Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Fever dream… 

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

One night a group of friends are aboard a boat on the Thames waiting for the tide before they can set sail. As darkness grows around them, one of the men, Marlow, tells the story of the time he worked as a pilot on a steamboat on the Congo and of the rogue ivory trader, Kurtz, whom he met there.

I realise I’m white and descended from colonialist stock, so I recognise that my judgement may not be as objective as I would like, but it astonishes me that Conrad has, among some critics, a reputation as a racist. This book is an excoriating study of the horrors of colonialism in Africa – horrors perpetrated in this case by Belgium, but Conrad leaves that deliberately vague so I think we can assume he is speaking generally as well as specifically. Conrad shows the devastating impact the white man had on both the society and the land of Africa, but he also shows that this devastation turns back on the coloniser, corrupting him physically and psychologically, and by extension, corrupting the societies from which he comes.

Millions of words have been written in analysis of the text by people considerably more qualified (and even more opinionated) than I, so rather than try to argue the case for or against the book on a moral level, I’ll stick to how I feel it works as a novella. And on that score, my feelings are somewhat mixed.

Having now read it twice, I have to say I find it quite hard to read, not because of the horrors but because the writing, although superbly descriptive, often darkly lyrical and with some wonderfully disturbing imagery, is sometimes convoluted and rather unclear. The introduction and excellent notes in my Oxford World’s Classics edition suggest that often Conrad was being deliberately vague – as I mentioned earlier about Belgium, for instance – and I’m sure people at the time would have known enough about their world to be able to fill in the blanks. But frankly, I think I’d have struggled without the notes. Marlow also jumps forward from time to time, leaving linking bits of the story unsaid, perhaps realistically in terms of how we think and relate stories verbally, but I found it rather jarring in written form. As a lazy reader, I was irritated that several times I felt I had to go back and read a section again to fully catch the meaning and how we’d got from there to here, so to speak.

….“It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams….”
….He was silent for a while.
….“… No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone….”

However, the book’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. The overall effect is of a hallucination or a nightmare, full of imagery about darkness. Marlow tells us that he is feverish for at least part of the journey and on his return to civilisation, and there is a sense of it all being a fever dream. Everything feels exaggerated, from the descriptions of the impenetrable jungle, to the Africans’ worship of Kurtz as a kind of god, to the attitudes of the white men to Kurtz’ apparent power over them. We are told repeatedly of Kurtz’ eloquence, but are never permitted to hear his views in his own voice. On the very rare occasions that he speaks on the page, his words are unexceptional (apart from on one occasion which I won’t go into because it’s a major spoiler, and becomes the climactic point of the book). Did Conrad choose to do that because he felt perhaps that he couldn’t make him eloquent enough to live up to his reputation? I doubt it, since Conrad can write supremely eloquently. So was it perhaps to leave the reader in doubt as to whether Kurtz was truly eloquent, or whether his listeners exaggerated his eloquence to justify their cult-like admiration for him? I don’t know, but I found it intriguing to consider. (We undoubtedly have leaders today that no-one could seriously describe as eloquent, but who inspire crazed uncritical devotion in their followers.)

Book 62 of 90

The one thing that doesn’t have a feeling of unreality is the physical cruelty of the white men’s treatment of the African workers in the stations along the river, and interestingly these are the sections that Conrad writes in the most straightforward manner.

A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads, and the clink kept time with their footsteps. Black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends behind wagged to and fro like tails. I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking. Another report from the cliff made me think suddenly of that ship of war I had seen firing into a continent. It was the same kind of ominous voice; but these men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from over the sea. All their meagre breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily uphill. They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages.

The cruelty didn’t surprise me too much (though it horrified me), but what I did find odd was the feeling of almost total incompetence and futility of the white man’s ventures. I don’t know enough about the Belgian attitude to their colonies, but again the introduction tells me that they had a particularly bad reputation at that time even among fellow colonial powers. Unlike in colonial literature by and about the Brits in Africa (and even in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart), there is no suggestion of the white man attempting to bring “civilisation” to the “savages”, or religion. I suspect this is deliberate, since Conrad seems to be comparing the two cultures and suggesting that, while they are different, one is not intrinsically superior to the other – they are simply at different stages of development. One of the most intriguing things he does is frequently to compare the white man in Africa to what it must have been like for a “civilised” Roman sent to pacify and exploit savage Britons back in the days of their Empire. Unspoken, this reminds the reader that all empires fall in time, but also that all empires leave a legacy on those they colonised, for good or ill, or both.

Joseph Conrad

I’m glad to have read it, especially for the wonderful descriptive prose and the feverish imagery, and it certainly deserves its status as a major classic of colonial literature – hence the 5-star rating. However, though still a newcomer to Conrad’s work, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as some of his other stories – Karain, for example, or Lord Jim, probably because I found them easier to read. I wondered why it’s this one that seems always to be connected to his name, and I can only conclude that it’s the vagueness itself, which allows critics and academics to argue endlessly over meanings and moral values, and leaves space for later writers and film-makers to reinterpret it as they choose. This reader, however, would have preferred just a little more plain speaking and a little less need to rely on the notes…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. I reviewed the other three stories in the volume separately here.

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50 thoughts on “Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

    • Thanks for popping in and linking to your review – I’ve left a comment over there. Haha – I quite understand – not the easiest book in the world, and I certainly wouldn’t fancy having to write essays on it! 😀

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  1. The Belgian government took over the administration of the Congo because the Congo Free State, which was under some sort of personal administration of the king rather than the government, was notorious for atrocities, which some historians think should be classed as a genocide. The British Consul kicked up a fuss about it, and shamed the Belgians into acting – and, given that other colonial powers didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory in Africa, that says how bad it must have been. I’ve only read one of Conrad’s books, though, and it was hard work!

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    • Thanks for that background! 😀 It did say soemthing in the notes about Conrad having been asked to write a report – maybe for the Consul, I can’t remember now, but certainly for some aspect of the British government. As you say, if the other colonisers thought it was bad, it must have been really, really bad! But it’s actually quite reassuring to know that they took some action about it, rather than just looking the other way. I do find Conrad hard work, but each time so far I’ve ended up feeling ti was worth it, and I now seem to be working my way through his books almost against my will! 😉

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  2. What a thoughtful and interesting review, FictionFan! As you say, Conrad’s taken his share of criticism for being a racist; I’m not sure that’s true, either. But, like you, I’m white, so perhaps I’m missing something. At any rate, I think you may be right that people in Conrad’s time might have been able to ‘put the pieces together’ with some of his references a bit better than we can now. Still, that going back and forth and working things out does take a toll on one’s reading energy. I’m glad you thought the journey was worth it…

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    • Thanks, Margot! 😀 Yes, I think there’s a tendency to assume that outdated language implies racism whereas I feel Conrad generally is very much saying we’re all the same under the skin even if our cultures are very different, which seems to me to be the opposite of racism! But then I get very prickly about how Scots are sometimes portrayed, so I can understand how it might feel different when it’s personal, so to speak. Yes, some classics are easy to read even when a lot of time has passed whereas others seem to rely much more on the reader knowing the world of the time. Writers should always assume readers will still be reading their books a hundrd years later and fill in the blanks accordingly! 😉

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  3. I am quite fond of this book – I rather like the feverish atmosphere and the allusive style (and it got me interested in reading more about that period and about colonialism in Africa). I think you’re right that Conrad is very critical of colonialism in general: as a Pole, I think he was more aware than most white people of having your country overrun by others who consider themselves superior to you. I am hoping that my older son will read it now that he knows that the film Apocalypse Now is based on it.

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    • I always struggle with that kind of vague style but I know it’s mostly down to my laziness as a reader. And so much of his writing is glorious that I forgive him! It always seems to me, from the little I’ve read, that Conrad was more interested in the corrupting effect on the coloniser than on the impact on the colonised, and I find that fascinating. Yes, I think his “outsider” status definitely allowed him to take a less biased view. And he reminded me in this one that of course Britain has been colonised several times in history – just so long ago we’ve become fond of the stories of Romans, Vikings, Normans, etc., now. I wonder if one day our colonies will look back with the same kind of nostalgic affection… hmm…

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  4. Great review! I’m not surprised that you assessed it the way you did. Definitely not a favorite of mine (read it once; never want to read it again), though I can see why Coppola used it as the basis for his movie.

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    • I saw Apocalypse Now when it came out and really disliked it but at that time I had no idea it was based on a book. I’m now intrigued to watch it again – a thing I’ve never been tempted to do before – to see if knowing the book will change my opinion of the film…

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  5. I agree with this being a tough read, what with the subject and Conrad’s prose style; I certainly found that the case with the only other Conrad I remember reading (The Secret Agent) and with Henry James too. Like you I didn’t think the book in any way condoned colonialism let alone racism, especially as Marlow the narrator isn’t necessarily the alter ego of Conrad the writer. But when I compare it with other near contemporary white men’s tales of Africa (H Rider Haggard and his noble savages, for example, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Africans in his Tarzan books) I find his description of the plight of the Congo workers quite believable.

    And colonial attitudes were quite alive, even if in their last throes, in the Hong Kong of the 1950s when I was a pre-teen there, while racism is never absent if the reports about the abuse Chinese in the UK and elsewhere are being subjected to in the wake of the coronavirus spread aren’t exaggerated.

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    • You’re right – there is a kind of similarity with Henry James, in the way they’re both vague and allusive and a bit convoluted in their sentence structure, and make the reader work hard. I think sometimes people equate outdated language with racism, but since I’m old enough to remember how innocently we all used terms that would be considered entirely unacceptable now I’m generally able to give authors a pass on that. It’s when they imply that people from other cultures are a lower form of life that I consider it racist – criticisms of other cultures seem to me to be fair game, to be honest. Although I don’t necessarily feel that when other people criticise mine… 😉 I disliked Burroughs portrayal of the Africans (although I loved the book) but I have a soft spot for Rider Haggard – it always seems to me he had a lot of respect for his “savages” and didn’t really consider them inferior as human beings.

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      • Yes, when I used the term ‘noble savage’ I wasn’t implying a disrespect on Haggard’s part, maybe more an exoticisation (is this even a word?!). From memory, Burroughs had a few noble savages in his Tarzan series but mostly his ‘natives’ were dreadful stereotypes. But then, all his characters were stereotypes: East Europeans were shifty types, academics were absent-minded and women (apart from Jane) frail and liable to faint. It was all ideal fodder for an era when silent film was panto and literature for the masses was pulp fiction.

        My parents were Anglo-Indian and I was mostly brought up in Hong Kong, and I remember feeling very uncomfortable with both covert and overt racism. My father, who should have known better, happily referred to people from New Guinea as fuzzy-wuzzies, and both my parents were insistent that, despite my father’s swarthy look and their accent, that there was ‘nothing like that’ in their family and that they were British through and through. They didn’t acclimatise as well as they hoped in the Britain of the 60s. Interesting observing all that from my viewpoint over half a century later.

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        • I often wonder how our depictions of people and our language of today will be viewed in a hundred years, when fashions will doubtless have changed again. Will they be horrified at our conservatism or our liberalism? Will they wonder why it’s OK for women to be offensive about men but not vice versa, or for black people to say they’ll only vote for a black person but not for white people to say they’ll only vote for a white one? Will they think we swear too much or too little? What will they think of our prize-winning books? I think we’ve improved in some ways but I’m not sure we’re as “advanced” as we like to think we are… I think we’ve just changed our prejudices.

          Yes, my father used terms that were outdated even back then too, but so did BBC sitcoms! I think back to programmes like Love Thy Neighbour and can’t imagine why we found it funny, but we did! Racism was simply a part of life – for example, I knew very well without my parents ever having to say it that I better not marry a black man or even date one if I wanted to remain part of the family. It wasn’t a major problem up here since there really were so few black people around that the chances were remote, but I sometimes wondered if they’d have changed their minds if push came to shove – I’m still not sure. And heaven forfend that any of us should come “out” as gay! Now parents seem actively disappointed if their children are boringly heterosexual… 😉 I love the way things change and how each generation is so sure they’ve got it right, till their children tell them how wrong they are about everything… 😂

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          • I couldn’t stand those tv sitcoms back then (things like On The Buses and Terry & June and, of course, Love Thy Neighbour) — tolerating only classics like Dad’s Army, Fawlty Towers and the more surreal pieces like Spike Milligan’s Q series.

            What I find dispiriting is that the casual and not-so-casual racism and other prejudices of those days has only being lying dormant, with the sustained attack on ‘political correctness’ erupting into outright abuse of all diversity following the EU referendum. I see hearts of darkness all around us now. ☹️

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            • Ha – I’m not so sure either Dad’s Army or Fawlty Towers would pass the purity test today. I must admit I’m not nearly as pessimistic about things as most of my fellow UK bloggers seem to be. I reckon women have never had it so good at any time in history here in the UK, and while there is undoubtedly still racism in many forms, it’s not nearly as widespread and ingrained as it used to be. I cannot imagine us having had POC as cabinet ministers even thirty years ago, and yet now it passes without remark. There’s always room for improvement, but there’s also room for legitimate disagreement on things like immigration policy without it being howled down as racism. IMO.

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  6. Outstanding review FF! And it’s left me aware of something so obvious that I’m ashamed of having failed to appreciate it before. You make the point clearly and Chris mentions it too in the comment above mine: Marlow isn’t necessarily Conrad’s alter ego. This alone should encourage me to read this one again. I’d also be prepared for the darkness and the horror of it all. All of which should mean I could read it more dispassionately and perhaps more appreciatively. Maybe one day I’ll feel strong enough 🤔 Either way, thanks for stretching my hitherto very narrow view of this classic 😃

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    • Thanks, Sandra! 😀 It’s intriguing that he seems to have an extra narrator who tells the story of Marlow telling the story, and I always assume that that’s his way of indicating that Marlow doesn’t always speak for him, though I suspect a lot of Marlow is him. He does something similar in Lord Jim, another Marlow story. It does lead to a phenomenal number of nested quotation marks though, which makes his style even trickier! I found my second read allowed me to understand it better, and the horrors definitely didn’t have as big an impact second time round…

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    • Ha! While I enjoyed it, it certainly wasn’t either an easy nor an uplifting read, so I quite understand why it wouldn’t appeal! No book is for everyone… except Anne of Green Gables and Pride and Prejudice, of course… 😉

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  7. I feel certain I read this in school (or excerpts from it), but have no desire to begin it anew to make sure. 😂 On another note… the name Agatha Christie came up at our book club meeting last night with several heads nodding “yes” and only one resounding “no”. We did not choose one of hers, but we did pick a classic to read later in the summer from one of those authors it always shocks people to find out I’ve not read. I will leave you in suspense for now. 😉

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    • Hahaha – it’s Austen, isn’t it? I think I remember fainting once when you said you hadn’t read her? Which one (assuming it is)? Reading Austen and Christie in the same month would be fabulous – and what better month than March… 😉

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      • Bingo! 😃 I was quick to suggest Persuasion since that’s the one my daughter likes best and felt I would, too. We won’t discuss it until August, so a Christie will have to come sooner. 😉

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        • Persuasion is very good and I do think you’ll like it. But of course Pride and Prejudice is better, because Darcy! Well, actually it’s the character of Lizzie that I love – Darcy’s just a little bonus. 😉

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    • Of course, maybe that was just me! But I did find the notes more essential than I like – I prefer them to enhance my reading rather than being a necessity. Just as well I was reading a version with notes, though – otherwise I think I’d have found it very frustrating…

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    • Thanks, Jennifer! For some reason I was never given Conrad at either school or university and have actively avoided him for most of my life! But I’m glad I’ve found him now – not easy but rewarding in the end!

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  8. I’m glad i’m not the only one who is irritated by purposeful vagueness in stories. Your theory that classics like this one are more popular because the vagueness leaves gaps for theorizing is a good one! That makes so much sense. Not as much to theorize in a Bridget Jones novel, so people don’t argue over it endlessly as they do with a book like this 🙂

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    • Haha, yes! In fact I used to argue with my snooty English tutor at Uni who clearly felt that “literature” was somehow more important than just “fiction”, whereas I think it’s all about what you enjoy! No wonder I didn’t get on very well at Uni… 😉

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    • Thank you! I’ve avoided Conrad for years and it’s only because I’ve recently become interested in the colonial period that I’ve finally given in and read him. And now, even though he’s not the easiest author in the world, I think I’m a fan… 😀

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  9. Great review. I think you got a lot more out of this than I ever did. The overall vagueness mostly left me confused and there was a lot I felt unclear about. I kind of wish I’d read it in school just so I could have learned it within a greater historical context.

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  10. I do admire you for such a comprehensive review! I read this years ago and don’t remember anything about it except that it was such a struggle that I hated it and haven’t picked up Conrad since. Reading this makes me feel that I should add him to my next classics list at least, maybe Lord Jim? You make a good point that it’s its vagueness that keeps it ripe for discussion.

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    • Thank you! I was so glad I was reading it in an edition with notes or I don’t know if I’d have made it through it at all. Hmm – I did find Lord Jim easier, but it has a lot of the same stylistic issues – narrations within narrations, lengthy digressions and so on, plus it’s much longer. However I felt the story was stronger and the characterisation of Lord Jim was wonderfully complex. You might hate it… but you might love it! 😀

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  11. I read this about 10 years ago and I remember it being fairly impenetrable, but that style adding to the whole story, as you say. It hasn’t put me off trying Lord Jim, its just the TBR mountain that means I haven’t picked up any Conrad since!

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    • Lord Jim has a lot of the same style techniques, like the nested narratives and digressions, but it’s less vague and feverish which meant that I didn’t find myself having to re-read chunks to get the meaning to the same degree. However I still found the notes came in useful! 😀

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    • He’s very definitely an author who requires a bit of work and perseverance (and good notes!) but I do think he’s worth the effort, especially for anyone interested in colonialism. I hope you enjoy Lord Jim – I’ll be interested to hear how you get on with it. 🙂

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