I’m trying to remember if it came from some highly-qualified, erudite literary expert or has it just been my own weightless personal opinion, all these years, that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a perfect novel?
Was it a college professor, perhaps?
“The” perfect novel is what I’ve always called it. Though a few others do come to mind now.
Of course I’ll be challenged on that these days. The book is not slathered with political correctness and so there’s a ‘flaw’ already. “And, besides, it’s not a novel. It’s a novella.”
Now there’s a distinction I’ve never really cared for. I’ve always flirted with the theory that Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo and probably young Proust all conspired together one night and came up with the concept of the novella: How dare anyone call that a ‘novel’, after all the pages we’ve cranked out? Can’t we come up with some other category for these ‘trinkets’?
Who knows? Melville and Tolstoi might have weighed in as well!
There is a sense in which the 1100-page thing itself could be called a novella. Does more really make better? If it only takes 87 pages to tell a perfect tale, what true artist would add even a single page? And why invent a second-class category for it? Perfection follows its own set of rules–have you noticed?–and it never fits neatly into man’s little boxes.
One thing we know about Joseph Conrad: he didn’t ‘crank’. From page one to the final paragraph, his marvelous account of Captain Marlowe’s journey up the Congo to rescue an ailing ivory trader is sculpted to perfection, with every word, every phrase, a tap of the master’s chisel.
Or–hold on–let’s not forget the title page! There’s perfection there too. What, or where precisely, is this “Heart of Darkness”? Is it there in the deepest recesses of the Congo? Among the primitive warring tribes? Or is it pointing to the rapacious European ivory traders who cast themselves as “agents of civilization” when they came? Of course it describes the heart of Mr. Kurtz, the so-called ‘exemplary genius’ among them all; but should others be included? Should everyone perhaps?
The answer remains wonderfully elusive, but that final suggestion looms largest in the end, as we sit with Captain Marlowe in a parlor in downtown Brussels and listen to Kurtz’ fiancee, now bereaved, go on and on about “his greatness”; “his generous mind”; and “his noble heart”; his wonderful “example” with “goodness shining in every act”. 1 Marlowe listens to it all, knowing that Kurtz’ life has been nothing but a “horror”. With all of civilized Europe sharing the fiancee’s perception of things, quite likely the title is pointing its finger at us all!
Heart of Darkness is a powerful indictment of European imperialism: especially the so-called ‘civilizing’ forces of King Leopold II of Belgium who, in 1878, claimed “personal ownership” of the entire Congo (did you get that? Not “Belgian ownership”…”personal”!) and began wringing the region of all its ivory. “The conquest of the earth,” as Capt. Marlowe describes it, even before he begins his tale, where men just “grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got…just robbery with violence…aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind.” 2
Conrad knew what he was talking about. In 1890, he himself had actually sailed up the Congo on a riverboat and witnessed the atrocities first-hand. For years after that, he apologized for his involvement; though he seems to have tried his best to limit it.
And then he wrote the novel (1899).
But there is a deeper premise in Heart of Darkness that goes beyond the evils of human oppression and “the conquest of the earth”. Marlowe’s fatal decision to leave the sea and “go inland” brings him face to face with the fallen nature of Man. Throughout his narration, on almost every page, Capt. Marlowe comments on what he has witnessed: the human race behaves, acts civil, follows the rules, because society and civil convention make it do so. Not because the human race is a shining paragon of virtue.
We have neighbors who watch us and laws that warn us; we have policemen to apprehend us, and judges to pronounce both verdict and sentence and so, of course, we all live orderly lives; it’s in our best interest to do so. But none of this proves that we are basically good. It simply proves that we are basically ‘controlled’.
But what happens when the ‘trappings’ go away? When the neighbors are gone and there are no police (oh, how relevant today, by the way!). What happens when no one is looking and there are no laws; when a highly ‘civilized’ man finds himself surrounded by wilderness, where actions have no consequence at all? Oh, now we will see the true nature of a man! And that’s what we see in the man, Mr. Kurtz.
Well, I’ll leave the rest to you. I don’t want to spoil a thing. Sit down, curl up, however you like to do it, and enjoy this marvelous work of art. As I said, it is only 87 pages.
Here’s one of my favorite passages. I call it Conrad’s ‘cinematic’ moment. Just four years after the Lumiere brothers made their very first moving picture (1895) Conrad was doing a little ‘cinema’ of his own; with words, not celluloid.
The scene takes place at the first ivory station, not far from the mouth of the Congo River. Marlowe has arrived to find his riverboat broken; it will never make it into the interior to rescue Mr. Kurtz. There’s an excellent mechanic available to him there–a “boiler-maker” by trade and a very dear man–the only decent man in the station, as a matter of fact. But what the riverboat desperately needs is ‘rivets’ and, of course, there are no ‘rivets’. Rivets aren’t important. Only ivory is important.
The rivets are not really that far away–piled on some dock on the coast nearby–but it takes weeks for them to finally arrive and, by that time, the ‘wilderness’ has definitely taken its toll on Marlowe. (There is a sinister aspect to the delay of the rivets, but I’ll let you figure that out on your own).
Upon hearing the news that the rivets are finally coming, Marlowe hunts down the boiler-maker and, right there on the metal deck of the riverboat, starts a celebration:
“I slapped him on the back and shouted: ‘We shall have rivets!’ He scrambled to his feet exclaiming: ‘No! Rivets!’ as though he couldn’t believe his ears. Then in a low voice, ‘You…eh?’ I don’t know why we behaved like lunatics. I put my finger to the side of my nose and nodded mysteriously. ‘Good for you!’ he cried, snapped his fingers above his head, lifting one foot. I tried a jig. We capered on the iron deck. A frightful clatter came out of that hulk, and the virgin forest on the other bank of the creek sent it back in a thundering roll upon the sleeping station. It must have made some of the pilgrims (traders) sit up in their hovels. A dark figure obscured the lighted doorway of the manager’s hut, vanished, then a second or so after, the doorway itself vanished too.
“We stopped, and the silence driven away by the stamping of our feet flowed back again from the recesses of the land. The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence.” 3
I love it! What would you call it? I’m not a cinematographer–“zoom-out to aerial”; “from close-up to bird’s-eye”?–where the camera swiftly retreats skyward, the horizons broaden, the land grows immense, extending forever, and the people diminish until, eventually, they are just swallowed into the wilderness?
Which, after all, was the author’s point.
- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and Selected Short Fiction Barnes and Noble, NY, 2003 p. 122-123
- ibid. p. 41
- ibid. p. 67-68