My first thought was that this book had to be a Sea Man’s story and yes it was. On a pleasure ship called Nellie, a narrator who remained unknown through the novel introduces us to men bonding on the sea; one of them was Marlow. Through casual mediation, Marlow reflects on the dark places of the earth as England would have been before the Romans visited it.
Charlie Marlow shares the glories of his exploration as a fresh-water sailor, wanderer seaman whose home is the sea with a passion for maps. He is familiar with living in the world of water and the silent surroundings. Fascinated by the delightful discovery of the unknown places, he finds an inviting place on the map and hankers after it. It was that mighty big river resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land. The snake had charmed him; going there either by hook or by crook was irresistible. Marlow’s Enchantress was later identified as the Congo River.
Luckily he replaces the late Fresleven who was killed by a native Chief’s son in revenge after Fresleven had whacked his father mercilessly in front of his constituency over a quarrel on two black hens.
Marlow’s account of his voyage up the Congo River is the main narrative of the novel Heart of Darkness. It has been defined as an imperialist novel as it was written at a time when the British Empire controlled colonies around the world using economic, political and military coercion. Marlow’s meeting with men of varying European nationality as he journeys into the Congo tells that the English were not alone in the bloody and inhuman act of imperialism. The French, the Belgians whom Marlow was on this trip for among others were violently took advantage of a people and made of their wealth their private treasury.
Disembarking at the station, Marlow witnesses violence. In one event, there are black prisoners walking along in chains guarded by a uniformed black man with his rifle. On the other account, he finds the dying native laborers whom he offers biscuits. While Marlow showed a little concern to the situation of the natives, the other Europeans were not bothered in the bit. It is while absorbing the happenings in this space that he learns of a Mr. Kurtz, the biggest ivory merchant who resides in the deep interior.
There is distrust among the Europeans and a conspiracy which Marlow feels may have been responsible for sinking his steamer. Dredging this ship and repairing it took Marlow 3 months. Thereafter Marlow prepares for a 2 months up-river trip into the interior to see Kurtz. This trip is difficult and almost impossible without the help of the maltreated Africans. This journey which Marlow shares as a journey into pre-historic earth gives room for further reflection between the primitive and the civilized. Through the difficult voyage, death skulked in the air, sea and bush. Marlow pondered more on the person of the controversial Mr. Kurtz. His eagerness to meet Kurtz draws him onward in his Journey. Perhaps his having a personal construction of the person of Mr. Kurtz will finally solve the puzzle of what happens to colonists in Africa’s Congo.
Finally the Inner Station in the interiors came into view. Arriving, he meets the Russian trader who feeds him more on yet another enigmatic depiction of Mr. Kurtz. Marlow remains helplessly fascinated by the eloquence of the Mystery man Kurtz whom he characterizes as ‘the voice’.
Mr. Kurtz eventually is an embodiment of the European’s keeping appearances and justification of imperialism, an irony of them being the light bearers for Africa. What Marlow finds is an Ivory hungry and greedy Mr. Kurtz who sets himself up as a god to the natives. Kurtz’s writing ‘Exterminate all the brutes’ speaks further on the conflict in his character and the flaws therein. He is an unscrupulous ivory hunter who could kill even his fellow European for a small stash of ivory. Marlow is further amazed by the discovery that some items he thought of as ornamental balls on the tops of fence posts in the station compound were only severed heads of rebels. Everything about Kurtz was an irony, even his name Kurtz means “short” in German, but Kurtz is tall.
Learning that Mr. Kurtz is now ill and that he Marlow has been charged with the responsibility of taking him back to Civilization in Europe defines the last part of Marlow’s journey. Kurtz’s personality and power creates further challenge for Marlow in carrying out this charge. Their being together finally creates room for some level of intimacy but one, overwhelmed by betrayal. With a rough journey ahead, Kurtz health gets worse, displaying a sense of vulnerability fearing his own death, he hands over his documents; a symbol of his legacy to Marlow for safekeeping as he awaits death. Despite hearing his last hallucinatory words ‘the horror the horror’, Marlow keeps away from having to witness Mr. Kurtz last breath; a servant runs in shortly after to tell him, ‘Mistah Kurtz—he dead!’
Unlike the African who is thrown out into the sea when he died, Mr. Kurtz is finally buried and Marlow returns to Brussels to dispose of Mr. Kurtz legacies. This act exposes him to meeting other associates of Kurtz, revealing more about Mr. Kurtz and bringing the story to an end.
Generally, this Novella by Joseph Conrad has been classed as a symbolical imperialist work. Published in the late 18th century, it is one of the remarkable colonial literatures that has been engaged and critiqued. Of importance is its criticism as being racist and misogynist.
From the angle of the gender critics, this novella has been faulted for presenting women in the era it was written in very limited way, adopting the presentation of flat female characters with stereotypes. Marlow did encounter a number of women like his Aunt, the two women in Mr. Kurtz’s life and a few more. But none of these were admirable. His Aunt is out of touch with the truth, living in a different world from men, just like other women. Mr. Kurtz’s native mistress is only noted for her attractive looks, gracefully draped in ornaments and nothing more. He also attaches no significant importance to Kurtz’s fiancée who he meets at the end of the story.
I read this novel taking notes of the sentiments of renowned African writer Chinua Achebe who said it was blinkered with xenophobia, he called it an offensive and deplorable book that de-humanizes Africans. More appropriate here is Achebe’s quote in a different instance saying he thinks ‘decency and civilization would insist that the writer take sides with the powerless. Clearly, there’s no moral obligation to write in any particular way. But there is a moral obligation, I think, not to ally oneself with power against the powerless. I think an artist, in my definition of that word, would not be someone who takes sides with the emperor against his powerless subjects.’
Even though the writer Conrad and his character Marlow are noted to be fence-sitting on their position of colonization, there is a sense in which the narratives in this book promoted imperialism as a worthy enterprise, glamourizing racism and the violence of colonialism. According to Marlow,
‘The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only.’
Though Marlow expresses shock at the treatment of Africans, it is in no way clear how progressive he is on speaking against this issue. While there is a good appreciation of sceneries in this work, it is amazing that such rich descriptions are not extended to the Africans. Rather than project the humanity in them and give them a name at least, all through the novella, Marlow generously described Africans using words like ‘Negro, Natives, Nigger, Blackman and Savage. All of these rapes Africans of their humanity, their soul and identity.
Reading this book as an African, it is indeed difficult to disagree with Chinua Achebe. But we may be more lenient if we consider that this writer wrote for a time and for an audience. This book was not written for Africans, I doubt if the writer ever thought that a time will come when Africans will read and review his portrayal of their history as am doing today. Such books help me understand the fight of Congolese Matyr Patrice Lumumba.
While the politics of skin colour was overwhelmingly present in this book written in 1899, two centuries later, it still thrives in human interactions. The writer succeeded in contributing to the discourse for demoralizing imperialism as empty and an extortionist concept for exploitation. It fails in contemporary times because it was written from a heart of darkness which couldn’t see any light or soul beneath a black skin.
Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye