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Heart of darkness

Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) was a Polish-born author who wrote in English.  He became famous for the novels and short stories that he wrote about the sea.
Conrad left Poland at the age of 16 and arrived in England at the age of 20, unable to speak English.  During the next 16 years he worked his way up from deckhand to captain in the British Merchant Navy and so mastered his adopted language and was able to write some of its greatest novels.

Conrad used experiences of his life in many of his works. From his voyages in the Indian Ocean and Malay Archipelago came some of his best-known novels.  He began with his novel Almayer’s Folly  (1895) set in Borneo. Heart of Darkness is based on his voyage up the Congo River, and he uses memories of his early voyages in the Caribbean.

The people of Conrad’s day infuriated him by thinking of him as merely a writer of sea stories.  But Conrad knew his work really dealt with universal problems.  He used the concentrated little world of a ship to treat the general problems that obsessed him: How can society endure against all the destructive forces of the individual ego and the modern world and mostly, the clash between capitalism and revolution in colonized areas of the world. Conrad also wrote two absorbing novels about revolutionaries in Europe.

Conrad was not particularly interested in character for its own sake.  He was most interested in men who were actively pursuing their aims in life like the captain of the Narcissus novel, who triumphs over weakness and evil.  More often, Conrad’s heroes yield to the powers of weakness and evil in them than in others.  But Conrad was not exactly a pessimist.  He affirmed the value of the old-fashioned virtues such as courage, fidelity, and discipline.  Conrad was modern in realizing how enormously difficult it is for people to practice such virtues.

Born and raised in an era of world revolution, Conrad certainly knew the effects any change could leave on a society or nation.  He was influenced socially simply because he lived during this time.  His influences were probably the strongest as a child when he moved to another country and suffered much from the lack of language, knowledge of societal and cultural norms, and class differences.  Nevertheless, Conrad’s live in general played a tremendous role on influencing him in the writing of this novel.

.  Heart of Darkness details the story of Europeans who are cut off from civilization, overtaken by greed, exploitation, and material interest. Conrad develops themes of personal power, individual responsibility, and social justice.  His novel has all the trappings of the conventional adventure tale-mystery, exotic setting, escape, suspense, and unexpected attack.  The novel is a record of things seen and done by Conrad while in the Belgian Congo.  Conrad uses Marlow, the main character in the book, as a narrator so he himself can enter the story and tell it out of his own philosophical mind.  Conrad’s voyages to the Atlantic and Pacific, and the coasts of Seas of the East brought contrasts of novelty and exotic discovery.  By the time Conrad took his harrowing journey into the Congo in 1890, reality had become unconditional.  The African venture figured as his dissention into hell.  He returned ravaged by the illness a mental disruption often leaves, which undermined his health for the remaining years of his life.

In one sense the Heart of Darkness is a compelling adventure story of a journey into the blackest heart of the Congo.  The story presents attacks by the natives, descriptions of the jungle and the river, and characteristics of white men who invade the jungle to bring out ivory.  But the Congo is also s symbolic journey into blackness central to the heart and soul of a man, a journey deep into primeval passions, superstition and lust.  Those who like the district manager, Marlow, undertake this journey simply to rob the natives of ivory without any awareness of the importance of the central darkness. Similarly, Marlow who is only an observer, never centrally involved, can survive to tell the story later.

However, those like Kurtz are aware of the darkness, which hope, with conscious intelligence and a human concern for all mankinds, to bring light into the darkness.   As an example, Conrad uses symbolisms of light and dark, not as synonymous with white for good and black for evil, but rather interchanging both of them.  He speaks about the monstrous lit up city he left in Europe as being one of the dark places on the earth, not being the good that light represents but in actuality this light from the civilized progressive people that represent greed and power, which is really dark and evil

The primary theme focuses more on how Marlow’s journey into the heart of darkness contrasts the white souls of the black people and the black souls of the whites who exploit them in the name of progress via modern revolutionary and industrialism. This is a true allegory of the western colonial incursion into African by the Dutch.

There are two main characters, Marlow, the narrator, who is hired by the Belgium Ivory Company to rescue a stranded riverboat in the interior of the Congo. Kurtz, the Company’s most successful representative, who has exchanged his soul for a bloody sovereignty and basically has gone over the edge.   There is a third minor character, named, who is also hired by the Belgium Ivory Company to bring in the renegade representative, Kurtz.

The setting is of course in the jungle of Africa.  It brings in London, as the ship leaving to Africa taking Marlow, deports from.  The main setting is the Congo River, which appears to be hot, muggy, and very uncomfortable.  There is great contrast in the miserable clothing the “civilizes” humans from Europe wear, and the skimpy rags the natives wear.  This contrasts helps to visualize and become part of the setting.  I actually was uncomfortable myself as I read this.

The tensest movement in the novel for me was the rescue of the riverboat as it cruised down the Congo River and was being attacked by the unseen natives.  The comments of the dying men were told by the narrator as horrid incidents yet death was well welcomed in face of the social injustices imposed on all concerned.  The author wrote with great details that I felt anxious for every word, hoping none would die.  Even in the face of death the Marlow narrates a hateful and superior attitude towards the men closest to him.  He never failed to reveal his darkness towards the conquered people; it was all just business.

I have notice that important motives in Heart of Darkness connect the white men with the Africans.  Conrad knew that the white men who come to Africa professing to bring progress and light to “darkest” Africa, have themselves been deprived of the sanctions of their European social orders; they also have been alienated from their old tribal ways. Conrad does an excellent job in showing the results of colonization in the midst of the world revolution.  I learned that this exploitation of the African people and their resources was just as it was in Europe and American during those colonizational years.   It was simply another place in the world with another civilization of peoples.  The steps of progress in the form of exploitation are clearly seen here.  This novel helped me to see and understand that revolutionary progress and colonization that can happened in others ways beside through wars and revolts or by absolute monarchy or constitutional monarchy.

Mrs. Jones would want to me to not only see the effects of mercantilism, industrialism and colonialism in this book, but also to understand how one is interlocked with the other and a progression of each one of these happens involuntary on the part of the superior nation or person.  In this case Marlow and Kurtz, being the immediate Lords over the African people.  I have also learned from the lectures about Germany before, during, and after World War I, that propaganda along with strong radical leaders can persuade and change a man’s or even nation’s  beliefs.  This even effects an entire nation, as Germany, to rise up in an attitude of supremacy to conquer another nation or people.  Kurtz believed a myth, similar to what happen in Germany.  He believed that men with black skin are filled with evil and hatred on the inside.

The outside is dark so must the inside is. He also believed that the white, the inherently good was to rule over the dark.  These myths were used to justify the evil and darkness Kurtz himself believed, felt, and expressed as to put himself in a position of power and wealth.  Much is closely related to the monarchs, military leaders, and nationalist/socialist leaders during the WWI episode.   It’s rather neat and interesting to see connections of history in novels or movies. I certainly am now looking deeper into the underlining meaning of things I read and see.

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