Nice to be reading fiction again, it has definitely been a while (last one was Austen I think!). I have read Heart of Darkness before, as well as an excellent history of the Congo under Belgium rule titled King Leopold’s Ghost.
In the lecture, Rob Crawford gestured to the idea that the grove of death scene is the most significant in the novel. I’ll take a shot at a close reading of at least a section of that scene.
For one, I think it’s important to take the general setting into account – this is an open air prison of sorts. Marlow talks about chain-gangs and the mysterious hole as perhaps “connected with the philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do” (84). The space is open, but the prisoners are contained. In fact, we might go so far as to say that the boundaries of this prison are unclear. The prison is everywhere, therefore meaningless is everywhere.
The description of the African prisoners in this scene is undoubtedly a very carnal, bodily description: it fits with the idea of a primitive people. “Black shapes crouched, lay, between the tees leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth half coming out, half effaced within the dim light” (84). Natural environment and primitive man are fused, and man is crawling towards civilization. But think about the implications of this in reference to the last passage, where we saw an undefined setting, an undefined natural world and open-air prison. This is the human condition, the human condition is one of entrapment, pain, and bodily despair, “dim light” only blanks out part of this condition. Even this is ambiguous though: “effaced” what a word! We lose something in the glory of enlightenment, we loose part of ourselves.
Later, Marlow describes a man sitting “with his chin propped on his knees, star[ing] at nothing… his brother phantom rested its forehead, as if overcome with a great weariness” (85). Note the pronoun here, not “his brother phantom rested his forehead” but “its”, this is impersonal, cruel, dehumanized. At the same time, if we are to give Marlow the benefit of the doubt (as being not a racist…) I might suggest that what he is describing is the phantom of history and trauma – a concept, not a man. History as weary! Think about the significance of that… history as weary…
I wanted to finish this by bringing in a piece I read by Teju Cole (thank you Avash) a while ago. He has a reference to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, although I wasn’t really sure what to make of it at the time. Any insight or discussion would be greatly appreciated.