The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Penguin Books (1902). 200 pp.
The first time I read this book I was a senior in high school and I had to read it for my AP English class. Now, setting aside the common conception that anyone enrolled in an AP class should be capable of reading college-level material, I was not ready to read this book. The content wasn’t too dark for my twelfth-grade innocence; rather, I couldn’t make sense of the words on the page. For the next four years every time someone mentioned Joseph Conrad I entertained a large, brooding cloud of confusion that hovered directly over my head.
Fast forward four years to my Modern British Literature class. Here, I’m twenty-one years old, and as a senior in college I once again cracked open the cover to this short novel, and I followed Marlow on his adventures through the Congo jungle and with a certain ivory agent named Kurtz. This time, however, the words on the page formed themselves into images in my mind and I could now see Marlow traveling down farther and farther into Africa–the “dark continent” as it was called then–and witnessing the grotesque and heartbreaking physical states the native inhabitants of the Congo were subjected to by the ivory-collectors who came and took over their land.
I was very intrigued with the end of the novel. Conrad gives so many contrasts between light and dark. He defines darkness using Kurtz, the other inhabitants of the Congo, and even the nature itself. All of these definitions become quite confusing after a bit, and the reader is left with the question: what is the true definition of darkness in the novel? What exactly does the ‘Heart of Darkness’ mean? The answer is given in the last paragraph of the novel:
‘I heard her weeping; she had hidden her face in her hands. It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle. Would they have fallen, I wonder, if I had rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due? Hadn’t he said he wanted only justice? But I couldn’t. I could not tell her. It would have been too dark–too dark altogether. . .’
Marlow’s last words leave the reader with no other assumption than the fact that the heart of darkness is none other than truth. Conrad felt this darkness on his own expedition to the Congo, which inspired the original creation of this novel. Marlow saw that darkness when he went to the Congo and not only saw the emaciation of the bodies and souls of the natives, but also as he learned more about Kurtz and realized that the man who was so loved for innovation was not such a hero after all. This lesson, given to the reader in the last lines of the novel, are a harsh reality. The paradox then becomes this: realizing the darkness of truth only leads to the realization of how dark truth really can be.