Heart Of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
This text is in the public domain and was acquired through Project Gutenberg (first published in 1902).
CST Approved, 11/1/03.
Heart of Darkness tells a sordid and maddening tale of one man's trip into the jungles of Africa. He is investigating the disappearance of a man, but instead disappears himself - leaving his soulless body to wander the Earth for the rest of its days.
The story begins with our nameless narrator meeting Marlow, a sailor and a "wanderer." Marlow's childhood interest in maps led him to a job as a ship skipper (calling the world "a blank place of delightful mystery", as if to highlight his naivete) called upon to undertake a particularly enigmatic quest: he is to find one Kurtz, an ivory dealer vanished in the depths of Africa. As the first part of Chapter I comes to a close, and Marlow's unfounded fears of traveling to the "centre of the earth" arise, we know that soon the familiar and safe trappings of progress are about to vanish into the pits of Hell.
As Marlow travels down the large unnamed river to his destination, he begins to see the effect of stasis on the African people: malnourished tribesmen march listlessly on the shores, "black shadows of disease and starvation." Conrad not so subtly insinuates that this is caused by progress, and that the success of Europe is founded on the blood and backs of those in the past. As Marlow unloads his boat and prepares to travel inland by foot, he sees "paths, paths everywhere" surrounded by the remnants of villages long since destroyed. Conrad draws small parallels between these ruins of battle with the ancient Greek ruins and the then-contemporary battles raging in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.
As Marlow runs into the manager of a trading market between the shore and Kurtz, he notices the man's distinctive uneasy nature. As he exits the park, he hears the other traders whispering in hushed tones over a recent haul - "Ivory!" Marlow is disgusted, wondering sarcastically if they pray to the ivory on their own time. Conrad's message about the almighty dollar is quite clear. Marlow waits out at the trading post to stock up on supplies before taking off - and meets several curious people who don't merely refer to Kurtz as an ivory dealer, but as a "universal genius," a "prodigy," and "a God." The last one is particularly blasphemous to the religious Marlow. He decides to see for himself this masterful man. When the appropriately named Eldorado Expedition Company vanishes into the African jungles while seeking their fortunes, Marlow is not surprised.
As Marlow heads up to the river, closer to his destination, he notices two main things: the signs of society and civilization in any form begin to dwindle (less roads, less people, more animals), and that people within his crew seem restless, as if they know something more than they're letting on. After discovering an abandoned hut and a mysterious seaman's book filled with cipher, Marlow moves even further into the wild, noting "the rest of the world was nowhere." When the crew hears an "inhuman" shriek outside the flatboat, the rush outside and fight a small skirmish with tribesmen on the shore. Marlow's crew, consisting mostly of starving natives, makes a not-so-funny joke about catching the offending tribesmen and eating them. Here Marlow begins to realize the laws of man are just pieces of paper, but they were formed in the middle of rivers just like this - and can be rescinded just as quickly.
After the skirmish, the assistant manager leading Marlow to Kurtz laments that Kurtz is probably gone now. Conrad takes a moment to mock the European's method of handling the Africans - noting Kurtz was hired by the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs to make a report on said customs. Marlow also learns the reason for the attack - the savages are afraid that he is there to forcibly remove Kurtz. Finally, Marlow arrives at Kurtz's camp. Here, he meets the man - and in another excellent extended metaphor, we can see the difference between the European's distant representation and the real thing. Kurtz is strong, stubborn, and obviously crazy. He is very sick, just having gotten over yet another fever. We see that the world is physically changing him, as well as changing his mentality. "I had immense plans," Kurts cries out. He seems to know that he was trapped in two worlds - the world where grasping what is yours is always approved, and the inevitable shock of being out of one's element. With his dying gasps, he mutters, "The horror, the horror" a cryptic remark, Conrad's epiphany of the history of man, the brutish and short self-destruction of Hobbes fully realized in the world without order.
Marlow returns to the coast, but his experiences leave him forever stunted and suspicious of the motives of modern man. He equates the two together - man in his natural state and in his tweed jacket - and he notes no real difference. Marlow also begins to hesitantly appreciate the sacrifices certain men have made in order to force progress on people. "This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it." Marlow (and perhaps Conrad) believe that control and domination are the only evolutionary ingredients for progress. At the end, Conrad makes further parallels between Kurtz and Jesus, with many of his tribal followers doubting that he is gone forever ("I cannot believe he will never be back again") and claiming his death had been a sacrifice so that they may remember what they are living for.
The plot has a lot of underlying themes: the barbarianism required for civilization to endure - one particularly chilling line in the opening chapter calls the European invasion of Africa "administration", making the reader question their own thoughtless motives of action. There are other themes involving appearance versus reality, man versus nature, and the obligatory world turned upside down motif that occurs within Marlow. A chilling tale for humanity, indeed. Read at your own risk.