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Heart of Darkness (Novella and Poem): An analysis of my own poem 'Heart of Darkness', and how it drew its inspiration from the book by Joseph Conrad
Posted by Douglas, Jul 16, 2008. 6645 views. ID = 1487

Heart of Darkness (Novella and Poem)

Posted by Douglas, Jul 16, 2008. 6645 views. ID = 1487
This post was written in 2 minutes.
This post has been awarded 4 stars by 2 readers.
This post is Part 2 of a writing series titled Heart of Darkness.

I certainly won't pretend to be a scholar of literature, so if you hope to gain a critical analysis of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness from reading this, you should probably read elsewhere. My purpose in writing this is to explain some of the ideas which are present in my poem Heart of Darkness, and how they tie to Conrad's book.

Each section of my poem is introduced by a quotation from the novel Heart of Darkness. These are all statements made by characters within the story. I found that though Conrad used very little dialogue in his story, every statement made was deliberately crafted to help support a point the author was trying to make. It wasn't until I was halfway through writing the poem that I realized, I'm not the first person to make deliberate use of quotations from Heart of Darkness; I'm actually in very good company, because T. S. Eliot begins his poem The Hollow Men with the line Mistah Kurtz - he dead, a quotation which I was tempted to use myself.

"Moreover, the changes take place inside, you know."
This is a statement made by a doctor to Marlow (the story's narrator), during a discussion on how his trip into the heart of Africa will affect him. My first stanza, then, is designed to show that what you see on the outside does not necessarily match what is on the inside. I write (as Conrad did) about a European city, which Conrad does not name, but describes as a "whited sepulcher." If you were to visit wikipedia's entry on Heart of Darkness you would read about the phrase "whited sepulcher," and the entry explains it as an unexpected juxtaposition of black and white, which is a theme of the book.

Unfortunately, the people who wrote that wiki were not acquainted enough with Biblical themes to realize that Conrad didn't invent that phrase - he borrowed it directly from the teachings of Jesus (see Matthew 23:27). A whited (whitewashed) sepulcher is a symbol of inward hypocrisy; no matter how nicely you paint the outside, it's still filled with dead men's bones and maggots on the inside. Thus Conrad introduces one of the main ideas of his book, that civilization is merely a beautiful veneer which hides the truth of who we are.

The groans...distract my attention.
I love the way Conrad creates uncomfortable juxtapositions. On one page he describes in great detail the plight of African workers who are left to die at the edge of the jungle, gaunt, starving, a mass of bony extremities at odd angles. On the next page he takes great care in describing the very prim and proper attire of a clerk, who is indifferent to the suffering around him, and whose only comment about it is to say that the groans of the sick people distract him from his work.

My poem puts that description into a modern setting, and imagines a man walking into Starbucks to buy a cappuccino for 4.85. Outside, he is careful to avoid eye contact with a suffering man, because he is afraid he will be compelled to give something to him, and thus will not be able to afford his cappuccino when the price rises to 4.95.

When we peel off the first layer of the veneer of civility, what we discover is self-absorption.

Men who come out here should have no entrails.
One of the most memorable Conrad characters, in my mind, is the man who is named only as a manager. But the description is quite memorable. The narrator describes him as a man who seemed perfectly ordinary, and yet evoked a sense of uneasiness in everyone (that is a very brief summary of the narrator's detailed description of the man). Why this sense of unease? Because the man seems to be without either goal or fear, and it is unknown what is within his heart. The narrator then says: "Perhaps there was nothing within him." He was the original hollow man, and I suspect he may have been one of the inspirations for T. S. Eliot's poem.

Interestingly, this character never gets sick, even though everyone around him continually catches the latest fever to sweep through the station. The manager's comment about this is one of Conrad's carefully constructed double-meanings: "Men who come out here should have no entrails."

My stanza contrasts a jack-o-lantern, which is hollow-headed, with men, who though their minds may be full, are hollow in heart. To be hollow in mind, or hollow in heart - which is worse? The answer is made clear in the life of Kurtz, and this is a point Conrad hammers home later on in the book. The narrator points out that for all of the horror within the life of Kurtz, though he had become utterly heartless, the man never lost his intellect, right to the very end.

You must be a hollow man to survive outside of civilization.

The horror! The horror!
Kurtz has been described to us from the beginning as an emissary of virtue, science, and progress, so we have come to expect great things of him. But we discover, in the end, that his lofty ideals have been outweighed by the darkness of his own heart.

Conrad shows us this in several ways. To me the most memorable is Kurtz's scholarly paper he wrote explaining how the Europeans must use their influence for good within Africa (the civilizing influence within the chaos of darkness) but then, later, scrawls a terrible addendum on the last page: "Exterminate all the brutes!"

As he lies on his deathbed, Kurtz comes face to face with the blackness of his own soul, and is horrified by what he sees, and utters what is probably the most famous statement in the writings of Conrad, and the most famous dying declaration in all of English literature: "The horror! The horror!"

When I wrote this section of my poem, I borrowed an image straight out of Conrad; the narrator talks about civilized man being "moored with two good addresses, like a hulk with two anchors, a butcher round one corner, a policeman round another." Civilized man has the advantages of food, shelter, and safety, but take those away, and what will remain?

The last word he pronounced was - your name.
After Kurtz's death, the narrator returns home and must face the dead man's "Intended", a woman who believes Kurtz to be a saint among men. Marlow must decide whether he will tell the truth, or allow that false image to stand unmolested in her heart. He chooses to lie. Despite his lie, however, Marlow knows that he has discovered a universal truth; the story is not just about Kurtz, but about all of us, and so he is compelled to tell his story to others.

Copyright 2008 Douglas. All rights reserved. has been granted non-exclusive rights to display this work. For permission to reprint this item, please contact the author.

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This post is Part 2 of a writing series titled Heart of Darkness.
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