Heart of Darkness

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Title: Heart of Darkness

Rating: 3 Stars

I’ve read this now several times. I find it slightly confounding.

First of all, there is the style of it. The entire story is Marlowe sitting in a boat with some friends telling a first hand story of an incident that happened to him years ago. All but five pages or so of the novel is this first hand story of an adventure.  What was the purpose of doing this as a literary device? Proof that someone can come from darkness and emerge back into the light of civilization?

Also, nothing much really happens. Marlowe signs on to captain a riverboat in Africa. He travels to Africa (slowly) and finally lands at his station. He finds that his boat has sunk and spends several months waiting for parts to show up so that he can fix it. He then goes on a voyage (slowly) down to an inner station. There he picks up the dying station master (Kurtz), who dies as Marlowe is heading back. Marlowe then himself heads back to Europe where he meets Kurtz’ fiance.

In a nutshell, that’s the plot. However, within that plot are several ideas worth thinking of.

There is the relationship of civilization to colonization. The Europeans are the educated and enlightened ones, but they do absolutely disturbing, torturous things to the Africans, who they really don’t even acknowledge as existing, let alone acknowledge them as human.

There is civilization itself. As the thin veneer of civilization is torn away as Marlowe goes deeper into the heart of Africa, the trappings of civilization fall away and only the violent savagery of humans remain (notice the mounted heads pointed inward at the lodging at the inner station).

Once you discover that darkness, how do you emerge from it? Kurtz does not. He ventures to Africa, daring to be different, daring to bring enlightenment to those trapped in darkness. By the time he’s leaving, he’s virtually enslaving the populace, taking their ivory, and is recommending their extermination. Marlowe almost dies in the process, but somehow does emerge to tell his cautionary tale.

Finally, there is always the challenge of reading a novel written a long time ago that is dealing with race relations. Here there are the discordant notes of racism that inevitably inhabits such works. On the one hand, you have to understand the context in which it was written and understand that it’s a stunning indictment of colonization, but still, in the year 2016, such books become ever so tougher to admire and difficult to read.

 

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