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Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness & Other Stories

The first two stories (the youth and the hearth of darkness) are told as stories within stories. The outer story is set on a summer or autumn night aboard a ship anchored in the Thames, 4-5 old sailors are waiting for the tide to set out, and are biding the time by telling stories. One of them is Marlow, the (inner) storyteller, and one is unnamed man (the outer storyteller) present aboard who tells about that night and about Marlow telling his stories.

I liked the first story (Youth), and I think that story within a story format worked well. I liked the enthusiasm with which he recollects his fond memories about his youth, first bigger responsibilities as a sailor, first big tests at sea, first time at East Indies… I like the “refrain” “pass that bottle” that reminds the reader about the “outer” story from time to time.

Perhaps the bottle passing had something to do with the mood of both stories. While the first story was as if told by someone lifted high up and encouraged by alcohol, eager to share this feeling with those who listen, the second story, being told later, is much grimmer, as if plunged down below after flying high on too much booze, and told by a drunkard unconcerned if his story is interesting.

I found Heart of Darkness boring and hard to follow. Most of it are self reflections loosely connected by bits of action (Marlow travelling to and from Inner Station), and most of these reflections are on Kurtz, an amazing, remarkable, great man… He is built up as such through the whole story, and when we do meet him, he barely says or does anything before dying. I failed to see anything great or remarkable about him, and some evidence that is given is to the contrary (greed, cruelty, unconcern for natives around him or his Intended far away).

Maybe that was the whole point, to make a contrast between what is (was) deemed great (in the colonial, exploitative context) and what is really great. He was great for the Company for as long as he was producing quantities of Ivory, he was great for Belgium and it’s king enriching them greatly, but he did badly to all others he interacted with.

I found out on the Internet that there is some controversy about Hearth of Darkness, a question if it is racist or if Conrad was racist. I think that it is told in a such way that you can not tell anything about Conrad himself. It is told by and through a nineteen century sailor in a form of a long monologue, so in essence by a character, without any additional commentary by the writer. Marlow probably is racist by today’s standards, he pities the natives however he dehumanizes them in his telling and also deems them less capable or worthy. But I think this is a non-issue, I don’t see this as a story about Africa, but rather as a story about downfall of Europe and it’s alleged values, about it’s greed and hypocrisy. Seen like that, the “hearth of darkness” might be something other then the inner Congo.

I had enough of Conrad for the time being and I skipped the third story (End of tether).

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