‘My students reach the climax of Heart of Darkness, when the pilgrims stand at the steamer’s rail, firing their rifles at the natives on the shore, fifteen or twenty feet away, “for some sport,” while an appalled Marlow blows the boat’s horn to frighten the Africans off. Some of the natives throw themselves on the ground, but among them stands Kurtz’s black mistress, her arms raised toward the boat that carries Kurtz away. From his bed in the wheelhouse, sickly Kurtz watches through the window – which Conrad makes clear has been left open. At the boat rail, the white men go on firing, and with a line of white space, the scene ends…
Year after year, more than half my students fail to realize that the white men have just killed the black woman Kurtz has been sleeping with for several years. Or that Kurtz, too weak to intervene, has had to lie there and watch them do it.
When you ask, later, the significance of Kurtz’s final words, as he looks out through this same window, “The horror! The horror!,” it never occurs to them that it might refer to the fact that he has watched his fellow Europeans murder in cold blood the woman he has lived with. Suggestion for them is not an option. Earlier generations of readers, however, did not have these interpretive problems.
“If they shot her, why didn’t Conrad show her fall dead?” my graduate students ask. It makes me wonder what other techniques for conveying the unspoken and the unspeakable we have forgotten how to read over four or five thousand years of “literacy.”‘
Excerpt from an interview with Samuel Delany, published in the Paris Review, issue 197