Heart of Darkness

I’ll start my Literature of Lost series with Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella about European colonialism in Africa.  This didn’t really shed a whole lot of light on the mysteries of Lost, but the book does share many of the themes of Lost, particularly in season 1. Plus, it’s the latest book I read, so it seems like an ideal place to start.

I plan on writing these reviews like this: a quick summary of where the book is found in Lost, followed by a review of the book itself, and then a discussion of what the book tells us about Lost. It may not work out as well as I hope, but we’ll go with that structure for now.

Heart of Darkness never appears in Lost, but is referenced at least three times in the show. In the season 1 episode Walkabout, Jack asks Kate, “how come every time there’s a hike into the ‘heart of darkness’ you sign up?” In Numbers, Charlie refers to Hurley as Colonel-bloody-Kurtz (after a character in the novella) when Hurley insists on finding Danielle. Finally, in the season 4 episode Confirmed Dead, Sawyer also calls Locke “Colonel Kurtz.”

This was one of those books that everyone reads in high school except, apparently, me. I was in honors English and I seem to recall only the regular English class reading it. This makes sense, because I went to public school, where the only conceivable difference between the honors and regular classes was the length of the books. Honors students read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; regular students read the substantially shorter Of Mice and Men. Honors students read Dickens’s Great Expectations; regular students read the marginally shorter Oliver Twist. And so on. Heart of Darkness is only 110 pages, so by this logic, it wasn’t quite “hard” enough for honors students.*

That’s what she said.

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Heart of Darkness didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Definitely a very, very good book, but not one that I would put in the list of the top ten or twenty novels of all time, as many pundits do. Part of the reason I think that is surely the expectation I had. I have no doubt that I would have enjoyed it more had I not heard it was one of the best books in history prior to reading it.*

I have a theory on this that I call The Wrestler Phenomenon. Mickey Rourke won an Oscar for this movie and every critic talked about how great it was. I watched it after all this buzz. Yes, it was good, very good even, but let’s put things in perspective. Would I put the movie in Academy Award worthy movies? Absolutely not. Would I have thought the movie was a lot better had I not heard about how amazing it was before watching it? I think so. This later happened to me with Crazy Heart – a very good movie that was by no means as great as everyone said it was – and Avatar, which sucked.

The book tells the story of Marlow, a seafaring young man looking for adventure who signed up to captain a boat in the Belgian Congo in the late 1800s. Conrad divides up the story into three parts (which were originally published as serials in 1899). Each part delves deeper into the “heart of darkness” – both geographically and psychologically. In part one, Marlow journeys through the Belgian wilderness to a Central Station, where he stays for several months after his steamship sinks. In part two, Marlow begins the long journey down the Congo River to meet/rescue Kurtz, a previously well-respected company man turned evil. Marlow and his crew witness the brutality of Europeans’ treatment of Africans and later endure a skirmish with Africans on their way to Kurtz’s station. When they eventually arrive at Kurtz’s station, they find he has gone insane and joined the natives in the jungle.* Finally, in part three, Marlow meets Kurtz, formerly a respected leader that has gone crazy because of his single-minded devotion to collecting ivory. Kurtz has turned into a brutal semi-dictator and has trouble sleeping at night before eventually dying (screaming “The horror, the horror” as he passes).

This parallels Hurley’s journey into the island to find Danielle. Like Marlow, Hurley journeys through the wilderness searching for Danielle (Kurtz). When he finds her, he finds that Danielle – like Kurtz – has left behind civilization. Both Kurtz and Danielle have gone somewhat insane after leaving civilization and living in the wild.

Conrad frames this tale as a story within a story. Marlow recounts the story to a group of travelers down the Thames, who the reader only briefly meets at the beginning and end of the novella. This was both the best and worst part of the book. The book hits its most powerful moments when Marlow rifts on the psychological struggle that he deals with to this day. Marlow is traumatized and Conrad’s vivid language puts the reader in his shoes. With Kurtz in particular, he paints a bleak picture of human nature. Kurtz starts out as a respected authority on European colonialism that focused on being a supernatural civilizer for Africans. However, left on his own accord in charge of a station, Kurtz turns brutal; underneath the “civilized” persona lays an evil character bent only upon collecting ivory.

As powerful as the frame narrative was in exploring the dark side of human nature, I thought it failed as a storytelling device. More than once while reading it, I got to a point with a particularly powerful passage about a person’s psyche and didn’t know exactly what was going on in the story to provoke the thought. This is partly the result of my own expectations again, because I’d read that the book really explored the dark side of European colonialism. It did, but not in the pointed way of, say, The Jungle explored the meat packing industry or Uncle Tom’s Cabin explored slavery in America.

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Luckily for Lost fans, the best parts of the book – those exploring the psychological effects of colonialism on the characters – are the most applicable to the show. Heart of Darkness was referenced in the fourth episode of season 1. Five and a half seasons later, it’s easy to forget that the most important theme of those early episodes was the transition from civilized society to “the wild” (as Sawyer says to Jack in the fuselage inTabula Rasa). These early episodes explore how the castaways react once the constraints of civilized society are swept away.

In Walkabout, the two main on-island storylines were the burning of the fuselage and Locke’s boar hunt. Both of these events are symbolic in the transition from the castaways’ previous lives and their new island lives. Some of the Losties – Sayid in particular – demand proper burials for the dead in the fuselage. Yet Jack is adamant that the bodies must be burned, lest they attract more island wildlife. Jack wins out and the fuselage is burned. Already the castaways are shedding their pre-island practices.

At the same time, Locke has a sort of spiritual awakening on his boar hunt. This is the episode where we find out that Locke has miraculously regained the ability to walk. Because of his own personal transformation, Locke is more aware of the physical transformation that the entire group is making from civilized life to island life. He now knows that the islanders are on their own and acts accordingly by getting the courage to kill the boar.

These two events start to bring tensions to a head amongst the Losties; the next episode, White Rabbit, ends with Jack’s famous live together-die alone speech.

The first half of season one continues to explore these themes. At the first station Marlow visits, he is surprised by how similar it is to European society, blazing heat and mosquitoes aside. Will the castaways retain some semblance of “civilized” society like this first station? Or will the previously civilized people channel their inner evil and descend down a Kurtz-like path to eventual destruction? And, most importantly, what will the path that the castaways embark on tell us about the nature of good and evil?

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