Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (71-131)
Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness was a difficult read, and I am still unraveling many emotions I felt while reading it. After reaching the end, discovering that Marlow lies to Kurtz's Intended, I have trouble grasping why Conrad even wrote this in the first place.
I can observe that he was startled by the harsh consequences of imperialism by viewing the desolate state of the Congo natives. I thought it interesting, though, the point of view with which Conrad chooses to portray the story. At times Marlow refers to himself through telling the story. At crucial plot points where Marlow meets Kurtz for the first time or getting attacked by the natives, I wish I were in the present, hearing Marlow discover these things first-hand. Since Conrad presents this narrative in the past, I was surprised to find out that Marlow really hadn’t changed except for the fact that he was scarred and didn’t know how to process his thoughts. I thought by telling it in the past I would gain some more respect from him, hoping to hear that the atrocities that were inflicted upon the Congo natives, as seen in the video from the Prezi, would make him realize that it was incredibly wrong. I was proved wrong when I investigated further the motives behind Marlow’s lie at the novella’s conclusion.
When the woman asks what Kurtz’s final words are, he tells her that Kurtz had spoken her name. In choosing to lie, Marlow proves to me that he has not changed for the better. This secret he keeps about Kurtz becoming a savage is similar to the way Marlow tells his story on the boat. When Marlow tells the men of the harsh realities of imperialism, he brushes it over, saying that it is “not a pretty thing when you look into it too much” (76). Why does he bother telling an entire story of his experiences if he’s not going to actually reveal the secrets about Kurtz and the entire concept of savagery? Before Marlow even meets Kurtz, he is told that he cannot reveal anything about his identity and his activities in the Congo. With this evidence, I cannot trust Marlow as a reliable author. Hiding Kurtz’s identity to his Intended is much similar to hiding the truths of the violence occurring in the Congo; downplaying humanitarian issues doesn’t work out in the end when they are uncovered by the public.
I am also troubled by how much Marlow dismisses his accounts. He doesn’t acknowledge how terrible of a human being Kurtz is, but rather blames his savagery on the wilderness, claiming “his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad” (122). I get that the Congo natives are a unique culture and that they’re much different than the London society that Marlow had existed in a year after telling the story, but blaming racism on a person’s environment and external forces is inexcusable.
Reading Heart of Darkness in 2019, I still feel it’s themes are relevant today. Immigration in the United States is a tough subject. Strict laws do not grant full freedoms to refugees, men, women, and children who need to enter the country, especially across the Mexican border. Indoctrinating views of fear and danger hasn’t helped the case for many who seek refuge in the United States. Additionally, John Attridge, senior lecturer in English at UNSW, points out in an article covering the relevance of Heart of Darkness, that “Kurtz’s mendacious eloquence is just the kind of thing that unscrupulous popular newspapers like to print.” This very much relates to pompous news outlets that violate bases for unbiased reporting. This eloquence reverberates in the fake news that revolves on social media. Populist behavior is also connected to President Trump’s tactics to win the presidency by reigning in his supporters against a collectively-considered “enemy” that needs overturned. Marlow is similarly impressed by Kurtz’s remarkable abilities to “embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness” (125).
Overall, I find it surprising that Conrad’s anti-imperialist views were not widely accepted until much later after his novella was published. This novella gives a great perspective into what imperialism looked like in 20th-century English history, and what the English people thought of superior races and imperialism as a whole. Heart of Darkness ultimately reveals how difficult it is to interpret race, and how difficult it is to base racism and superiority in the name of science.