This summer, two of my sons spent the better part of a long weekend at my house working on their trucks. One came equipped with tools, the other with his wife and two delightful children. In telling the story of those three days, my grandchildren would report on story time, art projects, and the mingling of chocolate and marshmallow between two graham crackers. I would point to a roasting pan full of macaroni and cheese, another full of lemon ginger chicken, five homemade pizzas, and a rather large batch of waffles. In their accounts, my two sons would mention a CV boot, a new muffler, front shocks, and the relative merits of the new wooden bed they constructed for a fairly old truck.
In order to get the full story about any event, we must rely on a multiplicity of perspectives. A careful listener will pay attention to the narrator and ask questions about whose story it is to tell and how much of the truth the narrator has been able to see. This is a helpful approach to keep in mind when reading Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
Set in the Congo in the late 1800’s, the story unfolds on the deck of an anchored yacht as Marlowe, the story’s named narrator, entertains his audience with his adventures and the dark tale of his encounter with the mysterious explorer named Kurtz. Marlowe seems to spin his tale as much for his own ears and for his own sorting process as for his listeners. In his quest for truth and understanding along the way, he keeps tripping over his inability to distinguish between darkness and light or to settle on what he actually knows to be true.
I was introduced to Heart of Darkness as a college freshman, and in spite of dear Dr. Kaye’s inspiring lectures, I found it to be complicated and dark. Fortunately, this time around I was reading from the edition that included Karen Swallow Prior’s Guide to Reading and Reflecting. (Part of a series published by B&H) Her introductory insights steal none of the narrative’s surprises but provide help with problems of interpretation and clear up some of the story’s (and in this case the story teller’s) ambiguities.
What Makes a Great Book?
Heart of Darkness is an uncomfortable read, but an important one. I found myself reading with hope that in a generation or two, our present day obtuseness around race will jolt future readers as some of Marlowe’s narrative startled me.
Too, Conrad wrote in an era when travel delays were measured not in hours but in days or even weeks. This handling of time and “action” makes for a challenging read for this present era in which a three hour layover in Baltimore requires a carry on bag weighted down with books and a well-stocked Kindle (just in case). Even with a length more akin to a novella than a novel, the story’s pacing and pausing left plenty of time for Marlow’s ponderings on life’s mysteries and the fleeting nature of time:
Like a running blaze in the plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker.”
Living “in the flicker” as we do, can we justify devoting our precious reading time to books with ugly words and blatant prejudice? Reading Heart of Darkness with eyes informed by anti-racist sensibilities, the characters’ blatant imperialism and racism seem alarming and repugnant. Literature of the 19th century was characterized by colonialism cloaked in Christianity, and the best argument for reading Heart of Darkness in the 21st century is that it holds a mirror up to some of our own ignorance, our embrace of error, and our cultural blind spots, both within the church and in society at large.
My recommendation to readers is to make of this reading project a “Heart of Darkness sandwich,” beginning with Karen Swallow Prior’s introductory notes, reading the book itself, and then returning to Prior’s commentary, which will be even more helpful and enlightening the second time around. While it is hardly ever pleasant to be reminded of the dark side of history and humanity’s propensity for turning good things (exploration and progress) into sadness (exploitation and materialism), in our reading of older classic works, we receive the gift of perspective and the push toward reading at a slower pace that may help us to explore our own heart of darkness.
Many thanks to B&H Publishing for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.
I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees. If you should decide to purchase Heart of Darkness, simply click on the title, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.
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