Conrad : Heart Of Darkness (Summary)

I just completed Joseph Conrad's "Heart Of Darkness". It's a slow moving story of a sailor who travels upriver into the heart of colonial Africa where he becomes increasingly enamored with a mysterious station agent called Kurtz. He comes out in the end alienated & full of contempt for the European imperialism and instead of any humanizing progress or an illuminating persona (in Kurtz), all he find is exploitation and human fallacy (in the garb of reason).

The novel starts with the narrator (Marlow) aboard a yawl reminiscing with his friends. The environs sets the mood of the story. A brooding weather is cast over the Thames and sky is menacing over London which is the said to be greatest of the cities. Marlow recounts about this particular experience he had. He had just returned from six years on the sea, but soon gets tired of resting. Through his good offices he gets himself appointed as captain of steamer on river Congo. Marlow shares that he was always fascinated by maps since his childhood. There was a map of Africa marked with different colors (for each colonial power's jurisdiction) and there was a big emptiness in the center where a big river coiled like a snake flowed. All his childhood, this patch of blank was filled with images of lakes and jungles and all things mysterious. He long cherished the idea of going there and finally he had his chance. Aboard a ship to Congo, he reaches the base station. There he sees how colonial powers have literally teared the heart out of this continent. The base station brings a picture of utter waste of both men & material. Machinery & equipment strewn across and same was for native men, overworked, exploited and discarded. The revulsion of men treating men as beast of burden and then casting away. From here they trek the jungle to Central station where the steamer was which he was to command. Nothing around except the searing heat, the unending jungle, the solitude, the blackness of the experience and the great silence beyond as if impenetrable and mocking. On reaching Central station, its revealed the steamer has sunk and needs to be repaired. Rumors of Kurtz abound in the station and the mystique slowly around him builds. During months of repair, Marlow realizes the station as nothing more then a hub of intrigue and back biting. Hearsay has it that Kurtz is a near genius who has made other agents jealous due to his versatility in retrieving ivory. Kurtz increasing captivates Marlow's thoughts.

After repairs, they started upriver for the inner station, into the dark and the silent unknown, like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world. The stillness did not bring peace, instead it was the stillness of an "implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention". The river, the lurking death, the hidden evil, the impenetrable thoughts and the wilderness of the heart. Every emotion was raw here. For him, the all directions flowed to Kurtz.
"I wondered whether the stillness on the face of the immensity looking at us two were meant as an appeal or as a menace. What were we who had strayed in here? Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us? I felt how big, how confoundedly big, was that thing that couldn’t talk, and perhaps was deaf as well." 
There was no sign on the face of nature of this amazing tale that was not so much told as suggested to me in desolate exclamations, completed by shrugs, in interrupted phrases,in hints ending in deep sighs. The woods were unmoved, like a mask—heavy, like the closed door of a prison—they looked with their air of hidden knowledge, of patient expectation, of unapproachable silence. 
"The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us—who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember because we were travelling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign— and no memories. The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there— there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity— like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend."
Just before the inner station, their ship is attacked. Marlow is disappointed for he thinks Kurtz's station has been overrun and they will never meet. He imagines Kurtz in embrace with death and being Death's favorite. Such are the powers attributed to Kurtz. "Everything belonged to him— but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own." In midst of thoughts to turn back, they see the inner station. Nearby they pick up a Russian (a Kurtz camp follower and still his admirer) who shares Kurtz's cruel and brutal ways, of stories of natives worshiping Kurtz and strange practices. Marlow hears & sees the horrors for himself. The wilderness it seems had got Kurtz. "It 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". They recover Kurtz alive in the station, near death. The natives teeming on the banks ready to retrieve Kurtz for themselves. During that night, Kurtz tries to escape but Marlow convinces him to come back to the steamer in a moment where foundations of their close bonds are laid. The next day they leave downriver. Kurtz health deteriorates and he soon dies in front of Marlow uttering "The horror! The horror!". Marlow leaves the company and returns to Europe. A year later he meets Kurtz fiancee still in mourning. She eggs him to repeat Kurtz last words and Marlow feigns that Kurtz last words was her name. End.

Conrad's work is as much a comment on colonial past as it is on human nature. There is darkness at all levels, of the modern civilization, of the unending jungle and of the human nature. Colonial powers raced against each other to grab virgin lands. The premise was that this is for the march of progress, a so-called bringing light of civilization into the heart of darkness under a garb of imperialism. Instead he saw darkness is in human heart and in this pretense that fails to see men as men, the darkness over mighty cities of Europe that peddle much propaganda and are built over such lies. These stations instead of a beachhead for progress become a den for barbarism and exploitation. Amid this philanthropic pretense and intrigue, an aura of Kurtz reaches a climax, hidden in the darkness, but radiating an extreme lightness. Kurtz started out maybe as a beacon of this humanizing thought, but soon lost reason. Ivory (desire) took hold of him. In the horror of jungle he goes down to a brutal life.. reduced to madness. A corruption to which we all succumb. An urge to be more than human, to conquer all but end up not even being human. The brutal instincts deep hidden come bare, and the very soul is stripped of reason, of fear and struggling with itself and yet the realization of it came to him at very last. He looked over the edge into the abyss and the abyss looked back at him. The jungle took him as one of their own.

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