Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

I have heard great things about the novel Heart of Darkness for years and have been meaning to read it for a long time. The Classics Challenge finally motivated me to pick up this book and learn what all of the fuss is about.

Heart of Darkness is narrated by a sailor named Marlowe. He and his fellow sailors are anchored in the Thames and he is entertaining them with a story of his travels up a mysterious African river at some point in the past. Marlowe was hired to be a captain of a steam ship by an Ivory Company. His goal is to travel up the river into the depths of the “heart of darkness” in Africa to find a mysterious man named Kurtz and relieve him of his duties. Kurtz is a master of the ivory trade and is able to reap great rewards for the company at the inner station, but at what cost?

Heart of Darkness is basically a story of the evils of colonialism on a continent such as Africa, but also of the evils of leaving a man by himself in a foreign country, which can allow him to “go native” and revert to his lesser nature. I thought it was interesting in the novel that colonialism is shown to be evil, but then the way the African people are portrayed seems very stereotypical and not in a positive light. For example, Marlowe had a boat full of “cannibals” that he was transporting and (SPOILER ALERT) Kurtz has “gone native” which has him putting heads on spikes and warring with other tribes for their ivory. (SPOILER END).

The novel had some thought provoking quotes such as these favorites of mine:

“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 at it too much.”

“Destiny. My Destiny! 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.”

“The horror! The horror!”

Truthfully, overall I felt let down by the novel. I think I went into it with too many expectations. I’ve heard so much about it over the years that I was expecting a lot, but it didn’t live up to the expectations. I had always heard how it was a tale of a man’s journey up the river to look for the mysterious Kurtz, and that’s what it was, without any surprises or embellishments. I actually much prefer the movie, Apocalypse Now, which was based on this novel, but set during the Vietnam War in Vietnam/Cambodia.

I wasn’t really in love with the style of narration. I often thought Marlowe drifted too much with his narration was not a reliable narrator. It annoyed me at times . . . but I’m also reading it at night while feeding a newborn so that may have had something to do with it! The prose on the other hand had some beautiful sections that I loved (such as the quotations above).

Overall, I’m glad I read Heart of Darkness, but I don’t think I need to read it again.

Heart of Darkness is my sixth item for The Classics Challenge.

Book Source: I bought Heart of Darkness years ago at Barnes and Noble.


  1. I did Heart of Darkness for Advanced Level literature when I was 17 and disliked it! Maybe it was the age... I think I should go back to it now.

  2. I was supposed to read this twice in college, but never actually finished it because Conrad's writing is just not my thing. I admire you for getting through it all!

  3. I read this in Freshman English, the same year that Apocalypse Now came out so that made the book more interesting. But, really, both of them don't do that much for me.

  4. Jason and I read this together a few years ago and we were both disppointed.