Friday, December 21, 2012

Heart of Darkness – The Second and Third Level Inquiry

This post acts also as my final review, while you can find the first level inquiry I had done for my WEM self-project here. All in all I did not enjoy this novella; after first reading I did not completely understand what’s in it. I had an idea about how the whites maltreated the blacks, and how Kurtz had become savage, but the rest was still in the mist. I had had to browse some analysis, then everything started to make sense. It’s about colonialism and civilization. So I tried to have a second read with the help from Sparknotes No-Fear, and this time I got a better idea. However, despite of the moral value, I still can’t say that this novella is enjoyable. Conrad’s narrative was rather boring, and his effort to not mentioning specific attributes (Belgium, Congo) made it more difficult to comprehend. I gave three stars for Heart of Darkness. And these are my analysis for the second and third level inquiries…

Logic Stage Inquiry

What does Marlow want? What is standing in his way? What strategy does he pursue in order to overcome this block?

I think at first Marlow only wanted to pursue his childhood dream, to get an adventure by sailing to the “untouched” world of Congo, however when he really got a job in a river steamboat for a Belgium trading company, Marlow became interested in a character named Mr. Kurtz. Thus I can say that Marlow wants to meet and learn from the remarkable and genius chief of Inner Station who had become the symbol of successful colonialism and civilization of the African natives.

However, instead of being civilized, Marlow witnessed that the natives were slaved and inhumanly treated. They were forced to do heavy-load works but were not supported with good food and health. Kurtz’s station was the worst; Marlow found evidences of savage rites which involved massacre of the natives (Kurtz become the chief of the tribe). The icon of civilization had given up to his dark animal instinct.

In order to not being contaminated with the savagery or the effect of wilderness, Marlow did not fall into idolatry to Kurtz like others. He respected Kurtz' intelligence, but not the dark passion.

What idea is the author trying to convince you of? What evidence does he give you for believing the argument?

The Belgium civilization of Congo was only a mask of white people greediness to take from the land whatever they could for their own sake and wealth. Congo natives in the end were far from being civilized, they were robbed by the white.

And the biggest irony was that the whites (such as Kurtz) became one of the savages after spending years living in the center of wilderness.

The wilderness had patted him on the head, and, behold, it was like a ball—an ivory ball; it had caressed him, and—lo!—he had withered; it had taken him, loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation. He was its spoiled and pampered favourite.”

“…But this must have been before his—let us say—nerves, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites, which—as far as I reluctantly gathered from what I heard at various times—were offered up to him—do you understand?—to Mr. Kurtz himself.”

Rhetoric Stage Inquiry

What does the setting of the book tell you about the way human being are shaped?

The weaker will always be exploited by the stronger, that’s what I’ve been thinking after I read this novella. In the case of this story, the whites exploited the blacks by forcing them to work overload for the whites’ advantages. This context is—I believe—very relevant to our modern world, where small or developing countries are often forced to follow super power countries’ designs; so in a way, colonialism still, and will always, exists in our world.

What exactly is the writer telling you?

Conrad wanted to emphasize the hypocrisy of European colonialist; they always brag about ‘civilizing’ the natives, but in truth they were sometimes less civilized than the blacks. I am interested in Marlow’s reflection about why the cannibals did not eat the whites on their sailing. I think it’s because—like in animals—God’s creature should know when to stop taking advantage from others, we all had the responsibility to maintain the nature’s balance. But greedy men, greedy colonialists kept exploiting others even when they had had enough. In the end, who were the less civilized?

Is there an argument in Mr. Kurtz’s downfall?

I believe Mr. Kurtz downfall to the wilderness had been caused by his greediness. When he thought he had the absolute power of not only the natives, but also the station, the devil owned his soul. I found this from Marlow’s reflection:

You should have heard him say, ‘My ivory.’ Oh, yes, I heard him. ‘My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—’ everything belonged to him. It made me hold my breath in expectation of hearing the wilderness burst into a prodigious peal of laughter that would shake the fixed stars in their places. Everything belonged to him—but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own.

In what sense is the book true?

First, it made sense that a civilized person—when living alone in the wilderness encircled with savages for years—could end up being a savage himself. I always believe that we are strongly influenced by the place where we live. I can’t imagine how the natives could worship Kurtz, was that after he himself being savage? Or he became savage because of the worshipping? The later makes more sense, because when one had an absolute power, one can fallen into the darkness of his soul.

Second, one of human’s biggest sins was always greediness. Colonialism—while spreading culture, knowledge or religion—often meant as an exploitation of the natives. What Marlow have seen in Congo could have been happening anywhere, anytime where there was colonialism. I’m an Indonesian, and I have learned these things too in school.


*I read ebook from feedbooks dot com*

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  1. One of the ongoing debates is whether or Conrad in writing Heart of Darkness is a 'bloody racist' as Chinua Achebe famously said in his essay "An Image of Africa: Racism in Heart of Darkness." Do you think he was racist or trying to point out the contradictions and failings of European attitudes toward Africans?

    Here is an article that talks more about the debate:

    The same questions hold for Kipling's stories about India:

    1. I didn't see any traces of racism in Heart of Darkness, actually I wonder why people make a fuss over this. I think he just wanted to emphasis the colonialism and the contradictions as you mentioned. I think Conrad even slightly defended the blacks by pointing out that the cannibals did not try to eat the whites when they got chance on the boat.

      Thanks for the articles, they're interesting!

  2. Fanda,
    I failed with Heart of Darkness. I read through the whole thing, but I just could not get into it. I decided to skip all of the summaries and inquiries just to move on. I need something more uplifting.

    1. And I thought I'm the only one who failed with this novella....


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