What becomes of us when we find ourselves in the Heart of Darkness? Not in a place full of darkness visible like Milton’s hell, but in a place where a person is no longer a person. What happens when you, or me, or your best friend and loved one finds themselves isolated from our “modern” world, outside of the physical and metaphysical boundaries that we’ve been raised in?
This is what Joseph Conrad asks of us as readers every time someone picks up the old novel “Heart of Darkness”.
At a first glance, one might argue that in the Heart of Darkness, we devolve into the worst version of ourselves. And that anyone who finds themselves isolated from the world will succumb to their darkest and most vile and horrifying impulses. After all, that is why we built cities and empires, so that we could live together in society. So that we could live by the rule of law, so that we wouldn’t kill our neighbors whenever a disagreement was brought up. So that we don’t end up like Mr. Kurtz.
“Heart of Darkness” is the story of Marlow, a young steamboat captain, who finds himself in the middle of the Congo during the times of the British Empire. I swear that if it was a video game it would be a boring one. In terms of action and adventure nothing really happens. Except for that one ambush that takes place near the end of the book but it is pretty unremarkable. Instead, the book focuses heavily on depicting the scenery of the dense jungle and the oppressive nature of extreme temperatures as well as the unnatural and eerie vibes of searching for a lost Ivory poacher/trader.
If I had to describe the book akin to a movie, I would say that the pacing is slow, and while the novel is quite short, every word counts. The book is constantly foreshadowing Kurtz. It builds up and hypes the reader with each bit of information about the enigmatic character everybody seems to either respect or outright hate.
Also, since the book was written about 120 years ago, you can expect a lot of colonial grade racism. Specially when the novel depicts the so-called helpers as just “dark figures” and “wearing grotesque masks” and downright “not human”. And of course the N word. So please keep that in mind.
So, on the one hand the book is preparing the reader and Marlow for their encounter with the legendary Mr. Kurtz, while at the same time it depicts the Congo and its inhabitants as otherworldly and dangerous. So, at a first glance, Mr. Kurtz seems as he deserves our praise and admiration for daring to venture into the Heart of Darkness. See what I did there?
But things in Literature are rarely that simple. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading Conrad’s novel in your English literature courses.
So let’s talk about Mr. Kurtz. Because it is not that Marlow is boring or anything, but he serves as more of a vessel than an actual character, at least for our 21st century standards.
Ok, so if you’ve seen Apocalypse Now! or have played Spec Ops The Line, then you already know what’s going on with Kurtz. If you haven’t, don’t spoil the fun for the rest of your friends and classmates, or do, I don’t care… or do I?
If you read the novel in the most literal sense, you will probably think that the Heart of Darkness is the Congo, and that is of course a valid reading. Especially with how much emphasis is placed on the “dark figures”, the darkness that hides behind the jungle, the river’s mist which literally leaves the steam boat in the dark, and the fact that almost half of the book takes place at night. But you are a serious reader, and you want cool and hip close readings of your favorite/mandatory readings!
So, if you payed attention to the opening pages of the book, then you noticed that Marlow speaks of the Thames as once having been a dark place that was visited by explorers and conquerors. And that in that darkness these roman conquerors might have experienced something that changed them forever. To better know themselves or something like that. A revelation if you will.
If you read the Congo as one of these dark places, then Marlow and Kurtz become like the old roman conquerors who were “men enough to face the darkness.” (Conrad, 5) And yes, this darkness can be read as just a physical challenge to overcome. Like surviving on your skills and wits and whatnot. But, the darkness in this book can also be read as the place where there is no more civilization and the boundaries that ensure that we don’t kill one another simply don’t exist.
If you haven’t guessed it by now im about to tell you.
Are you ready?
Kurtz is a war criminal!
When Marlow finally finds Kurtz in the heart of the Congo, he notices that there are a lot of heads on spikes, and if that isn’t enough of a clue then please allow me to explain.
Mr Kurtz is the company’s best Ivory trader because he kills whomever he has to in order to get it. He even threatens to kill his assistant, a young Russian, who may or may not be in love with him. In addition, Kurtz orders an ambush on Marlow’s boat!
And also, he has heads on spikes, did I mention that already?
So yeah, it turns out that in the Heart of Darkness, Kurtz finally breaks free of society’s boundaries. He is free. And he refuses to go back into civilization, “to dream their insignificant and silly dreams.” (Conrad, 93) In a twisted way, Kurtz and later on Marlow, they both break free from their chains in the same way as the philosopher breaks his chains in Plato’s allegory of the cave. Both begin to see the world for what it truly is… an illusion where nothing really matters and the rituals that we consider sacred are of no consequence in the Heart of Darkness.
However, what if the Heart of Darkness refers not to being isolated in the edge of the world like The Congo or something like that, but in fact the Heart of Darkness refers to being alone inside civilization? Just like Marlow feels after his return to London.
“I Had no particular desire to enlighten them, but I had some difficulty in restraining myself from laughing in their faces, so full of stupid importance.” (Conrad, 93)
And yes, perhaps the real Heart of Darkness are the friends we made along the way.