Nov 19, 2018

Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad

I had a hard time with this classic, even though I found the prose riveting. I'm glad I knew a little about it beforehand, or I might have been thoroughly confused and not made it through. The narrative is by a seaman telling a story to his fellow sailors while waiting for a tide to turn- about a former trip via steamboat upriver into the depths of the Congo. He was hired by a trading company to travel to a remote post to collect a man named Kurtz who has a load of ivory extracted from the interior- as far as I could tell. Kurtz is strangely held in awe by many, and when the narrator finally reaches the destination, it's obvious he's been out in the jungle wilderness far too long- he has the native population (depicted in very racist, stereotypical fashion from a nineteenth-century imperialist perspective) under his thrall, raves in lunatic fashion and appears to be suffering from some awful disease.

Most of the novella is about the frustrating travel upriver through the dense jungle, suffering frequent breakdowns, lack of materials, poor management, horrific exploitation and suffering on the part of the natives. It's very rambling and dense, a lot of it internal monologue on the depravity of human nature and moves without description or explanation between scenes- so I often had difficulty understanding what was actually going on. In a way it is Kafkaesque, in another way the deeply visceral prose reminded me of William Golding's The Inheritors (which I now regret I culled out of my library- this book makes me want to read that one again, oddly enough). Many of the passages also brought to mind Lord of the Flies, and I rather wonder if Golding wasn't heavily influenced by Joseph Conrad. Sample of the descriptive power in the text:
Trees, trees, millions of trees, massive, immense, running up high; and at their foot, hugging the bank against the stream, crept the little begrimed steamboat, like a sluggish beetle crawling on the floor of a lofty portico. It made you feel very small, very lost, and yet it was not altogether depressing, that feeling. After all, if you were small, the grimy beetle crawled on- which was just what you wanted it to do...

The mind of man is capable of anything- because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valour, rage- who can tell? - but truth- truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudder- the man knows, and can look on without a wink. But.... he must meet that truth with his own true stuff- with his own inborn strength.

It's a book I found hard to put down even though it was difficult to get through, and one that definitely merits a re-read (or several!) in order to understand. I read this one in e-book format.

Rating: 3/5              280 pages, 1902

more opinions:
Melody and Words
Vulpes Libris
who else? let me know!


  1. Isn't Apocalypse Now based on this book? I never understood it.

  2. Yes, I think so. I've never seen Apocalypse Now, though.

  3. I haven't read this book in ages, but I really do like it. The horror! The horror! And yes, Apocalypse Now is based on the book. The movie is set in Vietnam though which gives it an interesting more modern twist.

  4. I remember reading this in high school and liking it when everyone else didn't. That always seemed to be the way of it then though. Haha. I may have to revisit it and see how much I remember and what I think now.


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