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Reading the Classics: An Adventure Turned Morality Tale

My monthly goal of taking another classic off of my to-be-read list was supposed to be an easy one for July, as this time I selected a rather short work, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. It turns out that getting through Heart of Darkness was a bit harder (and more enlightening) than I had planned.  I was aware that the work was pretty heavy and that it included some racist language but I was sure I could deal with those things if I aimed just for reading an adventure story and if I kept in mind the context in which it was written.  Conrad wrote the work at the end of the 19th century… a time when Europeans were exploring much of the little known continent of Africa. I understood this, so I was sure I could keep myself in a proper frame of mind.  After all, I had read some of Conrad’s other stuff and his usual language was VERY readable…almost poetic, in fact! This was mostly true of Heart of Darkness.  Conrad’s writing is amazing!  His descriptive imagery is some of the most vivid I have ever read!  I cannot recall ever feeling more present in a story.  Yet, here and there I found myself pulled out of the story by the racial slurs and found a need to force myself back into the context of Conrad’s period.

The plot centers on a narrator called Marlowe that recounts his adventures aboard a steamer bound downriver into the Congo.  The story that Marlowe tells can easily be classified as the adventure I was hoping for, as the crewmen of the steamer are constantly imperiled during their journey!  There are wild tribes of savages that attack the boat, dense fogs that seem impenetrable, mysterious happenings aboard ship and rampant rumors of the rouge ivory collector, Kurtz, whom the boat has been sent to retrieve.  Yet within the adventure to find Kurtz, Marlowe undergoes a change (and perhaps the reader does as well!), a change brought about by the journey into the heart of darkness.   Marlowe accepts the Congo mission with an initial admiration of Kurtz, the most successful ivory collector of all (just as I initially accepted this work as an adventure story).   Yet as Marlowe’s journey takes him deeper in the dark heart of Africa, it also takes him deeper into the dark hearts of men.  Marlowe’s vision of Kurtz as an enlightened cultivator of civilization is shattered just as his initial beliefs about the nature of the Dark Continent of Africa are also called into question. (And expectedly, as is the point, my idea that this is an adventure story is shattered and what I stand to gain from reading it is called into question.)

Written at a time of colonization…a time when Europeans were sharing their enlightened civilization with the supposedly barbaric reaches of the world, Conrad delves into the dehumanizing effects of colonialism and what it can do to a man’s soul.  Darkness is explored on three levels.   Setting-wise, the boat is exploring the dark heart of Africa.   Thematically, colonization of Africa exposes the dark heart of European Colonialism and this leads to the third level…the spiritual…A stirring of the greedy dark hearts of men.

Though initially I had been a bit offended by Conrad’s use of derogatory racial terms, I came to realize his purpose for their use. He was pointing out the degeneration of civilized peoples into greedy subjugators of African (and assumingly other) peoples.  Conrad questions the motives of the European Colonial Expansion.  He asks, “Are we civilizing the world or greedily plundering it?” And the questions are not necessarily answered for the reader.  But I guess that’s the point!  If the questions are answered for us, what reason would we have to ask those questions of us? - Dan W., Acquisitions

Note:  Heart of Darkness is out of copyright and can be downloaded free.

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