Friday, December 3, 2010

Joseph Conrad: December 3, 1857--August 3,1924

Joseph Conrad is a remarkable writer; his short stories and novels range from tales of the sea, to tales of spies and espionage, to a massive novel about South American politics. And always, the focus is on character--who are the people in these stories and what are they like? How does their character almost drive them into these situations and what do these situations bring out about them--the best in them? or the worst in them? or sometimes both?

excerpts from the first chapter of Heart of Darkness:

"The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearly calm and being bound down the river, the only thing for it was to come to and wait for the turn of the tide.

. . . . .

Between us there was, as I have already said somewhere, the bond of the sea. Besides holding our hearts together through long periods of separation, it had the effect of making us tolerant of each other's yarns--and even convictions. The Lawyer--the best of old fellows--had, because of his many years and many virtue, the only cushion on deck, and was lying on the only rug. The Accountant had brought out already a box of dominoes, and was toying architecturally with the bones. Marlow sat cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards, resembled an idol.

. . . . .

The day was ending in a serenity of still and exquisite brilliance. The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds. Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more sombre every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun.

. . . . .

The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and lights began to appear along the shore. The Chapman lighthouse, a three-legged thing erect on a mud-flat, shone strongly. Lights of ships moved in the fairway--a great stir of lights going up and going down. And farther west on the upper reaches the place of the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.

'And this also,' said Marlow suddenly, 'has been one of the dark places of the earth.'

He was the only one of us who still 'followed the sea.' The worst that could be said of him was that he did not represent his class. He was a seaman, but he was a wanderer too, while most seamen lead, if one may so express it, a sedentary life. Their minds are of the stay-at-home order, and their home is always with them--the ship, and so is their country--the sea. One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same. In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance; for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself, which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny. For the rest, after his hours of work, a casual stroll or a casual spree on shore suffices to unfold for him the secret of a whole continent, and generally he finds the secret not worth knowing. The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him 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, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine."

. . . . .

'I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago--the other day . . . Light came out of this river since--you say Knights? Yes; but it is like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker--may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday. Imagine the feelings of a commander of a fine--what d'ye call 'em--trireme in the Mediterranean, ordered suddenly to the north . . . the very end of the earth . . . and going up this river with stores, or orders or what you like. Sandbanks, marshes, forests, savages--precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here, no going ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness, . . . cold, fog , tempests, disease, exile , and death --death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush. They must have been dying like flies here. . .' "

Conrad's point is that the reactions of the Romans nineteen hundred years ago when they first came to England parallel those of the English and Europeans who now go to Africa. It's the perfect prologue to his tale of his river journey into the heart of darkness, at the center of which was a cultured and civilized European.


  1. Heart of Darkness was one of the hardest books for me to fully understand. I realize that he was making a point on colonialism, but I could never quite grasp what exactly he was saying. It seemed vague to me... but I do love his writing.

  2. Except for my readings of "Heart of Darkness," I've never gotten very far with anything else by Conrad. Yes, I know he is central to the development of the novel in the 20th century, but the opaque complexity and indirection of his syntax complicates my appreciation. I guess this makes me something of a heretic in my profession: literature teacher.

  3. Kit Kat,

    I've read many of Conrad's novels and short stories and find that, for me, _The Heart of Darkness_ is the most difficult and complex of his works.

    One of his points was the hypocrisy of colonialism. At that time many differing arguments and justification for colonialism were prevalent: Social Darwinism, the white man's burden, do-gooderism, conversion to Christianity.

    Conrad takes on all of them and points out that

    "It was just robbery, with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale . . . The conquest of the earth , which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion, or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much."

    H_of_D was first published in the late 1890s. That quotation sounds as though it could have been written yesterday.

    I have read it several times and plan on reading it again.

  4. R/T,

    I understand what you are saying. He is not the easiest writer to go with; however, each time I read or reread one of his works, I feel I've learned something new, or perhaps old, but said in a way that I can appreciate in a different way.

  5. Fred, isn't the novella something more than a rant against colonialism? After all, the title and the climax of the novel point to the notion that human beings, if not careful, are dominated by a horrible darkness (either evil or the absence of goodness) in their minds, hearts, and souls. This is much more universal that concerns about white domination of an indigenous black culture.

  6. Correction to last sentence in my previous comment: delete "that" and replace with "than." Sorry for the error.

  7. R/T,

    Yes--As I said in the message, colonialism was only one of the points in HofD.

    The darkness at the heart of us all is a major point, of which colonialism can be seen as a symptom.