Joseph Conrad: “Heart of Darkness”

1899/1902

Whenever I pick up Heart of Darkness (and I think this is about the tenth time), I find I can recall the beginning and the end, but the painstakingly slow ‘progress’ between those points – the order in which the almost monotonous series of ‘events’ takes place – falls away from my memory within a few months of each reading.

Part of this, to be sure, is Marlow’s notoriously ambiguous and repetitive narrative voice. The flatness and silence of the landscape to him, the synecdochic swarm of body parts behind the curtains of branches, the nameless character ‘types’ who populate the points of his journey, all contribute to this. But this is also a way in which we are reminded that this is a narrated story, carefully curated in print to appear as orality.

Indeed, the tension in the novel between textual and narrative authority is constant. It is as if Marlow’s wandering “yarn,” full of assertions of the illegible and inscrutable nature of the land and people he encounters in the Congo, is itself striving to have in it something of the unutterable cry. Marlow strains against the fixedness of Kurtz’s report, with its terrible scrawled addendum, “Exterminate all the brutes!” Marlow himself, both here and in Lord Jim, seems to be an outsider as well, one the frame narrator of this tale regards disinterestedly.

I am perhaps most interested in tracing a lineage from this text through Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. When teaching this text to students in a discussion section, I also broke them into groups of 5 and gave them a list of page numbers on three major themes: Race, Gender, Empire. They took about 20 minutes to develop a thesis statement of 1-2 sentences. We then reviewed and edited the theses for about 10 minutes and used those ideas to drive the rest of class discussion (20 minutes).

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