Heart of Darkness I – first half

12 Feb

* Notice the recurrence of the (binary) motifs light / darkness and civilization / savagery. What is each term associated with? Do the associations change?

* As the novella opens, the characters are the narrator, Marlow, the Captain, the Accountant, and the Lawyer. They are sailing out the Thames. This is the frame story. Soon the narration is taken over by Marlow, who tells his story of Kurtz and the Congo river to his companions as they sail in English waters.

* Note that the story is about Belgian colonialism – implying that English colonialism could be different, and possibly getting the immediate audience off the hook, as it were.

* At the beginning: London is dark behind them (“mournful gloom,” “brooding gloom”) and there is a “luminous space ahead” [empty – reminiscent, perhaps, of Sarmiento’s desierto (we’ll talk about this possibility)]

* The Captain’s work is back in gloomy London, but he looks entirely nautical; the men are bonded together by the sea

* Marlow resembles an idol; the river is beautiful, meditative, and increasingly profound; the sea holds history, meaning, power, dreams; Marlow points out that England also “has been one of the dark places of the earth” [a colony, being “civilized” by the Romans]

* In thouse days England would have been savage, and the young Roman citizen would have felt rather desperate, felt the “utter savagery.” Wilderness, jungles, hearts of wild men, mysteries, “the incomprehensible which is also detestable.” “The fascination of abomination, the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender – the hate.

* Marlow goes on to discuss colonialism. “What saves us is efficiency – the devotion to efficiency.” The Romans were mere conquerors, not real colonists, and needed only brute force – “as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness.” Conquest and colonization are pillage of people who look different  from ourselves. “What redeems it is the idea only.” An unselfish belief in the idea, an idea you can bow down before, and make a sacrifice to…

* Going up the Congo River was “the farthest point of navigation and the culminating point of my experience.” It was somber, but it threw a light on everything, although this light did not make things clear.

* Back from the Orient, Marlowe had been loafing about London,  as though he were on a mission to civilize it.  He had always liked maps – maps with unknown places, blank spaces – although Africa, increasingly filled in with names on the map, had now become a dark place

* The Congo River coiled like a snake, and attracted him

* He got a job replacing a Dane who had been killed by Africans when he, after two years “engaged in the noble cause,” “felt the need at last of asserting his self-respect in some way” and beat up an old man

* After they kill the Dane they do not touch “the supernatural being,” and they appear later to have abandoned their village in some sort of primitive terror

* When Marlow went to sign his contract in Belgium there was some sort of ominous air in the office. He has a bad feeling. (Notice the proliferation of words here like eerie, uncanny, “door of Darkness,” the women knitting black wool)

* The Doctor measures his cranium, as he does of all those who go to Africa, but says he never sees them when they come back; “the changes take place inside, you know”

* The jungle, the Congo, Africa, is referred to as “out there.” The Doctor wonders if there is madness in Marlow’s family. He warns him to avoid irritation; in the jungle it is necessary to remain calm. Meanwhile, his aunt thinks of Marlowe going off to civilize, but he reminds her that the Company is run for profit. Women are out of touch with truth [what does Marlow mean by this?]. He feels like an impostor.

* Sailing along the African coast – coasts are enigmas – an alien mystery – monotonous – and the jungle beyond is so dark green as to be almost black. Marlow feels no point of contact with the other men on the ship, and feels more akin to the sea itself. Seeing actual Africans in African boats is a relief because they seem to fit in. The earth is empty and immense, the ship seems limp and weak, and once they come upon a man of war firing weakly, almost meaninglessly, into the bush (and the men on the ship are dying of fever)

* They pass by many deathly places (“the merry dance of death and trade goes on in a still … atmosphere as of an overheated catacomb”). Marlowe feels a vague and oppressive wonder, and hints of nightmares; he sees the rivers that pour into the sea as “streams of death in life”

* Finally they get to the mouth of the Congo and Marlowe changes ships. This boat is run by a Swede. He hints at how white men go mad in the tropics, cannot take it.

* He arrives to his Company’s station where a railway truck looks “dead,” and in the shade “dark things seemed to stir feebly.” Then he sees black people run…and then a half starved chain gang. Their captain seems to be weak and evil, and apparently, we will meet him again.

* Notice the sarcasm with which Marlowe describes these goings-on – he is not impressed with the Company or with Belgian colonialism … it is an inferno … the hill is being mined … and there are African workers dying [of bad food and overwork]

* Now he meets a company official, very elegant, with the “backbone” to maintain this elegance in the tropics…he is very officious. The contrast between this and everything else going on is grotesque. Marlow has to wait there for ten days, during which the official describes Mr. Kurtz.

To be continued! 

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Posted by on February 12, 2008 in Conrad


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