Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness

August 11, 2022

     This astonishing novel remains as enigmatic and impenetrable as ever, like its subject-matter: I studied it, along with Conrad’s other works, at university, I taught it to sixth form students, and I’ve come back to it after many years for my book group. Conrad is not much read or studied now, sadly I feel, because he has so much to say. And this particular text I have often seen referred to as racist, colonialist, offensive… and I don’t buy these interpretations.

Heart of Darkness is very short. My American paperback edition has fewer than seventy pages. And yet so much is densely packed into that brief space: there are the carefully layered levels of the narrative; the settings of Victorian London and deepest central Africa, contrasted and yet also likened to each other; the density of Conrad’s descriptive language. And that’s before we engage with the subject-matter: a steamboat journey to nowhere in search of a man who has become a myth. All the time we are wrapped in the question of understanding and not understanding, which for me is the kernel of the entire work: just how much can a white man, a westerner, comprehend of the so utterly different world of the natives whose world he invades? And what on earth do those Africans make of the strangers, the invaders, their weird machinery and brutal actions?

Conrad pushes the situation to extremes because he is questioning the crazed rush for colonies, plunder and profit that the ‘civilised’ European powers were engaged in at that time, but the question is also a more universal one: at what level, to what extent is anyone capable of understanding someone from a different nature or a different culture? Can we ever really know or share? Kurtz, the man/myth at the heart of the novella, has been driven insane – in my understanding – by the powers he has managed to acquire over the native population, and Marlow, the narrator, has fallen deeply under his spell, but is in some slight way capable of understanding Kurtz and his power.

Ar some level, I suppose the question of whether and how much we can understand of ‘the other’ is also rather meaningless, for we are what we are and have to make the best of that, although we should surely respect other cultures and traditions rather than strive to pillage and exploit them. But once again, Conrad brings me to reflect on my own particular situation. I’m half Polish. I know a fair amount of that nation’s history and my father’s family and past, I’ve visited the country a number of times. There are aspects of the country and its people I love, others I loathe, and yet I do wonder how much I really know or understand. If I had moved to live there as a student – I was offered the opportunity but didn’t take it up – would I ever have become fully Polish? Similarly, although I have lived my entire life (apart from a year) in England, I feel I can never be one hundred percent English: there are things about this island I do not like or understand. And yet I know I could not live anywhere else, and my life’s work has been centred on the study and teaching of this country’s literature, which I do feel I understand pretty well.

Conrad is enigmatic, as I said. He makes his readers think, think hard. To me it’s pretty evident that, although he may not be able to understand Africa and its people, to him what the westerners are doing there is evil, and in some ways actually insane. And I have to respect a man who is a giant of English literature, even though English was his third language.

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