'Heart of Darkness' by Joseph Conrad (1899)

Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and The Congo Diary (London: Penguin Classics, 2007), 136pp


An engrossing novella which unfortunately is almost as impenetrable as the Congo wilderness in which it is mostly set. There is much material addressing the book's twin themes of imperialism and the darkness in the human soul, but this material is distributed scattergun throughout the prose, so one can only get a handle on what Conrad is trying to say once one has finished the book and thought about it at length. Even now, I don't feel inclined to sift through the many tangents that Conrad explores, and I am exhausted by even the contemplation of it. The two major themes are interesting to ponder along with Marlow, the protagonist, but there's already a wealth of material out there if you want to discuss the themes in Heart of Darkness. However, I will say that the little vignettes depicting the futility of certain acts - the French warship firing aimlessly into the bush, the cliff blasted beside the railway, the vast hole dug purposelessly on a slope (pp16-18) - immediately make it clear why Heart of Darkness was seen as suitable material for adaptation into the Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now, whilst also providing commentary on man's struggle to confront his mortality and enact real change in the world; in fact, he is merely screaming into the void.

Conrad deploys a deeply lyrical prose, and his descriptions of the Congo river - this "immense snake uncoiled... its tail lost in the depths of the land" (pg. 9) - and the oppressively dark African wilderness are especially evocative and atmospheric. You really do get a sense for the horrors that Marlow witnesses, and the madness he experiences. I also liked the parts set in London, where Conrad invokes the Romans; conquerors who saw Britain as the end of the world, a dark place, just as the imperialists of Marlow's time saw Africa in general and the Congo in particular. Conrad's decision to bookend the novella with scenes set on the River Thames - providing a clever juxtaposition to the river in the Congo - was also a nice touch.

Overall, Heart of Darkness, despite its short length, carries a hefty weight, not only in the clamour to academically scrutinise its themes but also in the hefty toll it exacts from its reader. It is worth a read, but those who wish to journey on this river would do well to heed the advice Marlow is given on page 45. On a scribbled note atop a stack of firewood, by a remote hut some fifty miles from Kurtz's location, he is told: "Approach cautiously."