How to Justify a War: Look into your Heart of Darkness
A classic: a work of art that increases in value over time. Apocalypse Now proved this when its authors (Coppola, Milius, and Herr) reapplied many of the elements of Heart of Darkness. They used some of its structure, themes, and a character or two or at least their fictional grandchildren for a modern story located in the heart of the Vietnam War. Conrad's story remains relevant more than a century and a half after he penned it.
Conrad wrote this story based on his adventurous six month trip up the Congo River, while working on a steamboat, Roi des Belges, in the then mostly unknown African Congo of 1890. Blackwood’s Magazine published it first in 1899.
The unnamed narrator introduces Charles Marlow who recounts this story, rich in symbols, while he and his crewmates wait on their “yawl” to up-anchor and set sail. For many reasons, Conrad chose to use this “framed narrative,” or the story within a story. “The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut.”
Perhaps most importantly, this device helps to drive home how Marlow changed his opinion about the commonly accepted beliefs of the time which become the focus of the story’s main themes:
• The symbolism of light and darkness weaves throughout the story: “in the luminous estuary,…the brooding gloom..." Or: “Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more sombre every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun.”
• Civilization and savagery – the duplicity in every man’s heart
• The dual nature of all men, regardless of race and origin, African or British...
• Simple, naïve natives versus the technologically sophisticated Europeans
• The naïve, faint-hearted Europeans versus the fierce jungle
• The use of superior technological force to profit over “less developed” areas
• The business of empyreal colonialism that exploits people
The framed narrative shows the reader how, after reflecting on the events of Marlow’s story, he changes the beliefs of those listening to him. He comes to realize that all men carry a dark side beneath the veneer of a civilized society which, for the most part, operates on hypocrisy. People often conduct business by using whatever spin possible to justify their own interests.