Title: The Heart of Darkness.
Author: Joseph Conrad.
Publication: 1899, Blackwood’s Magazine.
My Edition: 1998, Oxford UP.
Length: 117 pages.
Genre(s): Classic, Adventure, Cultural.
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Links: Goodreads | Amazon | Audible
The Heart of Darkness describes the journey of a sailor named Marlow as he travels up the Congo River. During this time, the Congo was a Belgian territory, and Marlow has offered his services to a company dealing in the trade of ivory. He leaves his home behind him, travelling to the unknown and mysterious continent of Africa, where he quickly finds himself overwhelmed. His company are in the process of building a railway, and when Marlow first steps onto foreign soil, he finds himself bombarded with the diseased and dying bodies of the slaves who have been building it. Marlow is not used to seeing so many African natives in such close proximity, and, as he narrates his tale through the form of an internal monologue, he reveals many of his racist (yet contemporary) views.
His journey takes him in search of the mysterious Mr. Kurtz, who has been isolated on an ivory outpost – apparently severely unwell – for years on end. He has been cut off from the other outposts, and although he has continued to send ivory shipments down the river, no one has seen Kurtz for a long time. Marlow is enlisted to find him, and – if he is still alive by the time he gets there – bring him back to society.
What follows is a journey into what Marlow calls “the heart of darkness”. He follows the Congo into the midst of a wild, uncivilised world that is ruled by natives yet to be turned into slaves. This is an emotional journey as much as it is a physical one, and as Marlow draws closer to Kurtz, he begins to question everything: the motivations of the cannibals around him, the self-serving desires of his manager, and even the natives, themselves. For, as Marlow loses himself in the wilderness, he begins to ask what makes a man a man.
I first read Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness four years ago (you can read my original review here). Back then, I only partially understood what I was reading. This is an enormously complex book, and it isn’t all that easy to follow. So whilst I was able to appreciate the innate symbolism of the novel, I couldn’t understand what it meant, and what Conrad was attempting to accomplish in writing such a controversial novel.
It is controversial, particularly in relation to how Marlow refers to the natives around him. He dismisses them, openly calling them “dogs”, “criminals”, and, on many occasions, “inhuman”. To a modern audience, this may seem horrific, and actually put them off reading The Heart of Darkness. Yet many of the opinions voiced by Marlow were, during the time of the British Empire, extremely common, if not universal. There was a time when more people were involved in the business of slave trading than those who were not involved in it. Marlow merely gives a voice to the contemporary views that regulated most of Europe during this time. As a result, not every reader may have found Marlow’s harsh descriptions of the natives all that disturbing, although they may have been unsettled by the rich, detailed descriptions Conrad offers.
Yet even those who may have accepted Marlow’s descriptions of the natives could have found The Heart of Darkness controversial, and this because of the sheer bestial nature of the story. Although many people were involved in the slave trade during the nineteenth century, not everyone would have understood the reality of trade in countries such as Africa. It was still very much an unknown place, a mysterious patch on the map where dark-skinned ‘savages’ made their home. The Heart of Darkness toys with this concept, uncovering Africa’s secrets, whilst depicting Europeans such as Marlow, who, upon leaving Africa, are reluctant to talk about the brutality they experienced. The novel thus depicts a disparity between the reality of the slave trade, and the illusion created by its workers. This is particularly important as another idea the novel considers is the breaking down of society. It questions what happens to a man when he is cut off from civilisation and left to his devices. In a sense, it reveals our inner motivations, and how, once we are stripped of our rules and expectations, we become the ‘savages’ that were then regarded as monstrous animals.
With so many political and social questions, The Heart of Darkness becomes an enormously complex story, both in terms of its content, and its allusions. For a small novella, this book does a lot, which makes the writing incredibly difficult to follow. It also means that the actual story – the tale of Marlow setting off to find Kurtz – is not the book’s main focus. There is page after page that contains next to no action; instead, there is Marlow’s internal monologue, which offers more questions, more debates, and more symbolism. Many readers may find this writing style extremely alienating, as I did when I originally read The Heart of Darkness. Yet I did find that, this time around, I understood the story a lot more. I spent less time feeling overwhelmed by the political messages, and more time following the story, which seemed much easier to understand than it did four years ago.
It is a shame that this book is not the easiest to read, because it really is incredible. It’s not the nicest story – it’s about the slave trade, and not every reader will want to dwell on such brutality – yet it is probably also the most interesting book that I have ever read. This is true both from an analytical point of view, and from the perspective of a casual reader. After all, The Heart of Darkness may be complex, but it is also curiously beautiful. Conrad’s language is honestly enchanting, with rich descriptions and elaborate tangents that transcend the wild setting of the Congo, and allow us to consider a world so natural, and so untouched by industry, that it comes across as pure – and wonderful. To find such beauty in a book about imperialism is surprising, but also quite incredible. Conrad’s writing is truly exceptional, and I feel frustrated that I was not able to appreciate it the first time I read this book.
Four years ago, I have this book a three-star rating, but even that was given hesitantly. I didn’t enjoy the story; it took me a long time to read it, and although I found it interesting, it failed to engage me. Now, though, I can full-heartedly give this book a rating of four stars. It’s complex, and for that reason, it is alienating, but it’s also incredible, and I feel like, each time I read it, I will appreciate it a little more.
Thanks for reading! For those of you who are following my January 2019 reading challenge, this was the final book I wanted to read before the end of the month, which means that I have managed to complete January’s reading challenge!
You can click here for an A-Z list of all my reviews (so far)!