Tonight we affirmed that “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad is an important book to read and that it is as relevant today as it was in 1899. The novel is short – 80 pages or so depending on the edition – but it is very dense. We agreed that this book needs to be read more than once in order to better grasp the intended messages and themes. Conrad makes frequent use of foreshadowing and foretelling as the narration moves forward. The symbolism and meaning of the heart of darkness is to be taken on many different levels.
On the surface Conrad sheds light on the injustice that was Belgian Colonialism in the Congo at the height of the ivory trade. And by exposing these evils, we felt that he was offering commentary on England’s own colonial endeavors. It was noted that publication of this novel was the catalyst for some reform in England.
The main characters in the novel are Marlow, the narrator, and the enigmatic Kurtz. As Marlow steams up the river he begins to hear stories about Kurtz’ accomplishments, exploits, and methods. He becomes intrigued by this “remarkable” man despite all signs that Kurtz has gone mad. The farther he travels upstream, the deeper the darkness becomes.
Parallels were drawn between Kurtz and latter day dictators: Mao, Stalin, Hitler, and dare we even say Donald Trump? Now no one suggested that Mr. Trump seeks to be a dictator or is capable of the atrocities committed by Kurtz, but it is hard to argue some similarity to Kurtz when you consider the megalomaniac tendencies, charismatic personality, and seeming willingness to use any means necessary to accomplish stated objectives. The point is that we are constantly surrounded by Kurtz's in our modern society. And we must be vigilant so that we do not become Kurtz's ourselves.
We came to understand that Kurtz represents the heart of darkness that is in all of us, or at least the potential for it. We wondered if at the time Marlow finally met Kurtz, did Kurtz have any free will remaining? Had his soul become so dark through habitual evil transgressions that he was unable extricate himself? Kurtz seems to have been at this point as witnessed by him leaving his sick bed and crawling through the jungle to attend again the wicked rites with the native people who worshiped him. Marlow blocked his physical path, but would Kurtz be saved?
We spent a great deal of time discussing Kurtz’ last words, “The Horror! The Horror!” We wanted to know if the meaning of those words was rooted in utter despair or reflected the first glimmer of repentance. While the text above and below that passage didn’t provide any definitive clues as to Kurtz’ ultimate salvation, the episode had a profound effect on Marlow. It is here that Marlow decided to remain loyal to the memory of Kurtz, the nightmare of his own choosing. Later, Marlow is faced with a choice as he approaches Kurtz’ “Intended” fiancée. He would be doing justice to expose Kurtz and tell of all his wicked deeds – but in the end he chose mercy, because telling the whole truth would be altogether too dark.
Marlow’s tale told, the novel ends abruptly with Conrad’s foreboding synopsis. He seems to be warning us that success in our immediate future is not at all certain and if we are not careful and diligent we could easily become immersed in the immense heart of darkness.
Misfit Steve Ward