44 of 49 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2000
I was once one of those students forced to read this book at school. I was dragged kicking and screaming to its pages and read it only because I did not want to flunk my class. I was riveted from the first page, right up to the last paragraph. It is quite simply Conrad's finest book, (yes, I read his other books after this one.) The story is simple enough, a young Englishman, Marlow goes out to Africa to seek his fortune. He is at first idealistic, and full of himself. However he quickly realises that Africa is full of petty bureaucrats who have no idea how to make use of this dark jewel they have acquired. Like Colonists before them, they proceed to ravage and plunder the land of its natural resources. Enter Kurtz, an Ivory Trader who has gone Native. He has become a Renegade, living with his Black mistress in the heart of Africa's interior; systematically turning his back on his supposed civilised self. Marlow meets him after an eventful trip up the Congo and finds himself curiously attracted to this strange man who is dying, and obviously going insane. Kurtz in turn is an embarrassment to his employers who would rather see him dead than returned to "civilization." Of course this is unspoken, and the hypocrisy of human natures sticks out like a sore thumb in this novel, especially as Kurtz is one of the best Ivory Traders on the Congo route. Marlow struggles to understand Kurtz and what makes him tick, but he only touches the surface of a man who can live in neither the Black or White world comfortably. He has been corrupted by both worlds and therefore he is cursed. Heart of Darkness has many facets; it is a story about Imperialism, racism, and the darkness of human nature. Conrad purposely leaves the ending open to interpretation. What is the "horror" that Kurtz whispers with his dying breath, is it Africa herself with the depths that have yet to be uncovered, or is it the human psyche with all its viciousness as it greedily crushes a land and people into submission? This is a book that will make you think, make you want to it re-read again and again in case you have missed anything. There are also some genuinely funny moments in the book such as the Doctor who measures skulls for a hobby and the pompous Trading Post clerk who teaches his Black maid to starch his clothes. This edition, (Dover Thrift) is well worth getting as well, as it is cheap and cheerful and it definitely won't break the bank money wise.
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on June 8, 2001
Many people call this novella, published in 1902, the first real book of the 20th century, in that it deals with loss of innocence, moral ambiguity, exploration of the subconscious - all issues that factored prominently into the past hundred years.
In college I tried to read "Heart of Darkness," but couldn't make it through, despite its small size. Conrad's thick prose just put me to sleep. But I recently read "King Leopold's Ghost," a gut-wrenching book about the exploitation of the Congo around the turn of the century. With that book as factual background, I took another shot at "Heart of Darkness," and this time I tore through it.
The book works at a purely surface level, as an exotic adventure, but it's even more powerful when read as a symbolic journey - either to the core of an individual psyche or to the mysterious heart of the human condition. And what Marlow, the narrator, discovers there is enough to convince him that truly letting go - as Kurtz did - is to become immersed in a spiritual darkness that cannot be explained or escaped.
"Apocalypse Now" (based loosely on "Heart of Darkness") introduced me to the phrase "The horror! The horror!" - but reading it in Condrad's book was far more chilling.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on November 24, 1999
The Author Originally from Poland, and known as Josef Konrad Korzeniowski, Joseph Conrad knew very little English until he began learning it at age 20. At age 38 he published the first of his many novels, and he displayed in each a rare mastery of his adopted language. A member of the British Merchants Navy, he worked his way from mere deckhand, to captain. While serving, he traveled widely, and entered the African Congo in 1890. It is thought that much of Heart of Darkness is based upon his experiences while there. His Message His overall message might be summed up in the cliché, Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It might also be summed up in the assertion that man's social environment is perhaps kingpin in either deterring or allowing release of the innate evil capable of flowing from his nature. The book addresses the themes of oppression and freedom, power and powerlessness, corruption and virtue, nature and nurture, in ways that are creative and profound. Overall, this book is deep. It's message only fully hit me after considerable private musing. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad explores human nature in a most ironic fashion. He does this by narrating an oral story as told by a seafaring man about an explorer-merchant who enters into the African Congo with the best of intentions of bringing light and commerce. But there in the Heart of Darkness, without any external restraint, would emerge the explorer-merchant's own heart of darkness...and the horrors that would ultimately flow from it. Is Conrad's book, at least in part, an autobiographical warning disguised as fiction? There is a strong universality and timelessness to the themes addressed in Heart of Darkness, and an extreme richness of meaning in the text. This coupled with the life of Joseph Conrad himself, in so profoundly addressing his issues of English literacy, makes this truly outstanding reading.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on September 12, 2003
While justifiably a classic of 20th Century literature, Conrad's depiction of a journey up the Congo River will not find favor with everyone. Because he had actually made such a journey himself, Conrad is able to give ornate descriptions that bring this mysterious locale to life before our eyes - at least, for those whose response to the printed word is largely visual. To those readers who, like this reviewer, are more intrigued by plot and character than by the appearance of a person or place, Conrad's lengthy descriptions of the river and its banks may seem tiresome, mere delay as the plot slowly unfolds.
And is it ever slow. This measured pacing is supposed to create a strong element of suspense as we wonder what will happen when Marlow finally meets the mysterious Kurtz, but casual readers should be forgiven for not really caring. The journey itself doesn't get exciting until the attack comes, a good three-quarters of the way through the book, so those hoping for action and adventure will find little to their taste. So why is this novel considered such a masterpiece?
Apart from Conrad's turgid prose, the real power of this story is in its philosophical content. Marlow's physical journey into Africa parallels a psychological journey into the darkness of the human condition. He seeks a Kurtz who has been described as an emissary of science and progress, the best man the company has ever sent to Africa, a veritable superman whose humanity, sensitivity, leadership skills, and practical know-how have enabled him to accomplish amazing things in these most difficult of circumstances. In effect Kurtz represents Colonialism itself; he is the living proof that European Imperialist policies can improve conditions in the colonies while netting a profit for the home country. But what Marlow finds is something very different, and the equivocal conclusion forces the reader to make his own decisions about the moral choices that are made. For many, the story makes a strong indictment of the atrocities perpetrated by Kurtz, and by extension, the colonial powers behind him, and by further extension, most of human history, which is characterized by the company manager as the process by which the strong take what they want from the weak, using brute force.
This is not a "fun" read; there's no trace of humor or romance as we use the term. Women have only the tiniest roles, and there are passages that have been roundly criticized as offensive to Africans. If those concerns don't bother you, and you can get past the slow plot, there are some heavy points being made here. For the rest of us, Apocalypse Now is a fantastic film that sets pretty much the same story in war-era Viet Nam. It won't get you through your English class, but it's a far more entertaining work of art.
34 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on February 2, 2000
I'd always heard that "Apocalypse Now" drew plot elements from "Heart of Darkness", but didn't realize just how closely it was based. After HOD, it will be fun to watch that movie again.
Sentence by sentence, this book resonates with the sound of classic literature. I'm a fan of eloquent wordsmithery, and Conrad was a master. Having read this independently, I probably didn't pick up on all of the symbolism or social commentary about European colonialism. However, the essential themes are clear and persuasively shown: the corruption of power and the potential in humankind for regression to savagery when social inhibitions are absent - much like "Lord of the Flies", which another reviewer astutely noted. Beyond the meanings, I think it works very well as a dark adventure narrative, building premonitions of disaster as Marlow journeys deeper into the continent and closer to the mythical Kurtz. My only criticism echoes many previous reviews: the encounter with a weakened Kurtz is anticlimactic and leaves the reader hungry for demonstrations of the great man's warped charisma.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on November 10, 2003
Several negative reviews of Heart of Darkness seem to have been written by bitter high school students. In sum, their sentiment is: "Don't read this book if you don't like good stories."
It should be more like, "Don't read this if you aren't willing to study it." These "students" must understand that a superficial reading of a novel will NEVER yield anything useful. Plot is not the only way to judge the merits of a story. What defines a classic is not always what happens, but how the events are told to us.
Conrad's writing is not complex and vague by accident. The reviewer who remarked that it takes Marlow several convoluted sentences to describe the river misses the point that Marlow is not the kind of narrator who can describe something precisely. It is more like an impressionist painting. Conrad's style recreates those blurred images we all have when we try to recollect an experience. It is a representation not of what all men know, but what an individual sees.
***SPOILER IN NEXT PARAGRAPH***
Marlow is "unsteady" on purpose. We are supposed to question whether he necessarily is against imperialism. This book cannot be said to be strictly anti-imperialistic, since Marlow lies at the end to preserve Kurtz's reputation. Contradictions in Marlow's character are Conrad's consious doing.
Contrary to popular belief, good novels DO require close readings and analysis to be understood. Authors don't just want to write a good story: they want their story to spark discussion of the plot, themes, AND narrative technique. Conrad didn't include all those adjectives as filler.
If any of these reviewers go on to study literature at a university, I'm sure they will one day be embarassed that they made their ignorance public. I know I've come off as pretentious, but this literature does not deserve to be brushed aside because it is complex. Rather, it demands a close analysis. Judge the novel only after you truly understand it.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 27, 2006
When Marlow begins his journey to find the mythical Kurtz in HEART OF DARKNESS, Joseph Conrad dares the reader to accompany Marlow on a voyage less into the physical jungles of darkest Africa and more into the mental labyrinth that human beings erect to protect themselves from the horrors that they themselves build. In this justly famous novella, Conrad depicts a pre-politically correct age when white men thought it only fair and inevitable that they plunder the riches of Africa all the while comforting themselves that they were uplifting the fallen state of a lowly people.
Conrad uses a twin layer of narratives in order to achieve the needed objectivity that he felt required to place the reader at varying distances from the horror that Kurtz cried out at the end. The opening narrator is unnamed, possibly Conrad himself, who sets the stage by placing the reader at a safe distance from the evils which lay squarely ahead. Through this narrator we get a bird'e eyes view of the true narrator Marlow, who is depicted as somehow different from the four other men on the deck of the Nellie. This difference in physical attributes slowly increases to concomitant differences in perspective, attitude, and general authorial reliability. Marlow is a deeply flawed man who has the disadvantage of viewing the unfolding events from the prejudiced eyes of a white colonial civil servant who is sure that the blacks in Africa are little different from his preconceived notion of uncivilized cannibals. Further, Marlow makes numerous errors of judgment along the way, many of them seemingly insignificant, yet the totality of the reader's perspective is twisted through the equally twisted lens of an unreliable narrator. Conrad's purpose in melding the reader to a flawed narrator was to insure that the reader could never trust what he reads, thereby increasing his sense of unease in that the sense of safety that Marlow feels, first on the deck of the Nellie, and later in the jungle itself, is as flimsy as the signposts that guide Marlow toward his goal.
The goal is Kurtz, a trader who set out to civilize the blacks into accepting a white version of civilization, but Marlow finds out that the reverse happened. The true horror that Kurtz sees is the horror that all would be conquerors find when they discover that the philosophy of racial supremacy which led them into conflict with a people whom they deemed unworthy is shown to be built on straw. Kurtz knows that the only difference between his brutal acts toward the natives and their own similar atrocities toward themselves is no difference at all. As corrupt as Kurtz must have been, in his closing cry of horror, he finds a small measure of redemption and closure. Marlow sees what Kurtz saw, knew what Kurtz did, and heard up close and personal Kurtz's swan song of pain, but Marlow learned nothing of lasting value. All he could think of was to maintain the image of the Kurtz that was: "I remained to dream the nightmare out to the end, and to show my loyalty to Kurtz once more." The journey that Kurtz took was a horror only because he became what he sought. The journey that Marlow took became a horror only because he learned nothing from what he sought. As you and I read HEART OF DARKNESS, we must decide which journey has the more meaningful signposts.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 10, 2000
Conrad who is pro-colonization of Africa, as most Europeans are, are swept by the irony of the Africans, who are "uncivilized" in all shapes and forms. In this novel it can be seen that a large theme is self-control, and the Africans actually exhibit more of that than the Europeans.
On the trip upriver Marlow enlists a crew of about 30 cannibals to do the boat's manual labor. In contrast to the idiotic pilgrims, Conrad portrays the cannibals with dignity. They grow increasingly hungry on board, especially after the pilgrims throw their provision of stinking hippo meat overboard and the manager refuses to stop to trade for food on shore. Marlow tries to imagine why they don't eat him and the pilgrim, and the only answer he can offer is the restraint he values so highly in civilized people: "Restraint! I would just as soon have expected restraint from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battlefield. But there was the fact facing me" (Chapter II). Marlow respects them: "They were men one could work with, and I am grateful to them." Work is one of Marlow's highest values, and the pilgrims, we know, are terrible workers. In fact, the pilgrims are always behaving on a level beneath what you would expect of civilized men, while the cannibals keep acting on a level above what you would expect of savages.
Conrad's style is original, perplexing and filled with imagery and symbolism.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on May 14, 2007
Conrad is an amazing writer! English is his THIRD language, too! This book is so incredibly packed with symbolism and beautiful, almost poetry-like, writing. He references classical literature and Biblical symbolism as well as creating his own themes that run through it. It's really an amazing work! I did my term paper in my British Literature class on it.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Amazon had not yet delivered Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge while I had just finished Paul Theroux's insightful The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari. There was, as a result, a brief (two days, it turns out) window for reading. So why not select and read a short novel that would throw a different light on Theroux's Africa and explore the dark themes that often arise in Pynchon's novels? That's why yours truly finally read THE HEART OF DARKNESS.
The premise of DARKNESS is interesting. The ambitious, charismatic, and eloquent Kurtz goes to the Congo to make money. Working as a representative of a Belgian trading company, he becomes a highly successful gatherer of ivory who is resented by his bureaucratic superiors. At the same time, this new African environment liberates the expression of Kurtz's drive for power and glory and he acquires a dark and venerated status in the village where he works. For the few who have not yet read DARKNESS, here comes a SPOILER: Kurtz becomes sick and dies. And as he is dying, he rants about his visionary plans before crying out these ambiguous last words: "The horror! The horror!" So the question is: Does this horror apply to Kurtz's failure to achieve his goals or to his dark personality that emerged in Africa?
There's probably nothing new to say about this novella. Even so, some commentators do deserve a special tip-o-the-hat for their insights. These include Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart), who according to Wikipedia said "...the novella de-humanized Africans, denied them language and culture and reduced them to a metaphorical extension of the dark and dangerous jungle into which the Europeans venture." Similarly, Adam Hochschild (King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa) observes that the novella provides an "... accurate recounting of the methods and effects of colonialism."
DARKNESS, first published in 1899, remains a powerful book with many passages of great and brooding beauty. While the title of this review is a snippet of Conrad, a few longer passages also convey why this book just won't go away.
o Droll thing life is--that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself--that comes too late--and a crop of inextinguishable regrets.
o He struggled with himself, too. I saw it--I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself.
o Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you, smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, "Come and find out".
o I think the... wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance... I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude--and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating.
o The mind of man is capable of anything.