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Home > Public Resources > Trauma Blog > 2016 - April > Trauma and World Literature: Looking into Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

Trauma and World Literature: Looking into Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

April 2, 2016

Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella,The Heart of Darkness, is among the most popular works of literature in the English language yet it remains among the most difficult to grapple with.

No doubt its obscurity is part of its charm- and perhaps, as Marshall McLuhan might have said, the medium is, itself, part of the message. Shakespearean scholar Harold Bloom went so far as to suggest that The Heart of Darkness had been analyzed more than any other work of literature studied in universities and colleges precisely because of Conrad's "unique propensity for ambiguity." 
 
Since I read it in high school, I’ve encountered explications in terms of colonialism, racism, Christian ideology and critiques of civilization, itself. Many readers will be familiar with Francis Ford Coppola’s transposition of Conrad’s novella onto the Vietnam War in his 1979 film adaptation,Apocalypse Now. One important difference between the book and the film is thatApocalypse Nowfades to black and ends in the jungle; completely leaving out the penultimate scene in Conrad’s telling. Strangely, that is the very scene which has haunted me since I first read the novella over 40 years ago.

I share this concluding section with you now in order to suggest a different interpretation of The Heart of Darkness: that Conrad wants us to consider whether the deepest darkness might be the blindness we inflict upon ourselves and, sometimes, on others in the face of overwhelming events.

The following conversation takes place after Conrad’s narrator, Marlow has returned to England and calls upon the fiancé of Kurtz, the man had he tried to bring home safely from the Congo. Kurtz is a highly cultivated man who was expected to bring civilization to the tribes he lived among. Instead, when Marlow finally reaches Kurtz (much as Stanley found Livingstone), he finds that it is Kurtz who has been changed. In modern parlance, Kurtz has “gone over to the dark side.” On the trip home, Kurtz mutters the famous words, “The horror. The horror” just before he dies. For reasons not entirely clear to either Marlow or to the reader, Marlow feels impelled to visit with Kurtz’ “Intended” upon his return to England. He decides to bring a bundle of Kurtz’ letters to her as a pretext for the meeting. The following conversation ensues after which the reader is drawn back into the frame of the narrative (Marlow has been telling his story to a group of co-workers who have been enjoying a pleasure cruise on the Thames): 
 

"'You were his friend,' she went on.’His friend,' she repeated, a little louder.’you must have been, if he had given you this, and sent you to me. I feel I can speak to you—and oh! I must speak. I want you—you who have heard his last words—to know I have been worthy of him.... It is not pride.... Yes! I am proud to know I understood him better than anyone on earth—he told me so himself. And since his mother died I have had no one—no one—to—to—'
 
"I listened. The darkness deepened. I was not even sure whether he had given me the right bundle. I rather suspect he wanted me to take care of another batch of his papers which, after his death, I saw the manager examining under the lamp. And the girl talked, easing her pain in the certitude of my sympathy; she talked as thirsty men drink. I had heard that her engagement with Kurtz had been disapproved by her people. He wasn't rich enough or something. And indeed I don't know whether he had not been a pauper all his life. He had given me some reason to infer that it was his impatience of comparative poverty that drove him out there.

"'... Who was not his friend who had heard him speak once?' she was saying. 'He drew men towards him by what was best in them.' She looked at me with intensity. 'It is the gift of the great,' she went on, and the sound of her low voice seemed to have the accompaniment of all the other sounds, full of mystery, desolation, and sorrow, I had ever heard—the ripple of the river, the soughing of the trees swayed by the wind, the murmurs of the crowds, the faint ring of incomprehensible words cried from afar, the whisper of a voice speaking from beyond the threshold of an eternal darkness. 'But you have heard him! You know!' she cried. 

"'Yes, I know,' I said with something like despair in my heart, but bowing my head before the faith that was in her, before that great and saving illusion that shone with an unearthly glow in the darkness, in the triumphant darkness from which I could not have defended her—from which I could not even defend myself. 
 
"'What a loss to me—to us!'—she corrected herself with beautiful generosity; then added in a murmur, 'To the world.' By the last gleams of twilight I could see the glitter of her eyes, full of tears—of tears that would not fall.

"'I have been very happy—very fortunate—very proud,' she went on.’Too fortunate. Too happy for a little while. And now I am unhappy for—for life.' 

"She stood up; her fair hair seemed to catch all the remaining light in a glimmer of gold. I rose, too. 

"'And of all this,' she went on mournfully, 'of all his promise, and of all his greatness, of his generous mind, of his noble heart, nothing remains—nothing but a memory. You and I—' 
 
"'We shall always remember him,' I said hastily.

"'No!' she cried.’It is impossible that all this should be lost—that such a life should be sacrificed to leave nothing—but sorrow. You know what vast plans he had. I knew of them, too—I could not perhaps understand—but others knew of them. Something must remain. His words, at least, have not died.' 

"'His words will remain,' I said. 

"'And his example,' she whispered to herself.’Men looked up to him—his goodness shone in every act. His example—' 

"'True,' I said; 'his example, too. Yes, his example. I forgot that.' 

"But I do not. I cannot—I cannot believe—not yet. I cannot believe that I shall never see him again, that nobody will see him again, never, never, never.' 

"She put out her arms as if after a retreating figure, stretching them back and with clasped pale hands across the fading and narrow sheen of the window. Never see him! I saw him clearly enough then. I shall see this eloquent phantom as long as I live, and I shall see her, too, a tragic and familiar Shade, resembling in this gesture another one, tragic also, and bedecked with powerless charms, stretching bare brown arms over the glitter of the infernal stream, the stream of darkness. She said suddenly very low, 'He died as he lived.' 

"'His end,' said I, with dull anger stirring in me, 'was in every way worthy of his life.' 

"'And I was not with him,' she murmured. My anger subsided before a feeling of infinite pity. 

"'Everything that could be done—' I mumbled. 

"'Ah, but I believed in him more than any one on earth—more than his own mother, more than—himself. He needed me! Me! I would have treasured every sigh, every word, every sign, and every glance.' 

"I felt like a chill grip on my chest.’Don't,' I said, in a muffled voice. 

"'Forgive me. I—I have mourned so long in silence—in silence.... You were with him—to the last? I think of his loneliness. Nobody near to understand him as I would have understood. Perhaps no one to hear....' 

"'To the very end,' I said, shakily.’I heard his very last words....' I stopped in a fright. 
 
"'Repeat them,' she murmured in a heart-broken tone.’I want—I want—something—something—to—to live with.'

"I was on the point of crying at her, 'Don't you hear them?' The dusk was repeating them in a persistent whisper all around us, in a whisper that seemed to swell menacingly like the first whisper of a rising wind. 'The horror! The horror!' 

"'His last word—to live with,' she insisted.’Don't you understand I loved him—I loved him—I loved him!' 

"I pulled myself together and spoke slowly. 

"'The last word he pronounced was—your name.' 
 
"I heard a light sigh and then my heart stood still, stopped dead short by an exulting and terrible cry, by the cry of inconceivable triumph and of unspeakable pain.’I knew it—I was sure!'... She knew. She was sure. I heard her weeping; she had hidden her face in her hands. It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle. Would they have fallen, I wonder, if I had rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due? Hadn't he said he wanted only justice? But I couldn't. I could not tell her. It would have been too dark—too dark altogether...."

 
Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha. Nobody moved for a time. "We have lost the first of the ebb," said the Director suddenly. I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness. 

The complete text of The Heart of Darkness can be accessed through Project Gutenberg at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/219/219-h/219-h.htm. This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.org.