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In the novel ‘Heart of Darkness,’ Joseph Conrad tells us about an ivory trader working down the river Congo in Africa. The river he tells us is
“... a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.”
The seaman , Marlow, starts to obsess about an ivory agent and realises that the man has become almost a legendary character both in the eyes of the local population and the ex-pats from nearer home.The tale explores the dark side of imperialism and the brutality needed to suppress a population, keep them dependent and make money out of them. Man’s darkness is his inhumanity to man. Darkness can also be seen in the absence of the light of reason - where man is isolated and away from his own people he has no foil against which to modify his thoughts. As Conrad himself said in a letter to Blackwood
"I call your own kind self to witness [...] the last pages of Heart of Darkness where the interview of the man and the girl locks in—as it were—the whole 30000 words of narrative description into one suggestive view of a whole phase of life and makes of that story something quite on another plane than an anecdote of a man who went mad in the Centre of Africa’’
In these situations (as some would say are similar to Hitler and MacBeth) a kind of dark madness ensues, becoming greater as it has nothing to feed on but itself. More lately, the novella has provoked it’s own kind of darkness as former devotees see a new, more worrying side to it. Some experts are now saying that far from highlighting the plight of the Africans, the novel actually dehumanises them. Colonials, as in Ireland and other colonies, stole the natives’ language and demeaned their culture, so reducing them to a cheap sideshow - a metaphorical extension of ignorant jungles and dark uneducated forests into which colonials fear to tread. The colonised people's darkness stemmed from the extinguishing of that light - their culture.This view is contentious even now as many other experts respect the book. So we must all look for our version of ‘darkness’ in the novel and look into our own hearts. It may also be prudent to remember not to judge Conrad by our own standards of education and globalisation today - in his own way he was in darkness too, blindfolded by a lack of knowledge and vision that we are lucky to have today.
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