Heart of Darkness
In 1876 King Leopold of Belgium founded an International Association for Africa and the following year the explorer Stanley sailed down the river Congo and found its mouth. Belgium started setting up trading stations along the river and the Association International du Congo was founded, with the aim to civilize the natives, abolish slavery, give them liberty of religion and trade. Congo was rich of rubber and ivory, and only Belgian agents were authorized to trade with the stations set along the river. In 1908 Congo was officially annexed to Belgium (Belgian Congo)
Marlow, the narrator, in on the Thames, having boarded a small ship on the point of sailing. During the night he tells the other four passengers of his adventure in Africa
He was staying in Brussels, when he got a job as a captain of a steamboat, which would transport raw ivory from Congo to the coast, where European ships would wait for it. He reached the mouth of Congo in advance, as his job would start only a month later, so he asked for a passage and sailed up the river to the first Outer Station of the Belgian Company. At the Station, he was shocked by the inhuman conditions of life and work of the natives. Marlow was supposed to travel by land to the Central Station, where his steamer would wait for him and take him to the heart of the country. The journey, with a caravan of men, is appalling, as villages are abandoned and the heat difficult to bear. When he reaches the Central Station, he learns that his steamer is stuck in the mud and more than three months will be needed to repair it.
Since he was at the Outer Station, Marlow has heard the agents talk about Kurtz, a man of high ideals, whose aim was to bring civilization to the natives; Kurtz has been staying at the Inner Station for a long time and was supposed to take his journey down the river, as his contract has expired. Anyway, after having started, he has inexplicably decided to go back alone and he’s said to be now ill and close to madness, so that’s it’s necessary to bring him back. The steamer is repaired and Marlow, with some agents and some natives, leaves to the Inner Station.
During the journey he learns that Kurtz is a kind of God to the natives, who obey him blindly even when the sends them on dangerous raids to find ivory. When they arrive at the Station, they are attacked by the natives with arrows. Anyway they reach Kurtz’s house, a dilapidated building surrounded by poles surmounted by heads of natives. Kurtz is found inside, close to death, and is brought on the steamer, where he will actually die, pronouncing the mysterious words The horror, the horror.
Back to Brussels, Marlow meets Kurtz’s girlfriend and lies to her, telling that his last words were her name.
No chronological order, as the story itself is a long flashback, and the major events concerning Kurtz are revealed in scrambled order, according to the interlocutors Marlow deals with.
Marlow has something of the traditional hero, as he’s basically honest and brave, but at the same time he’s deeply different from a Victorian hero because he’s disillusioned with humanity and so often weary and cynical. He can be seen as standing in an intermediary position between Kurtz and the men of the Company. He confronts Africa’s darkness and the darkness inside himself, but he doesn’t die like Kurtz. At the same time he cannot be as indifferent as the men of the Company are, so he suffers . He cannot forget his experience, so he tells about it whenever he can.
Kurtz belongs to a literary tradition too: the “genius” ultimately corrupted by evil, like Faustus, Milton’s Satan, Frankestein, Captain Ahab, but he results much more ambiguous and mysterious.
We have no real picture of Kurtz, because he seems to have been different persons, depending on who is speaking of him.
For some of the Company men he is a benefactor of humanity, a cultured man, the best agent the Company has ever had.
For others, he’s gone mad with solitude and isolation. For his girlfriend, he’s a great humanitarian.
Marlow finds him as a man who, after having convinced the natives he’s God, has convinced himself too, but after having talked with Kurtz’ girlfriend, he even doubts of his own memories. He also represents the “dark side” of Marlow, the narrator, what he might become under certain circumstances, his double.
Marlow is the first person narrator, who narrates the events from his point of view and reports other characters’ point of view too. Anyway, as there is no shared interpretation of reality, and as Marlow himself sometimes seems not even to trust his own memories, the reader is finally left to form his/her own opinion.
•Colonization: the book obviously denounces the sheer and cruel exploitation of the natives hidden behind the rhetoric of imperialism; at the same time the natives are fairly stereotyped and never come to life: they’re passive, superstitious, basically savage. Madness is the result of being removed from one’s social context and so be allowed to act ignoring ethical and social rules (which, as a consequence, are shown to be necessary)
•The ambiguity of the boundary between good and evil: nothing and no one in the novel is absolutely good or absolutely evil, which means that good and evil are not absolute ideas and choices are made good or bad according to the circumstances and their subjective interpretations.
•Africa is obviously the “dark continent”, but in the book also England and Brussels are dark (foggy, rainy); on the other hand the sun mostly shines in Africa, even if it only brings dryness and unbearable heat. Darkness symbolizes the inability to see and to understand oneself and the others. Marlow has traveled to the “heart of darkness” (the heart of Africa, but also the heart of his subconscious), but it does not seem to have given him a better understanding of himself or the others. Kurtz has travelled to the “heart of darkness” too, but what he has seen has driven him mad, and the reader (or Marlow) will never know for certain what it was.