The wonderful thing about reading classics for a book group is that the members can compare their previous reading of the story with a more mature perspective, and those that have never read it can see whether it lives up to its reputation. Of course, Heart of Darkness also inspired a famous movie adaptation, Apocalypse Now, which was familiar to most of us. But we all found that whatever previous ideas we had, Conrad’s atmospheric tale was still able to transfix us after more than 100 years.
It begins at dusk on a boat anchored in the Thames. To pass the time Marlow tells a group of friends about his first job in Africa many years before when he was tasked to captain a steamboat and collect Kurtz, a troublesome ivory trader, from far up river. He begins by musing that in days long past the Thames ‘also has been one of the dark places on earth.’ Being old friends, they well know that Marlow’s tales are not straightforward. Meaning surrounds them ‘as a glow brings out a haze’. So with nothing to do but wait for the tide, they settle down for another of ‘Marlow’s inconclusive experiences’.
Like his narrator, the young Conrad had seen first-hand the disparity between Europe’s scramble for Africa and the mantra of idealists like David Livingstone, who believed the continent’s salvation lay with the Three C’s: Commerce, Christianity, & Civilization. Marlow and Kurtz’ drama of human frailties is played against this backdrop, where Commerce is a voracious machine governed by ‘rapacious and pitiless’ devils, where Christianity is cynically parodied by opportunists calling themselves ‘pilgrims’, and where at various times Marlow finds books, wire, drainage pipes – the building blocks of ‘Civilization’ – wantonly discarded. Where the most honest and disciplined human beings are the cannibals.
Another pleasure when reading older classics is the language. We were surprised to learn that Conrad was not British. Though he learned English only in his twenties, his thoughtful language allowed us to observe the vast complexities of two proud cultures stubbornly refusing to understand one another.
Our group discussion dwelt mainly on the varied scenes Conrad so ably depicted and the puzzling character of Kurtz. Perhaps one of the reasons Heart of Darkness is still read today is its ‘inconclusive’ mystery – which also made Marlow’s friends forget their business and miss their tide.
Second Circle – reading list