Thursday, March 24, 2011

Literary Bite: Heart of Darkness

I read Heart of Darkness for my book club, and alas, I was not a fan. I had such high expectations! It takes place in Africa. I love Africa! But unfortunately, for Heart of Darkness-loving reasons, I like paragraphs. I use them liberally. Joseph Conrad does not. This book is a series of stream-of-consciousness paragraphs that go on for pages!

To be fair, Heart of Darkness is not all bad. It’s a classic for a reason, and it’s definitely a book meant to be studied. According to Wikipedia (sorry, yes, I just went there), “Heart of Darkness exposes the dark side of European colonization while exploring the three levels of darkness that the protagonist, Marlow, encounters: the darkness of the Congo wilderness, the darkness of the Europeans' cruel treatment of the natives, and the unfathomable darkness within every human being for committing heinous acts of evil.”

The story is in the voice of a sea captain, Marlow, who sails up the Congo River working for a Belgian trading company in the notoriously brutal King Leopold’s Congo. As he travels into the depths of the jungle, Marlow becomes obsessed with the elusive Mr. Kurtz. Kurtz embodies the darkness lurking in individuals. He sees himself (and Europeans in general) as bringing light and civilization to Africa, but as he (and Marlow) travel deeper into Africa they abandon their own civility and become increasingly brutal. I think the Europeans are the ones bringing the “darkness.”

[Sidenote/fun-fact: when the Congo was granted independence in 1970 it had the highest literacy rate in Africa! Who would have thought?]

Chinua Achebe, one of the most famous African authors, argued that Heart of Darkness “de-humanized Africans, denied them language and culture and reduced them to a metaphorical extension of the dark and dangerous jungle into which the Europeans venture.” 

I totally agree, and assume that any modern reader would see the extreme racism in this book; however, it is important to consider Heart of Darkness in the context in which it was written. The book was published in 1901, at a time when racism was not an “issue” and colonialism was on the rise. Conrad traveled to the Congo in 1890 and his impressions of life there surely influenced his writing.

Like I said, I read Heart of Darkness for Book Club. But then I missed the discussion. Rumor has it there were very dark cupcakes...and a good presentation!

I won’t tell you not to read Heart of Darkness. It’s a widely read work of literature and is imitated in the movie Apocalypse Now (which takes place in Vietnam and Cambodia). All I’m saying is that if you have a thing for paragraphs like I do, Conrad might not be your author of choice. 

1 comment:

  1. Context is always so important. When I taught my students To Kill a Mockingbird earlier this year we had some lengthy discussions on book banning and the "n-word." Recently, it was announced that a few of Twain's books were going to be "cleaned up" because of the racial context Context, people, context!

    Like you, I'm not in love with HoD, but I do appreciate Conrad's style and the story. Just not my favorite.

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