I was so disappointed in the last two books I read that I decided to shift gears and read something more “weighty.” I’d been missing beautiful writing and thought-provoking content, so I turned to my TBR list for ideas and came up with Heart of Darkness, a short novel that I’d always meant to read but had never gotten around to. It’s an important English novella published in 1899 by a Polish author about a British steamboat captain sailing through Africa; 80 years later it was adapted into a movie about an American soldier in the jungles of Vietnam. Suffice to say, it has some universal themes.
I would categorize Heart of Darkness either under classics or literary fiction. People sometimes struggle to define what we mean by literary fiction, although it’s generally agreed that in this genre, character and theme take priority over plot. Typically, we think of literary fiction as stuff we might have been forced to read in high school, but I like to think of it as literature that encourages us to think about ideas in a new way, or from a new angle. A definition I recently read and liked is, “Literary fiction makes us go ‘hmm.'”
Quick summary: An English sailor named Marlow gets a job with an ivory trading company to captain a steamboat into the African jungle. Along the journey he encounters slaves, cannibals, shrunken heads, some corporate in-fighting, and whispers about a mysterious Mr. Kurtz. Eventually he arrives at the trading post to discover that Kurtz is not only extremely ill but also quite mad. Kurtz dies, whispering the most famous last words this side of Rosebud: “The horror! The horror!” I should mention that this is all a story within a story: Marlow is actually telling this tale to a group of sailors with whom he is hanging out on a boat on the river Thames (hmm).
Heart of Darkness is rich with themes of power, madness, and, in case you hadn’t guessed, race. It’s controversial for its portrayal of Africa and its native people. In 1975, Nigerian author Chinua Achebe gave a lecture at the University of Amherst Massachusetts in which his criticism of the novel is scathing. Achebe says, among other things, that it presents Africa as “a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.”
Look, he’s not wrong. For one thing, Conrad is liberal in his use of the “n word.” For another, let’s consider the title of this novel: Africa as the heart of darkness. “We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. It was very quiet there. At night sometimes the roll of drums behind the curtain of trees would run up the river and remain sustained faintly, as if hovering in the air high over our heads, till the first break of day. . . . We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil.” (First of all, beautiful writing, check.) But yes, Conrad—or rather, Marlow—is describing Africa as prehistoric, accursed, and ripe for subjugation.
Yet, this is clearly an anti-imperialist novel. Even our less-than-enlightened narrator observes, “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.” Defenders of the book argue that Marlow is the racist, not Conrad. Others say, it doesn’t matter—describing Africa as less than Europe (not to mention the “flatter nose” comment) is racist no matter how you slice it.
Joseph Conrad witnessed the atrocities of Belgian colonization in the Congo firsthand during a short stint with the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo in 1890, so his disgust with colonization is real. He was also born in 1857, so thinking that he didn’t have patronizing or superior feelings towards Africans is far too much to expect. He’s a product of his time and yet, I would suggest, a somewhat enlightened one.
Heart of Darkness has appeared on lists of banned and challenged books for its offensive content, and I can appreciate that the descriptions of Africans are hurtful. Should it be taught to high-school students? I don’t know. But I do know it got me thinking about the ways in which we, in “developed” countries talk about other nations. The term “developing nations” is a perfectly acceptable term that we hear in the news every day; and yet, what does it mean? Developed next to whom? Just as Marlow described the Congo as “prehistoric,” to say a nation is developing is to suggest there’s a continuum with a beginning state and an ideal state, and those of us on on the far side of the equation have crafted those definitions. When we talk about our third-world problems, is it any more than a humble brag? One-hundred and twenty-two years after the publication of Heart of Darkness, maybe we shouldn’t feel so superior to Joseph Conrad.