Tag: marlow

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Posted May 8, 2013 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 0 Comments

Heart of Darkness by Joseph ConradTitle: Heart of Darkness (Goodreads)
Author: Joseph Conrad
Published: Oxford World's Classics, 1899
Pages: 225
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Personal Copy

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Heart of Darkness tells the tale of Charlie Marlow’s journey on an ivory transporter down an unknown river in the Congo. What he sees horrifies and perplexes him, calling into question the very basis of civilisation and human nature. The story follows this commercial agent and the object of his obsession, the notorious ivory-procurement agent Mr Kurtz. This novella has become an important piece in the western canon for its range of themes and scholarly values.

I remember reading this book a few years back and while I thought it was an interesting book, I never really grasped it completely (and I’m not sure if I ever will) but for comparison to what I know now and then, check out my review here. To begin with we need to gain an understanding of Joseph Conrad’s life because there are a lot of life experiences in this book. Born Josef Teodor Konrad Walecz Korzeniowski in Russian-ruled Poland in 1857; this part of Poland is now part of Ukraine. Both parents were political activists and as a result of their participation in the Polish independence movement they were exiled to Northern Russia in 1863. At sixteen he dropped out of school to work on a French merchant ship, sailing the West Indies as an apprentice. Later he joined a British ship where he served as a merchant for ten years, during this time he gained the rank of captain and became a naturalized British citizen. During a trip in 1890 sailing through the Belgian Congo and Congo River he got really sick and had to retire from sailing and focused his energy on writing. This means Joseph Conrad must have grown up speaking Polish and Russian, learning French at some point and then English. Although he often struggled to write in his adopted language, he is now considered one of the greatest prose stylists in English literature.

There are many themes explored in this book, so much so that I think I would need to keep reading this book again and again to discover them. Though major themes include slavery (the effect the British had on Africa) as well the author’s problems with Colonialism and Imperialism. There are a few other themes I would much prefer exploring. First of all, the idea of alienation; both Conrad and Marlow are both outsiders. The entire novel questions what alienation and loneliness can do to a person over an extended period of time, especially since they are in hostile environments. Even the doctor warns Marlow prior to his departure of changes to his personality that may be produced by a long stay in another country.  Prolonged solitude seems to have damaging effects on the sailors, which leads me into another major theme; insanity. In the case of Kurtz, the loneliness lead to literal madness, while others like Marlow’s predecessor, Captain Fresleven was described as a gentle soul that transformed into a violent one.

There are other themes I really would love to talk about but for the sake of keeping this review a decent length I will just highlight them. Heart of Darkness also looks at the way Belgium is exploiting the Congo, order verse disorder, duty verse responsibility, doubt verse ambiguity, race verse racism and finally violence and cruelty. All these, plus many more, are reasons why this book has been studied. It is a very difficult book to explore, I found myself rereading passages trying to get more out of it. I know at one point near the start of reading this I thought I would never get enough meaning out of this book but eventually it opened up to me.

There are a lot of symbols within the book as well, beginning with the title and the setting; Heart of Darkness deep in the heart of the Congo, the centre of the deep dark Africa. Even the fact that the entire story is told in the late afternoon as the sun sets is a motif of Africa. There are a lot more in this novel but I want to quickly talk about the movie adaptation Apocalypse Now. Sure there are some similarities but not enough to really consider the movie to be based on this novella. There are more similarities with Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in the way the book starts out, also with Bram Stokers’ Dracula with the suspension between life and death. So how are they the similar, since one is set in the Congo and the other during the Vietnam War? The very basic answer would be that both look at the deterioration of humanity as a result of conflict, one via imperialism and one by war.

I would love to talk about the narrative and how there are two narrators, Marlow and someone anonymous. And how all the scenes on the Nellie are obviously an introductory and critique to the story that it doesn’t go away after the intro. Marlow’s narrative is often interrupted by this unnamed narrator as they listen to the story as a way for Conrad to tell the reader to notice different themes. There are also the proses in the book, poetic and while difficult, you can get swept away and not really notice just what Conrad is trying to do. So many things I want to talk about but I have to cut this review short.

Heart of Darkness is a really complex book but if you take the time to break it apart and explore the text critically, you’ll find there is so much to appreciate. It’s like a fine meal, it can be enjoyed without any thought, but if you take the time to see how each element complements each other you end up enjoying the novella a whole lot more. It all comes together with a sense of satisfaction that while you might not know everything Joseph Conrad was trying to say, you know enough for the book to have real value.