I’ve always enjoyed the thematic elements of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness more than the story itself. I studied the book twice, once in high school and then again in college, and I have to admit, both times the story left me cold.
Of course why wouldn’t it? The characters are either evil or uncompassionate at best. The setting—The African Congo during the Age of Imperialism—is grim. And the plot—Marlow, a sailor working for a Belgian trade company, trekking through the jungle, witnessing horror after horror of “trade practices” on the native peoples, to find some lunatic named Kurtz—doesn’t exactly make for a good rainy day read.
Then again, the book did inspire the sensational film Apocalypse Now.
Either way, once the reading was through and I was able to step back and see the broader notions of Heart of Darkness my purpose for reading became clearer.
Thematically, the book explores the absurdity of evil and the greed of imperialism. This line, which I underlined in my copy of the book, says it all:
“Droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose” (Conrad, 87).
Aren’t most violent acts in this world essentially pointless? In the case of Heart of Darkness, a forced mutiny of an entire culture was all in the name of ivory.
Is life only as valuable as the worth of certain things? Oil. Diamonds. Money. Drugs. Alcohol.
Or concepts? Religion. Power. Influence. Fame.
For a relatively short novel Heart of Darkness encapsulates the whole of human nature’s ugly side. The attainment of evil often has no ulterior motives. What do we really get in exchange for wickedness? How far do we go before evilness becomes a goal in and of itself? And at what point does it all become pointless? Or as Marlow puts it “for a futile purpose?”