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Heart of Darkness
Author: Joseph Conrad (1857 - 1924)
Free promotional copy with the Daily Telegraph.
Also Published by Penguin Books in 1973
First published in 1902, 'Heart of Darkness' is deemed as one of the modern classics in English literature. Notoriously ambiguous the novella styled work is only 105.5 pages long. It fluctuates on several levels of consciousness so employs the reader to be versatile with the literature, for literature sake. Inadvertently open for misinterpretation, misconception, and therefore is known to be a 'classic' due to the amount of perusing it endeavors the reader to do. Written around the turn of the twentieth century, based on Conrad's African travels in 1889, three years after settling down in England; hence, the notable 'period of time' forging details, creating ambiguities.
Conrad wrote this modern classic in English his *third* language.
Joseph Conrad's heritage was Polish and although he lived and breathed English traits, when he died the tide of his strong-hold original heritage buried him in Kent, with his Polish name chiseled in stone. Old traditional traits in his birth-right, of who he was, deep-routed within a man who tinkered with many literature scholars grey-matter for over a hundred years; yet still the 'Heart of Darkness,' provides the probe into Conrad's vision of human nature; poignant and distrusting.
Depicting a concise 'proper' analogy format brings me to the choice of 'narrative mode.' The 'Heart of Darkness' concept simulates a 'Russian Doll' - Within one larger 'Russian Doll' is a smaller one and the findings are recurring; except in the story-telling medium, no lesser analogy/story-telling is obvious. It is up to our own conscious state to figure-out its ambiguity, or not. Undoubtedly, story-telling thrives on is its ability to live-on in the human psyche in an entity of its own; similar to memories and dreams. Eventually, all that we see and experience will become some other person stroke persons' inner memory, whether it is friends, family, or passing-by acquaintances. Conrad makes this all known to 'us,' evolving his own experiences on the Congo River. In its entirety, to 'the reader' all analogies sift through the same pattern, not one analogy more important to the other; unless, you personally or subconsciously put an 'emotive' to a particular analogy thread.
This classic is more about Conrad, emphasizing his own powerful word selections by over-elaborating word patterns, at times resembling in 'verse.' 'Marlow,' the lead character is also a name of a town nearby to the River Thames further up where the yacht is anchored. 'Marlow' addresses the pilgrims fluctuating out from post tense to present tense, and seemed too have provoked a thread of thought when 'Marlow' was a captain of a steamer destined to be on the Congo River. What Marlow's initial circumstance by being on the anchored yacht is perplexing, announcing a fact that maybe no-one really can be sure where they are likely to be and why? Humanism caters for unpredictability's.
From the winding River Thames passageway's robust waters would slip in and out emulating quicken tides - time on fast-forward. 'Marlow' not such a big talker, erupted into an eye-glazed hazy state of consciousness deep in thought. Delivering a mountain amount of anecdotal dialogue, words rhyming, passionate of what is, or was to come, maybe glory and wonderment, in other lands. Prosperity in the unknown; a voyage of ultimate existence has no bounds, the scent of 'death' never far away.
Reminding you of what you will become. Conrad structures 'Marlow's' string of automated 'gushing word syndrome,' was calmed down somewhat by adding; comments such as: 'there was not a murmur amongst them, after what 'Marlow' had said;' bringing the reader back to the present. Or the tone would change to: 'Marlow' lifted his right forearm as if to point out the steamer.' The breakages in the story-telling, refreshing amongst the damnations of tribal colonization - repugnant hierarchy due to imperialism and savage slavery; rife in African colonies as was in the United States ever since the 'Gold Run;' which became unlawful only twenty years prior to the publication of 'Heart of Darkness.' Debauchery and slavery was all part of ownership, being a 'white man' treated with huge respect, Conrad's alias 'Marlow' voyeurism of despicable violent acts, stayed with him systematically: 'We live in the flicker - may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling!' Boldly claiming darkness is never too distant. 'Darkness' is what the African's saw the 'whites' as being; when they colonized their land on the Congo River; speaking in their native tongue of French: 'obscurité, ténèbres.'
Marlow, (In Conrad's third person, entity) - who evidently was 'English' in heritage; forged an opportunity in working for a business in taking ivory across the Congo River, in which the native African's risked their lives for, armed only with their tools. Whereby, the 'whites' waited for the next shipment from the natives, only to ship it off for a premium along the stretch of river. The 'whites' were seen as a voodoo fear factor to the tribes and their ugly snarls and their ritual dances played on Marlow's mind. Hungry for 'power,' 'greed' the whites' fortune rested on selling the ivory for the highest premium with the colonized communities via a steamer, in which 'Marlow' was aiding them. 'Marlow's' only fascination was the Congo River, actually speaking French was not that necessary, the fact he was 'white;' deemed all that was required. The underlining values that ethnic and heritage is more important than 'actual' ability and worthiness. Greed is powered on beyond natures understanding, how such contempt and treatment can exist in unmeasured quantities, powered on by insurmountable greed delves into the mind of 'Marlow' every waking hour, though he has to be submissive to it, to survive, on several fronts of consciousness. Over time the 'conditioning' process allows extremities to take place: namely more death, slavery, and tortuous events, when talk of a certain Mr. Kurtz enter the fold; chaos, is replaced with frenetic fear.
Three ornamental scars were on his cheeks, displayed as if trophies.
Everything, we all experience is 'relative;' before anything else over-rides it. Conrad uses Mr. Kurtz expected appearance like a pressure cooker. You know he'll cause mayhem. At first the introduction is: He is a special man! Then the tone changes, gradually, depending who you speak to? Now greed frequents all that you are, what does that make you? Vile, in-human, maybe insane, but when the African rituals play effect on the 'white man' psyche - the imagination plays games with you, solitude in a place of foreign talk and deranged rituals, influences more than the 'white man' can take. It changes the core of your character; only the mentally strong may come out unscathed, but certain events can easily 'trigger' a memory, a spark, could re-enact a time when you're naivety will become you're undoing.
Once you've met Mr. Kurtz at the 'Inner Station,' Conrad is in his element. A dawning of what 'Heart of Darkness' encapsulates; secular tribalism is the core comprehension to Africa, and may not be meddled with especially by those who are deemed as the 'darkness.' Though do 'we' fully comprehend the laws of foreign lands, no, the whites are incapable of foreseeing more than the trees in front of them. Greed, capitalism, democracy, and a deluded feeling that 'all' foreign lands must be shown the true democracy, in trade and globalization. 'Heart of Darkness' embraces all that is evil and much of it we all possess and derive from. Do we continue this pathway of seeking resources for our own means? If we must continue, Joseph Conrad's last sentence epitomizes all that is true.
The offing was barred by a blank bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky - seemed to lead into the heart of immense darkness.
Morbid and droll for the lively ones.
Thank you for reading.
About the Author
Joseph Conrad was born in the Ukraine in 1857, the son of Polish parents. Both his parents were prominent figures in the Patriotic Polish movement and as a consequence of this were exiled to the far northern province of Volgda. Their crime was "conspiring" against the imperialist Russians.
By the age of 11, Conrad had seen the death of both his parents and was left in the care of his uncle.
At 16, Conrad realised his dream of going to sea. For 4 years he restlessly travelled the world and ran up enormous gambling debts as he went.
After this period, Conrad attempted a grizzly suicide by shooting himself in the chest. Fortunately the bullet missed his heart by an inch and Conrad survived.
In 1878 he joined the Merchant Navy and served there for 16 years. In 1886 he gained full British Citizenship and settled in England by the end of 1894.
Heart of Darkness is based on the pain and suffering that Conrad witnessed first hand during his own trip to the Congo in 1890.
Conrad died in 1924 leaving behind him a literary legacy that helped to shape and define the Modernist movement.
Heart of Darkness is arguably Conrad's most famous work. In my opinion it is certainly his most potent. Heart of Darkness is the 2nd of 3 books written by Conrad that make use of Marlow as their narrator (the other two being 'Youth' and 'Lord Jim').
The novella begins with Marlow sat aboard a ship idling on the banks of the Thames just outside London. Marlow's assertion that "this to has been one of the dark places on earth" sets the tone perfectly for what has been referred to as "the first Modern novel of the Twentieth Century".
Marlow recounts his narrative retrospectively from his vantage point aboard the ship. Along with him on deck are a lawyer, an old sea captain and other merchant sailors and Conrad draws the reader in to this group, making them feel that they are right there, hanging on Marlow's every word.
The narrative follows Marlow's journey as a riverboat captain through the very heart of colonial Africa. His experiences are focused in the Belgian administered territories (probably modern day Congo), but Marlow's stinging indictment of Colonialism reflects on all the European players.
The momentum of the text is dictated by Marlow's mission to first meet and then rescue the rising star of Belgian Colonialism, Mr Kurtz. Along the way, Marlow's mission is hampered by the sickening ignorance, greed and inefficiency of his European employers; traits which almost cost him his life.
After months of subterfuge and trickery, Marlow eventually makes it up-river to the station where Mr Kurtz is employed. When Marlow does meet the Ivory trade's leading man, he is shocked at what he finds. In Kurtz the reader can see the effects of ambition and desire removed from the shackles of compassion and accountability. Marlow is presented with a man who has been wildly successful but has been driven to near insanity by his inability to tame Africa's primal, atavistic spirit.
Safely back in the comfort of European civilisation, Marlow's reflections on his experiences are inconclusive and fleeting, yet they burn with a fierce indignation.
I have loved this book since the first time I read it almost 10 years ago. Since then I've read it at least 5 or 6 times from cover to cover and for me it improves with every read.
Marlow's narration is wonderfully insightful, as well as being tremendously entertaining. Marlow, or should I say Conrad, really does have the art of the 'seaman's yarn' down to a T. And yet this yarn is fundamentally different from what we might expect from a turn of the century text. It is angry, acerbic and vitriolic at the same time as being sensitive, compassionate and measured. Conrad does not reach any trite or easy conclusions at the close of Heart of Darkness and it is this honesty that is at the heart of the text.
Conrad wrote this book at the height of European Colonial expansion in Africa and Asia and was certainly pushing against the tide by criticising the British Empire (albeit obliquely). When Marlow says of his European neighbours "they wanted nothing more than to rip treasure out of the bowels of the land" he is making a statement about the human races own Heart of Darkness.
This is the yardstick against which all other books should be measured! If you only read one book this year, make it this one.
If, like me, 'Heart of Darkness' turns you into a Conrad addict, here are some of his other works to help you get your fix. The following list is by no means exhaustive, merely a snap shot of some of my favourites.
An Outpost of Progress (Short Story)
Youth (Short Story / Novella)
The Nigger of the Narcisus
I had to read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness for my University degree and will admit that I personally found it quite tough going, despite the book being ever so short in length, 111 pages in fact. After writing a 2000 word essay on a particular aspect of the book however I found myself being drawn into the story and have know come to if not like at least respect the book.
When Marlow was a young child he would spend hours staring at the blanks spaces on maps and when he found one that particularly interested him would exclaim 'When I grow up I want to go there'. Now older he still has a passion for adventure and despite the fact that those once empty spaces are now coloured in by the colours of the empires that own them he still wants to travel there.
Becoming a seaman and head of a steamboat Marlow leads an expedition down the river into the impenetrable African Jungle of the Belgian Congo. His mission is to find an ivory dealing agent named Kurtz. Unfortunately the African surrounds have lured Kurtz and ultimately Marlow's journey will lead him into the heart of an immense darkness.
Like I said earlier I found this book rather tough going when I first read it. The reason for this wasn't language or strange sentence structure but simply the content of the novel. I felt disgusted almost by the way the native population were often described and at times almost angry that the book was still being published. Looking back now, after finishing my essay, I realise why the book is still in circulation and understand why the novel portrayed certain things as it did.
The novel is as the title suggests quite dark in places and it seems to portray a different world to the one we are accustomed to. Obviously this is not technically the case but it often seems more due to the language use and ideas portrayed than the actual setting itself. Marlow, the author within the text, however also illuminates this darkness at certain moments as he sets forwards ideas that would have challenged everything the colonialists knew.
The novel also puts forward a great number of paradoxes of which the chief one is the imperialism is redeemed by the idea behind it but that at the same time is irredeemably robbery with violence. This paradox is presented in my different ways in the text but as I found out is not always clear on the first reading. This paradox however does make the novel strangely interesting as both the real author and the author within the text struggle to decide, which of the two ideals they truly believe in.
Readers and scholars especially have argued since the publication of the novel about whether Marlow, the internal narrator, actually speaks for Conrad himself or whether the dual narration of sorts was simply a way to express numerous ideas. I myself am of the opinion that Conrad's somewhat confused background means that it is likely that Marlow does indeed speak for him but I'll let you make your own mind up on that one.
Also often contended is whether the novel is actual about the imperialistic tendencies of countries and the devastation and destruction that they can have on the countries they decide to colonise or whether the Belgian Congo is merely the setting for the disintegration of one man's mind. Kurtz ultimately is slightly disturbed when Marlow finds him and the discussion is therefore whether the build-up to finding him was simply a way in which to explore how someone can go from being a genius in the minds of others to a personification of everything they believe to be wrong.
There are many places within this novel where you will find yourself questioning what the real message of the story being told really is. After reading it a few times now and writing my essay I think the true message comes from the title itself and that the novel merely explains what is meant by this. I wonder whether any of you will agree with me.
All in all I would recommend this novel and would advise a couple of readings of it too. I must warn you however that at times it isn't pleasant reading but is well worth it when you look back on it.
Joseph Conrad was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in Polish Ukraine in 1857. His father was a poet and translator who read Polish and French translations of English novels together with his son. In the mid 1870s Conrad joined the French merchant marines and later on the British merchant navy. This lead to his learning English before his 21st birthday as his third language. In 1894 he left the sea to become an author, strangely enough writing in English. He diedof a heart attack in 1924 and is buried on Canterbury cemetery.
Joseph Conrads own African experience was of relatively short duration, a little less than six months. Still, this journey must have made a deep impression on him, so much so that ten years later he interrupted two other projects to write Heart of Darkness. The novella was an attempt to describe his experiences in Africa but it is not altogether autobiographical. Most importantly, Conrad added a completely new storyline to the novella in Marlows attempt to find the elusive Mr Kurtz. The search for this Mr Kurtz is the main plot in Heart of Darkness and to be able to find him, Marlow has to travel ever deeper into the darkness of the African jungle, into the heart of darkness.
The outline of the story is as follows: Marlow leaves Europe to go to the Congo. He is to be the captain of a ship on an expedition to pick up one of the companys ivory-collectors, Mr Kurtz. After a long voyage from Europe, having seen many examples of the cruelty of colonialism, Marlow arrives at the Central Station. Once there he has to wait even longer before he has the chance to meet Mr Kurtz, for on his arrival he discovers that the ship he was to be in charge of has been sunk. The Manager promises Marlow that the steamer will be ready to set off within three months time. Even though Marlow is not happy to wait, that is all he can do. It is inevitable that the reader suspects the Manager to have something to do with the sinking of the ship even if that is not openly suggested by Marlow.
The Manager seems to be envious of Kurtz and it is possible that he is hoping that an extra three months in the jungle might render Kurtz fatally ill in one of the feared African fevers. One of the first things we hear about Mr Kurtz is the fact that he has an extraordinary way with words. While Marlow is held up on his way to see Kurtz, his eagerness to meet this remarkable man increasingly grows. To both Marlow and the reader, Kurtz at first seems to be the ultimate representative of the nineteenth century. He is very successful in collecting ivory; he paints and is an eloquent speaker.
After almost exactly three months, the ship is ready to leave the Central Station to pick up Kurtz. When, after an eventful trip, they finally reach Kurtzs station, they are greeted by a young Russian who is fiercely loyal to Mr Kurtz. The man, who Marlow calls the Harlequin because of his colourful clothes, asks Marlow to bring Kurtz away from there. His admiration for Kurtz is great but as Marlow listens to his story about Mr Kurtz, he seems to start to get a bad feeling about the situation. The Harlequin tells Marlow that Kurtz got his first ivory, not through trading but through raiding the country. Marlow seems to suspect something odd is going on when he asks, Kurtz got the tribe to follow him, did he. They adored him is the Harlequins answer. He goes on; [w]hat can you expect? [ ] He came to them with thunder and lightning, you know and they had never seen anything like it and very terrible. He could be very terrible. You cant judge Mr Kurtz as you would an ordinary man. These words seem to disprove Marlows and the Managers unpronounced belief that Kurtz is the victim of aggressive, African tribes or stranded in the jungle as a prisoner and that, in fact, he is the aggressor.
As the Harlequin keeps on talking, Marlow holds up his binoculars and looks around. When he was still on the ship, he had been able to make out some sort of ornaments around the house. As he takes a second look at these, he realises that they are in fact human heads on stakes, turned towards the house. This, I think, can be connected with the colonisation of Africa. The cruelty used in Africa seemed to offer humans on the altar of progress. To be able to achieve this goal, humans, natives mainly, were sacrificed without much thought. Maybe it is also possible to see a connection between Kurtzs decaying heads and how his own soul was rotten and had been sacrificed to progress. By the time Marlow sees the heads he must suspect that the man he has dreamt of meeting for such a long time might not be the miracle of civilisation he has expected to encounter. Nevertheless, Marlow is still eager to meet Kurtz and he is not overly upset about Kurtzs unusual decorations.
When Marlow finally gets to meet with Kurtz the man is very weak from fever and as Marlow seems to have started to believe, something terrible has happened to the great man Kurtz is said to have been when he left for the Inner Station. Mr Kurtz has turned into some sort of evil leader of the native tribes. There are even suggestions that he is accepting, maybe even demanding, human sacrifices, but due to Conrads obscure way of writing, this cannot be satisfactorily proven. Certainly, there are mentions of monstrous passions and unspeakable rites. Marlow himself never gets to witness anything of the sort, but nonetheless seems to know what has happened and is still happening.
Kurtz has to choose between an African and a European career, and ends up choosing the European one as he agrees to leave the jungle. Indeed Marlow seems to have to convince Mr Kurtz that this is the best idea by assuring him that he will be successful man in Europe. Kurtz only mumbles I had immense plans possibly suggesting that he can now see what he has done through the eyes of European civilisation and is therefore trying to defend himself by saying that he did not set out to do harm. In any case, Mr Kurtz is taken on board the steamer to be brought back to the Central Station and treated for his fever but after a while, he tries to get back to the station, or rather, to his tribe. It seems as if he cannot positively leave his station behind and with it all his monstrous passions. Even if he decided to leave Africa his soul is torn in different directions and Marlow is witnessing this struggle. Somehow, Kurtzs soul has been destroyed or at least changed from his African adventure.
Shortly after his return to the ship, after a period when he struggles against the fever and against himself, Kurtz dies uttering his ominous last words: The Horror! The Horror!. Despite the many different explanations to Kurtzs last words that critics have put forward, Marlow seems to have interpreted them as a sign of Kurtzs understanding of the wrongs he has committed. The question of what the words mean is hard to answer. It seems to me as if Conrad made them ambiguous intentionally and thereby meant for them to carry several different meanings. Kurtz does not seem as a person likely to repent what he has done and maybe the words mean that Kurtz has seen what can go wrong within a person but also in the name of a better cause such as the colonisation of Africa. Marlow wishes to see them as a sign of Kurtzs regret for what he has done, maybe because the two of them are so closely connected to each other in many ways and he wants for Kurtz to do the right thing.
Marlow returns to Europe after the death of Mr Kurtz and now he too has fallen ill. However, he suggests that the illness might have nothing to do with a physical condition. He says that his aunt tried to nurse up his strength but he found this unnecessary because it was not my strength that wanted nursing, it was my imagination that wanted soothing suggesting that it was his meeting with Mr Kurtz and depravity which made him ill inside rather than anything else.
Although it may seem to some as if I have spoiled the ending of the story to those who have not read it this is not the very end and furthermore, what is important in the story is not the actual happenings as such but rather the characters reactions and the way you as a reader interpret them. The story in itself is not complex, it is only when you begin to think about the meaning of it all that you realise the complexity of it.
Conrad seems to have built Mr Kurtzs character on several earlier literary characters, most notably Heathcliff. They are both very dark characters but with traces of redeeming features, in Kurtzs case his good intentions when arriving in Africa. Kurtz has also been compared to a modern Faust the main similarity being that they both sold their soul to the devil. Kurtzs devil is not the same physical manifestation Fausts devil is but it is nevertheless just as real.
It has often been suggested that Marlow in Heart of Darkness is merely a sort of transparent medium through which colonialism and the degradation of Mr Kurtz is studied. However, I think that Marlow plays an even more important role within the novella. The voyage Marlow makes into the heart of darkness is both into the impenetrable darkness of Africa but also into the dark parts of his own soul. In the heart of both these darknesses, Marlow is confronted by Mr Kurtz. Mr Kurtz could be described as Marlows own heart of darkness and this is, I believe, of vital importance to the story told.
No matter what you believe it is clear that Marlows and Mr Kurtzs stories are very much entwined and cannot be separated if they are to keep their meaning but they are vastly different as characters in many ways. One good example is the fact that Marlows main goal in Africa is not to make money, but he wants to fulfil a childhood dream of going into the blank areas of the map.
Heart of Darkness has two narrators, one of them tells the frame story about the seamen on board the yawl Nellie. He introduces Marlow, the narrator of the main story and throughout the narration, he sporadically comments upon Marlow and his storytelling. Marlow also addresses his listeners on a few occasions. The main part of the novella consists of Marlow telling the supposedly self-experienced story. Since both of the narrators in Heart of Darkness are first person narrators who relate their own experiences, it is possible that they are both unreliable. Whether they are or not makes a great difference to how you read the story and to what you believe is taking place. There is no unanimous opinion on whether the narrators are reliable or not but I for one believe that the anonymous frame narrator can be believed as his role is simply to introduce someone else and there is no suggestion that he does not do so truthfully. Marlow, however, is a great deal more difficult to decide on. He is very quick to make subjective remarks about things he experiences and it is obvious that he judges everything from his own set of values and prejudices. Besides this, he even tells us as a part of his story that he lied to Mr Kurtzs Intended and also lied, or at least withheld the truth to save Kurtzs reputation, something that would suggest that it is not impossible that he could also lie to the reader. It might not be a conscious lie but merely his telling the events as he experienced them. If someone else, Kurtz for example, had been able to tell the story from his point of view, everything might seem different. However, since Marlows is the only account we get of himself and Mr Kurtz we find ourselves looking through his eyes and judging them both using Marlows account as the only evidence.
The title itself is ambiguous and adds to the complexity of the story; it is possible to interpret Heart of Darkness either as the darkness of a persons heart or as the middle of darkness, because of the ambivalence of the genitive. Many a critic has taken it to point at both the interior of darkest Africa but also to the corruption of Kurtz. Others have taken a near enough opposite view which refers more to the colonial statement that the novella may or may not make suggesting that it shows the Africans as innocent victims of the white mans heart of darkness. On another level, however, it could also be Conrads intention to show that the Africans have the power to turn the white mans heart black. I believe that this is one of many instances where Conrad is wilfully vague with his use of language so that readers can interpret it as they wish.
Heart of Darkness has been considered a masterpiece ever since it was published and has been embraced as compassionate and humane. It did not receive much critique concerning the way it describes Africa and Africans until 1975, when the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe vigorously attacked the novella. Achebes general theme was that Conrad used Africa as a historyless and barbaric opposite to European civilisation, and that his treatment of the Congolese people were offensively stereotyped and unsympathetic. Achebe went so far as to argue that Heart of Darkness should no longer be regarded a masterpiece, or part of the canon, and he famously even called Conrad a bloody racist. Furthermore, he was of the opinion that the novella, which up until then had been generally considered anti-imperialist, was actually pro-imperialist. He based this on the idea that the Africans in the book were pictured as savages in need of civilising, which in the end would mean that Europe needed to colonise the continent in order to help its inhabitants.
Achebes views have been argued back and forth since and although there has been no real conclusion to this discussion I think it is fair to say that whereas the views expressed by Marlow may seem very strange from or modern perspective it may be unfair to label Conrad a racist based on this as it is unclear whether Marlow is a tool to convey Conrads own opinion and whether what he says is ironic or not.
Another point in this discussion that might be of interest is the fact that almost all the white characters in it are shown to be egoistic, mindless and cruel and therefore in the wrong suggesting that Conrads sympathies may not lie on the side of the coloniser. The portrayal of the colonisers seems of utmost importance as to whether the novella is read as pro- or anti-colonialism and the idea that an anti-imperialist opinion can be expressed, not by making the colonised characters more real and human but by making the colonisers less human and more savage-like, is very interesting. The discussion continues and it seems impossible to get a definite answer to the question. However, it seems as if the dominant view today is that Conrad is anti-colonialism.
Heart of Darkness is indeed a very complex story. Although it is short it requires a great deal of you as a reader. If you give it the time it deserves, maybe read some opinions about it and give yourself time to think through what you believe it is really about I think this is an amazing read. Part of what I have written here is from my dissertation and as I read this as one part of that I gave myself plenty of time to read around it and to study the language and the characters very carefully. I think this helped me appreciate it much more. I wouldnt suggest this as light reading but I do think it is worth to give it a chance when you have the time.
This novella has one of the highest ratio of meaning per page, the text is only 106 pages long, yet you can get interpretations which are many times longer than the original! Lets look closely at the text without referring to loads of background information and see if we can find out what it is about.
Like many novellas (a piece of literature longer than a short-story but shorter than a novel) Heart of Darkness has a frame, in fact it has two frames with two narrators, the first is an anonymous passengers on a pleasure ship lying at anchor in the mouth of the Thames who listens, together with some other men, to Marlow whose business on board isnt quite clear talking about his time as the captain of a steamer on a river in Africa. The function of a frame is twofold: on the one hand the story seems more credible if theres a source that vouches for its being true, on the other hand the frame creates a distance between the reader and what is told, the reader can side with the narrator or distrust him.
The tidal currents of the Thames evoke memories of the golden age of discovery, of knight-errants the nation is still proud of, Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch . . . , bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! . . . The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealth, the germs of empires. These thoughts on the glory of imperialism arent attributed to anyone, we can assume that they come from the anonymous passenger.
Marlow, however, has to think of the times when the Romans came to conquer and exploit the unknown land in the north and found themselves surrounded by wilderness, savagery, darkness, the reader gets a completely different view of the process of colonisation and imperialism, Marlow doesnt see any glory in this part of the English history. The conquest of the earth . . . is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.
But then he adds, What redeems it is the idea only . . . something you can set up, and bow down before and offer sacrifices to . . . and this leads us into the story proper. Marlow, an English seaman wants to see and explore a river in Africa which has always fascinated him on maps. He manages to get the job hes dreamt of with a company on the continent, no further details are given besides the short remark that the director was satisfied with my French. Bon voyage.
The novella was published in 1902, at that time Belgium had a colony in central Africa, the Congo, Marlow becomes the captain of a steamer going up and down the Congo river serving the stations where the ivory the African natives (have to) hunt for the Belgians is collected, counted and then shipped off.
The description of the jungle really puzzles me, several times we read about its stillness. I havent been to the jungle but from what I know from books and feature films the jungle is very noisy with all the animals screeching, howling, cawing. Yet Conrads jungle is an impenetrable silent wall. The African natives are stereotyped as ugly, savage cannibals with sharpened teeth constantly rolling their eyes and performing strange rites.
One can get the impression that Conrad only read and heard about the jungle and the Africans but never saw the one or the others himself, but nothing can be farther from the truth. No other writer before or after him has seen more of the world, I remembered this from my uni days but looked up his biography to verify details.
He was born Teodor Josef Konrad Nalecz Korzenikowski (dooyoo doesn't accept Polish letters)in (then) Polish Ukraine in 1857 (he died in 1924), at the age of 16 he joined the French merchant navy and then continued his career for 16 years in the British merchant navy. At the age of 36 he settled down in England to become a writer in English, his third language which he had begun to learn only when he was 21 (!).
What is important for this review: in 1890 he took a job as captain of a river steamer in the Congo. Why then is the description of the landscape and the people living there not more vivid? I skimmed through several reviews but nowhere the silent jungle was mentioned; am I the only one to be puzzled by it? Obviously it wasnt Conrads intention to write about the Congo and her people as a natural scientist would do, they appear as mere scenery in front of which he lets his European protagonists act out their personal drama.
Marlow meets a strange bunch of Whites at the stations on the river whove left their home country to make a fortune, greed is their motive. They treat the Africans outrageously, from the choice of words Marlow uses its clear that he disapproves. Yet, the Africans dont appear as individuals, we are made to understand that imperialism is bad in general, but we only get to see its effect on the Whites.
The climax of the story is Marlows trip to the Inner Station where he meets its leader Kurtz, a gifted poet and painter, a megalomaniac genius, one of those men who went out with an idea, the most successful hunter of ivory the company has ever had which will make him a success back home one day or so he thinks. What the confrontation with the core of Africa where he's thrown back on himself and his values has done to this man is spine chilling.
Does what Kurtz experiences have anything to do with our lives? I think every reader can ask themselves the question in how far civilisation is a corset and how they'd react in case it were gone. We read about people in extreme situations in the news all the time, what makes them survive or break down?
Recently, African critics like Chinua Achebe have pointed out that in this novella Africa is reduced to a metaphor for that which white Europeans fear within themselves. The people of Africa and the land they live in remain inscrutably alien, other. The title, they argue, implies that Africa is the heart of darkness, where whites who go native risk releasing the savage within themselves. Defenders of Conrad argue that the narrator does not speak in Conrad's own voice, and that a layer of irony conceals his true views, well, if that is the case, it doesnt come over, I at least didnt detect any irony.
Of course, this is not a political treatise on the brutality of Belgian imperialism but a piece of literature, reading it one should savour the language, motifs, symbols, the choice of words. One example: Mr. Kurtzs name: the adjective kurz means short in German, hes a tall man, though, this one the hand hand/on the other hand characterises his ambiguous character, in fact ambiguity is a recurrent motif in the novella.
In my opinion anybody whose mother tongue is English should read this literary gem at least once in their lives. I can't say that I love this book, it impresses me as a literary achievement of the highest quality, I admire it as I would admire a painting for its craftsmanship. Why don't I love it for this and for the questions raised here which are of universal importance? Maybe it's the exoticness of the story which moves it too far away from my world.
Penguin Modern Classics
Please dont leave comments showing (off) that you know that the film Apocalypse Now is based on the novella, this is a book review.
Leopold, the playboy King of the Belgians, grabbed his share of the African cake at the 1884 Berlin Conference with promises of Christian charity and the abolishment of an Arab run slave trade. He delivered hell to his personal fiefdom, and a 23-year rule in which the population of his Congo Free State declined as quickly as his bank balance swelled and the official records burnt. Joseph Conrad, born to the landless aristocracy in the Polish Ukraine, came to the Congo in 1890, spending six months on a Congo River steamer. An orphaned child of revolution, but a naturalized son of Empire, he came to witness Leopold?s great civilization and found instead "the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience." Heart of Darkness, a novella based on his diaries and published twelve years later, is Conrad's masterpiece, a challenging, engaging, at times insanely difficult read that peers slowly and deliberately back into the abyss. Writing in his third language, Conrad's prose and symbolism struggles for precision just as his imperfect narrator, Marlow, fights against the truth in the mournful gloom on the interminable river. Marlow, framed by an unseen second narrator in one of Conrad's masterful plot devices, is a physical wreck of a man, an ironically observed liberal, "a partisan of methods for which the time was not ripe." From a pitch black berth on the Thames, itself once no more than the very end of the world before the Romans came with legionnaires, wine and tax gatherers, he recounts a journey through the Congo in search of the enigmatic Kurtz, a man who sends in as much ivory as all the other agents put together, an exceptional functionary who came to Africa to improve and instruct, but a man now rumoured to be lacking in restraint. That much is the plot, though 100 pages hardly gives room for much further development. So if you're picking up Heart of Darkness anticipatin
g action and adventure, or if your head is full of Wagner, Marlon Brando and the smell of napalm in the morning, then reading Conrad will likely as not be an immense disappointment to you. The pace, even when we finally reach Kurtz, is ponderous, the symbolism sometimes as impenetrable as the immense trees on each bank of the river, the characters exist merely to illustrate the incomprehensible, the ending is a compromise between the real and the imagined, and the rest has to be re-visited, re-interpreted and re-analysed for any semblance of meaning. So this is a book that requires work on the part of the reader. Before you open page one you need at least some prior knowledge of what Conrad saw in the Congo, of what he is attacking. You need to feel late-nineteenth century Europe, its deep shadows, rainbow coloured maps and ominous, feverish atmosphere. And then you begin to understand that Kurtz, with his half-English mother, half-French father, German name and Belgian company, is not just a symbol of a continent consumed and corrupted by its own avarice, but also an amalgam of real men, full of ivory lust, altered horribly, self-feeding and defeated by the wilderness within. And only then can you begin to appreciate the evocative imagery of Marlow's return to a Europe unenlightened, petty and impersonal, of the wilderness whispering to Kurtz, a man of high culture and inspired rhetoric, "things about himself which he did not know", of cowardly men "squirting lead" into the tops of trees against which they are but miniscule dots on the landscape, and of soldiers thrown callously into the surf while a limp, greasy French man-of-war stands "incomprehensible. Firing into a continent." Though accused of racism by some African critics, Conrad is merely as flawed as any white European attacking atrocities committed against cultures he sympathises with rather than understands. True, Africa is at times reduced to metaphor
, and sketches of the indigenous population are made in broad strokes, but his work remains a searing indictment of European colonialism as embodied by the Eldorado Exploration Committee - cruel, reckless and greedy, with the morality of burglars - the unspeakable rites performed by the bloodthirsty pilgrims, and the smashed Kurtz, who decorates his fence with impaled heads and 'trades' for his ivory with Winchester rifles and his own private army. Till in the end we see that the darkness was born of the colonizers themselves, who turned white blanks into so many colours between arbitrary lines on large maps, and brought incomprehension, calamity and supernatural terror to a continent that repays them with internal decay and devastation. This is a beautiful book, full of uneasiness, metaphor, historical detail and autobiography, veering between extremes of brilliance and boredom, of over elaboration and piercing realisation. You'll fall in love or asleep within the first ten pages of this book and you'll still be no closer to its heart if you last to the very end. But Conrad matters. "Why this is hell, nor am I out of it." Mestastophilis. DETAILS Heart of Darkness is available at amazon.co.uk from £1.50 (Penguin Popular Classics, ISBN 0140620486). The 112 page volume is dwarfed by the Norton Critical Edition (£6.95, ISBN 0393955524), which runs to 438 pages including five essays and background sources. John Malkovich and Tim Roth starred in a terrible 1994 film version of the novella. Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now was, of course, loosely based on Conrad?s story. Conrad was not the only writer to protest at Leopold's genocide, which still resonates in the tragic circumstances of the Congo today. The following websites have background information: http://www.crf-usa.org/bria/bria16_2.html http://www.boondocksnet.com/congo/ http://www.stfrancis.edu
Take a journey through a tunnel - a tunnel of intermittent light, strange creatures, strange landscape and strange companions. Is this a journey through the jungles of the Congo River, or a journey to the heart of the human soul? What will you find at the end of such a journey - ivory, riches, experience - or the true nature of humanity? Well according to Joseph Conrad what you find on both counts is "The horror! The horror!" Heart of Darkness, written by Joseph Conrad at the turn of the twentieth century has become one of the seminal pieces of English literature. Conrad, an exile from Polish Ukraine, whose true name was Jozef Korzeniowski (I like true names better, but then call me old fashioned - I am not about to change my name to Geoffrey now!) and whose true language was not English is cherished as a great English writer. It is perhaps because of Conrad's background that his books are hard to read and at times read like translations from his mother tongue to English. I have never finished any of Conrad's previous books, despite being told just how good the Secret Agent and the Heart of Darkness are - but this time I was determined to start and finish the Heart of Darkness and I did. After all it spawned one of the most critically celebrated films of all time, Apocalypse Now and the story lines of the book and film are closely matched - despite the shift in geographical location and political direction of the film. The premise of Heart of Darkness is simple, take away the trapping of civilisation and place a supposed civilised man back into the wilderness - which is of course what happened throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries as certain nations went hell for leather at imperialism and stripping nations of their natural riches and resources. A trait of course continued by America, by more subtle means at the start of the twenty first century - with a scramble for the new ivory, oil. Conrad's book
is based on his own personal experience. It was in 1890 that he went to work in Congo as a trainee steamboat captain on the Congo River, so that he could glimpse the greed of imperialism first hand and by virtue of certain accounts so that he could find himself and his true nature. What we have is a simple book, the tale of Marlow, a seaman, who recounts his own trip down the Congo River to rescue an ivory trader named Kurtz - what Marlow finds is that the civilised man is at his heart, barbaric and selfish and that imperialists are nothing short of burglars with no desire to do anything except exploit for personal and national gain. Marlow's tale is also a metaphor for a person's journey within himself or herself - what is the true nature of a human? Kurtz has undertaken this journey and perhaps left whatever notion of sanity the West has along the way and as for Marlow, his own journey is just beginning - will he go the way of Kurtz, or will he simply observe with an amused air? Heart of Darkness is undoubtedly a book with atmosphere and a deep sense of brooding, there are times when the narrative draws you in as Marlow (Conrad) must have been drawn in to what was happening around him. There are other times when the narrative is little more than a confused stream of consciousness, as Marlow in the telling of his tale seeks to recount what he couldn't quite grasp at the time and therefore cannot convey in his re-telling. This leads to a book that is incredibly difficult to read and is at times incredibly confussing - but perhaps critics of the book, who say it rambles and is poorly focussed should recognise that the rambling and the coming in and out of focus of what is actually happening are a means for Conrad to convey the atmosphere and to convey what Marlow (Conrad) felt as he undertook his strange journey. In this respect, the disjointed feel of the novel is little different to the somewhat disjointed feel of the film, Apoc
alypse Now. Heart of Darkness conveyed to me the feeling of a man in strange and barbaric circumstances who escapes the reality of his predicament by not really being there at all - except in the physical sense. This is true both of Marlow and of the manic Kurtz. When Conrad's narrative is in focus, he has some pertinent and interesting points to make about the base and selfish nature of all of humanity and when it is out of focus it drifts and loses itself. Whether this is meant or not, I do not know, but it makes this a damn hard book to read and not one for a relaxing read in the sun! Heart of Darkness is a very clever book, it is written in a way that makes it stand out from the crowd of the vast plethora of literature available - but that style makes it difficult to read. If the reader pays attention there is a great deal of depth and insight into some of humanities more wicked ways to be gleaned, but perhaps the picture that Conrad paints is just a little too dark. I am not sure that humanity is quite as selfish, barbaric and dark in its nature as Conrad portrays. I do think that he was spot on about Imperialism and the scramble for loot and personal gain; I just don't think that the heart of the human soul is as dark as Mr Kurtz found - but then what do I know, I have never been down the Congo at the height of imperialist aggression and certainly never abandoned myself in the jungle to trade local commodities and seek the worship of the native inhabitants! Personally, I found the ending a huge disappointment, but then it is probably realistic, the myth of the great man is usually far more impressive than the man himself. This is a hard book to rate - it is, at times so hard to read and hit and miss that it could easily warrant 1 or 2 stars, yet at times its clarity of vision and conveyance of atmosphere would warrant five stars. I will settle for 4, but warn you, it is not everyone's cup of tea or rancid hippopo
tamus! <br>Published by Penguin. ISBN: 0-140-27422-7 Priced: £5.99 111 pages long, but it is not a fast read - this is a book that needs to be taken in slowly, paragraph by paragraph, or I fear some of the atmosphere and deliberate confusion may be lost. This is for Jill and her celebration - to more years free of Cancer and more years of friendship.
I’ve decided to use the soccer metaphor primarily because I intend what follows to be a postscript rather than a preface. Every one of us here on dooyoo is doing his best to promote a book without giving the better part of the plot away. I believe a postscript or reflections on subject matter of the book may serve this purpose as well. Some of the people, who wrote comments to my previous ops in this section, read the books earlier – and I hope my opinions prompted them to re-read them. So, I intend the following three-partite loose notes to address primarily this group of dooyooers. Why Coppola? As I read the novel by Conrad, certain scenes from Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (1979) kept appearing before my mind’s eye. Not in the foreground, since I watched the movie some eight to ten years ago. It was a rare and exciting experience for me: in my case, books much more often prompt me to watch a movie than vice versa. And, after all, Coppola made use of some parts of the framework of Conrad’s story, put it into an entirely different context and attached an entirely different ending. When I read a book, it’s like the lights go out and a movie begins in the cinema inside my head. For this reason I refrain from watching screen versions of the books, which are particularly dear to me (for example, “The End of the Affair” by G. Greene). My immaterial screen versions have two advantages over the tangible ones. The first (and most obvious) is that they are immeasurably closer to my heart. The second lies in sheer absence of commercialism (that is, no commercialism in excess of that already contained in printed versions!) And this brings us back to the novel again. In stark contrast to Coppola, Conrad throws avarice into focus. “I’ve seen the devil of violence, the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire, but, by all the stars! – these were strong, lusty, red-e
yed devils, that swayed and drove men – men, I tell you. But as I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that […] I would become acquainted with a flabby, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly. How insidious he could be, too, I was only to find several months later and a thousand miles farther,”- Marlow says in the beginning of his story and the book itself . I find his words somewhat inconsistent with later developments in the book. The devils of greed and misanthropy that lay at the heart of such a monstrous and ominous character as Kurtz had to be very powerful, if not all-consuming. But as to those devils that pulled the strings of minor characters, who look so frightfully familiar to us today, who have so much in common with inescapable variations of the 21st century “average”, “quiet”, one-dimensional man, - well, yes, they obviously didn’t need to be as strong. “[…] It seemed to me, - says Marlow of his unnamed companion, a “papier-mache Mephistopheles”, “that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe.”  “Bloodshed and sorrow” – this is how an Alberto Moravia’s character summarized on contemporary life in The Conformist (1951). The motto looks very much like Coppola’s diagnosis. Conrad highlights mindless bloodshed and sorrow in his novel, too, as he draws vivid and abominable pictures of a colonialist rule. Bloodshed and sorrow are the two “products” that get unparalleled front-page coverage by the media. (“If it bleeds, it leads”.) Their secure place in our world and in our minds is made still more prominent with virtually every news roundup. Terrorists of all statures know it too well. They use the media to promote their name (and even ideas) rather than “accept responsibility”. A vicious circle. Conrad exposes avarice, the third and most potent insidious element of the air we breathe. “I had a white companion […], not a bad chap, - says his narrator, - but rather too fleshy and with the exasperating habit of fainting on the hot hillsides, miles away from the least bit of shade and water. Annoying, you know, to hold your own coat over a man’s head while he is coming-to. I couldn’t help asking him once what he meant by coming here at all. “To make money, of course. What do you think?” he said, scornfully.”  Now, if you ask an average man-in-the-street in Moscow, London or Bangkok “What are you living for?”, you are very likely to get the same scornful answer. The scorn will be intended to underline the self-evidence of the answer, which only few of us dare to question. Joseph Conrad dared. Erich Fromm dared, too. And men of God have been preaching for us to come to our senses from the earliest times. * * * Anton Chekhov noted once that every small detail in the design of a theatre stage must have its share of significance: if spectators see a gun on a wall in the first act, it must eventually fire. After I became aware that A-bomb had made its appearance on the world stage, in the long run I took it for an embodiment of misanthropy, hatred and hostility, which tore humankind apart and were, in fact, its fatal disease. (I had nightmarish dreams of a fatal nuclear conflict throughout the time of my life – and the last time I saw such a nightmare was only a month ago. What about you?) For all I know, Kurtz may be Conrad’s prophecy of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot or Bin Laden. And the fact that such people did/do appear on the world stage and have numerous armies of cohorts and followers is even more disquieting than mere availability of the weapons they may lay their blood-spattered or blood-thirsty hands on. It may tell you s
omething of insidiousness of the devil that Marlow spoke about. “You must show them you have in you something that is really profitable, and then there will be no limits to the recognition of your ability, [Kurtz] would say. “Of course, you must take care of the motives – always.”  Now, is it a vicious circle, too? “The terror of the position,” says Marlow of his confrontation with Kurtz, “was not in being knocked on the head – though I had a very lively sense of that danger, too – but in this, that I had to deal with a being to whom I could not appeal in the name of anything high or low. I had, even like the niggers, to invoke him – himself – his own exalted and incredible degradation.”  “I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror – of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge?” says Marlow of his last minutes.  * * * “They are tolerant of nothing but their own failures. They treat everyone with whom they disagree as dishonest and fortify their ignorance with their sneers […] They sneer indiscriminately and always in the same tone – at Muset, at Chopin, at governments, at rich men, powerful men, men who believe, soldiers who die – at everyone who accepts responsibility of greatness that they do so easily evade,” Ch. Morgan wrote in The Voyage, a remarkable novel of his. Such people have been with us at all times (and nowadays, I believe, their presence is particularly palpable). These people were indignant at the “oversized” portion Marlow’s story takes up in Lord Jim (1900). They might/ may also dismiss the book as “idealistic stuff”, or even as “flattery to the real horrors of li
ving in a third-world country”. And here comes, as apt as a sword and a shield can be, Heart of Darkness (1902) – another story told by Marlow, this fascinating character of Conrad’s, wholly independent (but intrinsically linked to its predecessor), masterly and incisive, that can stand well on merits of its own. One of these merits lies in the fact that the little book is multidimensional, deep and thought-provoking. It is multi-facetedness and depth that distinguish a major work of art from a slapdash soap or blockbuster or bestseller. In one of TV ads I see a man announcing  a sale and showing direction where it is going to take place. Then a crowd knocks him down and literally flattens him as it hastens in the direction he indicated. I see a sorry, one-dimensional creature get to his feet and make a few awkward steps in the wake of the crowd. They want me to “sit back and laugh”, but I smirk instead and ask myself, “Why are you so mute? What makes you so monosyllabic and one-dimensional?” I draw a parallel between the one-dimensionality of characters played by, say, Schwarznegger or van Damme, or all those standard (pop) art oversimplifications like overgrown orphans, childless pairs, infertile lovers, outright scoundrels, likable killers, gentlemanly drug-dealers, etc., on the one hand, and the one-dimensionality of stage sets, or that of a picture, a cinema or TV screen, or a T-shirt, or a poster, or a page, or a newspaper clipping, on the other. Sometimes I feel like a soft target on a shooting range for the whole lot. Whatever I do or wear, I am an invisible man sandwiched between the boards. What about you? Kurtz and Marlow have many dimensions, and it was Conrad’s achievement to make them both see and feel how some of them overlap. The novel’s finale – the talk between Marlow and Kurtz’ “Intended” in the slowly falling dusk R
11; produced much more vigorous and lasting impression on me than Coppola’s carnage. It reminded me of a scene of Marlow’s taking leave of Jim in Conrad’s “Lord Jim” (ch. 23). And – well, yes! – it reminded me of “Rhineceros” by Eugene Ionesco… So shall I go and have a look at a mirror to make sure that the beast hasn’t yet shown through? NOTES.  – Joseph Conrad “Heart of Darkness”, Penguin Popular Classics, Penguin Books, 1994, p. 23.  – Op. cit., p.37.  – Op. cit., p. 98.  – Op. cit., p. 95.  - Op. cit., pp. 99-100.  – no mistake: I choose the MUTE mode whenever I watch TV ads and sportscasts.
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness must be one of the most read, studied and written about (academic or otherwise) novels ever written. Most likely this is because it is a work of genius, but possibly also because it is a short work of genius. Beginning on the river Thames (close to home, therefore), and told by an unidentified narrator who is relating a story told to him by one of Conrad’s reappearing characters, Marlow (see Lord Jim, for instance). Marlow, in turn, is telling the story of Mr Kurtz, a fellow company man of Marlow’s at that time, and something of a leading light in the traders of Congo. Well, a leading light until he becomes something of a wayward, dark star. This multi-layered opening, one frame begetting another within it, is the first hint that you are reading a Modernist Novel. But, unlike some other modernist novels, Heart of Darkness is not difficult to read, and is, as aforementioned, short (a quality I look for in any good book). It is modernist, in this first instance, because it is playing with style, offering a staggered format, an unusually labyrinthine opening (Victorian novels (in reaction to which Modernist novels were written, initially) lead you in gently, as if tuning the piano, before beginning to play it). It is also Modernist in that the principle narrator, the authority responsible for the story, is unidentified and therefore essentially untrustworthy – not in the best tradition of English literature, where in the past narrators identified themselves, laid out their credentials, and addressed you as Dear Reader. Marlow is given the rather holy mission of recovering Mr Kurtz, and his assumedly massive stock of ivory, from the deepest recesses of the Congolese jungle. What soon becomes apparent, as Marlow’s boat arrives at the mouth of the Congo, is that there is something deeply psychological at work in this area of the world. Marlow observes a warship anchored off the coast of the
Congo, firing its cannon at the jungle canopy, blindly, in abject fear and haughty disregard for any and all life. He notes an arrogance and a desperation in this act, but above all a fundamental perplexedness (is that a word? It is now!). Europeans, he realises, are completely out of their depth in Africa. Marlow arrives at a trading station, where he is struck along similar lines by the fastidious care the station manager takes to maintain the rituals and rigours of European culture and dress. Marlow, in a character revealing act, has shed his thick European trader’s uniform and undone his collar buttons because of the sweltering heat. He is told by this manager of the legendary Mr Kurtz, of his phenomenal success in gathering stock for the company, his ever further venturing stock gathering missions, and his eventual disappearance into the heart of the Congo. Marlow boards a river boat, and begins a Journey (capital letter essential) up the Congo in search of Mr Kurtz. As he travels, he and we begin to realise that this is not just a journey into the heart of the jungle: it is also a journey into the heart of man (European in Africa). Marlow finds various artefacts (such as a book written in code) along the way, meets and sees various people on the river banks, and so builds a picture of an increasing loss of European culture the deeper he sinks into the body of the Congo. The modernism of the novel is encapsulated in this double journey, this attempt to establish, through the journey, a connection with some sort of human past. Its modernism is also apparent in more obvious ways: there are symbols, such as a book of code – the modernists were reacting to what is termed a crisis of language. The code turns out to be Russian, when a Russian sailor stranded on the river banks translates it for Marlow: a language that seems impenetrable is given clarity by human intervention – the signs are interpreted through the sieve of the huma
n brain: VERY modernist. Marlow’s search for Kurtz (and I won’t tell you how it ends) is a search for himself as well: he must contend with the same external influences on his inner self which Kurtz had to, and the way each man reacts and allows himself to be changed, what each man learns about himself is an indication of their essential character, and hence a comment on the old debate of the extent to which who we are is essential or constructed. Heart of Darkness can seem a little dense at times, but at the end of the day, it is a sailing story, and can be read as such: But, and here’s the trick, it is also an invitation to join the journey into the heart of darkness, be it Africa, colonialism, modernism, or yourself.
I was not particularly interested in this book when I was forced to pick it up and read it, although I had seen Apocalypse Now a while before and remembered enjoying it. Having quite a low attention span (a bad thing if you’re doing an English degree) I had to concentrate quite hard on this book, but perseverance meant that before long I was enjoying this much more than I ever expected. Conrad’s novel traces the journey of Marlow, the narrator, into the Congo. It takes the form of a story within the narrative which is told on a ship in the river Thames, the result being the mixture of the two cultures; civilised and colonised, and their implicit threat of merging. The novel concentrates mainly on the self and the danger which one has of becoming a savage. The idea is that savagery is a reversion, the result of lack of restraint which is all too easily released when someone is left to their own devices in a position of power. The example of this in Heart of Darkness is Kurtz, a man who, like Marlow, went to the Congo, but unlike Marlow did not have the distractions to stop him becoming an immoral animal and the very type of person that the colonisers consider the colonised to be. Marlow has the distraction of his boat to keep him fairly normal, his boat isolating him from the savage and influential shores. Kurtz, in his freedom among those of the Congo, becomes one of them without ever being able to relate with them. He is also a man whose darkened soul haunts him without ever being definable in terms of specific identity or specific cause. He is savage yet civilised, murderous and yet haunted by “The Horror!” of what he has experienced. Much as the Thames and the Congo overlap each other in the story, so too do Kurtz’s characteristic qualities. In this sense, the novel is very much one of the original “modern” novels, concentrating principally on ideas and emotional provocation than on a specific
plot or concrete characters. That is not to say that the characters are not believable – it is their contradictory and disturbing nature which makes them so complex and therefore so human. This is a good job, as there are really only two main characters in the book, although the others are still important. Kurtz, although brutal, is a troubled man. Likewise Marlow, although the hero, still show signs of weakness and potential savagery. The disturbing thing about this is the fact that it is also very easy to identify with the narrator, and this leads you to consider that we are all potentially dark souls capable of brutality (particularly true in Tesco at Christmas time). The style of this novel means that there are no cliff-hangers or revelations as such, but more that there are moments when you cannot help but stop and think, or be affected by the sheer barbarism or attitudes of the characters. It is not easy reading, although it is a deceptively short book. Pages take a long time to read, because the book is very psychological and, being told in an autobiographical style, personal and thought-provoking. The version I bought was slightly more expensive because it is the Norton Critical Edition, containing many other resources as well as the text itself: THE TEXT BACKGROUNDS AND SOURCES: Information on the Congo, with map, history, and various letters, photographs and reports. There is also information about Joseph Conrad in the Congo, essays about his writing of the novel, and essays by Conrad himself on life and art. CRITICISM: A variety of essays, some recent some not, about the Heart of Darkness text, some of which also talk about Apocalypse Now. BIBLIOGRAPHY There is a lot of material here which is well worth the extra money, as it helps to gain a better understanding of the meaning of the text. Although I didn’t necessarily agree with everything in the essays, they still help
ed me to formulate ideas of my own, and raised some very interesting points which I would never have considered. This is an interesting and often disturbing book which is well worth reading because it makes you think and is demanding and therefore rewarding. Being the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, it is worth reading Heart of Darkness especially if you liked the film, or if you just enjoy howling and dancing like a savage.
I'm sorry to the first reviewer of this; I too enjoyed Apocalypse Now (even if it was only the annoyingly edited version that comes on Channel 4 every few months) but found this book even better by quite a big margin. First, what is wrong with Heart of Darkness? Well, first, as the last reviewer said, it is a very subtle, psychological book, based partially upon Conrad's own experiences in West Africa. It does spend a lot of time describing the scenery, but so what? If you look at it in the right way, it just serves to highlight and symbolise the slow descent into the clogged madness of the human psyche, centred on Kurtz; the eye of the storm. Another thing I noticed is that Conrad's writing, though evocative and at times eloquent, is very clearly that of a foreigner. He's just 'too' good with the language; its like an OTT translation sometimes. This dense, wordy style discouraged many of my friends (who only chose it out of a range of classics on offer because its so short) but does prove rewarding if you can stick it out. Right. Thats all thats wrong with Hear of Darkness. Now all that is good. There is a lot to choose from, in my opinion. The writing does make you feel as though you're really there, in the boat, going into the depths of the jungle. The actual ideas and plot, though, are the real crux of the novel. Conrad genuinely does, in my opinion, offer a deep and harrowing insight into what lurks deep within us, epitomised not only in the degenerated Kurtz but by everything the speaker sees from Europe outwards. At times its even funny; a doctor makes a hobby out of measuring skulls. True, this side of the novel is a lot deeper and more intricate, and is not helped by Conrad's style. Even so, it is by far the most rewarding aspect of all. Finally, just some idea of the plot. Marlow, an English seaman, goes out to West Africa in order to liaise with Mr Kurtz: a legendarily successful ivory trader working deep in the
jungle. On his river journey to find the elusive merchant, Marlow sees and discovers many strange and horrific things, culminating in Kurtz himself. Although a withered, dying shadow of his former self (Conrad felt his non-native English was not good enough to go into more detail on Kurtz) he is still deeply troubling. And, as the last reviewer stated, the book is worlds apart from Apocalypse Now. Both are good, but I think this is better. Probably because I read it first, but then thats me.