Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, 10 of 52

What a fascinating book! Ding Dong! As an Anthropology graduate several bells went off in my head as I read this story. I couldn’t help but reflect on the story I read some time ago by the Anthropologist Chagnon and his ethnography on the Yanomamo people of the Amazon rainforest. Like our story’s chief protagonist Marlow, Chagnon also travelled up a long mysterious river to encounter people of whom he had little knowledge and whose reputation has proceeded him. Equally, reading this book it occurred to me that it was those late-Victorian men (yes, this was the domain of men!) who essentially established what is now known as the field of anthropology; those who practiced the observation of what was then deemed ‘primitive’. You need only read the tomes of Malinowski’s ethnography of The Triobrand Islands to get what I mean. Here is an excerpt ‘Imagine yourself suddenly set down surrounded by all your gear, alone on a tropical beach close to a native village, while the launch or dinghy which has bought you sails away out of sight.’ (pg 4, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, 1972, Malinowski, B.) The difference with Heart of Darkness is that Marlow is commercially engaged through and with the exploitation of these people, through the use of the indigenous people in collecting and exporting ivory from the Congo.

Marlow is recruited to travel to a remote area in the Congo to bring back the trader Kurtz, who seems to be a veritable Victorian mad man. There are key character differences between the characters of Marlow and Kurtz, indeed Marlow seems to be quite at odds with much of his fellow traders, however, does not voice his opposition outwardly.  Marlow appears to have a manner of watchfulness and considered reactions to situations that he finds himself in. Marlow is thrown into a world that leaves him feeling frustrated, despondent and I think, appalled at the conditions of the indigenous people. They are treated as worse than animals and there is much exploitation occuring from the resident managers and traders, on whom Marlow looks upon with scorn. Marlow has a strong humanitarian aspect to his character, and I get a sense of the author trying to find a moral litmus in this character. No matter what is thrown at him, he maintains his moral detachment and distance; he appears above it all.

Kurtz on the otherhand has become a modern day characterture. We see in Kurtz the evil tyrant who believes that he is above all others. His measures taken against those who oppose him are violent and brutal, and through this behaviour he has set himself up as sum type of God-like leader. Here I find the story a little frustrating, it is a very small novel and does not expand greatly on information around the circumstances of Kurtz and Marlow, but I get the impression that Kurtz has become an embarrassment not because of his treatment of the natives,but due to his continued efforts to extort his own personal trade in ivory.

The most mysterious person in the book is the terrifyingly and beautifully described native woman, who comes out of the jungle with ferocity and treats Kurtz with a gentle protective devotion.  This was a source of frustration for me, as I was really hoping for more information on this and other characters; Conrad the author leaves us to our own imaginative devices in this regard. In many ways this sums up my feelings about this book, whilst I enjoyed the story in a story concept, something that must have been very popular at this time and has  a very romantic feel to it, I felt frustrated at lack of information. I need to deal with that as this is also a strength of the novella, it encourages us to use our fertile imaginations. Long live the novella!!

Readability 8 out of 10

Cant put down rating 8 out of 10

Recommend to others 8 out of 10

Do I want to read another book by this author – yes when I feel like reading about the colonial experience again.

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