Heart of Darkness, a novella by Joseph Conrad, was originally a three-part series in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899. Although a gripping story, this was not an enjoyable book for me. But then, I suppose, it is not meant to be. Conrad was writing about the inhumanity of the way the native population in Africa was treated; the greed and cruelty of the Europeans to gain property, business, trade and profit, draining Africa of its natural resources. It paints an appalling picture.
It is a story within a story and has an inner core of mystery. It relates the story told by Charlie Marlow to his friends on a cruising yawl on the Thames as the day ended and dusk fell. He began by saying ‘this also … has been one of the dark places of the earth.‘ He was referring to the Roman invasion of the British Isles centuries earlier, feeling the utter savagery that closed around them as they set out to conquer the land.
Then he went on to tell them about another ‘dark place‘ where he worked as the skipper of a river steamboat, travelling up and down an unnamed mighty African river (assumed to be the Congo) between the stations of an ivory trading business. He hears about the mysterious Mr Kurtz, the ivory trading company’s agent in the interior. He was said to have supernatural powers. What happened to Kurtz, or rather, what Kurtz did, and what he became, were the questions I pondered as I read on. Marlow set out to find Kurtz, which took him deep into the jungle, and also deeper into the heart of the ‘Dark Continent’ and into the darkness of the human soul. Nothing is what it seems, and the mystery surrounding Kurtz has a feverish and nightmare atmosphere. The ambiguity and the vagueness left me feeling puzzled as well as horrified at what was implied. I think it is all the more horrific for not being crystal clear.
It is an horrific tale that I think shows the darkest depths of human behaviour. In doing so Conrad highlights the prejudices and the cruelty and shows how it was at that time – the graphic reality of what happened. It is a powerful criticism of colonialism at its worst, and full of imagery, casting a spotlight on the barbarity of the so-called civilised Westerners. These few words, uttered by Kurtz concisely summarise the whole story: ‘The horror! The horror!’