Monday, August 4, 2014

Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness
I have to admit. This is one of those books I was assigned to read in high school and hated. Sorry, Mr. Miller. You were a phenomenal teacher, but I despised this book. 

When I saw it on the 100 Best Novels list, I admit, my heart sank a bit. Even though, over the past five years or so, I have made a concerted effort to go back and reread the books I disliked in high school, this is one I did not really have much of a desire to read again. 

I've proven myself, right? I reread Les Miserables (spoiler alert: it's still insanely long and I still choose the musical over the book any day). I reread Remains of the Day (How did I not see Isiguro's genius back then?). I even reread The Great Gatsby (a true classic which becomes increasingly lovely with every visit). 

And yet, here I am, facing Joseph Conrad again, despite my best efforts.

The classic novel clocks in at only 72 pages - hardly anything to complain about. Though the technical narrator is an Englishman setting sail down the Thames with an assorted crew, the real storyteller is Charles Marlow, a sailor who recounts his time as a captain on the Congo River.

Interestingly and unsurprisingly, Conrad's novella is largely autobiographical, at least in the sense that he, also, served as a steamer captain on that river. Conrad's disdain for Imperialism stems from that time and his writings reflect clearly his disillusionment with European ideals of empire. Many of Conrad's characters in Heart of Darkness are thought to be based on actual figures he interacted with during his African journey. 

I do have to say, on this reading of the book, I found myself much more impressed by Conrad's work. His writing tells his story effectively and I do love the tone of writing from his era. 

Still, I found the story itself to be...I'm not sure of the right word. Incomplete? It's a novella, so one does not expect the fleshed out characters and plots of a full length novel. Still, the story feels so small to me. I'm not sure if that makes sense. Basically, I mean the telling of the plot seems narrow and missing chunks of development that could really enhance it. 

In some ways, Conrad's ambiguity and one-faced characters offer a blank slate onto which you can write an Imperialism story of any age. Francis Ford Coppola did just that when he made turned the book into Apocalypse Now, which is set during the Vietnam War. Conrad's overarching story, that of racism and imperialism, is broad and sweeping and effective. It's just his characters and plot that seem one-dimensional. 

He does have a truly great line, though, that pretty much encapsulates his point: "The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much."

And, so it is, that I find myself still feeling that Heart of Darkness is not a pretty thing. It accomplishes Conrad's goal, which is clearly to lambaste Imperialism, as it deserved. Yet, I think there are other wonderful works that accomplish the same while also delivering complex characters and beautifully tragic plots. I'm hoping that some of Conrad's other work may do just that. After all, I have three more Conrad novels to go after this on the list. I have no doubt the writing will be beautiful, but, considering my history with this little treat, I cannot say I am terribly excited. Hopefully I'll have a James Joyce style change of heart

Pages: 72
Date Completed: July 1, 2014


  1. Maybe I'm missing something, because sometimes I have a hard time separating the author's viewpoint from the narrator's, but despite it being anti-imperialism, I found it racist - the African characters are all caricatures, and it uses the stereotype of "the dark continent" where Africa is somehow mysteriously evil. Have you ever read Chinua Achebe's article "An Image of Africa"? It's a review of Heart of Darkness, and I thought it was pretty good.

    1. Oh I definitely agree. He could have and should have put much more detail into the African characters and made the setting more than a scary jungle destination. I haven't read the article, but I'll have to now!

  2. "Few men realize that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings. The courage, the composure, the confidence, the emotions and principles; every great and every insignificant thought belongs not to the individual but to the crowd: to the crowd that believes blindly in the irresistible force of its institutions and of its morals, in the power of its police and of its opinion." from Heart of Darkness

    I think it is about colonialism only at the first layer.