The Necessity of the Reader: A Literary Criticism of Heart of Darkness

Modernist author Joseph Conrad once said that “of all men’s creations, books are the nearest to us for they contain our thoughts… they resemble us in their precious hold on life.” According to Conrad, books not only act as the vessels that preserve the themes of human life, but as mirrors that reflect the variations of those themes found within each individual reader. This reflective relationship between the reader and the piece of literature is essential to the reader’s formation of a response to that particular work and is what keeps literature resonant over the course of the centuries, continuing to intrigue generations of readers. In his novella, Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad purposefully relies on the ability of the reader to fill in gaps in order to establish the overarching theme of the ambiguity of the truth and ultimately ensure the novella’s enduring resonance.

From its first pages, Heart of Darkness leaves room for the reader to make assumptions and interpret events for him or herself. The novella is structured as a frame story, featuring two narrators with distinct voices and views, as demonstrated by the opening scene. The first narrator, who remains unnamed, describes the sun setting on a river port and speculates that this river has “known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled” (Conrad 47). Here he reveals his European perspective, seeing conquests as causes worthy of titles and remembrance. However, the main narrator, Marlow, reflects sarcastically on his time spent in London, saying, “I was loafing about, hindering you fellows in your work and invading your homes, just as though I had got a heavenly mission to civilize you” (Conrad 51). Although he speaks humorously, Marlow is mocking the Eurocentric belief that white men have the right to invade the lands of those considered uncivilized. By immediately presenting these opposing views, Joseph Conrad creates the opportunity for the reader to decide which narrator, if either, to believe and sets the precedent for the development of a core theme: the ambiguous nature of reality. In Literary Themes for Students: Volume I, Anne Marie Hacht explains that the frame tale structure, with its capacity to present differing accounts and opinions, allows for the reader to generate his or her own interpretation as well because there is no set standard. The inherent unreliability of these narrators serves a similar purpose. For instance, Marlow declares vehemently to his listeners, “I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie,” yet at the end of his tale, he lies to the Intended, telling her that Kurtz’s last words were about his love for her when they had actually been vague cries of terror (Conrad 77, 145). This proves him changeable and deluded in his view of self and is exactly what Diane Telger discusses in her essay in Novels for Students. She explains that “by presenting a… narrator whose interpretation of events is often open to question, Conrad forces the reader to take an active part in the story’s construction.” Thus, by layering the novella as a frame story told by narrators with dubious views on truth, Conrad has rendered it essential for readers to fill in the narration gaps with their own ideas and alludes to the theme of the uncertainty of reality.

The gaps left for the reader to supplement with his or her own ideas are also used throughout the novella to communicate the central theme of the ambiguity of truth. Perhaps the strongest example of this is in the death scene of Kurtz, the powerful agent at the root of Belgian imperialism in the Congo. Before he dies, Kurtz utters the famous line, “The horror! The horror!” (Conrad 139). This line is remembered by all who read Heart of Darkness, yet Conrad offers no obvious explanation as to what it means. Do these dying words indicate a revelation? Are they a cry for forgiveness? Or are they simply the meaningless babble of a lunatic? No definite answer is presented and thus each individual reader is made responsible for deciding their significance. This not only gives readers further opportunity to complement the text with their personal responses, but advances the overarching theme of the ambiguous nature of truth; just as there is not a clear understanding of this line, truth is, according to the evidence in Heart of Darkness, undefined. Therefore, as readers formulate their own interpretations of this exclamation, they create their own truths and the theme of ambiguous reality is made apparent beyond the pages of the novella. In her critique of Heart of Darkness, Jennifer Lipka quotes Joseph Conrad, saying that the only “fundamental truth of fiction” is its enigmatic quality; it serves no purpose and cannot effectively convey its themes if it does not allow for the reader to wonder and develop his or her own opinions. In the same way, the light and dark motif is used as a building block in establishing the larger theme of the indefiniteness of reality. For instance, as the first narrator and Marlow wait for the tide to turn at the beginning of the novella, the setting is described using both light and dark imagery. The rapid fluctuation between descriptions such as “glowing white” and “immensity of unstained light” are immediately contrasted by phrases such as “brooding gloom” (Conrad 46). The reader is presented with two conflicting descriptions of the initial setting and must decide whether to envision it in the light or the darkness and then decide what each of those views might represent. Anne Marie Hacht explains in Literary Themes for Students that the use of light and dark imagery is employed “to convey ever-shifting meanings.” This furthers the central theme of the uncertainty of truth and compels the reader to take a definite stance as the focus of the novella itself flickers abruptly between light and dark, good and evil, clarity and confusion. Both the death scene of Kurtz and the light versus dark motif exhibit the speculative quality of the novella; by requiring the reader to make assumptions based upon his or her own experiences, the reader’s response is rendered vital to expressing the concept of truth as an ambiguous ideal, differing from reader to reader.

Similarly, the response of the individual reader to Heart of Darkness allows for its elements to be examined through different lenses, not only demonstrating the theme of the ambiguity of truth, but offering different ideas as to what this illusive truth could be. For example, the novella never makes it clear whether it is in favor of or satirizing the racist ideals of imperialism. While Conrad’s primary narrator, Marlow, uses derogatory terms such as “savages” to describe the natives of the Congo, certain passages such as that describing a young agent as “gentlemanly… with a little forked beard and a hooked nose” personify the Europeans as devils, indicating that perhaps he does not view them as superior after all (Conrad 73). The stance on racism, like truth, is kept in obscurity and readers must attempt to provide their own answers. Author Chinua Achebe once criticized Heart of Darkness as “an offensive and deplorable book” that does not deserve to be included in the literary canon due to what he considered to be its racist message. However, this is only his view; other critics such as Mark Kinkead-Weekes consider the novella to be “an imaginative counter to European arrogance and blindness about Africa.” Which is the correct answer? That, being an absolute truth, is never revealed by Conrad and the reader must decide based on his or her own knowledge and intuition.  The necessity of the reader to supply possible answers to the questions posed by Heart of Darkness is further evidenced by the scene in which Marlow comes across a curious portrait.  The painting depicts “a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch” on a “somber-almost black” background (Conrad 75). Blindness in literature generally indicates a failure to see truth and this, combined with the recurrence of the light versus dark motif in the torch and the black background, possibly indicates a failure to know truth, but a determination to pursue it despite the surrounding night of ignorance and confusion.  Granted, this is merely a speculation, as the novella offers no further explanation of the portrait. However, by providing multifaceted details that pose complex questions rather than presenting the reader with simple concepts and unequivocal answers, Conrad has painted his novella to allow for the representation of numerous viewpoints. This also serves to open the door for healthy controversy between readers with differing ideas and is exactly what Joseph Conrad aimed to do as an author. He once said that his goal was not simply to tell tales, but “to make you hear, to make you feel- it is, before all, to make you see.” Through details such as the portrait of the blind woman and the consistent lack of clear meanings, Conrad encourages his readers to form their own answers to the questions suggested by Heart of Darkness, thus opening their eyes to new ideas that extend beyond what is written in black and white. The truth remains undisclosed and reality undefined, but the reading experience, according to Anne Marie Hacht, is rewarding, for it fosters a new realm of independent thought.

The frame-tale structure, dominant theme of the ambiguity of the truth, and lack of answers to significant questions all indicate that the reader is left responsible for filling in the gaps of Heart of Darkness. Without allowing for the varied responses of the readers, the theme of the ambiguity of truth that is essential to the novella as a whole would fail to be developed. In the same way, Heart of Darkness would be lost in time as a work with a limited era of relevance; without allowing for interpretations to evolve and vary between readers of different times and places, it would have failed to remain resonant into the current generation. When Heart of Darkness was first published, it shocked its Victorian audience, but now it is acclaimed as one of the best English novellas ever written because the views of its readers have changed over time and the impressionistic quality of the novella has allowed for these altered views to be incorporated into new interpretations. As Joseph Conrad said, books hold a fascination for mankind because they act as mirrors, reflecting their readers within their pages and changing alongside them. Heart of Darkness, with its enduring theme of the ambiguity of truth and reality, is a prime example of this, for without the readers filling in its gaps, it would become like the pitiable Kurtz, hollow at the core with only empty words remaining.

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