Marlow’s Inconclusive Experiences

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Two things have struck me when reading Heart of Darkness: (1) how much I’ve enjoyed it (maybe just because I can actually remember where my quotes are), and (2) how little I feel like I understand it. Having discussed it a year ago in English, I felt like I knew this book well enough – a slow moving and pointlessly despondent novel with colourful imagery that my teacher couldn’t let go of. Although a second reading has enhanced my opinion, I also feel a lot more confused by what I’ve read.

I’ve noticed a few kind of motifs as I’ve been reading that I thought I’d share.

Throughout Marlow’s journey, he describes the jungle around him relatively consistently as still. This isn’t always the case, but a great deal of the time he sees it as “unnatural, like a state of trance” (Conrad 111). I don’t quite know what to do with this; it occurs too often to be a fluke, and yet doesn’t seem to me to have any clear use. The closest I came to understanding it was his later description of the forest as “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” (Conrad 133). But if they are just a mask, or if they are somehow knowing, I can still see no point (what are they covering? what do they know?).

One motif that I feel like I understand better is that of the inefficiencies of the corporation. At one point, there is a hole that has been dug into a slop, without any clear purpose (maybe “the philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do” (Conrad 84), or when a man is running to put out a fire with a hole in his pail, or still when Marlow needs rivets, which could be found by the case load at an earlier station, but “there wasn’t one rivet to be found where it was wanted” (Conrad 98), or still when the cannibals are paid quite well in brass wire, but there is nowhere to spend it (and meanwhile they have nothing to eat). Simply put, the jungle is full of examples of the redundancy of the corporation, but I still have trouble gleaning further enlightenment from it. (Of course, there is also the issue of reconciling this with Marlow’s early statement: “what saves us is efficiency”, but that seems like a discussion for another day (Conrad 71).)

After all this confusion, there were a few quotes that made me feel a bit better about all this. The narrator himself says “to [Marlow] the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze” (Conrad 70). It makes me feel like the truth or point of the tale isn’t something that is supposed to or is even necessarily able to be understood. He also makes a few comments that I found interesting, that are in opposition to the ideas of Wordsworth and Fanon (who believe that experiences are understandable and communicable to others). Marlow, at least, believes ” it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence — that which makes its truth, its meaning, — its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream — alone…” (Conrad 97). Perhaps my lack of understanding is simply because I truly cannot comprehend Marlow’s experience until I journey into the heart of darkness myself.