It is a daunting task to talk of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Better qualified people than I have given it much attention since it was published in 1899, and I certainly can't contribute anything new to help us understand Conrad's intentions. But although the book is over a century old, it speaks to the human condition and there, I am afraid, not much has changed.
In Heart of Darkness Marlow, a seaman, tells his companions of a trip he had made to the Belgian Congo, where his chief task had been recovering an ailing agent from a trading outpost high up on the Congo River, the agent that everybody spoke of with awe, both for his high-minded devotion to bringing the benefits of civilization to the African people and his uncanny ability to procure more ivory than all the other trading stations put together.
The title is particularly well chosen. It is an obvious allusion to the contemporary European attitudes toward the interior of Africa, but Marlow makes it clear from the outset that Britain in its time had been a place of deep darkness to the Roman conquerors, and spends the rest of the story showing us that the deepest darkness lies not in any geographical location but in the human heart. Marlow's journey to retrieve the agent Kurtz is a trip into the dark heart of Africa, into the darker heart of Kurtz, and an exposition of the darkness of the hearts of the rapacious Belgian traders whose veneer of civilization is about as lovely as make-up on a chimpanzee. Kurtz's dying words, "the horror," are probably the most apt summary of the book's theme that one could make.
Yet the book is not entirely without hope. The mere fact that Marlow himself is horrified testifies to the human potential to rise above the darkness. The poor deluded "Intended", Kurtz's naïve but beautifully pure fiancée, is described in terms of light, and Marlow can not bring himself to shatter her delusions with the truth about Kurtz. The darkness must not be allowed to touch her.
Modern readers might be put off by Conrad's use of the word "nigger"and by some of the colonial attitudes that he displays, but I'm not sure that would be a fair assessment. Yes, he saw tribal Africa as a dark place, but he also saw tribal Britain as a dark place. And his disgust, deep and heart-felt, is directed at the European "pilgrims" who saw Africa as a get-rich-quick-scheme and Africans as appropriate objects for target practice. His horror of Kurtz is based on that man's willingness to be worshipped and the exploitation of his status to lead his followers in murder for the sake of ivory. Perhaps I am letting him off too easily, but to expect a man of the 19th century to accurately reflect 21st-century sensibilities is perhaps too much. What I got from this book is his condemnation of supposedly civilized men who saw themselves as saviours but who were anything but.
And I'm afraid I couldn't help but draw parallels between the historical horrors inflicted on the Congo in the name of civilization and trade, and the similar horrors that go on today. We have thickened the veneer of civilization, but the rapaciousness underneath has changed very little. It would be convenient to see Heart of Darkness as an indictment of 19th century colonialism, when it is more an indictment of our permanent potential for darkness. Not a book to be picked up for light reading, but one worthy of its place in the canon of English classics.