Sharing a Laugh While Reading Heart of Darkness [Essay]

This is an essay by Kevin Brown. 

I became an English major for all the wrong reasons.  I didn’t like the reading professors assigned in core classes; I didn’t understand the reading they assigned.  I hadn’t understood most of the reading I had been assigned since I began high school.  I was a math person, the type who would work on an extra credit problem for two hours just to say that I was able to figure it out, not because I needed any help with my grade.  My girlfriend the first two years of high school—whose mother was an English teacher at our school—sat with me and talked me through the Shakespeare plays we had to read (Romeo and Juliet, of course, along with Julius Caesar) to help me at least get the basic gist of the plot.

I became an English major because I had a professor—Dr. Dibble—who I thought was the smartest person I had ever met, and I wanted to become like him.  He was the type of professor who could rout any student with an argument, then take that student’s point of view and use it to crush another student who was trying to sycophantically take his side in the argument.  What I didn’t know about Dibble was that he had a Master’s degree in philosophy.  I also didn’t realize that what I really enjoyed about his classes were the ideas we were discussing, not the actual literature.  I only realized that in my last two years of college when I kept reading stories and poems and novels I still didn’t like or understand.

There were only two moments in my college career where I felt like I belonged in the English major.  Not surprisingly, both of them happened in Dibble’s class my senior year, a contemporary literature class.  The first was simple and less meaningful.  He had assigned us John Gardner’s Grendel, and I kept noticing references to zodiac symbols throughout the novel.  I mentioned that to a friend of mine, who looked up some critical articles that talked about that symbolism.  When we went to class, though, and Dibble asked if we had any questions, I was the one who started with, “What’s with all these zodiac signs?”  It was the first time I had ever seen anything in literature on my own, before a professor told me what I should and shouldn’t notice.

The second time is a longer story, and it’s less because of what I noticed than what Dibble noticed.  This event made me want to keep reading literature, no matter what happened in the rest of my life.  We were discussing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (I should note here that Dibble started our contemporary literature class in the 1880s for some reason he never explained; my guess is that he wanted to provide plenty of context for what we would read after the 1960s).

Dibble began reading a passage aloud, wanting to show us that Marlow and the boat he was on took a left when they came to a fork in the river.  He was trying to show us that left is often associated with hell and that Conrad is illustrating Marlow’s descent into the hell that the company has created.  In reading, he mentioned Chapman’s lighthouse, and he stopped reading and started laughing.  Dibble had a booming bass voice and a long, gray beard, giving him the look and sound almost of an Old Testament prophet.  Such a look was complemented by his tendency to pound on the desk with his fist, which he did now when he started laughing almost uncontrollably.

He would try to pause his laughing and point to the book and mutter something like, “That joker” or “I can’t believe…”  The few of us in the class just glanced at each other, wondering what he found so funny.  It was just a passage about a boat ride down the Congo, and the people were going left.  There wasn’t anything more going on, as far as we could see.  Dibble finally calmed down and then said, “Chapman’s lighthouse?”  We sat blankly, looking at him, then our books, then back at him.  He then said, “Keats?”  It was only then I remembered Keats’s poem, “On Reading Chapman’s Homer.”  When I made that point, Monica—whom we referred to behind her back as the English goddess because she was always the best student in the class—smacked my arm and asked, “How did you know that?”  That was a good question, given my performance in classes.  I had taken a Romantics class the previous year, though, and I was better prepared than in the past.

I have no idea what Dibble thought Conrad was doing with that Keats reference or even if Conrad really was making a Keats reference.  I’ve taught Heart of Darkness a number of times, and the lighthouse as a reference to Keats still doesn’t really make sense to me.  I do, however, tell my students this story, as I want them to see the joy that can be found in reading and rereading literature.  It’s not a scavenger hunt where our job is to find the hidden meaning, as literature is so often taught in high school.  Instead, it’s like getting to know a good friend even better, as we share story after story over the course of years.  Those stories change and we hear new ones, and we know that person just a bit better.

In the same way, we reread whatever work of literature we thought we already knew so well, and we find something new:  an idea, a symbol, a line we’ve always overlooked.  If we’re lucky, as Dibble was and as I am as a professor, we get to share that discovery with people who also care about literature.  They get to see our joy and share in it, as we get to share in theirs.  Together, we form a community whose bonds only deepen with time, reading, and rereading.


Kevin Brown is a Professor at Lee University.  He has published three books of poetry:  Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press).  He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories:  Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels.  You can find out more about him and his work at http://www.kevinbrownwrites.com/

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