Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

heart-of-darkness1Heart of Darkness follows Marlow, a riverboat captain, on a voyage into the African Congo at the height of European colonialism. Astounded by the brutal depravity he witnesses, Marlow becomes obsessed with meeting Kurtz, a man of legendary idealism stationed farther along the river. What he finally discovers, however, is a horror beyond imaging.

“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. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to….” (pg. 50)

There is so much packed into every word of Heart of Darkness that if you’re not careful, if you don’t slow down and contemplate every word the story and beauty of the novel will fly by unnoticed. I think that’s why so many people don’t give Conrad’s classic novel the credit it deserves.

Here’s a man for whom English is a third language, and, yet, Heart of Darkness is so beautifully written – almost like a long poem.

“The day was ending in a serenity of still and exquisite brilliance. The was shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant  fabric, hung from the wooden rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds. Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more somber every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun. And at last, in its curved and imperceptible fall, the sun sank low, and from glowing white changed to a dull red without rays and without heat, as if about to go out suddenly, stricken to death by the touch of that gloom brooding over a crowd of men.” (pg. 46)

Conrad’s writing is fascinating, grisly, thought-provoking, and beautiful. The reader can feel the sweat trickle down their brow, their heart racing in panic as arrows are flung at the steamboat; they can see the thick flog ahead and hear Marlow’s sanity slip away.

“Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbacks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broading waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost you way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once — somewhere far away — in another existence perhaps.” (pg. 88)

Marlow, the narrator, travels deep into the heart of the Congo during the height of European colonialism to reach a renegade ivory hunter named Kurtz. The story, though, is not an adventure, but rather a physiological exploration — the lost of sanity as man gets farther and farther away from “civilization.”

“I looked around, and I don’t know why, but I assure you that never, never before, did this land, this river, this jungle, the very arch of this blazing sky, appear to me so hopeless and so dark, so impenetrable to human thought, so pitiless to human weakness.” (pg. 120)

“The rest of the world was nowhere, as far as our eyes and ears were concerned. Just nowhere. Gone, disappeared; swept off without leaving a whisper or a shadow behind.” (pg. 97)

I think a second read would be most beneficial; there are so many symbols I didn’t pick up on with this first read that I believe rereading Heart of Darkness would help me find things I missed. Heart of Darkness is slow, and I’m not sure I ever really “got into it.” However, there is so much insight and importance packed in this novel that I enjoyed reading and examining every word.

Others’ Thoughts:

Book Mentioned:

  • Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and Selected Short Fiction. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003. Originally published 1902. Print. 105 pgs. ISBN: 9781593080211. Source: PaperBackSwap.
Book Cover © Barnes and Noble. Retrieved: April 23, 2009.
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8 thoughts on “Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

  1. I’m planning to read this soon, as someone recommended I read it before starting ‘Things Fall Apart’. I’ve heard very mixed things about ‘Heart of Darkness’ so it is great to see such a positive review for it. It looks like it is one of those books which require a study guiide for though!

  2. @ Jackie: Yes, a study guide would be very handy. I don’t know what I would have done without CliffNotes. Still, it’s a good book, and one I’d recommend people take the time and read.

  3. I think I’ve read this one two or three times now and I could STILL use a re-read. This book is so short, and I agree that people probably read it too quickly. You picked some really great quotes and I’m glad you liked the book. Thanks for link–I think the review is probably from waaaay back when I started blogging (not my proudest posts!). :)

  4. @ Rebecca Reid: I really, really had to focus when reading this one, and I can see how easy it is to miss it if you read it too fast or at the wrong time. Hopefully, the nest time you get to it, you’ll love it.

    @ Serena: Thank.

    @ Trish: We all have those first posts we’re not proud of, don’t we? And I know I’ll need to reread it at some point in my life.

  5. I have the same thought as Serena. We were college roommates, and I remember trying to read this one aloud together just to get through it. We never succeeded, with one or both of us finding it too painful to go on. I’d like to give it a try now, as the story always sounded interesting. Glad you enjoyed it.

    –Anna

  6. I read this book earlier in the year and really enjoyed it, although I found it to be a difficult read. Like you said in your review you need to read carefully to fully understand the point Conrad is trying to make. And I also think it needs a second read. There’s some powerful messages in the book, and so well written. I’ll re-read it one of these days.

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