Since time is at a premium and there's always too much to talk about in class, I thought a few introductory words would be helpful as you begin reading.
First, note that the narrator of the novel is not Marlow but someone listening to Marlow’s long story. Every now and then the novel will move back to this dock area to watch Marlow’s listeners shift in their seats, etc.
Second, treat this novel as a cross between James (post-Victorian language and poetic style)and Ellison (symbolic). The writing is thicker than James (and in a different style) and the symbols are perhaps thicker than Ellison’s. This means that not only is the reading dense, but the connotations of the images are more so. Like Ellison, the symbols are polyvalent—they speak many meanings at once, often contradictory ones. Unlike much of Ellison, the symbols are also so ambiguous as to be beyond exact description—nevertheless, describe them we will attempt! And Jungians beware—Conrad will often rewrite the meanings of traditional symbols like grass, water, white and black, etc.
Also, the novel is psychological in nature, pursuing a quest which is as figurative as it is literal. Watch for images which parallel a character’s mind—because Kurtz, the center of the novel, is also at the core of all human psychology. How deeply do we dare probe our own capabilities? How well do we know ourselves? As Marlow says, we have a “fascination of the abomination” (4), and our marginal messages are “in cipher”(34) which when decoded are a “supreme moment of complete knowledge” (64) which we must surrender.
As readers, we sometimes might be "put off" by the density of the novel; it's almost like we must slash our way through this foliage with our own cerebral machetes. Trust first that your emotional response to the reading might be one of those readerly cues which Conrad has left for us; more, allow yourself to become absorbed in the language and scenes, consider each unexpected plant or peculiar diction choice, and be swept into interpretative vertigo.
Finally, Derrida might suggest that the signifiers of profound meaning in this novel are merely traces upon absence, that nothing here is solid or true. This will not mean to ignore the text, however, but to observe how Conrad himself may set up a riddle of how words function. (More on this in January!)
For traditionalists, we will also discuss the Belgian history of the Congo. It’s not pretty, and Conrad knew it.
So how should you go about reading? I recommend much marking of text! Perhaps consider choosing one or two key images you notice in chapter one and attempting to trace these through the book, noting them wherever you find them, watching how they are used. For now, then, welcome to what is finally and truly AP Literature, and enjoy chapter one.
And mind those women in the dark silently knitting.