March 30, 2021

#08-065: Heart of Darkness

old black-and-white photo of a thatch-roofed building in what may be a jungle setting
Belgian river station on the Congo River

Note: Joseph Conrad's novella about a mad trader in Africa is the acknowledged inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola's landmark film Apocalypse Now. Let's read the original tale.

Get Ready: What, if anything, do you know about the film Apocalypse Now?

It always amazes me that the Polish-British writer Joseph Conrad is considered to be one of the greatest novelists in the English language, even though he probably didn't begin learning English until his early 20s! Of his many works, including Lord Jim (1900) and Nostromo (1904), the one that stands out to most readers is his 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, about a voyage up the Congo River.

The story is narrated by one Charles Marlow, who tells shipmates in England about his experiences as with an ivory trading company in Africa. On his journey into the center of the continent, he hears tales of a trader who works for the company, a Mr. Kurtz, a "very remarkable person" who "sends in as much ivory as all the other [agent]s put together."

At what he had expected to be the end of his journey, Marlow learns that the steamboat he was to captain has been wrecked. In addition, he is informed that the remarkable Mr. Kurtz is quite ill. Annoyed, Marlow spends some months repairing his boat. Here he again hears high praise of Kurtz and his abilities, though he also discovers that the manager of the "Outer Station" where he is working resents Kurtz.

At last Marlow begins his two-month journey up-river to Kurtz's "Inner Station." At a fueling stop, he discovers a note telling him to proceed to the Inner Station quickly, but with caution. Along the final stages of his journey, his boat is attacked by a rain of arrows, and the helmsman is killed.

Arriving at the Inner Station, Marlow learns from a Russian that Kurtz, though brilliantly poetic, has become the object of worship by some of the natives, and seems to have gone mad with power. The desperately-ill Kurtz is carried onto the boat on a stretcher. There is some talk of his business methods being "unsound," which may result in him being punished in some way. In any case, during the night, Kurtz escapes from his stateroom and returns to his village.

Kurtz is recaptured and taken aboard, in the face of violent opposition from the natives. His health further deteriorates on the trip downriver. At a repair stop, Kurtz gives Marlow some papers--to be kept away from the company manager--and shortly thereafter a servant announces in one of the book's most famous lines: "Mistah Kurtz--he dead." Shortly after that some of the ship's passengers bury "something" in a muddy hole on shore. But Marlow himself is now too ill to see what it was.

Back in Europe, Marlow is contemptuous of "civilization," passing Kurtz's papers on to a journalist for possible publication. He visits a native woman who was affianced to Kurtz, and, lying, tells her Kurtz's last word was to speak her name.


Read more:

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. affianced
  2. contemptuous of
  3. desperately
  4. deteriorates
  5. helmsman
  6. ivory
  7. resents
  8. stateroom
  9. stretcher
  10. unsound

  1. feels insulted by
  2. terribly; extremely
  3. a steerer; pilot
  4. gets worse
  5. not reliable
  6. disrespectful toward
  7. engaged
  8. a sleeping space on a boat
  9. a device for carrying a patient
  10. the material of an elephant's tusks

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for March 30, 2021

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. g; 2. f; 3. b; 4. d; 5. c; 6. j; 7. a; 8. h; 9. i; 10. e