Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad (1857-1924); written 1898-1899
First of all, I cannot imagine anyone, let alone four people as in this story, being able to listen to Marlow’s telling of this adventure in one sitting without ever engaging in conversation. At the minimum, one would think that one of them would at least ask a question. If this seems an unfair criticism, I’ll just say that I don’t personally know anyone who could resist interrupting him. It’s a compelling tale; then why no response from those hearing it? Without response, how could anyone go on and on as Marlow does? On this second question—after thinking about it—I’ve known a few people who could go “on and on” to the point where the listener falls into a glassy-eyed stupor, whose primary desire is to exit. But I remain convinced that most people would find a way to break up the windbag’s speech.
In the introduction of John O’Hara’s 1953 Modern Library addition of Appointment in Samarra, he noted his discovery from Lardner that “if you wrote down speech as it is spoken truly, you produce true characters, and the opposite is also true; if your characters don’t talk like people they aren’t good characters.” Marlow does not talk like “people.” O’Hara also said that writing good dialog is “almost totally lacking in the British.” This book is a good example of not even attempting good dialog. (Conrad was actually Polish but learned English in his early 20’s and became a British subject at age 29.)
Some have said that this classic novella of an excursion up the Congo River needs to be read more than once to fully appreciate its true meanings—they’re deeply embedded—very deep. Oh? Is that the reader’s problem or the writer’s fault? I realize that this is like the sophomoric criticism of studying Shakespeare—one has to understand the time and place the work was written. Okay…let me just say that I prefer reading good literature where people behave, think, and sound like people. Perhaps at my advanced age I’ve become conditioned to the crisp dialog of Elmore Leonard, and others like him, to fully appreciate Joseph Conrad.
My annoyance at Conrad’s style aside, this is a book worth reading. I am told when initially published, the critics did not at all see it as controversial. It condemned adventuring, the taking advantage of the opportunities presented by imperialism, or it was a sentimental reinforcement of Victorian values. Only later was it seen as a more profound study of moral confusion, doubt and the hypocrisy of imperialism. Men, not just Kurtz, behaved badly in Heart of Darkness. Some say it’s the natural result when people operate outside any social or moral constraint, especially when greed and the desire for power have totally corrupted them.
Heart of Darkness is quite an indictment of colonialism and European behavior in carrying it out. It’s full of cruelties, casually referenced, and meaningless acts—such as the French ship shooting their big guns into the jungle, not knowing what, if anything, they were shooting at. It’s full of symbolism (e.g. fog), mystery, unanswered questions, folly, and absurdity.
I particularly liked the ending when Marlow visited Kurtz’s naive intended. Instead of telling her, his true last words, “the horror, the horror,” Marlow told the prissy Victorian bride-to-be who “knew Kurtz best” as an admirable man, that her name was the last thing on his mind. This lie symbolizes all that is right with Heart of Darkness.