The Darkest Book of All


Heart of Darkness, TNT, 1993

by Eric D. Lehman

During dark times, we are drawn to dark books. Threats of new diseases increase our purchases of Albert Camus’s The Plague. Threats of totalitarian governments multiply copies of George Orwell’s 1984. And threats of chaos and futility skyrocket sales of nihilistic fictions like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

The crux of Conrad’s masterpiece lies in the idea of the hollow shell. The narrator tells us, “to him [Marlow] the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel, but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out.” This sets up an inside/outside dichotomy that is continued throughout the novella, which illustrates not only the idea of meaning, but the metaphysical construct for human existence. Sometimes this construct is outlined as a split between savagery and civilization, where humans have a core of vital savagery inside their civilized exterior. However, a more likely and disturbing dichotomy is that of a dark heart of emptiness and meaninglessness at the core of an illusory civilization. This operates on two levels, the microcosm of the individual and the macrocosm of the world.

This extremely nihilistic view is alluded to when the narrator describes Marlow on deck of the ship, “He had the pose of the Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower.” He cannot be holding a flower, because there is no flower; there is only an abyss. Heart of Darkness presents this nothingness as the only truth.

Conrad first sets up this worldview by taking all genuine emotion from the novel. Marlow says of the old, knitting woman, “She glanced at me above the glasses. The swift and indifferent placidity of that look troubled me.” This indifference is constantly referred to throughout the novella. Nobody cares when soldiers and customs agents drown in the surf. Nobody cares when the Eldorado expedition is lost in the jungle. The natives are indifferent to their fate at the hands of the Europeans. Most of all, Marlow does not seem to care about anything at all. The primary example of this is when he sees the heads on the sticks in front of Kurtz’s village. He draws his head back, but tells his listeners, “The start back I had given was really nothing but a movement of surprise.” Without emotion, some other reason must be found for life. Though most interpretations attribute this lack of emotion to civilization – giving humans a savage, but vital, heart, this view merely gives the reader a way out. Conrad’s work is much more nihilistic; this lack of emotion sets up the existential dilemma of the book.

A dichotomy certainly exists in the novel between civilization and the wilderness. Brussels is the primary representative of civilization. Marlow initially tells us that the city “always makes me think of a whited sepulcher.” Then, as he describes the city further, the emptiness becomes even more apparent: “A narrow and deserted street in deep shadow, high houses, innumerable windows with venetian blinds, a dead silence.” The coffin-like imagery supports the metaphysical construct, as civilization is the coffin holding the dead heart inside it.

As Marlow describes his journey into Africa, the idea of the shell of civilization becomes obvious. He tells his listeners, “I felt as though, instead of going to the center of a continent, I were about to set off for the center of the earth.” The image of Hell is usually gleaned by the casual reader, but what is more important is the travel inward. Marlow continues with the outside/inside split during the description of his travel along the coast. The coastline, dotted with tiny settlements, calls for Marlow to come into the interior and “find out” what is within.

The coast also has various attributes: “smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage.” This description is important in that it tells the reader that savagery is just another aspect of the shell, it is not in the interior. These are also not emotions, just surface appearances, a distinction that sets up the idea of civilization being only a shallow covering.

One apparent solace to the reader is that Marlow refers to an “inner strength” when confronting the “monstrous and free” wilderness and natives almost halfway through the book: “he must at least be as much of a man as these on shore. He must meet that truth with his own stuff — with his own inborn strength.” However, this pretty speech is undermined completely a short while later when he makes another long speech about inner strength. Referring to Mr. Kurtz, he goes on for nearly a page about the need for the strength to confront one’s own reality, the darkness that lies within one. Marlow ends his speech with “[now] your strength comes in, the faith in your ability for the digging of unostentatious holes to bury the stuff in — your power of devotion, not to yourself, but to an obscure back-breaking business.”

The “back-breaking business” is the shell of reality, what Marlow calls at the beginning of the novel, “devotion to efficiency,” and is quickly shown to be meaningless. He illustrates this best by the image he gives of the man of war that is firing into the expanse of the African jungle. He says, “There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight.” Human beings, as individuals or as a larger group, are engaged in farcical acts that have no real meaning. And faith is not an inner strength at all, it resides in one’s ability to accept the pointless work of life, to keep up the “toil of mournful and senseless delusion” that he describes as human activity while on the ship to Africa. In a passage describing his work on the steamer, he says, “When you have to attend to things of that sort, to the mere incidents of the surface, the reality — the reality, I tell you — fades. The inner truth is hidden — luckily, luckily.” The “inner truth” is that there is nothing within our hollow shells.

This farce is not left in the symbolic realms; Marlow describes many more concrete instances of seemingly nonsensical acts. A man hangs himself without motive. Drainage pipes are smashed purposelessly. Marlow sees a native with a piece of string around his neck and asks, “Was there any idea at all connected with it,” seemingly undermining his earlier speech about the “idea” behind civilizing the world. Marlow then tells us, “I saw this station, these men strolling aimlessly about in the sunshine. I asked myself sometimes what it all meant.” Later, Marlow goes farther and compares all work to “monkey tricks,” clearly showing what he thinks of civilization’s great accomplishments.

He builds his case that civilization is an illusion. Marlow says of the plotting at the station, “It was as unreal as everything else — as the philanthropic pretence of their whole concern, as their talk, as their government, as their show of work.” This further denotes everything as unreal, supporting Marlow’s statement when the agent is badgering him about the “powers” that lay behind Marlow in Europe. He tells us that “there was nothing behind me.”

This meaninglessness in human action is also shown when Marlow describes the fate of his predecessor, Fresleven, who “started to hammer the chief of the village with a stick” though the white man was the “gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs.” The pilgrims shoot at natives for no apparent reason. These men have been out in the wilderness for a long time, in the heart of darkness, and their acts reflect that. Out here, it is easier to see, and cross, the thin line between the farcical, meaningless trappings of civilization and the pitiless nothing at its heart.

The fact that there is an abyss at the center of civilization, or at the center of an individual, becomes apparent as Marlow ventures into the continent of Africa. Fairly early in the text, Marlow begins describing people he meets as empty, the first being the dying native in the grove, with “enormous and vacant” eyes. He begins to get more specific, telling his listeners of the manager, “Perhaps there was nothing within him.” Then, Marlow describes the other agent, “it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside him but a little loose dirt.” This concept is taken to even greater lengths when Marlow tells us that Kurtz was a just a voice, and all people are “little more than voices,” just as Marlow sitting on the deck of the Nellie is only a disembodied voice talking in the darkness.

Marlow also describes the wilderness as empty; Kurtz turns his back on headquarters, on civilization, and heads “towards his empty and desolate station.” The journey moves through “An empty stream, a great silence, and impenetrable forest.” Once at Kurtz’s station, Marlow talks of the “emptiness of the landscape.” Of course Marlow describes the continent as a “heart of darkness” many times, meaning, in light of the other evidence, a place of nothingness, not an area full of savage and wild life.

Marlow’s encounter with Kurtz emphasizes and strengthens this idea. He tells his listeners, “I think it [the wilderness] had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude — and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.” This is an important passage because it ties together the emptiness of the wilderness to the emptiness in Kurtz. Marlow talks earlier in the paragraph about Kurtz’s “deficiency,” that it is knowledge of this fault that came to him “at the very last.” The knowledge that comes to him at his death, when he says, “The horror, the horror,” is the knowledge that there is nothing in the heart of his being, and in the macrocosm, nothing at the heart of humankind.

One might interpret that he knew this before, that this is why he had become “savage.” However, it is not Kurtz’s pitilessness that shocks Marlow, the heads on stakes are nothing, really, it is the fact that Kurtz has set himself up as a god. He shouts at the Russian, “I don’t want to know anything of the ceremonies used when approaching Mr. Kurtz.” Some critics cite this as Kurtz’s true nature, or as his fault. However, the fault, if such a thing actually exists in the novella, actually lays in the fact that Kurtz could not face the nothingness; he made himself a god in an attempt at creating meaning. Marlow tells us, “His soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens!  I tell you, it had gone mad…I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself.” Kurtz’s actions in the jungle were an attempt to find meaning, though he knew there was none; he had looked in himself, found an abyss, and rebelled.

At his death, though, he knows the truth of himself, and of all humans, because Marlow tells us: “Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe,   piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness. He had summed up — he had judged. The horror!” Here Kurtz has finally felt something: horror at the existential truth of life. The nothingness that pervades everything is confronted.

Marlow himself has been allowed to pull back from the abyss. At the end he returns to civilization, to the Intended, who represents the epitome of the illusion that humanity lives with. Marlow hints at this earlier in the novel when he says, “It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are.” When confronting the Intended, Marlow bows his head, “before the faith that was in her, before that great and saving illusion that shone with an unearthly glow in the darkness.” The image in this passage points back to the beginning of the book when the narrator, describing the meaning in Marlow’s tales, describing where meaning can be found in life, compares it to a “misty halo.” This halo, this shell, is the meaning behind civilization, as we find out at the very end of Marlow’s story, when the Intended tells him, “I want — something –something — to — live with.” The only thing to live with is the lie Marlow tells her of Kurtz’s last words, just as the only things humanity has to live with are lies.

The truth is what Kurtz found so horrible: there is nothing. This is the “choice of nightmares” that Marlow is given: to live the lie or to face the darkness. Marlow tells us halfway through the book: “What did it matter what anyone knew or ignored? …One sometimes gets a flash of insight. The essentials of this affair lay under the surface, beyond my reach.” That is where they must remain, or everyone would end up like Kurtz.

Like George Orwell’s 1984, Conrad’s masterpiece is a closed system of a novel, allowing for no argument or escape. We are forced to confront the nightmare, or live with a fantasy. One would think that dark times would steer us away from such nihilism and toward comedic literature, to the lightest of light books, to happy endings and optimistic resolutions. But no. Perhaps we want to understand the darkness, or to prepare ourselves for the worst. Maybe sharing the horror brings catharsis. Or could it be that Heart of Darkness tells us something more disturbing, about our own thin shells of belief? Let’s hope when we poke around inside, we find more than a little loose dirt.

About the Author:

Eric D. Lehman teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Bridgeport and his essays, reviews, poems, and stories have been published in dozens of journals and magazines. His dozen books include A History of Connecticut Food, Literary Connecticut, A History of Connecticut Wine: Vineyard in Your Backyard, Bridgeport: Tales from the Park City, Hamden: Tales from the Sleeping Giant, Insiders’ Guide to Connecticut , and Afoot in Connecticut: Journeys in Natural History, nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Becoming Tom Thumb: Charles Stratton, P. T. Barnum, and the Dawn of American Celebrity was released by Wesleyan University Press and won the Henry Russell Hitchcock Award from the Victorian Society of America, and was chosen as one of the American Library Association’s outstanding university press books of the year. 2015 saw the publication of three books: Homegrown Terror: Benedict Arnold and the Burning of New London, the story collection The Foundation of Summer, and Connecticut Town Greens: History of the State’s Common Centers. 2016 sees the publication of his novella, Shadows of Paris.