An iconic, atmospheric, murky critique of colonialism, but also a fascinating rumination on how storytelling, framing, and contextualisation obscure the apparent chaos and savagery at the heart of humanity.
It’s extremely impressive Joseph Conrad wrote something so awash in powerful imagery and evocative prose when English was his third language. His very deliberate, peculiar style of writing melds so well with the actual themes of the story – he once stated that “no English word is simply a word, that all English words are instruments for exciting blurred emotions”, and the story is full of characters, events, and institutions that characters project their emotions onto.
Kurtz is the most obvious example (of someone others project onto), but ivory, various occurrences in nature, and darkness itself also undergo similar varied interpretations by characters. It’s important that the story itself is framed in this sense, being a tale told by the character of Marlow, rather than a straight-faced narrative from Conrad. That element of distance invites the reader to consciously project and interpret the story-within-a-story the same way the characters project and interpret Kurtz and the various symbols in Marlow’s story.
Is Marlow’s story a scathing critique of colonialism? Is it a racist condemnation of only a certain colonial attitude, still championing a general base superiority between different races and cultures? Is it merely a meditation on human nature, and the role of civilisation in straightening out the apparent darkness in the heart of everyone? Is it consciously postcolonial? Is it unconsciously racist? Marlow offers up a story showing the “heart of darkness” that is human nature, how do we as readers interpret that? Just like Marlow himself, along with Kurtz’ Intended, both project their own meanings onto Kurtz, synthesising aspects of the reality of the man with their own personal identities and worldviews, how do we make sense of what Conrad presents us? The text acts as a microcosm for the human experience, in pushing readers to make their own sense out of the chaos of human nature.
While I certainly see the text as a critique of colonialism, I think its greater power lies in how it pushes readers through the same experience as its characters, trying to obscure the chaotic, contradictory nature of Marlow’s presented narrative, and shape it into some sort of logical thesis appropriate for one’s worldview, whether positive or negative. Marlow’s story questions colonialism, whether one can be good in a world where “good” is such a subjective and murky proposition, and how one can be sane in a fundamentally insane world. Conrad’s story questions how we filter the cipher that is Marlow’s story and all it contains, and how we impose our philosophies onto it to make our own sense out of the world. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there are barely any obvious or straight-faced contextual clues in the story, with the setting of the Congo and Brussels never being clearly stated. Conrad is inviting us to view the story as a cipher.
How can one be sane in an insane world? Through claiming to know the unknowable, through rejecting chaos as insanity, and by imposing value systems onto a world full of competing values. Completely subjective, but that’s the entire point, and what we do not just in life in general, but through reading and interpreting this story.
A very thought-provoking tale. I give it five buckets with a hole in them, and a whited sepulchre.