Love it or hate it–Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness generated a lot of fascinating discussion. One of my groups surprised me, though, as every single person in it disliked this book. And one member is still wondering why it is considered a classic or important piece of literature. I thought I would take a stab at answering him via this blog post, and please feel free to weigh in!
In one of my recent book groups the question came up “just what is a classic?” There is no definitive answer, and to try to address it today would take up more time than I have, so let me direct you to a helpful link here.
The above link takes you to an NPR discussion of this very question, and you may find it illuminating.
Regarding Heart of Darkness and whether it is an important piece of literature, almost all my groups’ members agreed that it is, indeed, a very important piece of literature–for its own time and for ours. (Thus, a “classic” also?) But I hear you asking “why?” and to answer, I’ll recap some of the discussions below. This is, I must stress, a very brief summary (I have to wrap up Heart of Darkness so I can move on to The English Patient!), but maybe it will help.
Many felt that the multiple layers of meaning open to interpretation in Heart of Darkness make this book quite exceptional. Most members spoke of the story as representing a psychological journey–one that everyone can relate to. The journey that Marlowe takes into the darkness to confront Kurtz (the embodiment of evil) is the same journey that the reader, that we all, take on a psychological basis. The lack of names in the book (instead we have the Director, the Accountant, the Intended) underscores the fact that any of us could step into these roles; it’s a sort of Everyman story we can all relate to.
Most members agreed that there is the potential for evil (as expressed not only by Kurtz but also by the Belgian ivory traders) in each of us, and that, for some reason we are fascinated by and drawn to this potential. Certainly this describes Marlowe as he searches out Kurtz. So, we must ask ourselves, when face-to-face with that evil, how does each of us react? Do we, like Kurtz, succumb? Or do we, like Marlowe, resist? And more importantly perhaps, how and why do we resist? For Marlowe it seemed to be his Victorian restraint and his work. Remember the rivets? And you can, today, ask yourself this question. What saves you from going over to the “dark side”? Is it your work? Your religion? Your morals? Fear?
Speaking of religion, we discussed the role of ideology and its impact on Marlowe. When Marlowe, happily going about the Company’s business in Africa, sees what the ‘noble cause’ has done there, his belief system is destroyed. How does he react? Does he, as he proclaims he always does, tell the truth? Or does he, like many who are confronted with a reality that isn’t pleasant, tell himself and others (e.g. Kurtz’s Intended) lies to get them through it all? One member rather astutely pointed out that Marlowe preferred not to think about all he was witnessing, and so he channeled his energy into work. Another pointed out that Marlowe’s lie to Kurtz’s Intended represents the ongoing denial that Marlowe will adopt in order to survive. He will pretend rather than be truthful. Again, you can ask yourself today, what would you do should your own beliefs be proven false?
One member commented that it’s amazing how we can lower our own standards or rationalize our own bad behavior when other people around us are doing the same (or worse) thing. This is compounded, of course, when there is a government or company or other authority sanctioning the bad behavior on some sort of ground, be it noble or otherwise. One member really disliked Marlowe, accusing him of ignoring the terrible human suffering surrounding him while concentrating on getting the Company’s work done. Again, we can ask ourselves today, are we complicit in the world’s suffering by our lack of action?
In almost every group the book The Lord of the Flies came up, and almost everyone agreed that this is basically telling the same tale: when all the societal niceties or cultural laws and rules are removed (as in the wilderness for Kurtz), every individual is capable of becoming savage. The members felt that this is relevant today; look at how people behaved during Katrina. And then the discussion got a little depressing as we worried about the fragility of life, and how an earthquake or terrorist attack could change everything, including “polite civilization,” in a moment.
All the groups discussed whether the book is racist or an indictment of imperialism, and that generated a lot of heat. The opinions were very divided; many felt that Conrad was racist and misogynous also. Then the question was asked: “Wasn’t he just a product of his time?” In answer, another question: “Is that a good excuse?”
One rather erudite member pointed out that F. Scott Fitzgerald was heavily influenced by this novel, and suggested we all re-read The Great Gatsby with this in view. I am totally up for that!!!
Many of us swooned over the sheer poetry of Conrad’s language, but some members disagreed. Different strokes, as they say. Hey, Germaine Greer wrote an article claiming that a person would be better off visiting a demented relative than reading Proust. How’s that for iconoclasm?! Click here for the link if you’re interested.
Rightey-ho, this post is “blonging” on a bit (to coin a word!) so I will sign off. I’d love to hear from you, though!