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#67…..Heart of Darkness

October 4, 2010

Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, spent twenty years at sea after the death of both of his parents. One of these voyages was to the African Congo, in 1889, as a steamboat captain. While on this voyage, he witnessed the horrific atrocities against the native people of the area by the Belgian King Leopold II. Since the Congo was then a private colony of Belgium, rich in rubber and ivory, Leopold assessed quotas of rubber and ivory to each of his subjects as tax. The natives were then worked to death and horribly mistreated by the agents; the wives and children of the natives were held hostage until the quotas were met, and those who could not make their quotas could have their hands cut off, children murdered or villages burned down. You can read more about the Congo genocide here.

Like Conrad, the main narrator of Heart of Darkness, Marlow, spent time as a steamboat captain on the Congo, and also witnessed the atrocities that were happening in the Congo region. Heart of Darkness begins as the narration of one of Marlow’s audience on a boat anchored on the Thames, but switches to Marlow as he tells the story of his travels. What begins as a trip down the Congo turns into a rescue mission, as Marlow discovers one of the British ivory agents, Kurtz, is very ill and needs to be returned to England. Kurtz’ reputation has preceded him to England as a very successful agent, who is on the fast track to promotion, and has thus earned the jealousy and envy of other agents. Marlow travels further and further into the jungle to find Kurtz, and once he finds him, discovers that he is like a god to some of the natives, and owes his success at collecting ivory to the terrorism he has inflicted on other native tribes, whose heads decorate the fence posts surrounding his hut. Kurtz is indeed ill, and dies days after Marlow finds him, crying out “the horror! the horror!” as his last words, presumably as he reviews his life and the horrible acts he committed. Marlow returns to England after Kurtz is buried in the jungle, and goes to see Kurtz’ fiancee, who is still mourning him and describes him to Marlow as a loving and caring man. She asks Marlow what Kurtz’ last words were, and he tells her that it was her name rather than what really happened.

For me, the only good thing going for Heart of Darkness was the length. At 87 pages, it’s the shortest book I’ve read so far on the ML list. As for the subject matter, I found it to be typical Conrad….boring and verbose. I hate the “narrative within the narrative” format, which I believe they call a frame narrative. You never really knew who was talking, because everything had quotation marks. I think Lord Jim had this same format. I found myself looking back a page or two sometimes because I had lost track of who was talking.

Heart of Darkness was one of those books that I expected to be more profound than it was, and maybe it is profound and I just didn’t get it. I finished it and was sort of like, “Huh”, and went to pick up my next book. It made that little of an impact on me. I considered reading it again to see what I might have missed, but because I didn’t really enjoy it the first time around, that didn’t appeal to me either. I got a great comment from Jessica at Park Benches and Bookends about the fact that we have to take into account that Conrad was writing in what was his third language behind Russian and French, so maybe that accounts for the stiltedness of the narrative. Maybe he should have written it in Russian and had someone else translate it into English. I would have been interested to see if that would have made a difference in the flow. Or maybe I just need to chalk it up to Conrad not being my thing, like Brussels sprouts and yogurt.

So I guess I do need to give Conrad a shout-out for not dragging this book out like he did with Lord Jim, which was 300 some pages and excruciating. I should also mention that I am not a short-story person either. They have to pack a real punch in a short amount of time, and that just didn’t happen for me in this book. Amazingly, I think I would have been more interested in learning more about the experiences of the natives, rather than running around looking for this Kurtz guy, who sounds like a real train wreck. Did the jungle make him go crazy, or was he evil all along? Maybe he really was a horrible, evil guy on the inside, and the wildness and lack of civilization in the jungle allowed that to come out. Plus he could take his anger out on the natives who were helpless to defeat him when he had guns.

Glad this one’s over, folks. How did this book get ranked higher than The House of Mirth or A Farewell to Arms?

Grade: C-

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. October 5, 2010 1:37 am

    “Heart of Darkness” is between 190-250 pages depending on what edition you read – I think you read something that was abridged.

    That said, there is no way it beats either “A Farewell to Arms” or “The House of Mirth”, in my opinion… though, I wouldn’t classify either as great works.

    Love the review, though… made me almost like the book more. The picture was lovely, too.

  2. October 5, 2010 11:43 am

    Seriously? I got the Barnes and Noble classics version. It was bundled in with four other short stories. Wow, maybe that’s why it just didn’t seem to make sense. I am going to look into that.

  3. October 6, 2010 12:23 pm

    Can I just say I have absolutely no interest in reading this book. It just sounds so BORING, and this is coming from someone who really does like classics…

    • October 6, 2010 5:59 pm

      It really was. I don’t think I can even talk myself into reading the full version now.

  4. October 7, 2010 2:51 am

    Yeah…..I’ve read this one twice. I read it back in high school for a book report and once in college as required reading. Both times I had to force myself to finish it. I am sure that when I get around to it this time I am going to have to bribe myself to get through it.

    I tried reading Lord Jim a few months ago and got through 60 pages before realizing that I had no idea what was going on and put it back on the shelf….I’m not looking forward to that one either.

    • October 7, 2010 11:45 am

      “Lord Jim” didn’t get good until the LAST 60 pages…and even then, it’s a loose definition of ‘good’. You didn’t miss much. 🙂

  5. October 8, 2010 7:38 pm

    ‘For me, the only good thing going for Heart of Darkness was the length. ‘

    LOL My husband hated this one so I have never been tempted despite its length. Perhaps because english was Conrads second lanuage there was something lost in the writing?

  6. Jillian permalink
    October 8, 2010 9:36 pm

    For me, the only good thing going for Heart of Darkness was the length. At 87 pages, it’s the shortest book I’ve read so far on the ML list.

    Oh, no. That’s hilarious. 😆

  7. Michael permalink
    January 12, 2011 1:24 pm

    I am seriously surprised that no one — NO ONE — here has mentioned Apocalypse Now, which is basically an adaptation of Heart of Darkness for the big screen AND the Vietnam era.

    Also, judging an early-20th-century author by 21st-century, TV- and Internet-addled standards can be risky. Readers of Conrad’s era, particularly British readers, DID have longer attention spans in those days (no TV, radio, movies or Internet).

    I think we miss another aspect when judging Conrad’s work. Maritime travel is no longer the integral element of everyday life that it was a century ago, when, if you wanted to get anywhere, you HAD to take to the sea, with all of its attendant dangers. Seafaring was also a way for poor people, especially “landlubbers,” to escape their inland lives (by Conrad’s time, those who lived on or near the coasts were plenty aware of the sea’s hazards).

    That said, Conrad’s books ARE daunting reading for modern sensitivities, but I personally think the stories are so strong that they’re worth the effort. And it DOES pay to read how a non-native speaker uses English to literary effect (Nabokov is another example that springs to mind).

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