Five of you – friends, business colleagues, and the boss – are meandering your way down a river. It’s an early evening get-together, and you’re enjoying the company and the beverages. The sun has just set. It’s that early moment of dusk when the world becomes shades of gray. You’re feeling a bit mellow; it’s a bit of an escape from work and life in the city you just left behind.
Suddenly, you hear this: “And this also has been one the dark places of the earth.” No one responds, except perhaps for a raised eyebrow or a slight roll of the eyes. The one who said it is known for such things. He’s also known for telling long stories, and you suspect you’re in for one.
You’re right; you are. It starts with a brief discussion of how the area you’re sailing through was first settled hundreds of years before, and what those first settlers – soldiers – experienced so far from home, right there on the edge of civilization. From that perspective, the area was a dark place. But from the perspective of the story you are about to hear, the real point of that sudden, startling, original comment, you will find yourself confronting the idea that it is still a dark place. This home you know so well, with its skyscrapers, museums, opera houses, art galleries, find neighborhoods, paved roads, medical facilities, and so much more is actually a dark place?
And because you’re going to tell me a story about Africa? What?
I had the misfortune (or good fortune) of not reading Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad in high school or college. Instead, we read Lord Jim by the same author. The two books, originally published a year apart (1899 and 1900, respectively), have similar themes. But Lord Jim seems somewhat easier to read, and its narrative concerns the act of a disabled passenger ship by its crew. Heart of Darkness centers on the search for a man in the jungles of the Congo, Mister Kurtz, but it takes a while for the reader to figure that out, and a bit longer to learn that it’s about something else entirely.
Embedded in that first bit of dialogue, “one of the dark places of the earth,” is the theme of Heart of Darkness. As we read on, that statement seems to haunt the narrative. The narrator, a sea captain named Marlow, will describe how he had the desire to pursue such a career, how he gained the help of relatives, how he went to city that always reminded him of “whited sepulchers” (another kind of darkness), and how he gained a commission to captain a steamer on the Congo River, in that continent both stereotypically and forever known as “darkest Africa.”
Arriving at his destination in the “dark continent,” Marlow discovers he will have to travel through the Congo to reach his boat. And he is struck of the sharp contrasts between the well-dressed Europeans and the Congolese people who are native to the region. Light, tailored clothes and rough, minimal clothes. Light skin and dark skin. Civilization and its seeming lack.
The contrasts in Heart of Darkness are often so marked that the reader begins to understand something: Conrad might be suggesting that the contrasts may actually not exist. And if they don’t exist, the idea of darkness surely does, so where does it come from? And you go back to the first dialogue, “And this has also been one of the dark places of the earth.” Don’t forget the “has been” here; Marlow doesn’t say “was” but “has been,” implying that it still is. That the story of a jungle river journey is being told in the context of a leisurely sailing trip near London underscores that the darkness isn’t just in Africa.
And this is what Marlow is going to discover, as he begins his journey to find his boat and to find Mister Kurtz, the man whose name is on everyone’s lips, the European agent who seems to be the source of all wisdom and knowledge in this region of darkness. Marlow is going to learn that the darkness does not come from a place, a condition, or a situation, but that it resides in the human heart.
This month at Literary Life on Facebook, we’re studying Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in an edition that includes an extensive study guide by Karen Swallow Prior. This post is a discussion of Part 1 of the short novel.