Archive for November, 2010|Monthly archive page

Another Vampire Romance Novel

In Books on November 21, 2010 at 8:09 pm

Kidding, only kidding!

Regardless of any associations the title might have given our last several posts, I can assure you: This is not another vampire- themed romance novel.  Heart of Darkness, written by Joseph Conrad in 1899, is a novella based on the personal experiences of the author when he worked for a Belgian trading company in the African Congo.  I won’t bore you with too much of the history of the colonialism and imperialism at work during this day and age in Africa, nor with an analysis of Conrad’s depiction of native Africans and women; those topics will most likely be covered ad nauseam in your lectures.[1] It may however, be useful to know that Conrad wrote in a controversial era during which powerful nations like Britain, Belgium, and France and Holland were busy trying to control far flung, extensive empires on other continents, mostly in Africa and Asia.  (Incidentally, this particular carving up of territory and spoils in the Congo was later dubbed the African Holocaust, so make of that what you will.) The idea of a system of power being both corrupt and corrupting is one of the main themes.  Heart of Darknessis a compact commentary on the greed and brutality of imperialism, and went on to inspire numerous works, not the least of which is Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now.[2]

“And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth,” are the first words from Charlie Marlow, who will be our narrator during most of this story within a story.  Darkness is a prominent symbol throughout his tale, used to refer both to literal darkness (in the different settings: on a ship after nightfall, in the heart of the jungle, and so on) and the metaphorical darkness of a moral or spiritual nature.  Something I always found interesting is that we are actually told the whole story from the point of view of another man, an unnamed character who relates Marlow’s narrative to the reader as he has heard it told.In fact, very few of the characters are ever named, usually referred to instead by their job titles: the accountant, the director, the manager, the helmsman, etc.

Whenever you are reading a novel in the first person, keep in mind that you’re only hearing one side of the story, so you have to accept the description of events as presented and hope that the narrator isn’t making stuff up.  In some novels, you can clearly see when a narrator is being biased, evasive or misleading (Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita and Esther Summerson in Dickens’s Bleak House both pull this stunt on occasion.)  In Heart of Darkness, Marlow seems to be doing his best to present the facts as he remembers them, and yet there are a few things which he does not fully explain, assuming his audience will be able to read between the lines.

Marlow’s story is about his first mission as the captain of a steamboat (which is operated by a Belgian trading company in Africa).  He was sent up the Congo River to retrieve another of the company’s employees, an ivory agent called Kurtz. As most of the characters are never referred to by name, this deliberate naming of the man tells us that he is an important character we should pay attention to, long before we will ever see him.  Marlow finds that there are many rumors surrounding this man, who seems to be an idealist and a great leader, and is referred to more than once as “a first class agent,” a “prodigy” and “an emissary of pity and progress,” by the various other employees of the company. Kurtz is both admired and feared by his peers, who are envious of his success.  Marlow finds himself enchanted by the prospect of meeting this person who inspires such violent reactions from others, and grows anxious at the delays in his journey.

When Marlow’s steamboat finally arrives at the designated meeting point several months later than planned, it is attacked by a tribe of natives, which we later find out was done at Kurtz’s command.  The brilliant idealist is also an incredibly brutal man, and has used his charisma and his weapons to convince this particular tribe that he is a powerful deity.  They bend enthusiastically to his wishes, both revering and fearing him.   Marlow learns that Kurtz has been using this group to stage violent and bloody skirmishes on other tribes, which is how he has managed to collect the massive shipments of ivory he has been sending downriver to the trading outpost. The whistle of the steamer frightens the group off long enough for them to land, and they learn from a young Russian trader (who idolizes Kurtz as much as he natives do) that Kurtz is extremely ill.  He is literally at death’s door, and yet he does not want to go back with them at first, claiming they are interfering with his work and trying to steal his ivory.

In a very chilling scene, Marlow intercepts Kurtz after he sneaks off of the boat in the dead of night, intending to rejoin his devotees as they dance and chant around a bonfire.  Marlow does not give any specifics of that conversation, except to say that Kurtz behaves as though under a spell, and refers to his “exalted and incredible degradation.”  Earlier, Marlow and the manager had been discussing Kurtz’s involvement in mysterious and unspeakable native rituals, potentially involving human sacrifice, although this is never explicitly stated.  While arguing with Kurtz, Marlow realized that though his intelligence was still sound, Kurtz’s very soul had gone mad, and it recognized neither restraint nor fear nor faith.  In the end Marlow manages to convince him to return to the steamer, and Kurtz dies a few days later, his last words being a whisper of despair:  “The horror, the horror!”  Marlow interprets this as Kurtz’s final judgment on the truth he has glimpsed, his response to death, and a reflection of both his desire for and hatred of the entirety of creation.

In Kurtz, we see a very frightening and very real portrayal of the darkness within a man’s heart, and how a man’s baser instincts can emerge when once he is removed from the constraints of polite society.  As they say, absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Kurtz shows us the dangers involved when control over a large amount of territory and raw resources is placed in the hands of a few individuals.  Even idealistic men like Kurtz, considered “emissaries of light” and progress, whose mission in Africa involved “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,” are susceptible. They were sent into the heart of an occupied country, told that they are meant to bring civilization to the savages they find there, and given the weaponry and brute force necessary to control a massive population, whose ideology and customs were so completely different from their own—is it really any wonder that a mere man would be corrupted by hunger for this power, his soul driven to madness under these conditions?

[1] And if you still want to know what I think, email me…Brooke made me cut that bit out because I was rambling.  A  lot.

[2] ……which moves the action both physically and temporally to Vietnam in 1969.




In Books on November 14, 2010 at 4:33 pm

“I pray you, in your letters,

When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,

Speak of me as I am.  Nothing extenuate,

Nor set aught down in malice.  Then must you speak

Of one that loved not wisely, but too well;

Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought,

Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,

Like the base Judean, threw a pearl away

Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,

Albeit unusèd to the melting mood,

Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees

Their medicinable gum.”

(Othello’s last speech to all the characters left alive, except for Iago.  Act V, Scene II, for those of you that care.)

Well!  I think that sums it up nicely – thanks ever so much for stopping by.  Tune in next week for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.