Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Review of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

  • Kusum Gokarn   :

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Mohini’s clear and lucid evaluation of Joseph Conrad’s novel The Heart of Darkness, though the book appears to be rather ambiguous, and incomprehensible as the very title suggests.
Consequently you have rightly called the novel ‘impressionistic’.
You brought out very well the brutality and injustice done by the Whites/Europeans towards the Blacks/Africans in the 19th century.

The Africans are derogatorily referred to by the British as ‘Cannibals’, ‘niggers’, ‘uncivilized’, ‘savages’ , ‘criminals’ , enemies’ and ‘natives’, ‘tribals’ .
(I have also heard them being called ‘Porch Monkeys’ )!

The British were interested in collecting the precious ivory discovered by them in Africa. Whereas the natives themselves were unaware of the value of ivory.
The author refers to some ‘unspeakable rites’ of the Africans which remain unexplained.
So also it is not specified whether the ‘Horrors” described are the ones as seen by the protagonist or the ones done by him .

On the whole, Conrad’s book is a revelation of the atrocities done by the Europeans /Whites upon the Africans/ Blacks.

The feedback given by some members was also quite interesting.
Dr Prashant Sinha, the veteran authoritative Prof of English Literature from Poona University, referred to the form of the novel . However the pace of the narration is rather slow, he said. One surprising point he noted was of ‘male chauvinism’ because of the treatment of the few women characters in the book.
Farook Merchant referred to another book that he had read, titled Into Africa (based on the explorer named Henry Stanley) . This book is also about slave labour and the white man Livingston was also glorified as a ‘god’.

Indu Kulkarni referred to the derogatory approach of the White colonizers towards the Africans. And it is doubtful whether Kurtz is to be seen as a saviour or merely a reporter.
Suchitra Sonalkar also reiterated the point about the unaccountable brutality and injustice inflicted by the colonizers upon the Africans and how they regarded themselves as a law unto themselves.

Latika Padgaonkar made a note that a lot is left unsaid in the novel and the ending remains open to the imagination of the reader. Many questions remain unanswered by the author and leave the reader wondering .

Anna said that the book is about the general nature of human beings. It is not so much about the blacks and whites specifically but about the human vices of power and greed.
These are some of the points that I could gather from today’s presentation.

Thanks a lot to your consistent and persevering efforts , dear Mohini and Satish, in organising such interesting and absorbing programs for The Book Club Pune.
Wish you all the best of success in your forthcoming programs for many more years to follow.

  • Review by Suchitra Sonalkar

As citizens of a former colonial power, we are all aware of the bittersweet legacy which permeates every aspect of our lives.Heart of Darkness (1899) a novella by Polish–English novelist Joseph Conrad explores the dark side of Imperialism and Colonialism and the consequent oppression and dehumanization of the voiceless natives in Congo, Africa.

The book was presented by Mohini Khot .Mohini has made literature her life and delights in spreading the love of literature and the fine arts through forums such as the Book Club. Mohini in her inimitable style brought to the presentation years of reading, dedication and love for her craft. In a very neatly designed, detailed lucid power point presentation, she covered every aspect of the book with an insightful analysis of the plot and theme of the book.

Joseph Conrad was a Polish-British writer regarded as one of the greatest novelists to write in the English language. Conrad born in Poland at a time when Poland was part of the Russian Empire. He learned English in his twenties and became a British citizen. Writing near the peak of the British Empire, Conrad drew on the national experiences in the French and British merchant navies, to create short stories and novels that reflect aspects of a European dominated world including imperialism and colonialism and that profoundly explore the human psyche. An early Modernist, he was a prolific writer and has left behind several works of note, novels and short stories.

Originally issued as a three part serial story in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899, Heart of Darkness has been widely republished and translated into many languages. It provided the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now based on the Vietnam War. The book was written at the height of Imperialism after the Berlin Conference of 1884, when Bismarck partitioned Africa without war between the seven European nations namely Germany, France, England, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Belgium.

King Leopold II of Belgium colonized Congo in 1885 and it remained a Belgian colony till 1960.He owned the Congo as his personal fiefdom, ostensibly on a noble mission to develop the civilization, grapple with the primitive barbarism, teach the natives to work, all this under the veneer of greed and avarice of amassing wealth in the ivory trade. This was written at a time when there was a perceived legitimacy for overpowering and dominating people, controlling their lives, exploiting labour and natural resources with the stated aim of human development and enlightenment of the natives.

Heart of Darkness tells a story within a story with a narrator narrating the story told by another character. The novella begins with a group of passengers aboard a boat floating on the River Thames. One of them, Charlie Marlow, relates to his fellow seafarers an experience of his that took place on another river-the Congo River in Africa. A company that runs a colonial enterprise in the Belgian Congo appoints him captain of a river steamer. He sets out for Africa, optimistic of what he will find.

But his expectations are quickly soured…From the moment he arrives, he is exposed to the evils of imperialism, witnessing the violence it inflicts upon the African people it exploits As he proceeds, he begins to hear of a man called Kurtz-a colonial agent who is supposedly unmatched in his ability to procure ivory from the continent’s interior. According to rumor, Kurtz has fallen ill, thereby jeopardizing the company’s entire venture in the Congo.

Marlow is given command of his steamer and a crew of Europeans and Africans to man it. After encountering many obstacles along the way, Marlow’s steamer finally makes it to Kurtz. Kurtz has taken command over a tribe of natives who he now employs to conduct raids on the surrounding regions.

Kurtz dies on the journey back up the river but not before revealing to Marlow the terrifying glimpse of human evil he’d been exposed to. ‘The horror! The horror” he tells Marlow before dying.

A year after his return to Europe, Marlow pays Kurtz’s partner a visit. She is represented as several of Heart of Darkness’s female characters are – as naively sheltered from the awfulness of the world, a state that Marlow hopes to preserve. When she asks about Kurtz’s final words, Marlow lies, “Your name “he tells her. Marlow’s story ends there. Heart of Darkness itself ends as the narrator, one of Marlow’s audiences, sees a mass of brooding clouds gathering on the horizon – what seems to him to be the “heart of an immense darkness”

Conrad’s writing style as Mohini described is not very endearing, it is rather dry and impersonal. However the writing is very deep and certainly worth reading. He depicts the trials of the human spirit in the midst of an impassive, inscrutable universe. There are autobiographical elements in his writing; his own experiences at sea and abroad, his own experience of exile, loneliness, betrayal growing up in a colonial country with a sense of lacking rights.

There has been a lot of discussion and debate on the recurring theme of the book namely colonization, Imperialism and racism .At the heart of the debate is the very definition of the word Civilization. Who is civilized and who is not? It is a known fact that London, the greatest city in the world, was also once upon a time, an uncivilized place, conquered and disciplined by the Romans and made civilized. Are the African people depicted in the novel uncivilized or do they have a very different civilization that Europeans do not recognize? Is restraint, control and discipline the hallmarks of civilization? How thin a veneer is our so called civilization?

Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe insists that Africa has its own separate culture which has not been acknowledged by Europe. He accuses Conrad of xenophobia, dehumanization and creating a prejudiced view of Africa. Questions have been raised about the portrayal of Africa as a dark, unknown, ignorant evil and incomprehensible continent.

However despite this display of colonial brutality, Conrad, whose native country has been conquered by imperial powers, does show empathy towards the subjugated people. Marlow describes what he sees without prejudice or judgement, exposing the cruel treatment meted out to the natives by the white colonizers. He realizes that the cannibals on his boat are more civilized than the white pilgrims. They have more restraint. He also realizes the shared humanity of the natives and himself, but it comes as a shock. Heart of Darkness suggests that Europeans are not essentially more highly evolved or enlightened than the people whose territories they invade. What is the meaning of Kurtz’s cry of “The Horror! The Horror!“ Is it regret for joining the natives or regret for exploiting them? As Latika Padgaokar very rightly said,”so much is left unsaid.”There is a lot of ambiguity and an open end that keeps you guessing.

The viewer response was overwhelming. The brutality of colonization by other European powers was condemned. After more than a century of imperialism, the former colonies are waking up to the horrendous injustice meted to them. In fact the latest news item in the BBC is a testimony to this awakening. It reads ”Germany’s long–awaited apology for last century’s mass killing in Namibia has opened fresh questions about how Europe confronts its colonial past in Africa”, argues Namibian analyst Emsie Erastus.

To sum up, I would like to present Sanjay Saksena’s viewpoint.”How fair is it to judge people and events of the past with moral yardsticks of a later age? The idea that all men are equal is relatively recent in human history and if one bunch of people regarded themselves as superior to others, it was really quite normal.”


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