“His was an impenetrable darkness”, and indeed in his short yet powerful story of an expedition into the heart of the Congo jungle, Conrad conveys the horrific effects of colonialism.
Written in 1899 and set in the Victorian age, the novel begins on the deck of a ship on the Thames, London. An “interminable waterway” before them, the crew wait for the tide to turn so they can continue their voyage. Marlow, a crew member, begins to tell the story of his fateful journey into Africa: his journey into the true heart of darkness.
A natural “wanderer” and seaman, Marlow narrates much of the story. Fascinated by maps and charts from a young age, he had always wanted to explore the unknown regions, the blank spaces on the maps. As a young man he sought employment on a ship to the Congo, a country in central Africa famed and pillaged for its ivory. It is his journey down the Congo river – a mystical, pulsing entity – that irrevocably changes his identity.
Likely based on Conrad’s own experiences in charge of a steamboat, Marlow relates of his arrival in the country and the tragic injustices the white man has inflicted. On his way to the remote station he is to report to in the centre of the tropics, he is met by a line of chained natives, subdued and haggard; he soon stumbles across dozens of them wasting away in the shadows of the wilderness, dying from the merciless labour they are put to whilst the railway is built for the European colonisers. Troubled and conflicted, Marlow hurries to his station, only for further disturbing events to unfold.
Upon his arrival at the station he is informed that the steamboat he is to commandeer has been mysteriously wrecked in an accident two days previously; without this, he cannot journey down the river to the mysterious Mr Kurtz, a company agent revered and rebuked for his controversial success in the ivory trade. Stranded for months while he repairs his vehicle, Marlow feels constantly oppressed and perturbed by the ever-present jungle, a menacing force in his periphery. His colleagues at the station seem deluded by greed, pre-occupied with the consuming dream of returning to their precious Europe laden with riches. Yet it is when his voyage to Mr Kurtz finally embarks – his journey into the mouth of darkness – that the true terror of the wilderness unfolds, clutching him eternally in its murky tentacles.
Dense, shocking and ultimately disturbing, ‘Heart of Darkness’ is a unique exploration of the grotesque effects of colonialism upon both the natives and the colonisers. Littered with characters at once credible and deranged and packed with intense imagery and symbolism, it conveys the terrible consequences of the exploitation of the native people and moves its reader to contemplate its awful legacy. Its original setting in London – and occasional reminders through small passages from Marlow on the Thames in the present – remind the reader that the horrors of colonialism grew from the darkness of European greed, drawing undeniable parallels between the grimy cities and the darkness of the African jungle.
Although I would recommend this novel – especially as it’s extremely short and thus not overly taxing – I will almost definitely need to re-read it to absorb all of its powerful content. It’s not a novel to be read lightly, but its short length means that its disturbing subjects are not dwelt upon for too long and its narration doesn’t carry a completely oppressive tone (though it certainly darkens in mood as the story progresses).
Ultimately it is a reminder that the legacy of colonialism – and the lives it consumed – is the ultimate “impenetrable darkness” of human existence.