Richard's Reviews > Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
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Sep 21, 14

bookshelves: classic, fiction, my-best-reviews
Recommended for: Everyone: required reading.
Read in March, 2009

    First of all, get this straight: Heart of Darkness is one of those classics that you have to have read if you want to consider yourself a well-educated adult. That’s the bad news; the good news is that this is a very easy book to read — tremendously shorter than Moby-Dick , for instance. And the prose is easy to swallow, so you don’t really have an excuse.

    Having watched Apocalypse Now doesn’t count — if anything, it ups the ante, since that means you have to think about the similarities and differences (for example, contrast and compare the U.S. involvement in Vietnam with the Belgian rule over the Congo. Actually quite an intriguing and provocative question).

    Even though it is so much easier to read, this short novel shares with Moby-Dick the distressing fact that it is heavily symbolic. Frankly, I was trained as an engineer, and have to struggle even to attempt to peer through the veils of meaning, instead of just kicking back and enjoying the story.

    My solution: when I checked this outta the library, I also grabbed the Cliff’s Notes. I read the story, then thought about it, then finally read the Study Guide to see what I’d missed.

    And it was quite a bit. Like, the nature of a framed narrative: the actual narrator in Heart of Darkness isn’t Marlow, but some unnamed guy listening to Marlow talk. And he stands in for us, the readers, such as when he has a pleasant perspective on the beautiful sunset of the Thames at the beginning of the story, then at the end he has been spooked and sees it as leading “into the heart of an immense darkness”, much as the Congo does in the story (hint: the darkness is simultaneously the real unknown of the jungle, as well as the symbolic “darkness” that hides within the human heart, and thus also pervades society — so London, just upstream, really should be understood to be as frightening as the Congo).

    My initial take on the story was that it seemed anachronistic and naive. Actually, it felt a lot like Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray . In both books, the main character has inadvertently received license to fully explore their evil inclinations without the normal societal consequences, and yet they both pay the ultimate penalty for their lack of restraint. But my perspective on evil was long ago captured by Hannah Arendt’s conclusion after analyzing Eichmann: evil is a “banal” absence of empathy; it isn’t some malevolent force striving to seduce and corrupt us. Certainly, there are evil acts and evil people, but nothing mystical or spiritual that captures and enslaves, much less transforms us from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde.

    Golding’s Lord of the Flies examined similar questions, but did it a way that feels much more modern. If people aren’t reminded by the constraints of civilization to treat others with respect, then sometimes they’ll become brutal and barbaric. But is their soul somehow becoming sick and corrupted? The question no longer resonates.

    Even Conrad actually didn’t seem too clear on that question. These two quotes are both from Heart of Darkness — don’t they seem implicitly contradictory?:
    The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.
  and
    Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre 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? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:
    ‘The horror! The horror!’
    The former denies any supernatural origin for evil, but the latter alludes to the tragic results of a Faustian bargain — Marlowe sold his soul to see what mortals should never witness.

    After pondering the study guide, I could see the allegorical content better. The mystical side of Heart of Darkness isn’t the only thing going on. Like the kids rescued from the island after Lord of the Flies, Marlow will forever be cognizant of how fragile civilized behavior can be, and how easily some slip into brutality — even those that have excellent motives and apparently unblemished characters. This is why he tells this as a cautionary tale to his shipmates on the Thames.

    Marlow also received a clear lesson on hypocrisy. I hadn’t seen how deeply “The Company” represented European hypocrisy. Obviously “The Company” was purely exploitative and thus typical of imperialism, but in subtle ways Conrad made it not just typical but allegorically representative. One example Cliff mentions scares me just a bit: in the offices of “The Company” in Brussels, Marlow notices the strange sight of two women knitting black wool. Conrad provides no explanation. But recall your mythology: the Fates spun out the thread that measured the lives of mere mortals. These women work for “The Company”, which has ultimate power over the mere mortals in Africa. That’s pretty impressive: Conrad tosses in a tiny aside that references Greek (or Roman or Germanic) mythology and ties it both to imperialism, as well as to the power that modern society has handed to corporations, and quietly walks away from it. How many other little tidbits are buried in this short book? Frankly, it seems kind of spooky.

    The study guide also helped me understand what had been a major frustration of the book. I thought that Conrad had skipped over too much, leaving crucial information unstated. Between Marlow’s “rescue” of Kurtz and Kurtz’s death there are only a few pages in the story, but they imply that the two had significant conversations that greatly impressed Marlow, that left Marlow awestruck at what Kurtz had intended, had survived, and had understood. These impressions are what “broke” Marlow, but we are never informed of even the gist of those conversations.

    But Marlow isn’t our narrator: he is on the deck of a ship, struggling to put into words a story that still torments him years after the events had passed. Sometimes he can’t convey what we want to know; he stumbles, he expresses himself poorly. The narrator is like us, just listening and trying to make sense out of it, and gradually being persuaded of the horrors that must have transpired.

    •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •

Addendum:
    Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was written in 1899. A critical event which allowed the tragedy portrayed here was the Berlin Conference of 1884 (wikipedia), where the lines that divided up Africa were tidied up and shuffled a bit by the white men of Europe (no Africans were invited). The BBC4 radio programme In Our Time covered the conference on 31 October 2013. Listen to it streaming here, or download it as an MP3 here. Forty-three minutes of erudition will invigorate your synapses.
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Quotes Richard Liked

Joseph Conrad
“We live as we dream--alone....”
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad
“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.”
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
tags: work

Joseph Conrad
“He struggled with himself, too. I saw it -- I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself.”
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad
“Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn't touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre 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? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision--he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:
The horror! The horror!”
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness


Reading Progress


Comments (showing 1-32 of 32) (32 new)

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message 1: by J (new)

J "Conrad tosses in a tiny aside that references Greek (or Roman or Germanic) mythology, and quietly walks away from it."

He is a clever, clever man, Mr Conrad.


Richard Well, that's a problem. Back in those classically educated days that was the thing to do. Try reading Eliot's "The Wasteland" and the whole thing is a mishmash of interrelated references to stuff that most of us have never been exposed to.

Which really makes it tough to read the classics, and raises some questions:

* Do any authors still do this? Who is there audience? Is The Stand actually laden with hidden references to Nordic mythology?

* Do lesser classics just do less of this, or is there a clear divide between the stuff with hidden symbolism and the rest? Should I have picked up the study guide for, say, Treasure Island just in case?

Someday the WWW will be integrated into our brains and we will know all. (And most people will spend there time watching "American Idol" inside their own brains.)


Trevor Wonderful review. I wouldn't worry too much about not getting all of the references - I'm not totally sure that is the 'point'. I think there is an expectation that the allusions will give the work a feeling, even if you do miss their exact meaning.

Like in The Wasteland, I'm not sure the point is to scurry around finding all of the allusions and seeing how he has played with them (although, people have made a career out of doing just that) but rather how those images themselves interact in this particular poem. "Son of Man you cannot say or guess of you know only / a heap of broken images." and later "These fragments I have shored against my ruin."

Modern readers are less likely to get the references, but these authors knew that but still believed that these allusions also gave those (even unaware of the allusions) a feeling that is akin to understanding. The fates example you give at the Company headquarters - and the fact (if I remember right) that there are only two of them, and not the third sister who cuts the thread - is all terribly significant. All the same, even without knowing this is a classical allusion doesn't stop to make the whole thing seem terribly strange - these women doing this in a major office are deeply strange and they do stop you reading, even if only to notice how strange they are.

Literature and Engineering aren't as different as might be imagined - both require an inquiring mind and noticing when things just don't seem right.

I think it is very hard for a writer to write anything and not bring to that writing all the other stuff they have read. Consciously, as with Eliot or Conrad, or unconsciously - it happens and happens in interesting ways.

I enjoyed this review very much.


Richard Yes, both require active curiosity -- but that is true, I suppose, in almost any endeavor requiring intelligence.

What I think is different is that engineering and science value parsimony very highly. Occam's razor lays out the rule: keep it simple, stupid. (Well, I think it's phrased a bit differently).

Such as in cooking. When I first learned to make some dishes, I was told they'd taste better the second day after the flavors had a chance to meld and interact. This seemed odd at first, since it's an artist's intuition about layers building up and combinations mixing.

I agree that some -- some, mind you -- symbolism can resonate even for folks that don't recognize or understand the underlying allusions, but that's only the most powerful or most crude level.

Recall when you first saw some kinds of modern art -- most of us probably just gawped at canvases painted with nothing but rectangles of solid color (Mondrian being the obvious example). But to someone that understood the vocabulary and the history expressed by various schools of artists, that nonsense actually expressed some point, and some aesthetic. Sailed clear over my head, but I don't deny there was meaning involved.

That's at the other extreme: where no information is conveyed at all to those unversed. And I suspect a lot of the classics had elements that reached along ways towards that level of obscurity, such as the masonic stuff that is now supposed to be buried pretty much everywhere.


BTW, why is it supposed to be important that there are only two knitters instead of the three fates? Looking at the roles of the three Moirae, for example, I can't see any meaning that would be implicit if one or the other were said to be missing.


Trevor The third one cuts the thread - ends the tale. If she was present it would have implied Marlow would not have made it back.

I think in Literature that each piece - even a work like the Wasteland that is clearly made up of bits and pieces - really also needs to be able to stand on its own. One should be able, with virtually no other knowledge, to read the work.

When my daughter started reading poetry she said something to the effect, "This is crap, I've got to know the whole history of poetry to understand any single poem". And this is sort of true, as you do get much more out of it the more you know - but that doesn't mean you get nothing out of it as you go. It is an evolution, this stuff - and if the poetry (novel) is any good it will be good at each reading and with each level of awareness of the rest of the canon.

Painting is quite different, I think. I've only found this out over the last few years as a friend of mine has a fine art's degree and she puts me in my place about these things. Like you said, much of these references go right over my head. The same is true for a lot of Classical music. I used to go to pre-concert talks and they would always be fun - but they would talk about the music moving to different keys and as I don't play an instrument this was talk I could only understand in the abstract.


Richard I remember when I first when to university, I browsed the course catalog and highlighted all the classes that looked interesting. I think I ended up with a total that would have taken ten years, and that would only have included electives. (I went to a polytechnic specializing in engineering and agriculture, so there were classes in fascinating topics like operating tractors and designing concrete foundations).

I'm pretty sure there I didn't end up with much, if anything, selected out of the liberal arts side, just some theater classes and some Shakespeare, probably.

But these days I'd be all over stuff like "Introduction to Classical Literature", "Beginning Poetry", "Literary Criticism 1A". Ahhhh, it'd be sweet.


message 7: by Trevor (last edited Mar 29, 2009 08:18PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trevor I started a physics degree and then changed to Lit, Philosophy and Professional Writing and Editing. When we did lit crit it was very amusing, as Postmodernism says interesting things like, the work of art is meaningless and valueless, the only value comes from what is brought to it by the reader. So, every week our lecturer would bring along two texts to read to us. Perhaps some Keats or Shakespeare and then some Modern Classics (like Colleen McCullough - this is Australia after all). It was very funny and I've rarely seen a more complete proof. I think we read Keats Ode on a Grecian Urn and McCullough's blue death from one of her hideous novels. It went something like, "He stretched his blue arm into the blue water while his cold blue eyes stared at the blue horizon in a particularly blue sort of way". Utter shite, obviously.

When I started my degree one of my lecturers said, "You are about to begin studying literature. You will never read a book in quite the same way again. This will change your life." And he was right.


Kahla Very interesting review! I found your points really insightful. All the comments were fascinating too... Right now I am trying to work my way through this book without missing some of the good stuff (I have a tendency to speed read). This review will definitely help with that, so thanks!


Katty I read Heart of Darkness a few months ago, and it left me feeling very ignorant because I couldn't grasp much of the meaning or the symbolism. Your review helped me gain a better understanding of this short but complex book. I'll be sure to pick up the Cliffnotes as well. Thanks a lot for the great review!


message 10: by Lucy (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lucy Wow. Great review. I didn't read with Cliff Notes but after reading your review, I feel like I did:)


Richard Hedz up for the magnificent GR reviewer Trevor, who has finally gotten around to writing his own review.


message 12: by Thomas J. (new)

Thomas J. Hubschman Richard wrote: "Well, that's a problem. Back in those classically educated days that was the thing to do. Try reading Eliot's "The Wasteland" and the whole thing is a mishmash of interrelated references to stuff t..."

Margaret Anne Doody in her The True History of the Novel points out that all fiction writers (and probably all readers as well) incorporate everything that has come before them in the work of other writers, whether they are conscious of it or not. We don't need to "get" the symbols, in other words. Their meanings are already part of our cultural consciousness, from preliterate times on. Personally, I find writers who leave these little crumbs behind in a conscious way to be pedantic. The best symbols don't even seem to be such in any obvious way that requires their conscious recognition for the text to be understood. For me, that's just make-work for academics.


Richard Well, I could also assert that everything that has ever come before is recapitulated in the comics pages of the newspapers, too. Easier to assert than to prove, or to disprove.

Obvious allusions to previous works had better be clever and clearly not derivative, but I enjoy them when they do strike the right note. Retelling Heart of Darkness was one of the appeals of Apocalypse Now, for example.

And I have no problem with someone creating work for academics! Keeps 'em out off the streets and mostly out of trouble.


message 14: by Thomas J. (new)

Thomas J. Hubschman I have to confess to being confused by the ending of the book. I've read it four (or is it five?) times, each time in the hope that the ending will finally make sense. I'm not so sure anymore the fault is with me. Sometimes authors, even great authors, are simply defeated by their own creations. I suspect Conrad reached down as deep as he could, but somehow that wasn't enough to pull together the threads of an otherwise magnificent narrative.


Richard It's been long enough since I read this that I can't help you, but Trevor just finished it — see his review — and is a very clever chap. I'd go over it with him.


Jeremy The ending is Marlow's final betrayal of Kurts (or step back from Darkness, into the lies of Light). He once again becomes a creature of reason, so he chooses his nightmare...the one he finds himself in when he tells his story to the narrator.


message 17: by Thomas J. (new)

Thomas J. Hubschman "Chooses his nightmare" in what sense, Jeremy? It's been a while since I last read it. I'm not sure what you mean by the nightmare he's in when he tells the story to the narrator.


Jeremy No worries: very recent second reading for me, so that certainly makes a difference. During the drama of the journey into the interior, Marlow flirts with the idea of following Kurtz, becoming a natural product of the unconscious natural state, insofar as he rejects the Outpost Manager and his all-too-human reason-based project. He admits both are nightmares (a little like the line in the Graduate song [laugh about it, shout about it, when you'e got to choose, anyway you look at it you lose], at least, that's what it always reminds me of...) and he positions himself behind Kurtz, but in the end, with the lie to The Intended about Kurtz's last words, he flips back to humanity and Reason. As he tells his story to our Narrator of the story, you get a sense of his regret about what he has become because of it, but you also get the sense that he could not have done otherwise. He's just not as remarkable as Kurtz...


Richard Jeremy wrote: "He's just not as remarkable as Kurtz... "

Or he's just not as stupid as Kurtz. Kurtz did, after all, crash and burn.


message 20: by Thomas J. (new)

Thomas J. Hubschman Thanks for that. Your comments have motivated me to read the story again.


Jeremy Well, I wouldn't characterize it as stupidity... Insane. Unreasonable. Self-destructive. Anti-human. But, there's a kind of built in attraction toward it. We all live with this kind of get-back-to-nature mythos, perhaps because we've only really been human - in the strict sense - for a relatively short period of time. We look at birds and squirrels and cats and think, occasionally, 'hey, they've got it made. No worries, or mortgage payments or hassles with the council by-laws. WIsh I could... Oh, and aren't those trees lovely in this sunset light, and the flowers blooming...' Nature itself is absolutely indifferent to all our myths about it. All these positive instinctive reactions are Kurtzian. They're a beckoning finger into the interior. Most of us see reason, despite still being subject to the feelings, and believe it's not what its cracked up to be. But that's the absurdity of it: you realise it's stupid but you can't help being subject to it. Sure, Kurtz could've done the less remarkable thing and sold up and moved out to a sub-divided farm in Warnambool and got a four wheel drive and a fishing boat and kept bees, but that would've only been scratching at the surface, like most of us do.


message 22: by Thomas J. (new)

Thomas J. Hubschman It's a bit more than back-to-nature, though, isn't it? All those heads on polls. Was Pol Pot just getting in touch with his inner Kurtz? Is the idea we're all Kurtz deep down, if we are honest enough or perhaps lack the brakes of civilized behavior like those sociopaths who can kill without feeling? This is what confuses me about this story.


Jeremy Yes, it's certainly more - it's the complete reduction of humanity. It's the end-game of the back-to-nature mythos.

Very interesting re sociopathology... I see the Kurtzian state as being devoid of reason, but not feeling: like in nature, to have only neccessity and know nothing, not even a sense of self. But also, when we say a sociopath kills without feeling, we mean he/she kills without emotionally responding in the normal human way, the way we have conditioned ourselves socially as part of the evolutionary package that has got us where we are today.

And a sociopath doesn't lack for reason, it's the correct connections between the two that are malaligned.

Pol Pot was much more like the Manager, who would also happily commit genocide if there was a purpose to it and he felt he could get away with it.


Conrad I get the sense that Kurtz truly cares for humanity as a whole. The embrace of severe violence and darkness is what many benevolent humans are capable of - it isn't 'evil'

Kurtz will put heads on spikes, but I doubt he would hurt a baby if it were encountered in a basket floating down the river, and he most certainly would not take pleasure in hurting an animal for the sake of it. He lives at the edge of the world where the day-to-day mean of existence is based on day-to-day circumstances. There is a level of examination to his violence, methods that don’t hide what they are - a certain honesty. The European conquerors represented by the manager are only concerned with the reputation of ‘the company’ and saving the Kurtz-ivory, These are men who are happy to wipe out millions of natives over time with disease (I call it ‘hands off slaughter’) yet though Kurtz slays only a few direct enemies where required he is considered more sinister

The reference to him being on the popular/extreme side of politics at the end of the book leads me to believe he is a man of merit who cares deeply for the path humanity takes in how all men are treated no matter their station (in a global sense). Perhaps the activity Kurtz pursues in the darkness of the jungle is his own way of escaping the European world that men like the manager and company directors have created from their involvement in the spheres of profit and politics – the horrors perpetrated by men of the Manager’s ilk are far more appalling than those of Kurtz

There is something very, very appealing about Kurtz and his embrace of the darkness – the only problem is, in the end, his body couldn’t handle the rigours of the deep jungle


Richard Jeremy wrote: "Well, I wouldn't characterize it as stupidity... Insane. Unreasonable. Self-destructive. Anti-human. But, there's a kind of built in attraction toward it. We all live with this kind of get-back-to-..."

Well, I think I could defend any of those adjectives, including "stupid". Isn't that one kinda tucked up inside of "self-destructive", at least?

But what I mean by stupid is more specifically that, yes, many of us would be attracted to whatever Kurtz found in that jungle. But most of us would resist it, for the same reason that most of us resist even trying heroin — exposing oneself to behaviors that might be both destructive/inhumane and addictive.




message 26: by Thomas J. (new)

Thomas J. Hubschman For the first time (why?) it strikes me that Kurtz is a forerunner of the extremes of Nazism and Stalinism. I'm thinking of the plunging whole-hog into atavism not just for profit like the Company but for the sheer hell of it under the rubric of a carefully laid-out ideology. Kurtz and the Company (in its unfeeling bureaucracy) combined. If Pol Pot was only the manager, the reality of the Khmer Rouge had to involve an awful lot of sheer violence for violence's sake.

I suppose you have to accept both Kurtz and Marlowe as two manifestations of the same humanity.

The historical basis for Conrad's story is the death of five million or more Congolese under Belgian rule, of course. I forget how many had their hands chopped off because they didn't cooperate enough with the "Company." Hands, not heads. But the Belgians managed to kill millions of them. As someone pointed out a few years back, there was (at that point) only one serious book about this genocide, while there had already been ten thousand about the Nazi genocides.


message 27: by Jeremy (last edited Jan 13, 2012 02:53PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jeremy And this is why Kurtz is such an interesting figure: it's well nigh impossible to pin him to a moral engine. He is trying to come back from being a non-human, and the fact of his last words makes of him a human once more, whether he's making a moral judgement or, as is my preference, he's stating simply the condition of all devoid of the lies of ideology.

Not to mention just how fracutured our access is to 'the real Kurtz', considering our storyteller is telling us someone's else's story, and even Marlow heard the bulk of Kurtz's story through others, predominantly through the equally fascinating Harlequin character. Once again, Conrad is pointing toward how unreliable and mediated our version of the genuinely unmediated Reality/world of the Interior is...

Because of this, it's very difficult to speculate on what Kurtz's original project was. From the various snippets of information, you could make an argument for him being purely a self-serving capitalist wanting to climb the company ladder and beyond, or you could make an argument for him being a kind of radical reformer. Marlow is as confused as anyone, methinks, which is why he sticks to that adjective 'remarkable'.


Richard Thomas wrote: "For the first time (why?) it strikes me that Kurtz is a forerunner of the extremes of Nazism and Stalinism."

He was one of many that investigated the ideas of the Counter-Enlightenment. I strongly recommend Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined for more on this and much more. Pinker doesn't mention Conrad, but does go into the Counter-Enlightenment nicely.


message 29: by Riku (new) - rated it 5 stars

Riku Sayuj Brilliant review. Definitely the most insightful I have seen yet.


message 30: by Thomas J. (new)

Thomas J. Hubschman I think Kurtz inevitably fails to satisfy us as a character because the build-up has been so great and no character can satisfy the tall bill of representing pure evil. Hence the allusions to great conversations that took place off-stage, as it were, or the brilliant (but unquoted) writings. In Eric Ambler's A Coffin for Demetrius there is the same quest to understand the essence of evil, and when the personification of it finally appears he turns out to be disappointing, all too human. Ambler was "just" a writer of thrillers, though this book counts for me as something much more than a thriller, but I think the same thing drove both him and Conrad: the exploration of what seems like pure evil. Finally, the last count for Africans slaughtered by the Belgians in the Congo is in excess of 5 million. And until recently there had been exactly one scholarly book devoted to it. Now, that's evil.


message 31: by Teresa (new) - added it

Teresa Ellis Wow, I'm glad I read your review. I hated reading "classics" in high school, but there is so much more to reading than just enjoying a fun book. I now know that a truly great book or "classic" book, makes one question and think. I will have to give a few more "classics" a try with the Cliff Notes. I slogged through Moby Dick just to say that I had read it. I think I will read it again.


Richard Thanks for the comment!


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