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Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad
publisher: Querido, Amsterdam, 1898



refered to by:
Things Fall Apart
Chinua Achebe

Journey to the End of the Night
Louis-Ferdinand CÚline

Moby Dick
Herman Melville

Treasure Island
Robert Louis Stevenson


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Because of its multiple layers of meaning and unrelenting ambiguity, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is likely to leave readers with the same thought Marlow, the novel's principal narrator, has about his own story. He says, 'It seemed somehow to throw a kind of light on everything about me,' but it was 'not very clear either. No, not very clear.' The novel opens aboard a boat anchored on the Thames River near London, darkness descending. An unidentified narrator introduces us to a group of friends and to Marlow. As a kind of preface to his tale, Marlow points out that to the invaders from ancient Rome, Britain must have appeared just as uncivilized as Africa does to European colonizers. This observation, like many Marlow makes throughout the story, unsettles any assumptions the reader may have about the opposition between barbarity and civilization, colonizer and colonized.

Adrift in London, Marlow decides to seek work aboard a ship that will take him to Africa. The Congo River, as he looks at it on a map in a shop window, fascinates Marlow 'as a snake would a bird - a silly little bird.' He gets a job with a Belgian trading company - which he refers to only as 'the Company' - commanding a steamboat up the Congo. As he travels deeper into Africa, Marlow feels a growing sense of dread. Just as the native Congolese people and the difficulty of keeping the boat afloat pose a physical threat to Marlow, his increasing distance from a familiar world poses a threat to his mental state. The stillness of the river does not seem peaceful to him, but rather suggests 'an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.' He describes his meeting with Mr. Kurtz - an employee of the Company in charge of a trading post that acquires huge quantities of ivory - as 'the culminating point of my experience'. It is only in retrospect, however, that Marlow understands his experience this way. When he sets out, Marlow has never heard of Kurtz; the purpose of his journey, never clearly explained, becomes obscured by Marlow's growing fascination with him. An accountant for the Company whom Marlow meets on the Congo is the first to mention Kurtz. He tells Marlow that Kurtz is 'a very remarkable person', an opinion that Marlow comes to share. In what sense this assessment of Kurtz may be true, why Marlow believes it, and why his encounter with Kurtz becomes so heavily laden with significance for Marlow are central questions posed by the novel.

Early in the novel, the narrator tells us that to Marlow, 'the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze.' This comment suggests that the meaning of Marlow's encounter with Kurtz can be found not in the experience itself, but in the telling of the story - a transaction between Marlow and his listeners. The larger implication is that, rather than perceiving significance or sense within the external world, we infuse past experience with
meaning. Kurtz is the focal point of Marlow's story, but only insofar as he is a catalyst for Marlow's contemplation of human nature, specifically the impulse to bring 'civilization' to the 'uncivilized.'

In saying that Kurtz 'was hollow at the core,' is Marlow saying that the only meaning his encounter with Kurtz can possibly have is that which he imposes on it after the fact? Does Marlow intend to say something about the enterprise in which Kurtz was engaged? Marlow to sees clearly that the Company is run for profit, but many people around him convince themselves that Europeans are in Africa for a higher purpose. Marlow's aunt, who helps him to get command of the steamboat, considers him 'an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle'; she believes that the European colonizers are 'weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways.' But once he finally meets Kurtz and beholds his trading post dotted with shrunken heads atop sticks, Marlow finds a man whose ways seem beyond horrid, who 'had kicked himself loose of the earth' and 'knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear.'

Marlow tells us that many who have come into contact with Kurtz are in awe of him, but why this is so remains mysterious. The Russian is the most striking example; he is religiously devoted to Kurtz. In Marlow's own case, it is difficult to know whether his conclusion that Kurtz is indeed remarkable is based on what Kurtz says (he is always primarily a voice to Marlow) or on Marlow's own disposition and needs. The difficulty is best illustrated by Marlow's attempt to interpret Kurtz's dying words: 'The horror! The horror!' Marlow insists that Kurtz is remarkable because upon dying 'he had summed up - he had judged.' To Marlow, Kurtz's words are 'the expression of some sort of belief.' What has Kurtz pronounced judgment on - himself, human nature, the colonial enterprise? What does he believe in? Marlow has no answers to these questions. Is Marlow unable to let go of his hope that there is some truth to be understood, and that it can be understood, even if it remains inaccessible to him?

Equally puzzling is Marlow's meeting with 'the Intended,' the unnamed woman to whom Kurtz was apparently engaged. When she asks Marlow to tell her Kurtz's last words, he tells her that Kurtz said her name. Marlow fears that 'the house would collapse' and 'the heavens would fall' in response to his lie, but he then wonders if they would have fallen had he 'rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due.' Is Marlow obligated by his admiration for Kurtz to tell the truth no matter what the consequences? Marlow only says that telling the Intended the truth would have been 'too dark - too dark altogether.' His story ends here, leaving open the question of whether it was the Intended or Marlow for whom the truth would have been too dark. Heart of Darkness is a profound meditation on not only the elusiveness of truth, but also the irresistible inducements to living with lies.

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ON JOSEPH CONRAD'S BOOKSHELF

Moby Dick
Herman Melville, 1851
The Nantucket whaling ship, the Pequod, spirals the globe in search of Moby Dick, the mythical white whale of the Southern Oceans. Driven by the obsessive revenge of Captain Ahab, the crew and the outcast Ishmael find themselves caught up in a demonic pursuit, which leads inexorably to an apocalyptic climax.

The Confidence Man
Herman Melville, 1857
Male, female, deft, fraudulent, constantly shifting: which of the "masquerade" of passengers on the Mississippi steamboat Fidele is "the confidence man"?

Crime and Punishment
Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky, 1866
Raskolnikov, a destitute and desperate former student, commits a random murder without remorse or regret. But as he embarks on a dangerous game of cat and mouse with a suspicious police investigator, Raskolnikov finds the noose of his own guilt tightening around his neck.

Treasure Island
Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883
While going through the possessions of a deceased guest who owed them money, the mistress of the inn and her son find a treasure map that leads them to a pirate's fortune.

The Aspern Papers
Henry James, 1888
The tale of a literary historian determined to get his hands on some letters written by a great poet. Such is his drive, he is quite prepared to use trickery and deception to achieve his aims...

The Turn of the Screw
Henry James, 1898
A young governess is sent to a country house to take charge of two orphans. Unsettled by a sense of intense evil in the house, she soon becomes obsessed with the idea that something malevolent is stalking the children in her care.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886
In seeking to discover his inner self, the brilliant Dr Jekyll discovers a monster.

Madame Bovary: Patterns of Provincial Life
Gustave Flaubert, 1857
Emma Bovary, a young country doctor' s wife, seeks escape from the boredom of her existence in love affairs and romantic yearnings, but is doomed to disillusionment.

[Boule de suif]
Guy de Maupassant, 1880

BOOKS BY JOSEPH CONRAD:

Heart of Darkness
1898
Seaman Marlowe journeys deep into the heart of colonial Africa, where he encounters Kurtz, an idealist crazed and depraved by his power over the natives. The meeting prompts Marlowe to reflect on the darkness at the heart of all men.
WHAT TO READ AFTER HEART OF DARKNESS?

'DARKEST' AFRICA
Things Fall Apart
Chinua Achebe, 1958
Portrait of life in a Nigerian village before and after the coming of colonialism.

Storm and Echo
Frederic Prokosch, 1948
An American is born again in Africa's 'heart of darkness.'

The Heart of the Matter
Graham Greene, 1998
Scobie, a police officer in a West African colony, is a good and honest man. But when he falls in love, he is forced into a betrayal of everything that he has ever believed in, and his struggle to maintain the happiness of two women destroys him.

A Bend in the River
V.S. Naipaul, 1979
In an African country that has suffered revolution and civil war and that is headed by a man of almost insane energy and crudity, one restless, reflective, and isolated villager and his friends uneasily submit to the tide of events.

'NEVER THE TWAIN SHALL MEET'
The Hidden Force
Louis Couperus, 1900
The decline and fall of the Dutchman Van Oudyck is caused by his inability to see further than his own Western rationalism: he is blind and deaf to the slumbering powers of the East Indian people and countryside.

A Passage to India
E.M. Forster, 1924
After a mysterious accident during their visit to the caves, Dr Assiz is accused of assaulting Adela Quested, a naive young Englishwoman. As he is brought to trial, the fragile structure of Anglo-Indian relations collapses and the racism inherent in colonialism is exposed in all its ugliness.

Forever a Stranger and Other Stories
Hella S. Haasse, 1948
In this collection of stories, the Dutch writer Hella Haasse deals with themes of alienation and estrangement. Born in the Dutch East Indies, Haasse calls up the images, people, and memories of her childhood.

HOLLOW MAN IN THE WILDERNESS
Under the Volcano
Malcolm Lowry, 1947
Set in Mexico on the Day of the Dead, the story tells of a man in extremis, an alcoholic consul bursting with regret, longing, resentment and remorse, whose climactic moment rapidly approaches.

Lord of the Flies
William Golding, 1954
After surviving a plane crash, a group of boys set up a fragile community on a previously uninhabited island. As memories of home recede and the blood from frenzied pig-hunts arouses them, the boys' childish fear turns into something deeper and more primitive.

The Mosquito Coast
Paul Theroux, 1981
Allie Fox hates America and everything about the 20th century, so he decides to take his wife and two sons to live a better and simpler life in the Honduran jungle. However, when he starts to go mad, life for his family becomes much more frightening than ever before.

Blood Meridian
Cormac McCarthy, 1985
Recounting the adventures of a young man from Tennessee, "The Kid", who has drifted to Texas in the 1840s, this is an apocalyptic novel and mythic vision of a blood-red Early West.

An Outpost of Progress
1898

Youth
1898

Lord Jim
1900
This is a classic story of one man's tragic failure and eventual redemption, told under the circumstances of high adventure at the margins of the known world.
Nostromo
1904

The Secret Sharer
1910
A captain saves a young stowaway and hides him in his cabin.
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