"Heart of Darkness" grew out of a journey Joseph Conrad took up the Congo River; the verisimilitude that the great novelist thereby brought to his most famous tale everywhere enhances its dense and shattering power. Apparently a sailor's yarn, it is in fact a grim parody of the adventure story, in which the narrator, Marlow, travels deep into the heart of the Congo where he encounters the crazed idealist Kurtz and discovers that the relative values of the civilized and the primitive are not what they seem. "Heart of Darkness" is a model of economic storytelling, an indictment of the inner and outer turmoil caused by the European imperial misadventure, and a piercing account of the fragility of the human soul.
Most likely it was very good. But enigmatic, or so they say. Not that I'd know; maybe it's just me. I've read some fairly tough stuff in my reading career, but this one made me feel like a borderline idiot.
I followed the narrative, or thought I did--a frame tale with one Marlow being the narrator of the adventure and all his remarks being written down by his unnamed listener. I couldn't make out the reason for the use of this device in this instance. What would have been lost--what would even have been different--if the putative narrator had penned a first-person account of his experiences going upriver into the African jungle to find Mr. Kurtz? Why deliver it all as if second-hand? I don't see it.
As for the narrative itself, I am not accustomed to having any difficulty with nineteenth-century prose, American or British or even (translated) Russian, no matter how quirky, rambling, vocabulous, or convoluted. The half-crazed internal monologues of Poe's characters and Dostoevsky's haven't slowed me down. I can handle the archaic styles of George Eliot and Walter Scott and Nathaniel Hawthorne, not to mention poetry of earlier centuries. There's nothing in Conrad's diction or syntax that I can't understand. I've read plenty of literature that goes for mood and atmosphere and allegorical meaning without actually having anything resembling what we'd think of as a plot.
And yet I'm holding my copy of Heart of Darkness, open to the two-thirds mark, where I'm rereading passages for the third or fourth time and asking: What is this really saying? What am I missing? What's going on?
Is it a ghost story? Are we supposed to take references to Kurtz's disinterred remains and his skeletal appearance as meaning what they seem to mean? I could make some sense of that, but the commentaries I've looked up don't seem to bear me out. I must have read it wrong.
Swallowing my pride, I've just been reduced to reading the entire SparkNotes summary and analysis, which are damned near as long as the book itself, and received very little enlightenment. Yes, that's definitely the novella I just read. Now I'm wondering what the story is about and what the SparkNotes are about, if they're not just about the evils of European colonization of so-called primitive societies and the looting of their treasures.
One thing I'll testify that it isn't is a character study. To me it seems to conceal more than it reveals, pointing with gestures and symbols and geographical landmarks to the places where disclosures of information ought to be but aren't. Is that the point? Is that the horror at the core? Is that why Eliot chose a line from this story as the epigraph to his poem "The Hollow Men"?
I concede defeat. I'll take my lumps for being too lowbrow for Conrad. But what I'd like to know is, what in the world was my high school English teacher thinking when he assigned it to a room full of sixteen- and seventeen-year-old American kids? I was reading Dostoevsky on my own then, for pleasure, but I didn't make anything of this. Fifty years later, I still don't.
Upon receipt of the volume from Amazon, I was initially under the impression that I had mistakenly ordered the Cliff's Notes version of the work. I had no idea that the book was essentially a short story, easily readable in 2-3 hours.
Even more surprising, was the ease with which I was able to follow and understand the story, though admittedly written in a slightly dense prose. Perhaps this was due to having seen Apocolypse Now and being familiar with the broad outline of the story and having read other works of history on the Belgian Congo.
In any event, it was a decent story, filled with some beautifully descriptive language and imagery. I must say, however, that I was not bowled over. Steamship Captain pilots a ragged boat up the Congo, accompanied by colonial agents and support staff (cannibals and other natives) in an attempt to relieve a long stranded station agent (Kurtz) who has "gone native" and become the insane source of worship for the local natives. If you've seen Apocolypse Now, you know the story, just replace the Mekong with the Congo.
I go back to my first paragraph in which I related a concern over my ability to understand what is considered a classic work of literature. I fully understood it, but was perhaps not qualified to fully appreciate it.
I did think it was good, though.
It’s certainly of interest and the intention behind the book is good, but the writing is a bit dense. The introduction to this particular volume is quite good at providing the historical context, recounting the story of Stanley and Livingstone, and including this comment on the nature of the “Heart of Darkness”: “...the ‘civilizing’ mission actually uncovers ‘darkness’ at its own heart. As V.G. Kiernan puts it, African in this period ‘became very truly a Dark Continent, but its darkness was one the invaders brought with them, the sombre shadow of the white man.”
The Stanley story is relevant because Conrad made his own trip up the Congo in 1890, he ended up horribly disillusioned and depressed, as he “realized that the idealised realities of a boy’s daydreams had been displaced and befouled by the activities of Stanley and the Congo Free State…and the distasteful knowledge of the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration.”
Quotes from the book:
On dreams (and solitude):
“'It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream - making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams...'
He was silent for a while.
'...No, it is impossible, it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence, - that which makes its truth, its meaning - its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream - alone...'”
“Droll thing life is - that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself - that comes too late - a crop of unextinguishable regrets. I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be.”
“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, it you were small, the grimy beetle crawled on - which was just what you wanted it to do.”
“It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind - as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. 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.”
“I don't like work - no man does - but I like what is in the work, - the chance to find yourself. Your own reality - for yourself, not for others - what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.”
In fact, my fictional reading of this subject is quite expansive, but my factual knowledge is poor. Reading this copy enabled me to be whisked away on a story and yet pad out my limited knowledge.
Marlowe is a sympathetic character, born of his time and yet forward-thinking, as is, I guess, Conrad. The images of unexplored Africa as a blank area on maps is exciting, and goes some way to explaining the intrepidation and fear that led these very male explorers to give the impressions that they did of such a peaceful, country.
The story starts off as a fairly light and bright scene and gets darker and darker as the story progresses, journeying further into the depths of the jungle (the film Seven uses this same method). He turns what is perceived as racism today completely on it's head, for example, one of the African characters says that all white people look the same to him. As for the term 'savages', it's the white man, Kurtz who is written as the most savage of all. The journey into the dark jungle is a metaphor for journeying deep down to the depths of the human heart to find that inner animal where we first came from, which Kurtz found in himself. Hence the title being 'Heart Of Darkness'.
Conrad seems to be commenting on his main character Marlow's realisation that races are no different to one another and we are all savages at heart...just look at the way we treated the animals in the ivory trade.
Contrary to some beliefs, Heart of Darkness is an anti-imperialist and anti-racist book, after all Conrad writes about how horrendous slavery and the ivory trade is. Even the quotation 'The horror, the horror', is surely a reflection of this.
It was hard to listen to; it took me almost a month to get through four CDs. The narrator, Charles Marlow, tells of his time as a steamboat captain traveling up the Congo River to transport that all-consuming commodity, ivory. Though Marlow narrates, the character that looms largest is that of Kurtz, the company agent whose legend precedes him everywhere. Kurtz is a legend, spoken of with awe... and Marlow's whole torturous journey feels inevitably propelled toward him. They seemed fated to meet. When they finally reach Kurtz in his remote location, they find he has subjugated an entire tribe to worship him and has employed torture, murder, and raids to gather all the ivory from the surrounding peoples. It is a horrifying situation, but mercifully must end, as Kurtz, very sick, reluctantly agrees to go back to civilization for treatment.
Kurtz, weakened and ill, does not survive the journey back. We can theorize on the reasons why; perhaps he had become unfit for civilization and the ordinary human laws and relationships it represents. I am sure many critics have studied the significance of Kurtz's last words — "The horror, the horror!" — and what exactly he was speaking of. It seems that in his last moments he was finally able to see himself as he really was, to peer down into his own soul and see the blackness there — the true heart of darkness. In some ways it reminded me of The Lord of the Flies in its searching scrutiny of human depravity, how we live when we are beyond the strictures of human law. Not a pretty picture.
And then there's the closing chapter with Marlow listening to Kurtz's betrothed eulogizing him and speaking of what a wonderful man, what a genius he was. And Marlow can only think of the horrors Kurtz perpetrated, of the dangerous force of personality and oration the man possessed that allowed him to dominate everyone he met. English major moment: is Kurtz a metaphor for imperialism, and his betrothed representing those who praise it, so unwitting of how it really was?
Central Africa was a miserable place at this time. Marlow describes of how common sickness and death were, the rapacity (and stupidity) of the ivory companies, the racism and ignorance and mistreatment of the natives, the whole bleak picture of it all. Conrad has a lean, poetic style that is very attractive in itself. He creates such a mystique about the darkness of the unknown. I love how Peter Jackson wove the novel into his remake of King Kong. "We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free."
The next audiobook I picked up and am currently listening to has a similar subject — 19th-century white men traveling into the heart of unknown African lands — but it couldn't be more different. Henry Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines may not have the philosophical profundity of Heart of Darkness, but I actually want to listen to it and I make an effort to turn it on even with only a short time to listen. It's an adventure story, written for fun. Not so Heart of Darkness.
I was a little worried after reading 7-8 pages, it was very bleh. But as soon as Marlow started to get into his story, it was wonderful.
This story is told to the narrator, who is on a boat with Marlow, sitting on the Thames, waiting for the tide to turn. As they are waiting, Marlow tells his story about going up the Congo River, and his meeting with Kurtz, an agent of the company, renowned for finding so much ivory.
I had to read aloud this passage when I came across it:
He was a lank, bony, yellow-faced man, with big intense eyes. His aspect was worried, and his head was as bald as the palm of my hand; but his hair in falling seemed to have stuck to his chin, and had prospered in the new locality, for his beard hung down to his waist.
And this short book is filled with this! Turn the page, and it is filled with a description of the river, It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect.
This book is more about the narrative and the symbolism than the story. It starts out with Marlow musing about how the Romans found England to be when they first arrived - dark and uncivilized. And then segues into his trip up the Congo. And ends with him visiting Kurtz' fiance.
I didn't realize at first that Apocalypse Now was based on Heart of Darkness. I first saw that movie when I was 16, and I sat through it twice in the movie theatre, and that movie was about 2.5 hours long! In reading this, it's obvious Kurtz is the same. They talk about his method "being unsound" and his last words were, "the horror, the horror." The Dennis Hopper character is the same in the book too. It was sometimes hard to not have Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper in my head.
Overall, I give it 4 stars - 1/2 star off for slow start and slow ending, and 1/2 star off for a little less story than I would like.
I'm already a big fan of Apocalypse Now, even though I realise there's only a tenuous link between the book and the film. I think the theory behind both is the same - a man lost in an alien land, in a culture that cannot be grasped, and the men sent to retrieve him. The horror, et cetera.
What I dislike is that the novel is narrated to us - it isn't just narrated, but we are one of a group of sailors sat around in the middle of the night listening to the story as it is told. Interjections are reported, interrupting the flow of the narrative, which itself is presented in the text with every line appearing in speech marks. Oh the horror indeed! Why did Conrad choose to make this such a painfully difficult book to read?
Essentially a parable with a similar message about the fallibility of our ostensibly civilised upbringing to Golding's "Lord of the Flies", this story is written with a hypnotic mastery of the language. Marlow's descriptions of the river leading to the heart of Africa are glorious, and the eventual encounter with Mister Kurtz, the colonial who has succumbed to the temptations of life in the bush where he is treated as a supernatural force is terrifying. "The horror, the horror" indeed!
Heart of Darkness, set in the early 1900s, is narrated by Marlow, a sailor who journeys to Africa under the employment of the Company, a Belgian outfit conducting trade in the Congo. Marlow’s journey is a journey into “the horror” of imperialism. Natives of the Congo are brutalized by Company agents and forced into Company service; the resplendent natural resources of the country are raped for profit. In the heart of the Congo, Marlow meets Kurtz, a reputed Company Chief who represents humanity’s capacity for evil.
I think Conrad’s accomplishment with Heart of Darkness is that he called imperialism so well. Whatever benefit proponents of imperialism might have professed, the fact of the matter is that one race invaded the country of another, brutalized and made criminals of its people, and pillaged all that could be had for profit. Conrad’s style of writing is perfect for his subject; it is stark and frank, its images dark and grotesque.
“A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They walked erect, and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads – and the clink kept time with their footsteps. Black rags were wrapped around their loins, and the short ends behind waggled to and fro like tails. I could see every rib; the joints in their limbs were like knots in a rope. Each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking … but these men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from the sea. All their meagre breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily uphill. They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages.” (1/4)
On the surface a simple story, but there are plenty of hidden meanings and allegories to be found on these pages. This journey into the heart of darkness is rife with themes about the evils of colonialism along with the corruption that comes with greed and power. Rich with symbolism, yet surprisingly readable, I was quite taken with Heart of Darkness. I can now understand why there has been such an abundance of “borrowing” from this story in many other forms of art and literature. There have been many who find Joseph Conrad a racist, and perhaps, by today’s definition he was. I prefer to think of him as more of a product of his time.
Kenneth Branagh was an excellent reader, putting enough emphasis into his reading without over selling the work. His light tough and slight nuances help to bring the book alive. I can see why this classic book is considered a masterpiece revealing as it does the dark side of human nature, and it is a story that I will remember.
I remember reading this book many years ago when I realised that one of my favourite all-time books, Thomas Kenneally's "The Playmaker", had taken it's inspiration from it and I remember it having a powerful affect on me. Re-reading years later it still has that same affect.
Most readers will know the story centres around Marlow and his journey up the Congo River where he meets Kurtz, an agent for the Belgian Government in Africa. Marlow is beguiled with the image of the River Congo and dreams of travelling up it. To fulfil this ambition he takes a job as a riverboat captain with a Belgian concern organized to trade in the Congo. On his travels Marlow encounters widespread inefficiency and brutality. The native inhabitants of the region suffer terribly from overwork and ill treatment at the hands of their European overseers. The cruelty and squalor of imperial enterprise contrasts sharply with the majestic jungle that surrounds the white man’s settlements, making them appear to be tiny islands amidst a vast darkness.
This novella explores the issues surrounding imperialism. On his journey Marlow encounters scenes of torture, cruelty, and slavery. The men who work for the Company describe what they do as “trade,” and their treatment of native Africans is part of a benevolent project of “civilization.” In contrast Kurtz admits that he takes ivory by force nor does not hide the fact that he rules through violence and intimidation. His perverse honesty leads to his downfall, as his success threatens to expose the evil practices behind European activity in Africa. Africans in this book are mostly objects: Marlow himself refers to his helmsman as a piece of machinery so is not totally blameless on this point. However, the brutal honesty shown by Kurtz as compared with the hypocrisy shown by the other Europeans leads Marlow and thus the reader to begin to sympathize with Kurtz and view the Company with suspicion. The insanity that Kurtz is obviously suffering from is explicit and easy to see whereas that of the European Governments, whilst no doubt there, is much more implicit. In this book therefore, madness is linked to absolute power. Up country Kurtz has no authority to whom he answers to other himself and this comes to over-whelm him whereas it is more of a collective madness shown by the other Europeans.
As such this book then becomes an exploration of hypocrisy, ambiguity, and moral confusion in as much Marlow is forced to align himself with either the hypocritical and malicious colonial bureaucracy or the openly tyrannical Kurtz. To try and describe either alternative as the lesser of two evils seems to be absolute madness.
This is not some rip-roaring read and at times it is hard going but it does challenge some very uncomfortable truths and as such deserves to be regarded rightly as a true classic.