Darkness a brutal imperial regime contained (and deferred
Darkness Heart Darkness essaysConrad’s Obsession with “Voice” in Heart of Darkness
For the moment that was the dominant thought. There was a sense of extreme disappointment, as though I had found out I had been striving after something altogether without a substance. I couldn’t have been more disgusted if I had travelled all the way for the sole purpose of talking to Mr. Kurtz. Talking with . . . I flung one shoe overboard, and became aware that that was exactly what I had been looking forward to–a talk with Mr. Kurtz. I made the strange discovery that I had never imagined him as doing, you know, but as discoursing.
Marlow in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
The above quotation suggests what has been noted frequently in recent years as damning evidence of the “literary” racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. That is, like his character Marlow, Conrad seems more interested in “discourse” than in its effects; more eager to write a story about story-telling than to consider directly the ugly realities of a brutal imperial regime contained (and deferred as unfathomable “mysteries”) in the story being told. Rather, readers are invited here and elsewhere to consider a series of clever doublings and treblings in the “telling” itself: the story told by the outside narrator (“I”) is quickly overtaken by the voice of Marlow, who at times gives over his voice to the Russian sailor and finally to Kurtz, who is himself described from beginning to end as pure “voice.” Each of these shifts draws us further into Conrad’s novella, and certainly these voices seem in some sense to carry us deeper and deeper into Africa, but in the end we find we have never left–and never been asked to leave–the deck of the Nellie, which sits waiting idly for the tide to turn. (Now there’s a metaphor).
Yet even as our attention is drawn to a series of narrative voices forecasting, echoing and reflecting one another in a coherent formal pattern of “nested” narrative frames, we must remember that there are other voices here–less “coherent” perhaps, but identifiable: the “mournful cry” from the jungle in the fog, the broken English of the natives on Marlow’s steamer, the “voices” of drums in the distance. It is difficult, of course, to integrate these voices with the various narrators, but in the very difficulty formal-minded critics may have in making them cohere in an overall pattern of narrative doublings, they should suggest to us a larger frame of reference to consider of which they are a part, and it is in this larger frame of reference where we find not only voices other than European, but also signs of those more-than-speaking acts of brutality from which Conrad’s formal obsessions with story-telling seem to divert our eyes.
To illustrate this point in the quotation with which we began, let’s reduce for a moment Marlow/Conrad’s obsession with “voice” in the novel as a whole to Marlow’s speaking voice in this series of sentences. A “thought” here is dominant (not an action), and that thought (of “disappointment” and “disgust”) is one that also leads away from ideas of action (rescuing Kurtz?) to ideas of “talk.” Even so, what triggers Marlow’s desire to “talk” (and not to act) is both one of the few “acts” in this passage (featuring mostly verbs of being and becoming)–throwing overboard a shoe–an act which is itself the sign of the more brutal act which precedes it: a native speared through the chest filling that shoe with blood shed ultimately as a direct result of the Company’s incursions upriver. Significantly, the murdered African is thrown overboard (and forgotten) like the shoe as Marlow moves ahead upriver and into his story, yet even as we continue the thought Marlow has momentarily left for an act, the reader is left to read in the momentary but unmistakeable breakdown of both Marlow’s story and the syntax of the superior stylist Conrad’s sentence a recognition of all that is missing here.