Through the Heart of Darkness

I find that one of the characteristics of Conrad’s style in this work is the juxtaposition of the (apparently) trivial with the (apparently) profound. An example in today’s section would be the linking of the death of the Helmsman with Marlow’s preoccupation with getting rid of his shoes.

What other examples can you find of such blending of the seemingly important with the unimportant? What sorts of effects are created by these juxtapositions? To what extent do you find the developing references to Mr Kurtz fit into this pattern?

Responses that cover all, or part, of those questions are welcome? And what do you think was the deal with those shoes?

This entry was posted in Pre-1914 Prose. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Through the Heart of Darkness

  1. Manu (Emmanuel) says:

    hmmmm, right thts the thing, i dont get the deal with those shoes! can someone enlighten me:S
    and i realy dont get the deal with kurts…. why did conrad choose to kill him before we even met him!?

  2. Mr Heald says:

    Well, I have my ideas, but I’d rather hear some others before I suggest mine.

    Remember: start with the literal then move towards the symbolic. Why did Marlow want to change his shoes and socks at the purely narrative level?

    What sort of effect is created by knowing (at least some aspects of) the outcome of a story before it’s told? (In this case, that Kurtz dies. It’s not that unusual a technique, of course. Think how many novels and films begin with a dramatic event such as a murder, then go on to narrate the events that led up to it.)

  3. Philippa Kennedy says:

    Errrrm…. this may sound stupid… but I don’t get the question! :S


  4. Mr Heald says:

    OK, fair question. To try and simplify: normally we’d think of someone’s death as rather more important than someone’s shoes. Yet Conrad gives more or less equal weight in Marlow’s thoughts at this point to the death and to the shoes.

    So I’m asking:

    1) Can you think of other examples where stuff that would normally be thought of as really important is put alongside stuff that would normally be thought of as scarcely worth bothering with?

    2) What sorts of effects are created by doing this? (The death/shoes thing might be a useful starting point for thinking about this. You might also think about the reaction that Conrad suggests Marlow’s listeners have towards what he is saying.)

    3) Does this idea fit in in any way to how Kurtz develops as a ‘presence’ in the novel? To put that even more simply: is Kurtz mentioned in ways that seem important, or that seem trivial? What is the balance between the two? How are we made to think about Kurtz?

    I hope that gives you something to get stuck into.

  5. Philippa Kennedy says:

    1) Well, I suppose the whole “obsession” (which may be a bit too strong but I can’t think of the right word at the moment) with rivets at the end of chapter one seemed significant when Marlow was talking about them.

    However, by the beginning of chapter two, we don’t even get told that the rivets eventually came, we just have to assume that they did as the boat is moving at this point. This makes them therefore insignificant.

    (I know this example isn’t quite the same as the dead man’s shoes)

    2) Firstly, this style makes the story more interesting as you begin to question Marlow’s actions, making you read the text in more detail. This may be one reason why Conrad did this, in order to make people read the book more closely in order to find hidden meanings in the book. For example, when they are stuck in the middle of the fog, Marlow seems to come to the conclusion that the natives aren’t as bad as they have been made out to be. This may be a euphemism in order to show the reader that stereotypes are wrong as you can’t judge someone before you get to know them, unlike most light-skinned people in this book as they constantly call the natives “enemy” and “animal” etc.

    3) To be honest, I think that Mr Kurtz is neither important nor unimportant in the text, I think he is merely relevant to the topics that Marlow has been talking about as Marlow talks a lot of Kurtz, but then, we never meet him. We are then left to wonder “What was means of Conrad for creating this character, if we are never to meet him?” This could be because Conrad wanted speculation as to Mr Kurtz’s real character especially as each character who has met Kurtz seems to have a different opinion of him to the next person.

  6. Mr Heald says:

    All good, Philippa.

    Where’s everyone else, by the way?

    I think the rivets example is a good one. Again, I’m itching to dive in and say lots more, but I’m still hoping for everyone else to pile in, and I don’t want to steer people’s thinking too much, so I’ll leave it at that for now and get back to more coursework marking. Again, I’ve spent all day on it, and unlike last week I now have fewer in my inbox than I started with, thank goodness. But soon there’ll be the flood of ‘Heart of Darkness’ work, which will rely to some degree on the discussion on these blog entries, so we need everyone else to contribute.

  7. Philippa Kennedy says:

    No idea… just told Emma about it, so she’ll be along soon…

    Just so you know, I’m not in the lesson tomorrow… clarinet exam… eek!
    I’ve asked Emma to fill me in on anything and I’ll read over the text before thursday.

  8. Adam says:

    I don’t really remember it all too well, but at the time I just regarded the ‘obsession’ with the shoes just as a distraction, as obviously the shock, but also horror, of the death must have been over-whelming, and was just using it as a means to take his mind off it.

    Also, I wondered if there was an significance with you now titling this particular post as “Through the Heart of Darkness” rather than ‘into’?

  9. Mr Heald says:

    Yes: at first we were just getting ‘into’ the novel, now we’re most of the way ‘through’ it; I guess the next one will be titled ‘Out of the Heart of Darkness’.

    Anyway, since no one has responded to my question about the shoes at the narrative level, I guess I’d better pitch in a nd suggest that Marlow was anxious to get rid of the shoes as they were full of, and covered in, the helmsman’s blood. You may be right, Adam, in suggesting that for Marlow this may be a distraction from the horror of the death. On the other hand, as the captain of a ship under attack in a dangerous waterway, he has plenty of other things to occupy him, surely? I ask again for you to consider the reaction that Conrad suggests Marlow’s listeners have towards what he is saying (if you can’t remember, look it up: the text is downloadable, remember). Is that how we as readers are also likely to feel. Is Conrad intending to suggest that we should be reacting to it in the same way?

    And again, what else might strike us in similar ways?

  10. Catherine McCallum says:

    soz im gna av to make this relatively brief as i should be revising maths right now as i am in the process of failing!!…nyway i will attempt an answer to this complicating and … RIVETting question!! (soz bout that-couldn’t resist lol) the whole rivets thing…i think such emphasis was put on that because it meant that the ship could sail again which was the important thing!!….wait, i dont understand y that was significant…rivets represent marlow who joins the two groups on the boat-he understands the ‘natives’, whilst himself being white??…i dno!!

    the whole fact that kurz’s presence has been looming for so long makes it seem to the reader as if it must be something worth waiting for and his death is a totla anti climax. we feel the same disappointment at the prospect of not meting him as marlow does!! by starting a story with an exciting event and backtracking, the reader’s attention is grasped from the very beginning, who will develop a hunger to gain the understanding of how we got to the starting point. this is especially the case here with kurtz who had such a presence even without ever actually appearing himself

    btw sir….is this book by JOSEPH conrad becasue wen i went to te library looking for “into the heat of darkness’ by JAMES conrad i couldnt find it ……which wud make sense if he dint write it lol

  11. Mr Heald says:

    Yes, it’s Joseph Conrad, and just ‘The Heart of Darkness’. I never said ‘James’ did I?

    Your comments are really perceptive, Catherine, particularly with regard to the effect of the organisation of the narrative on the reader (assuming a reasonably competent and sympathetic reader, at least).

    Your linking of the rivets preoccupation with Marlow is ingenious, and raises the question of just how much Marlow can really be said to ‘understand’ the ‘natives’. He certainly seems to have a more open and sympathetic approach than many of the other whites he refers to (and than was perhaps typical of his time?) Yet when he refers to the black crew of his steamboat as cannibals, what evidence does he have for this? He is certainly wrong about the ‘natives’ on the river bank: no sooner has he declared “the idea of attack inconceivable” (p16 col 1) than they start firing arrows (although he does claim that they were trying to repel the steamboat, rather than attack it aggressively).

  12. David says:

    Having a break from geog coursework and started reading the other points (great pun Catherine), I don’t really understand what this question is asking, but I think that he is in shock from seeing that other guy die, and wants to get rid of the memory of it by throwing away his bloody shoes. A symbolistic way of looking at it is that he is ridding himself of the typical English views of the native’s rights/values. He then pulls the spear out the man’s side, a sign of respect, and throws him overboard, sending him back to his home-land in a way that gives his death dignity.
    I can’t think of any other egs of ‘…such blending of the seemingly important with the unimportant…’, what else did you have in mind?

  13. Mr Heald says:

    I never really understand this approach that people often have of saying things like “I don’t really understand what the question is asking but…” and then going on to show that they understand exactly what was being asked!

    I like that idea of giving the helmsman dignity by ‘returning him to his homeland’, and although there isn’t time under the circumstances for any rituals, burial at sea would have been a common and accepted method of disposing of the dead. On the other hand, they are not actually at sea: they are within yards of the trading station that is there immediate destination, and the reaction of the others on the boat is “there was a scandalized murmur at my heartless promptitude”. And although Marlow claims that he did it because he had made up his mind “that if [his]late helmsman was to be eaten, the fishes alone should have him” (p19 col 1), in other words to save hime from the cannibals on board, as I suggested in my previous post, their status as cannibals depends solely on Marlow’s narration, and as I’ve said before, how reliable a narrator Marlow is is open to question.

    As for other examples that you ask for, the story is absolutely full of them. How about the attention on the loop of white worsted [wool] around the neck of the dying native (p6 col 1)? Or how about when, as the steamboat is struggling to reach Kurtz’s station, and they find the mysterious message to ‘approach with caution’, Marlow becomes absorbed in an out of date book entitled ‘An Inquiry into some Points of Seamanship’? Or, at the point we have just reached, when we are perhaps most anxious at last to meet Mr Kurtz, and when the danger of the arrow-shooting natives still seems close by, we find ourselves in the middle of a detailed description of the multicoloured patches on the suit of the Russian: “but it was covered with patches all over, with bright patches, blue, red, and yellow,–patches on the back, patches on front, patches on elbows, on knees; colored binding round his jacket, scarlet edging at the bottom of his trousers; and the sunshine made him look extremely gay and wonderfully neat withal, because you could see how beautifully all this patching had been done. ” (p19 col 2)? Indeed, I reckon you can’t read more than a handful of paragraphs anywhere in the book without being able to find similar examples.

  14. Samson says:

    This blog appears to me as both intersting and analytical; however I find myself unable to produce an answer to the question posed. I found what you mentioned in class today sir, interested and agreed and dissagreed with what you said. If I remember rightly you mentioned how some people may find the book itself boring. However as you described the emotions you received from the book it can evidently appeal to those who can personally connect with the book. When you said people could argue their side concerning the novel as being boring. I find this quite humerous, as I do not expect anybody to argue this. After all I believe this word is quite an offence to any piece of written text; even if the writing only reaches to one person in the world, and make a difference then it has achieved its purpose. Therefore the book in topic ‘Into the heart of Darkness’ concequently achieved, just knowing how the book has effected you in different ways at different times in your life. Eventhough I do not apprieciate the novel or have the life experience to connect with the book, I do feel that small parts of the novel can be analysed and become intersting the more you look into it. However personally it comes to ‘Into the heart of Darkness’ I tend to hear the words of the story and find myself unable to arrange them into a coherent understanding of the story in hand. Something occured to me also, when you mentioned along the lines of, most recognised pieces of literature; whether or not the authors of the worlds best pieces of literature ever intended writing their works in order or in knowlege of it ever becoming so globally recognised?

  15. freddie says:

    Can i just comment on what you were talking about in lesson today; the idea of the ‘modernist’ lifestyle developing from the decaying victorian world (the ideals of europe as society and colonisations as a way to ‘educate’ the savages…or what ever they told themselves)which crumbled after the terrible violence of the second world war, i believe that Conrad seems to employ some of these ideals of almost distractionary text which seems to take the authoer away from the main issue for example there was very little importance in the describing the appearance the the russina ‘harlequin’ (whos voice you struggled with, probably should have said “COMRADE” more) the idea of his patches, to me there seemed very little point in describing so much detail on one such an at that point minor character to me it seemed trivial detail when one of the main issues of the story, seeing the fabled mr kurtz and hearing him talk was almost yards away!
    im not sure if your are supposed to gain meaning from every description but then this is classic english literature!?!

  16. Catherine McCallum says:

    btw duno where i got james conrad……!!

    nywy…yes fair comment about marlow still having an opinion that the natives were inferior, but i think this comes from being a member of the society and cultuere that he is indeed part of (whether this suits him comfortably or not.) Having said this , i think it also a fair comment to suggest that he has some fondness for them, that is not true for the other white men on the ship, or even of that time i general. I can’t remember preciselyy but did a ‘native’ die and marlow felt some sorrow….was it his servant ….i got confused but im sure something along those lines is true.

    Continuing with my other points, which i briefly metioned in lesson today….i think that the method of starting with a big event and tracing it back was to the benefit of both audiences here. This includes us as readers, and marlow’s audience , who-as he acknowledges- become bored at one point and grunt ….is that right??

  17. Mr Heald says:

    I started a response to Samson just after he posted, but then I got sidetracked by having to bath Katie, then I fell asleep on her bed after reading her story (Pingu tonight), and before I could get back to this post one of the cats was sick on the carpet and I had to clean that up, and I had some work from my Y12 Lang group that needed responding to before tomorrow. So I’ll post that response then address Freddie & Catherine separately. OK?

    Samson- thanks for your contribution, which has reassured me. I guess teacher-paranoia set in: the fear that subject matter you love will be seen as ‘boring’, so I’m glad you think no-one would argue that.

    You wrote, “I tend to hear the words of the story and find myself unable to arrange them into a coherent understanding.” Now I think the really interesting thing is what you mean by ‘coherent’, and whether that is a necessary quality. I expect you mean something along the lines of ‘I find it difficult to understand the story in the way that I understand other stories that I am used to, with a clear and recognisable narrative structure’ and so on. (Do correct me if I’ve misunderstood you).

    I will make it clear now: I do not have a coherent understanding of this work. I think the book resists attempts to ascribe a clear and coherent meaning to it. Indeed, I would go as far as to suggest that if anyone feels that they have ‘got the point’ of this book, they have missed the point.

    As for your question about whether “the authors of the worlds best pieces of literature ever intended writing their works in order or in knowlege of it ever becoming so globally recognised”, I presume this varies from author to author, though it seems clear taht most authors wish for as wide an audience as possible, and write because they have things to say that they want others to hear. There is a quotation from Conrad’s writings that I think is particularly relevant here: “Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing. But it is also more than that; it stands on firmer ground, being based on the reality of forms and the observation of social phenomena, whereas history is based on documents, and the reading of print and handwriting–on second-hand impression. Thus fiction is nearer truth.” (Notes on Life and Letters_ (J. M. Dent edition, 1921)) Whether you agree with that is another matter: historians among you may wish to see what your history teacher has to say about that!

  18. Mr Heald says:

    Freddie – yeah, my Russian accent was really poor; I kept drifting east. Sorry about that.

    Yes of course, if you’re looking primarily in narrative terms, spending half a page on a minor character’s suit might seem pretty pointless. But, as you (perhaps ironically?) recognise, this is ‘classic English literature’ so surely we have a right to allow such imagery to linger in the mind, to reflect on it and to consider it not merely as an ‘interruption’ to the narrative -though it certainly is that, but with the possible effect of ratcheting up further the long held suspense of waiting to ‘meet’ Kurtz.

    In fact a further sense came to me just now – one that a quick Google search has revealed plenty of other people have had – which is that the brown (earth coloured) suit, worn by a Russian, is patched “beautifully” in red, blue and yellow, resembling the map of Africa with the colours of the British, French & Belgian colonies. I could go on about the ramifications of this image, but I’m sure you can do that thinking for yourselves.

    Catherine- you’re right, I think, about Marlow’s attitude to the non-whites. The ‘race’ issue is obviously very problematic in this novel, and central to it. There is a whole strand of literary and cultural study at universities known as ‘post-colonialism’ (see that explores these issues, and Heart of Darkness is a hotly disputed text, with some seeing it as embodying the racist attitudes of colonialism, and others seeing it as an early reaction against those attitudes. I think the most reasonable position is to see it as both at the same time, but we will explore this in more depth next, and it will form a major focus of your assignment work.

    You were also right to remember ‘grunting’ from one of Marlow’s listeners, but perhaps not entirely right in attributing it to boredom. I think it’s a passage that repays close examination. It’s on page 13 Col 2. In that passage Marlow is clearly being challenged or questioned by his listeners and their reactions, although we still only have Marlow’s words and have to infer what his listeners are saying. It is in this passage that Marlow says, “The mind of man is capable of anything–because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valor, rage–who can tell?–but truth–truth stripped of its cloak of time.” And what is this ‘truth’? Well, exploring that is, I think at the heart of this story.

  19. Adam says:

    Referring back to what you said in class, and for example, ‘The Fairy Queen’, I actually disagree with you that just because other people think of it as genius, doesn’t mean its necessarily good; you just simply think that because other, perhaps greater or more educated, people tell you that it is deeply interesting and clever, you simply presume that it must be, and that it must be your own fault that you can’t appreciate it as they do. This specific idea reminds me of ‘Educating Rita’, as Frank disagrees with Rita that his work is good, as she thinks it is because she has been told what makes a good poem, yet it is not in fact actually the great poem she thinks. Furthermore, I think enjoying literature is far different to appreciating it, because although I could probably appreciate that ‘The Heart of Darkness’ is in fact cleverly written, it does not necessarily mean I like it, or even find it interesting.

  20. Mr Heald says:

    Adam – I can’t help but think you’re missing the point I was trying to make. You seem to think of ‘good’ and ‘interesting’ and ‘clever’ as categories that exist independently of those who make the judgement, as if we might somehow discover that a work that had previously been thought of as excellent isn’t so after all, rather like thinking the earth is flat, then discovering it is round.

    But it’s not like that, is it? The earth would be round, whether we had discovered it to be so or not; but works of art (and other products of human culture) are both made by people and judged by people. What one culture values highly, another may not, and these judgements can also change over time. But it is also the case that we tend to regard ‘the test of time’ as important: it seems likely that works that continue to be widely read and studied over a long time period AND across different cultures may be more worthy of our attention than others. To appreciate it, we may need to try and shift our own perspective to empathise with the culture and time in which the work was produced.

    I agree with you that ‘enjoying’ is not necessarily the same as ‘appreciating’ (I can appreciate the genius of The Faerie Queen without necessarily enjoying it with the same kind of pleasure I might get from many other works), but I do tend to think that you can ‘educate your taste’ so that you come to enjoy things that might previously have seemed dull or unapproachable. I didn’t like brussels sprouts as a child, now I find them really tasty. That wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t a) continued to eat lots of different types of foods to widen my taste, and b) kept having a try of brussels sprouts even when I thought I didn’t like them much.

    As I said, the same happened with me and Jane Austen (among many others). At first I just didn’t ‘get’ her. But I came back later with a wider range of reading experience and life experience and think she’s great.

    I think all of this also relates to the way we might consider the ‘poems from other cultures’ from the Anthology (and the pre-1914 poems that come from a different ‘time culture’ if you will). We need to approach them with an openness and humility, and a willingness to recognise, our own assumptions and prejudices, and meet the work as far as possible on its own terms, while understanding that we cannot completely escape our own perspective.

    Finally, I think that all of these is absolutely relevant to some of the central concerns of ‘The Heart of Darkness’. Conrad is wrestling with ideas about how we ascribe cultural value. Marlow seems to accept the typical colonial view that western civilisation is ‘advanced’ compared with ‘primitive’ African culture, even while he despises what he sees as the immoral practices of many of the colonial traders. Does that reflect Conrad’s view do you think? Is there any way we can even know that? Does it matter? Does it make us think about our place and purpose in the world, and the nature of truth and value – the very ideas that Marlow is dealing with, and that therefore we are challenged to explore.

  21. Adam says:

    Oh, I forgot to mention that I personally thought that the colourful patches on the Russian’s clothes reminded me of the map at the beginning of the story. Dunno if anyone else thought that too?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s