what we judge to be good for ourselves would be good for others. To me, it is a cry for tolerance of things unfamiliar and new. It is a call to be positive and open to all cultures, religions, races and life.

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