Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

My family was amused that I read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness during our power-outage. I kind of wish I'd picked something else; Conrad does not make one feel better about being cold and unshowered.

I was warned at the beginning of Heart of Darkness that for Marlow (the main narrator) "the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow bring brings out a haze." But by the end I felt like, "Curse you, Conrad! Where's my deep, hidden kernel? I read all this, and no kernel?"

In other words, you can pretty much guess the basic idea of the book from the title: Life is dark and people stink.

Although Conrad's novel reads as an anti-Euporean-imperialism work, Heart of Darkness contains the disturbing assumption that African cultures are not "civilizations" (i.e. that they place no moral restrictions on their members) and are therefore much closer to the frightening, "primeval" heart of man. Chinua Achebe has some sharp words about this in "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness." I didn't read all the critical responses to Achebe's speech, but I think you could argue that Conrad is portraying Marlow, not as the sum of his own feelings as an author, but as a man caught between his natural cynicism of imperialism (and just about everything else) and his inbred ideas about Africans. However, the only times Marlow (and through him, Conrad) recognizes Africans as human are when he sees the "darker" aspects of humanity in them. In other words, Conrad seems to say, "Yes, blacks are savage and wild and superstitious, but so are we all, under the skin," which may not technically be racism, but it is definitely dehumanizing.

Oh, and yes, there are Marlow's characterizations of women. Also annoying.

Also, it sort of irritates me when a character is "telling" a story, but he uses language that even the most eloquent of storytellers would never use off the cuff.

Of course, Heart of Darkness is a classic, so Conrad must have done more here than write things to annoy Bethany. This would include:

Creating one of the eeriest atmospheres in literature. Conrad's Congo is a psychological terror.

Creating suspense. Not a lot actually happens in this book and it's pretty short, but, like Marlow, I found myself on pins and needles, waiting to meet Kurtz.

Employing a cool narration inside a narration style.

Verlyn Klinkenborg's introduction in my Everyman's Library edition, which helped me understand Conrad better and made me feel smart, even though I probably disagree with most of Klinkenborg's conclusions. Well, okay, Conrad can't take complete credit for that.

Creating one of the best titles ever.

Convincing me to read Lord Jim in spite of myself.

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