Review: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

“The horror! The horror!”
Marlow, a seaman and a wanderer, recounts his physical and psychological journey in search of the infamous ivory trader Kurtz.  Travelling up river to the heart of the African continent, he gradually becomes obsessed by this enigmatic, wraith-like figure.  Marlow’s discovery of how Kurtz has gained his position of power over the local people involves him in a radical questioning, not only of his own nature and vaules, but those of Western civilization.  A haunting and hugely influential Modernist masterpiece, Heart of Darkness (1899) explores the limits of human experience as well as the nightmarish realities of imperialism. 
Before I start I just want to say that, even though I’ve read and reviewed a lot of fantasy since I started this blog, I’ve always loved Classics.  Seriously, until I started university I read more classics than anything else.  I read old books usually out of curiousity, because I want to know why they are classics and why they are so loved.  Usually I end up loving them too.  Just not ‘Heart of Darkness’.  I’ve really stalled in writing this review, because I just did not get into the text.  ‘Heart of Darkness’ is supposed to be a short text.  It’s ninety seven pages seemed to me more like nine hundred.  I know it is a modernist work, and this was my first modernist read I expected some problems early one.  I mean really the secret to reading older books is to just stick with it until you get a grip on the prose.  Now, I’m not saying Conrad’s prose is bad.  At times it is beautiful and insightful but it is damned hard to follow.  It’s one of those books that you really should read fast, perferably in one sitting.  Hardly any of the characters have names.  Usually Marlow, the narrator (actually he’s like a narrator narrating to the unnamed narrator of the novel), provides basic information of the people he meets – such as their role.  He then goes on the refer to them by their role e.g. the manager, but weirdly this can change in an instant, and suddenly I’d find myself scrambling to figure out what has just happened because I couldn’t fathom who was talking or doing something.  I would figure it out eventually, but it would have been great if some of these characters had names. 

Why do I think people love this book? This is the question for me when reading books like this.  I think it is seen as a classic because Marlow looks into the darkness of colonization, and humanity in general.  I think that this was the only saving part of the text for me.  Marlow is a witness to the brutality.  He is also a victim to Kurtz’s power and power in general.  Marlow becomes more and more conflicted by the awful things he sees and his own, more innocent morals.  I won’t spoil how this works out in the end for anyone who hasn’t read it.  Personally I am still thinking about the text a few weeks later – it is one of those books that does stay with you.   My edition also came with Conrad’s Congo Dairies – to be honest I was hoping to see if Kurtz was real. The diary only really goes into the first chapter of the text and therefore is a bit disappointing.   

I believe that, despite the hard to follow prose, it is a book worth reading.  There is a surprising twist at the end of the second chapter that really makes the book worthwhile.  Even though I found it a challenging read, overall I feel like overtime it could grow on me if that makes sense.   I think it is a book that you really have to try to think about and engage with – which is a double edged sword to me.  Good plot, over the top prose with few names or things to plant the reader firmly in the story.   



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