Friday, November 19, 2010

“Heart of Darkness” : An Introduction to the Novel

Date of Publication
Heart of Darkness originally appeared in a serial form. Subsequently it appeared as one of the tales in a volume which bore the following title: Youth: A Narrative, and Two Other Stories. This volume contained three stories or tales having the following titles: “Youth”; “Heart of Darkness”; and “tic End of the Tether”. This volume appeared in 1902. Prior to the publication of this volume, Conrad had already published three books which were:

1. Almayer’s Folly––A Story of an Eastern River (1895)
2. The Nigger of the Narcissus ––A Tale of the Sea (1897)
3. Lord Jim––A Tale (1900)
Based on Conrad’s Personal Experiences
Heart of Darkness was based on Conrad’s own exploration of the African country of the Congo and the famous Congo river flowing through that country. In the year 1890, Conrad had sailed upon the river Congo as the captain (or skipper) of a Belgian steamship. A very large part of the country known as the Congo was at that time under the imperialist rule of the Belgian king, Leopald II. Conrad had worked as the captain of a river steamship plying between the trading stations which the imperialist Belgian government had established along the river Congo mainly to gather ivory and export it to Belgium from where it was sold to various European nations who made use of. it for manufacturing ornaments of all kinds and for manufacturing miscellaneous other articles as well. Ivory was the chief commodity which the agents of the Belgian trading companies collected on behalf of their employers and despatched to Belgium. Conrad himself worked only as the captain of a steam-boat and did not participate in any trading activity. However, Conrad studied at first hand the conditions which prevailed in the Congo, and formed his own impressions of the kind of life which the savages were leading under the imperialist Belgian rule. He also observed the mentality of the white traders and the manner in which they treated the native savages. What Conrad saw was not something pleasant. In fact, he was greatly dismayed and even shocked by what he saw. He saw at first hand the swindling, the brutality, and the atrocities which the Belgian regime was committing against the native population. The book, Heart of Darkness, which he afterwards wrote-is more or less a record of his own travels through the Congo, and his own experiences in the dark continent. The title of this book means simply the interior of the dark country known as the Congo. But the title of book has a symbolic meaning also. Symbolically, “Heart of Darkness” means the inner depths of the human mind and consciousness.
Conrad in the Disguise of Marlow
Heart of Darkness is thus an autobiographical book. It contains indirectly Conrad’s own experiences in the dark country known as the Congo, and an account of his own voyage upon the river, also known as the Congo. The book is not a straight autobiography. Conrad does not speak in the book in his own person. In other words, he does not tell the story in his own person. The main story of the book is told by a fictitious character having the name _of Marlow; and there is another narrator in the novel too. What we have to note is that Conrad’s own experiences have, in this book, been attributed to the narrator, Marlow. In other words, Marlow’s account of his experiences in the dark continent is largely Conrad’s own. Similarly, Marlow’s reactions to what he saw in the Congo are also largely Conrad’s own reactions to what Conrad had himself seen in the Congo. At the same time, it has to be pointed out that, tough the book is largely autobiographical, it is not wholly so.
Conrad’s Congo Diary
During his journey through the Congo as the captain of, a Belgian steamship, Conrad had maintained a diary in which he had been jotting down his impressions and his thoughts. Of course, these jottings were sketchy and very brief. In fact, these jottings were a kind of shorthand notes which he kept for his own personal use at a later time. In writing Heart of Darkness, Conrad drew mainly upon this diary. In other words, the diary, which Conrad had maintained during his exploration of the country called the Congo and the river also called the Congo, afterwards served him well as his source for the writing of Heart of Darkness. The book is a marvellous record of Conrad’s own experience of white imperialism in the Belgian Congo and his impressions of the savages- and also of the whites who exercised their authority over them. Conrad witnessed the injustice, the cruelty, the purposelessness, the greed, and the cunning of the whites with whom he came into contact; and he’ also witnessed the exploitation of the savages, the sub-human conditions in which the savages lived, and the misrule to which they were subjected.
An Account of Internal as well as External Exploration
The book is thus an account of Conrad’s own exploration of the interior of the dark continent of Africa. At the same time the book is an exploration of Conrad’s own mind and soul, conveyed to us through Marlow’s story. As important as Marlow (or Conrad) in this book is the character of Mr. Kurtz because the book is also an exploration of the mind and the soul of a white trader or merchant visiting the Congo and, in course of time, becoming identified with the natives, though retaining his own identity. The book is a profound psychological study. Besides its external, surface meanings which centre round the white man’s role in the backward regions of the world, it also probes the minds of two exceptional beings because both Marlow (or Conrad) and Mr. Kurtz are exceptional personalities.
Other Major Characters in the Novel
Besides Marlow and Mr. Kurtz, the other major characters in this novel are: (1) the chief accountant of the trading company on whose behalf Marlow makes his trip to the Congo; (2) the manager of the Central Station maintained by that trading company; (3) the brick-maker who, however, makes no bricks but who functions as the manager’s aide and spy, and who provides considerable information about local affairs to Marlow; (4) the group of white traders operating on behalf of the company but doing precious little; these white traders are given the nickname of “pilgrims” by Marlow; (5) the Russian who becomes a great admirer and devotee of Mr. Kurtz, and who proves to be a source’ of much information to Marlow about the character and deeds of Mr. Kurtz; (6) Mr. Kurtz’s intended (or the girl whom Mr. Kurtz had intended to marry). This girl has not been given any name inn the novel.
The Preliminaries
The story begins with a group of men sitting on board a steam-boat called the “Nellie,” and waiting for the tide in the river Thames to turn. One of these men has the name Charles Marlow who had been a seaman for many years but who had at onetime in his life become a fresh-water sailor. Marlow now tells his companions that even Britain, which is now a highly civilized country, had at one time been a dark one. That was the time when the civilized Romans had invaded and conquered Britain many centuries ago. Marlow points out that the original Roman invaders of this country, must have noted with some dismay the utter savagery of barbaric Britain. Then Marlow begins his account off his own visit to the Belgian Congo and his voyage upon the river Congo which he made as the skipper of a steam­boat. Marlow’s account is concerned largely with Belgian imperialism in the Congo, and the exploitation and cruelty to which the native savages were subjected by the white conquerors of that country. Marlow tells his listeners that, as a boy, he had felt a passion for maps, and a strong desire to visit and explore Central Africa, and more especially to sail upon the river Congo which he had seen on the map with great interest. In fact, the winding river Congo, as shown on a map, had fascinated him just as a snake fascinates a silly bird. As a grown-up man and as an experienced sailor on the seas, he had then gone to a Belgian trading company’s headquarters in Brussels for an interview with the boss in connection with a job which he was seeking and for which he had been recommended to the boss by an aunt of his. At the company’s office he encountered two ominous women knitting black wool, and a doctor who measured his skull because of his interest in the changes which take place in the minds of the individuals visiting backward foreign countries like the Congo. The mention of the two mysterious women and the doctor-cum-psychologist in the same context shows Conrad mixing the traditional and the modern elements in his novel. The knitting women remind us of the Fates of classical mythology, spinning and cutting the thread of human lives, while the doctor-cum-psychologist shows the modern interest in the working of the minds of human beings. In fact, the doctor is a kind of psychiatrist who is interested in insanity and in analyzing the mental changes of individuals. The doctor ‘is very much a product of Conrad’s own period when the sciences of psychology and psychiatry were being first developed. The novel itself is to be treated by us partly as a myth and partly as a document of modern times indicating the new interest in the working of the human mind.
The Voyage by a French Steamer
Soon afterwards, Marlow travels by a French steamer to the Congo to take charge of a steam-boat of which he has been appointed the skipper. What he witnesses in the course of this journey shocks him. Actually what we have here is a description of the grim and horrifying conditions prevailing in the Congo of Conrad’s days. Although all the sights and the scenery are described most vividly, yet Marlow speaks of the “unreality” of what he sees. Marlow gets the feeling that there is something unreal about what he is seeing in the course of his voyage. In fact, the sights, which he sees, throw his sense of reality into confusion. The following lines show the mistiness of his experience during this voyage by the French steamer before he arrives at the Central Station of the trading company which has given Marlow a job to do in the Congo:
The idleness of a passenger, my isolation amongst all these men with whom I had no point of contact, the oily and languid sea, the uniform sombreness of the coast, seemed to keep me away from the truth of things, within the toil of a mournful and senseless delusion. (Page 40)
The struggle between Marlow’s sense of reality and the overpowering impression of unreality continues throughout the book. Indeed, the clash between an awareness of reality and the pressing sense of unreality constitutes one of the themes of the novel. The clash becomes more pronounced after Marlow has taken charge of his steamer as its skipper and begins his journey over the Congo river in the company of the manager of the Central Station. The lines quoted above produce a feeling of anarchy and futility in the minds of the readers, and in fact these lines show Conrad’s own reaction to his experiences during his voyage to the Congo.
From the Central Station to the Inner Station
Marlow’s real job begins when he takes charge of the steam-boat which was lying at the bottom of the river Congo, and which had to be pulled out and repaired before it could be set afloat on the river. It is by this steam-boat that Marlow, accompanied by the manager of the Central Station, sails towards the Inner Station of which Mr. Kurtz is in charge. Many things happen in the course of this voyage over the river Congo. These happenings bring to our minds most vividly the conditions of life of the savages, and the activities of the white men visiting these parts for exploration or for trade. The account of these happenings is most shocking, and even horrifying. The injustice and the cruelties done by the white men to the savages are fully conveyed to our minds as are the ignorance, the superstitions, and the utter backwardness of the natives.
The Formidable Personality of Mr. Kurtz
In the midst of all this, what catches our attention most is the figure of Mr. Kurtz. Mr. Kurtz soon becomes a formidable person in our eyes. Indeed, he acquires Herculean dimensions. He is a white man who has been able to acquire a great hold upon the native savages. Indeed, the savages have begun to treat him as a god. And even we begin to admire this man for his success in subjugating the natives and ruling over them with an iron hand. The natives are not just afraid of him; they also adore, worship, and love him. This man has begun to identify himself with the natives, though he has not allowed his own identity to be obliterated. He retains his greed as a trader; he harbours a passion for collecting and exporting ivory, he carries out his functions as the manager of the Inner Station most efficiently; he continues to love the girl whom he had promised to marry; and, on top of all that, he has become the sovereign and lord of this whole region where the natives bow to him and where he presides over their midnight dances which end with “unspeakable rites.” This man now represents a strange blending of the white man’s civilization and the native savages, primitive beliefs, customs, and rites. In Marlow’s view, this man, who thinks himself to be the master of everything around him, would ultimately be claimed by the powers of darkness. What Marlow means to say is that Mr. Kurtz would ultimately be devoured by the values of his own western culture. (The powers of darkness may also be a reference to the primitive instincts which have been awakened and stirred in Mr. Kurtz and which have begun even to dominate him). When Marlow’s steamship arrives at the Inner Station, Mr. Kurtz is seriously ill. Mr. Kurtz is brought aboard Marlow’s steamship and, although the native savages protest against his being removed from this place, the steamship sails away with Mr. Kurtz lying seriously ill in one of its cabins. On the way Mr. Kurtz dies; and the rest of the story is only the epilogue.
The Country Called the Congo
The country called the Congo embraces most of the basin of the river Congo. This African country has a very narrow outlet to the Atlantic at the mouth of the river Congo. It was established as the Belgian Congo under the sovereignty of King Leopald II of Belguim. In course of time the country gained its independence from Belgian rule.
The River Called the Congo
The river Congo is the second in length and the largest in volume of the African rivers. It brings more water into the Atlantic than the other African rivers put together. It follows a tortuous course and passes through a series of rapids. Before Conrad sailed over this river in 1890, it had been explored successfully by a man of the name of H.M. Stanley. The Congo is three thousand miles in length.

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