Categories of Evil in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

shadow2There are some things I enjoy even though I know they’re not very good.  For example, I’m a longtime fan of Project Runway, even though it is a shallow reality program full of contrived interpersonal drama. Every season is the same: contestants lasering each other with death stares while they weave dresses out of seat belts, followed by caustic gossip said “privately” to the camera (which boggles my mind–you DO know that the person you’re verbally demolishing WILL eventually hear what you’re saying, along with 3.2 million other people, right???).  It’s a predictable parade, but I don’t care.  I love it, and I watch every season.  Mondo forever.

Conversely, there are some things that I don’t particularly enjoy that I know are completely brilliant.  I’ve read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness eight or nine times, and it has never been a pleasant experience.  I don’t curl up by the fire with a chenille blanket and a cup of chamomile to read about colonial oppression, racism, suffering, and the depths of human depravity.  However, every time I read that book, I feel like my mind is exploding with every turn of the page.  It’s a devastating text, not just because of the insight it provides into humanity, but because of the disturbing feeling it gives you that you’re looking into a mirror of your own soul.  You watch each European character proudly proclaim himself an agent of enlightenment, bringing the gift of civilization to a “savage” land.

Then you watch them, one by one, discover that the brutality they thought they were suppressing isn’t in the Congo–it’s in themselves.

It’s like doctors rushing to cure a disease only to find that they are the carriers.  As each man’s evil is unmasked, he responds in very different ways.  Through the story’s characters, Conrad is giving us a series of types or categories that symbolically represent how people respond to the darkness we confront in our own lives.

Category #1: Rage against the darkness. This is Fresleven, mentioned in passing early in the novel. If you’ve read the book but don’t heart-of-darknessremember him, he’s the guy who has an epic meltdown over chickens.  In an uncontrollable fit of rage, he slaughters the village chief, only to be killed in turn by the chief’s son.  Rage and fear are closely linked in the human heart.  We feel afraid, which makes us feel out of control, and in a desperate attempt to win control over our internal and external fears, we lash out in anger.

Category #2: Deny the darkness.  This is the accountant, a ruthless man who wears starched, spotlessly white clothes in the jungle and keeps painstakingly precise account books.  Cold and calculating, the accountant is unaffected by the suffering around him and totally unaware of his own role as an instrument of that suffering.  His chosen solution to a messy problem is attractive.  We turn blind eyes to the darkness, we create carefully controlled micro-worlds, and then we pretend like that’s Reality.  Escapism at its finest.

Category #3: Embrace the darkness. This is the station manager, the creepy man who is the only European to never get sick.  He feeds off of the darkness.  He embraces it, welcomes it, and is strengthened by it.  The kinds of people that come to mind in this category are the sociopaths, those who are infamous in the history books or are currently making headlines in world news.  Those are the extreme cases, but what’s unsettling is the thought that in small ways, I feed off darkness too.  I feel slightly self-satisfied when I see the misery of someone who’s hurt me, or I take pleasure in a put-down.

Category #4 Try to conquer the darkness through sheer willpower and end up having it destroy you.  This is Kurtz.  He works maniacally his whole life to overpower the darkness, but in the end, it overpowers him.  Through intimidation, enslavement, and relentless efforts to procure mountains of ivory, he tries to exercise control over what he claims is the darkness of the jungle, even though we know it’s his own evil that he’s combating.  In his book about how to deal with “natives,” he starts out calm and collected and then scrawls on the manuscript “Exterminate the brutes!!!”  He dies screaming the words for which the book is famous: “The horror!  The horror!”  It’s fascinating to watch the eclipse of his soul.  What’s deeply unsettling is realizing that even this legendary, god-like man is incapable of vanquishing the tyranny of his own heart.

Category #5 Work to purge the darkness little bit by little bit.  This is the narrator-protagonist, Marlow.  In the manner of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Marlow seeks catharsis through storytelling.  Heart of Darkness is a story within a story: it’s about a guy telling his story to some other guys on a boat.  It’s partly an attempt to explain to himself and the world what it all meant, to infuse meaning into these baffling events.  We get a feeling that it’s also partly an attempt to justify himself.  At the end of the story, we watch Marlow doing the one thing he abhors most, the sin that trumps all others: telling a lie. The only payment for lies (so his logic goes) is to tell the truth over and over and over.

[Side note: the women in the book are portrayed as untouched by darkness–innocent lambs who can’t comprehend the evil of which the male world is capable.  Oh Conrad.  If you only knew.]

Out of all five men and the categories they represent, Marlow is the most successful in his attempts to deal with darkness.  But even he is only able to purchase momentary relief from the suffering caused by his sin.  Storytelling cleanses him temporarily, and then he must tell the story again.

But there was a category that Conrad didn’t include; maybe he didn’t even know about it.

Category #6: Live in grace. Confront the darkness head-on, then walk directly into the gospel’s light.  We don’t even know the half of our own darkness.  The more brightly God’s light shines on our hearts, the more we see how broken we are.  The only way we can confront sin without rage, denial, or impotent attempts to subdue it, is to look to the One who absorbed our darkness into Himself and who gave us His light in exchange.

Heart of Darkness is never going to be my rainy-day go-to.  It’s not literary equivalent of comfort food; more like the literary equivalent of a wheat grass shake (something healthy but hard to swallow).  But it is great literature, and it shows us with searing insight who we really are and just how much we need a Savior.

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3 thoughts on “Categories of Evil in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

  1. Whew. That was exhausting. I’ve been trying to write this post for about three years, and it’s just never come together. Maybe there was some truth here that I didn’t really want to speak aloud. Maybe it’s just a heckuva lot easier to write Oscar fashion reviews. Anyway, it’s late, I’m tired, and I’m commenting on my own blog post. Good night, world.

  2. Interesting! I’ve read Heart of Darkness once, shortly after finding out the film Apocalypse Now was based on this novella. Perhaps because it was a quick read, or perhaps because of my youth at the time, I didn’t recognize all you did from it. I’ll agree, though, that it was a very dark read, and not very uplifting at all.

    You just inspired me to reread this one – thanks!

    • I have been meaning to watch Apocalypse Now because I’ve heard it’s based on Heart of Darkness! Haven’t gotten around to it yet; I’m not a big fan of war movies. But I really should. The characters are so fascinating.

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