A benign immensity of unstained light

Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness
by Joseph Conrad

Perhaps if I had come to this book with no surrounding knowledge my response to it would be different, but I’ve read Chinua Achebe’s essay and many other articles on the subject so I came to this looking for the racism. That said, I think it’s pretty hard to ignore. The question is: is it still a good book, even so?

This is a short, readable book but I’d have to say it’s not gripping because I often found the floweriness of the writing disguised the action – it’s essentially an adventure story but you’d almost not notice that from the style. It is very descriptive – the kind of writing where you can miss the plot moving on because you’re mesmerised by the words.

“The day was ending in a serenity of still and exquisite brilliance. The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds. Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more sombre every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun.”

What is the plot? An unnamed narrator on a boat on the River Thames introduces fellow crew member Marlow, who in turn tells his story of a job he took in Africa to transport ivory, having had a whim to go on a voyage of discovery like the great explorers. Marlow describes his journey from Europe to Africa, around the coast, then inland by various means (the destination is unnamed but widely agreed to be Congo, where Conrad had himself worked as a riverboat captain for a trading company) until he reached the station where he was to captain a riverboat, only to find that the riverboat has been wrecked and he must rebuild it before he can start his job. Urgency is added by reports that Mr Kurtz, the manager of a remote station upriver, is gravely ill and Marlow needs to fetch him as soon as possible. Kurtz is a bit of a legend within the Company and Marlow feels that their fates became dangerously entwined.

Because this is a story within a story, it can be difficult to decipher the book’s attitude toward Africans. Yes, there are plenty of racist things said, but we hear them through the filter of not one but two narrators – so is this a comment on how European trading companies saw Africans or is it Conrad’s own opinions?

“They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you – you so remote from the night of first ages – could comprehend.”

To be clear, we’re not just talking about racist language that might be deemed “of its time” and therefore to an extent excusable. We’re talking about language that characterises many of the Africans as lesser beings, as supernatural monsters or as inferior idiots. And while Marlow develops a fondness for at least one African member of his riverboat crew, he also states that it was wrong to train this man to do a job, that it is somehow an unnatural pretence.

On the other hand, the Company’s treatment of natives appears to be condemned by Conrad, as he describes in clearly negative language enslaved Africans and the devastating effect of the trading routes on the settlements that they pass through or near. Marlow certainly shows no love for the Company in general, finding fault with most of its employees whom he meets and struggling to bite his tongue in the face of nepotism, incompetence and corruption.

An added level of ambiguity comes from the dreamlike, or rather nightmarish, quality of the story as a result of Marlow’s psychological state. The unfamiliar heat, lack of sufficient food and recurrent illness combine with a growing fear of attack (which is in fairness justified as the riverboat and its crew are indeed attacked) to create a kind of madness. The Company sends Marlow to see a doctor before he leaves Europe and the doctor does a psychological assessment, stating that he finds the effects of such voyages on Europeans to be “scientifically interesting”. Fairly early on in his travels in Africa, Marlow states that he feels he is becoming “scientifically interesting” (it’s one of my favourite moments in the book). So by his own admission he is therefore unreliable.

“No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is…Don’t you know the devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its sombre and brooding ferocity? Well, I do. It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly. It’s really easier to face bereavement, dishonour and the perdition of one’s soul – than this kind of prolonged hunger.”

Of course this actually raises more questions. If this degree of psychological imbalance is common in western Europeans who travel to central Africa, is that an excuse for some of the behaviour depicted? Is it a comment on the continent itself – a place that sends men mad? Or is it simply an honest observation of people going there ill equipped for the conditions? (Which would, thinking about it, be further condemnation of the Company, as it was responsible for the wellbeing of its employees.)

I can certainly see how so many books, essays, articles and theses have been written about this book, as there is far more I could say about these subjects and more. But for me it comes down to quality of writing, and on that count Conrad scores fairly high. The writing is gorgeous and atmospheric. I suspect I could pick out any line and it would be a great quote. Perhaps the story would benefit from more straightforward language but the prose would not.

“Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream – making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams.”

Which, overall, leaves me predictably on the fence about this one. I’m glad I’ve read it but I can’t say I side wholly with Conrad’s detractors or his defenders. I got the uncomfortable feeling that he was objecting to the mistreatment of Africans much as he might object to dogs or horses being beaten, overworked, made homeless, etc. But it’s hard to deny that it’s a beautiful piece of writing.

Have you read this? What did you think?

Originally published 1899 in Blackwoods Magazine.

Source: Project Gutenberg.

Challenges: This counts toward the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

2 thoughts on “A benign immensity of unstained light

  1. The Girl April 26, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    I read Heart of Darkness as part of my Classics challenge back in 2012. I didn’t have a clue what it was about, it was just lying about.

    Of course due to my terrible memory for remembering books after I’ve read them I have only vague ‘feelings’ left about the book rather than actual thoughts.

    I remember enjoying reading it although definitely could not have put it into words like you have, but I remember it being hard-going at some points because the prose felt so difficult to follow in places.

    But mostly I remember feeling ‘uncomfortable’ reading it and I think it’s for the reason that you’ve put in the last paragraph. I felt like he was saying “Don’t be mean to black people” but wasn’t saying “Black people are equal to white people”. And it’s always difficult to read books like that and not know, like you say, whether you should be judging them by the time in which they were written and ‘letting them off’ or judging them by our standards today.

    A bit of a thinker at the very least!

  2. Kate Gardner April 26, 2014 at 6:24 pm

    The Girl Definitely a thinker! It’s so hard to separate the beauty of the words from a modern reaction to what they’re saying.

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