Review of Heart of Darkness (Part 1)

Reading Like a Writer


A cliche is a cliche is a cliche. But cliches also contain bits of folk wisdom. And perhaps the greatest bit of folk wisdom for writers — there are really only two ways to learn how to write: read (like a writer) and write.


Reading like a writer can be difficult. It means paying attention.


As I read the Heart of Darkness (twice). I did my best to pay attention and to think about the elements that made this book great. What lessons (as a writer) did I learn as I was reading this book?


Since this book came with an author biography that prefaced the story, the first lessons I learned were in the biography of Conrad himself: he wrote 31 books; he based his stories on life experiences; and English was not his first language, so he struggled. So, writers need to be disciplined, they need to be constantly working, and they need to lead interesting lives (when possible).


Since this is the first Joseph Conrad book I’ve read, a couple of questions lingered: How often does he use the same characters in his books? What kinds of themes come up again and again? Do these themes have get worn out in his writing?


The Heart of the “Heart of Darkness”


At the heart of the book, of course, is the colonial issue — the conflict between the high-minded ideals of humanitarianism and Christian charity and the baser motives of territorial and resource acquisition. Like any good book, the story does not try to resolve the conflict, but rather keeps dramatic tension moving throughout the story. A good story should make a compelling narrative that is inexplicable in other forms.


Is this humanitarianism merely a veneer? One would think so, after all, the darkness “conquers” both Kurtz and Marlow (as well as others) in various situations. And the naked greed of colonial Europe is often in plain site. Though the simple interpretation of people succumbing to darkness doesn’t always work in the story as Marlow frequently shows guarded admiration for those who are able to adjust to their surroundings. Thus the conundrum: those who adapt to the darkness can survive, but in the process their ideals are corrupted.


The novel also unsettles our ability to come up with rational causal chains. Did European rapaciousness cause the darkness, or did the harsh wilderness strip away idealism until the rapaciousness was the only thing left? Is the darkness internal, something that is brought into the wilderness or does the wilderness condition the colonials to be part of the darkness?

Constructivist explanations of co-constitution give us another explanatory avenue, but one that is not wholly fulfilling by the criteria of positivist (modern) science.  

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