Heart of Darkness and Other Tales by Joseph Conrad

The other tales…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

(I’ve been putting off writing a review of this for ages because I couldn’t see how to keep it down to anything approaching a reasonable length, since, although Heart of Darkness is by far the most famous of the four stories in the collection and is the one on my Classics Club list, the other three deserve more than a passing mention too. So I’ve decided in the end to review those briefly in this post and then to review Heart of Darkness itself more fully in a later post.)

This collection from Oxford World’s Classics includes four of Conrad’s stories, each of which deals with the subject of empire and colonialism in one way or another. It also has an introduction and notes by Cedric Watts, Professor of English at the University of Sussex – a Conrad expert. While the notes are very useful, unfortunately, unlike in the other OWC books I’ve read, the introduction is written in the kind of academic jargonese that I hate – the kind that for non-academics needs another introduction to explain the introduction…

An important political aspect of this theme is displayed by the tale’s demonstration that there is an imperialism of discourse which both licenses and conceals the excesses of economic exploitation.

Hmm! So I abandoned the introduction and hurried swiftly on…

Fortunately, the stories are not nearly as intimidating or difficult to understand as the introduction had led me to fear. I’m sure there’s loads of nuance I’ve missed (I missed the bit about the “imperialism of discourse”, for sure), but my own view is that all stories should stand or fall on their own merit as stories, and should not rely on a reader catching all the references or undertones, though they may be enhanced by it. These stories more than stand on their own – in fact, three of the four are up there amongst the best I’ve ever read.

An Outpost of Progress – Two men, Kayerts and Carlier, are dropped off to run a Company trading post in the Belgian Congo. They are basically incompetent, relying on their black agent and workers to do the work of trading for the precious ivory for which they are there. However, events spiral out of their control and they are left running low on resources and increasingly scared of the, to them, incomprehensible and savage people in this wild land. And then the boat that was due to relieve them is delayed…

This starts off with a good deal of humour, full of irony and sarcasm as Conrad turns the prevailing ideas about the superiority of the white man on their head. We see how quickly the veneer of “civilisation” falls away when men are isolated in a vastly different culture they don’t understand. Gradually the story darkens, until it reaches a powerfully dark and dramatic ending of true horror. The writing is wonderful, full of lush descriptions that create an ominously threatening environment, with enough vagueness so that we, like the characters, fear what may be lurking just outside. And his depiction of the downward spiral of his characters into moral weakness and eventual terror is done brilliantly. A great story.

Youth: A Narrative – This tells of Marlow, who will appear again in Heart of Darkness, as a twenty-year-old in his first voyage as second mate on an ill-fated sea trip in the rickety old ship Judea. A series of disasters leads to the ship constantly having to return to port for repairs, and things don’t improve once they finally get off on their journey. It’s quite funny and is apparently a fairly accurate record of Conrad’s own voyage as a young man aboard the equally doomed Palestine. It’s about the vigour and optimism of youth – how even disasters can seem like exciting adventures before age and experience make us jaded and fearful. It’s enjoyable, but a little too long for its content, and with nothing like the depth of the other stories in the collection.

Karain: A Memory – The narrator is one of three adventurers, smuggling arms into the Malay Archipelago. They come to know Karain, the headman of a small land which he and his followers have invaded and occupied. Karain is a haunted man, perhaps literally, perhaps superstitiously. He turns to his white friends for protection…

From the deck of our schooner, anchored in the middle of the bay, he indicated by a theatrical sweep of his arm along the jagged outline of the hills the whole of his domain; and the ample movement seemed to drive back its limits, augmenting it suddenly into something so immense and vague that for a moment it appeared to be bounded only by the sky. And really, looking at that place, landlocked from the sea and shut off from the land by the precipitous slopes of mountains, it was difficult to believe in the existence of any neighbourhood. It was still, complete, unknown, and full of a life that went on stealthily with a troubling effect of solitude; of a life that seemed unaccountably empty of anything that would stir the thought, touch the heart, give a hint of the ominous sequence of days. It appeared to us a land without memories, regrets, and hopes; a land where nothing could survive the coming of the night, and where each sunrise, like a dazzling act of special creation, was disconnected from the eve and the morrow.

The story in this one, although good, is somewhat secondary to the wonderfully descriptive and insightful writing. The prose in the first two or three pages is sublime, as Conrad swiftly creates a place, a country, a man and a people, all with a level of lyricism and mysticism that places the reader there, already unsettled before the tale begins. Conrad shows how colonialism disrupts and corrupts long-held traditions and ways of life, but how old beliefs nonetheless endure. And lest the reader should wish to mock the superstitions of the natives, Conrad forestalls this by reminding us with brutal irony that many of our own cherished traditions and beliefs arise out of superstition too. He also shows that, when white and black meet not as master and slave but in a kind of equality, the possibility for friendship exists, even when their cultures are so different. I loved this story.

Joseph Conrad

Conrad gets a bad rap in some quarters these days for what some see as racist portrayals of other cultures, and there’s no doubt that the stories include a lot of words we would now consider derogatory, along with depictions of native customs – god worship, cannibalism, human sacrifice – that our current rewriting of the past to suit political correctness makes problematic. But, of course, these things did happen so is it really racist to write about them? And the language he uses is of its time. Plus, in moral terms, he’s far more derogatory about the white men and the evils of empire. I give him a pass – since he was so clearly writing from an anti-colonialist stance, I feel to hang him for use of the n-word is to trivialise the importance of what he was saying.

Reading these three stories first gave me an appreciation for Conrad’s style and view of colonialism, which I’m sure eased and enhanced my reading of Heart of Darkness itself. I thoroughly enjoyed the collection and, despite my disappointment with the style of the introduction, there’s no doubt the notes aided my understanding and gave some interesting background information, making it an accessible entry-point to new readers of Conrad’s work.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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46 thoughts on “Heart of Darkness and Other Tales by Joseph Conrad

    • I know I’ve said this before, but I really think they ruin a lot of classics by making kids read them too young. I’m sure I’d have hated this in high school! But now that I know more about colonialism I loved it.

  1. So glad you enjoyed these stories. I love Conrad, so I’m always pleased to find a new convert. I so agree with you about the use of language – 20/20/ foresight would be great, but few of us are gifted with it.

    • I’ve avoided him since hating Lord Jim when I was young, but as I’ve often said, my tastes have changed a lot over the years. I’m looking forward to reading more of his stuff now. Yeah, I didn’t mind the language and stuff in these because I kinda agreed with the ‘message’. Plus his writing is just so great…

    • I did see Apocalypse Now, way back when it was first released, but had no idea at the time that it had anything to do with Heart of Darkness, which of course I hadn’t read. I remember having mixed feelings about it – being kind of amazed and baffled at the same time. I think I was too young for it really, and didn’t understand enough about what Vietnam was all about. I’m going to try to rewatch it while Heart of Darkness is still fresh in my mind…

      Thanks for popping in! 😀

  2. Very glad you enjoyed this as well as you did, FictionFan. You make an interesting point about the use of language. I’m generally fairly sensitive the words authors choose, even as I respect that they are of their times. But that said, sometimes keeping the focus on that aspect, instead of the story itself, can mean you miss out on a fine story (or, as in this case, a collection). And it’s interesting to see how Conrad expressed his agenda in the stories.

    • It seems to depend for me on whether I agree with what the author is trying to say. I found with Conrad that I was in general agreement with him, so could overlook the language, whereas with the likes of Kipling I find myself totally out of tune, and therefore can’t be so forgiving. What surprised me with Conrad is that I felt he was actually being “anti-racist” overall – suggesting that because cultures are different doesn’t make one superior, nor give one culture the right to lord it over another…

  3. Probably not one I’d care to read, but I’m glad you’ve reviewed it so I won’t have to! I always think it’s nice to begin (and end) a week on a five-star review.

    • I wasn’t really looking forward to this one either, but his writing is so fabulous I’m glad I read it! Haha – but they can’t all get five stars… 😉

    • I doubt if I’d have understood it at all when I was at school – I’m glad I read it now when I have a much better understanding of colonialism and all it entails! Thank you! It’s a thought-provoking collection, for sure… 😀

        • Yeah, I feel they introduce kids to some of these difficult classics too young, and put a lot of people off for life. I’ve found my tastes in fiction have changed constantly over my life depending on what else I’m interested in at the time – my current interest in all things to do with empire made this the perfect time for me to read these…

  4. I read excerpts from Conrad’s books at uni. I never really took to them, and to be honest the course focused on the outdated and possibly racist language / more ignorant colonialist views he portrayed so I think I was put off by that. It’s really refreshing to see someone writing about classics! I think they get missed so many times in favour of new and shiny writing, but there’s a lot to love in them.

    • I reckon I wouldn’t have understood these at all when I was at school or uni – it’s only because I now have a pretty good understanding of colonialism that meant I felt as if I “got” them. It puzzles me a bit that there’s a fairly widespread feeling that his stories are negative about racial issues. It seemed to me that he was mostly saying our cultures are very different but that doesn’t make one superior to the other, nor justify one culture lording it over the other. It actually seemed a much more modern viewpoint to me than Kipling, for example. I love reading classics and have been making a determined effort to make room for them among the new releases – usually they’re classics for a reason! 😀

      • I think there’s definitely something to coming to any classic with an older head. I see so much in Dickens or Austen that I missed the first time around 10 years later. Or I see it with different, more experienced eyes maybe. It’s interesting you felt he had a more modern approach to racial issues than Kipling, I think there’s a lot of debate about that in literary circles. I don’t know enough about either to comment – I mostly read the lighter side of Kipling as a child.

        • I haven’t read much Kipling, mainly because I always feel he represents the worst of Empire ideas – real racial superiority. I try to make allowances for the time, but sometimes it’s too hard. A lot of the Victorians wrote about other races as if they were very different, savage and even child-like sometimes, but equally human, if that makes sense. Kipling always feels to me (in the little I’ve read) as if he’s implying that the “natives” are sub-human or have “degenerated” into a kind of lower form of life. I think for me that’s the difference…

          • That is pretty terrible… I don’t think I could read something written with that attitude either, to be honest. I mean, there are some things, Agatha Christie for example, that’s outdated. The language they use, nowadays we wouldn’t because it’s racist or derogatory. But I don’t think they intentionally were being racist so I guess I can look passed it… Kipling sounds like a different kettle of fish!

            • Admittedly my sister loves Kipling, so it may be just a personal allergic reaction I have to him. Maybe one day I’ll try him again. Maybe.

            • I think, only knowing his less provocative works which were considered suitable for children, it’s just hard to consider going to read the rest knowing what I know now 🤔

            • Yes, I didn’t read his children’s stuff when I was a child, but my sister did, and I think that’s why we feel so differently about him now.

  5. Although this isn’t probably one for me I am as always glad to have read your review if three of the four stories. You make an interesting point about the language used and I think you are completely right that to let our current sensibilities on this point to overrule the rest of the storytelling is a mistake (especially as he is even more derogatory about the morals of the white man)

    • You’re back! Hurrah! 😁 There’s so much literature about the days of empire, a lot of it great but full of words we hate these days. I do feel it would be a pity if we stopped reading the books because of that. I struggle much more when it’s an author who clearly really thinks that other races are inferior – I didn’t get that feeling from Conrad…

  6. My husband and I were just talking about this kind of thing this weekend, in the context of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn… the important thing for me is to situate the work in context, and make sure the student/reader understand what the prevailing attitudes of the day were. Things can still make us uncomfortable and that’s fine but gosh, life is uncomfortable and we’d all better toughen up a little bit! (Now I step off my soapbox.) That said, I’ve never read Conrad! Gasp!

    • Ha – couldn’t agree more about toughening up! The way other races are portrayed definitely bothers me more sometimes than others, and I find it quite hard to put my finger on exactly why. I think it’s to do with whether the writer is claiming a kind of racial superiority. With Conrad, I felt he was pretty harsh about the “native” races – African and Malay – but he was also pretty harsh about the British and Belgians. it’s more like he’s discussing two equal but very different cultures, and criticising both. I find that more acceptable than either white superiority, or what we do today – white men evil, everyone else saintly victims… 😉

  7. What i love about your blog is the cozy feeling you have while reading your reviews about book i already read and how after reading your review the urge to reread the work appears again.
    I really agree with you that just because the writer is white male doesn’t mean he has nothing to say and even if the author represents his times ideas and morals that also doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be read nowdays.
    I just feel because of Colonialism and too sensitive young readers we are losing or forgetting to read many fascinating Victorian writers for example Rudyard Kipling many young people don’t recognise him nowdays which is unfortunate fate.
    Thank you for lovely reviews

    • Aw, thank you! 😊

      Yes, I think we’re in danger of losing a lot of great writing by our over-sensitivity to the past. I can read outdated racial terms without feeling a need to go out and use them! And equally I can admire stories about the Empire without wanting to go and invade other countries. These Victorians lived in such an interesting world, when they were discovering so much about other cultures and about their own humanity – it would be a real shame if they were allowed to sink into obscurity. We should be teaching kids how to deal with outdated ideas and learn from them…

  8. What a fantastic post, FictionFan! I have never read any Conrad, though my boyfriend has and he is adamant many of the colonial and African images that I have in mind come indeed from Conrad’s books. I guess that shows the power of his legacy. Now I only have to read his works!

    • Aw, thank you, Elena! 😊 I had only read one book before, Lord Jim, long, long ago and hated it – I think I was just too young to really “get” what he was saying. But that put me off reading any more of him till now – a mistake I shall be rectifying! Yes, I think he has been really influential – despite his use of language and descriptions we wouldn’t use any more, I felt his underlying ideas seemed surprisingly modern… way ahead of his time.

  9. I have always heard such awful things about Heart of Darkness that not bothering with it has always been a given. But now, FF, you have changed my mind, and I think I will have to add him to my list. In fact, now I am extremely intrigued about your 5 stars for Conrad! Well done! 🙂

    Also, I so agree with this: “my own view is that all stories should stand or fall on their own merit as stories, and should not rely on a reader catching all the references or undertones, though they may be enhanced by it.”

    • I’ve still to write my review of Heart of Darkness itself, but it’ll be pretty glowing! It does require a bit (a lot) of allowance-making for the language and some of the descriptions, but for us to pretend that there weren’t things like cannibalism and human sacrifice is to rewrite history, and that can’t ever be good. It’s not as if we pretend that our white culture didn’t produce the Spanish Inquisition or the Nazis! The writing is wonderful and it’s a pretty searing indictment of the damage done by colonialism, to both sides. I think he’d be a great addition to your list – I’m keen to read more of him now too! 😀

      Yes, I like these intros that explain all the stuff I missed, but they should be extra to the story, not essential, I feel. And I was pleasantly surprised to find these stories aren’t nearly as unapproachable as I’d feared…

  10. This sounds really interesting, I’ve never read his short stories. Like you, I really disliked him when I read him as a teenager, but having read Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent in my 30s, I’ve more time for him now. Lord Jim is on my Le Monde reading challenge list and I’m hopeful I might even like it!

    • I remember nothing about Lord Jim except that I hated it at the time, but I’m keen to try it again now. I think I’ll read The Secret Agent first though. Having become fascinated by everything to do with empire and colonialism over the last few years meant these stories worked far better for me than I think they would have if I’d read them years ago. Great stuff!

  11. Yikes! that introduction leaves much to be desired. And that cover is uber creepy, it looks perfect for the collection. I really want to read these other stories, of course I studied Heart of Darkness in school, but the other three sound great! especially Outpost of Progress…

  12. There are two kinds of really awful introductions: 1) the kind that gives all the best quotes from the entire story and/or actually gives spoilers for the plot. And 2) the kind that is just so pretentious that no one can read it anyway. I know that I’m not a great scholar like the guy who wrote the introduction, but I do know, bring a composition teacher, that he’s writing in a way that is wordy enough that perhaps some editor out there could have suggested cutting it down a bit for clarity. I look forward to hearing your thoughts about Heart of Darkness, as that is a story that I’ve tried to read a couple of times before, but for some reason the language always stops me up and I just can’t seem to finish it.

    • Most of these OWC intros give spoilers, but they also give a spoiler alert at the beginning to suggest people who don’t know the stories read the intro as an afterword, which I always do anyway. I do understand why academics use jargon – it’s a kind of shortcut for them. But when they’re writing a book for general publication, I wish they’d speak in ordinary English. I do kinda understand the sentence I quoted, but I felt it could have been expressed so much more clearly.

      I think I’m going to re-read Heart of Darkness before I write my review – during Wimbledon! I suspect I’ll get even more out of it on a second read… 😀

  13. What a great review of each story. I’ve seen Conrad on the shelves so many times but haven’t read anything. I have Lord Jim on my shelf and must admit I haven’t read it. Looking forward to your full review

    • Thank you! 😀 I’ve been avoiding him for years, which is one reason I really like the Classics Club – it forces me to pick up books I’ve been putting off, and nine times out of ten I end up loving them. I’ll certainly be reading more Conrad now…

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