BOOK REVIEW: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Heart of Darkness is a story within a story (i.e. a frame narrative) in which the protagonist, Marlow, tells a group of men on a ship on the Thames about his adventures captaining a boat on the Congo River. The use of a frame narrative both gives this novella/ novel a confessional feel, but also imagines Marlow’s audience feeling his tale particularly viscerally as some of them might be caught up in similar intrigues themselves.

Marlow’s job in the Congo is transporting ivory. However, the core of the story revolves around a trip to extract an agent of the ivory trade named Kurtz, and to transport the ill man to medical care. Kurtz is an intriguing character. This isn’t a man one can feel indifferently towards. Some love his intellect, charisma, or even his ruthlessness. Others despise him as the face of villainy. Kurtz represents imperialism at its most vile. Some natives are at war with him. Others respect and fear him. However, he’s willing to destroy them all on a whim to make the flow of ivory come more swiftly.

Marlow isn’t a member of Kurtz’s fan club initially and thinks the agent is completely insane, but he becomes intrigued with him as their journey progresses. In a way, Marlow is the moderate face of Imperialism. He doesn’t like the way the natives are treated, or the power plays and bureaucracy of the trade. However, he’s an active and willing participant, and, ultimately, when given a choice to work against the system or in support of it he chooses the latter. He hands over Kurtz’s report on the “Suppression of Savage Customs.” He also shows his sympathy towards Kurtz through his interaction with the dead man’s fiance.

This is definitely 19th century literature. While the book is very short, it’s readability isn’t high by today’s standards. It’s organized into just three parts or chapters, and the prose isn’t built for speed. Also, while it turns out to be a gripping tale, it’s slow off the blocks. It must also be put in the context of 19th century literature because the themes of imperialism and suppression of “savagery” have long since been settled. Viewed through today’s lens, the story might not ring true. Though I suppose there’s still a heart of darkness in urban environments today, behind walls rather than across seas.

What are the book’s strengths? While it may seem silly, the title is pure-D awesomeness. Also, while it’s not organized or written for readability by today’s standards, by 19th century standards it’s a page-turner. It’s certainly a compact tale. As I indicated, I’m not sure whether to call it a novel or a novella. Reading this book isn’t a major time investment, and it does pay off. Conrad’s use of descriptive language is often beautiful. Conrad’s characters all ring true and serve to sit one in a world of darkness beyond the imaginings of the London elite, where sad and terrible things happen to make their world possible.

Lastly, the book makes one think. Like Kurtz, one is likely to love it or hate it.

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4 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

  1. In his article, An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’ , Chinua Achebe prdevois an elaborate criticism of Joseph Conrad’sa0Heart of Darkness. Though Achebe concedes that the image of Africa as a barbarian and uncivilized continent was not sparked by Conrad’s writing, he does blame Conrad for bringing the peculiar gifts of his own mind to bear on it. Achebe exercises no reservation in his criticism of Conrad, calling him at one point a thoroughgoing racist . The Nigerian author identifies the racism ina0Heart of Darknessa0as the depiction of Africa as the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization . He describes this depiction as Conrad’s use of contrast between African and European elements in the novel, referring to Conrad’s contrast of the dark and uncivilized Congo River with the peaceful and tranquil Thames River and the black savage woman, Kurtz’s lover, with the civilized, refined European woman. Achebe also argues that the worst thing about the novel is not its racism, but rather its popularity and literary merit. He dismisses other racist works as being too crude to merit peoples’ attention; Heart of Darkness, however, is considered one of the finest literary works in the English language, and thus, has been and will be frequently taught in schools all around world. Though Achebe’s crude criticism of Conrad as a racist might suggest that this view is widely accepted in the literary field, it is actually a very controversial and heatedly debate one. Some scholars argue that Conrad’s portrayal of Africa is satirical and does not reflect his true beliefs; hence, he uses multiple layers of narration to separate himself from his narrators. Achebe’s response to this argument is relatively unconvincing; he merely responds by blaming Conrad for not creating an alternative frame of reference which would enable the reader to judge the characters’ opinions. What is undeniable is that as long as these two writers continue to be read and discussed intellectually, this debate is will continue to take place.a0

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