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Heart of Darkness
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130 of 137 people found the following review helpful
on April 13, 2003
Format: Paperback
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 English Literature 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.) However be aware, this is not everyone's cup of tea. There will be some people who will read this book and think, "Oh God, you have to be kidding!" However if you can get passed this mentality then you are in for a real literary treat.
The story is simple enough, a young Englishman; Marlow (this character appears in Conrad's story "Youth") 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 Kurtz after an eventful trip up the Congo and finds himself curiously attracted to this strange man who is [very ill], 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 [harmed] 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. ...
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 [inexpensive] and cheerful and it definitely won't break the bank money wise.
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366 of 405 people found the following review helpful
on December 7, 2002
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I would like to address myself specifically to the Norton Critical Edition of this book. The difficulty that many readers face when they pick up a classic, pre-twentieth century novel is that they are not conversant with the history of the times in which it was written. Heart of Darkness can be enjoyed purely as a well written novella, but then you miss so much of what Conrad is trying to say not only regarding the thin veneer of man's social persona (ala Lord of the Flies) but about the evils of 19th century imperialism. What is the story of Colonialism? Do Conrad's derogatory remarks about Blacks make him a bigot? What were Conrad's overall views on life? What were Conrad's personal experiences in the Congo? What did readers think of Heart of Darkness when it was written, and what do the critics think of it today?
The Norton Critical Edition gives you 325 extra pages of material written by Conrad and others that provide answers to the above questions. You don't have to read all of these many articles, of course, but a good sampling of them will make your immersion in this famous story all the more enjoyable and meaningful.
This is a story that everyone should read, and the Norton Critical Edition provides the best format for the reading experience.
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134 of 148 people found the following review helpful
on January 28, 2000
Format: Hardcover
No-one seriously interested in English literature can afford not to read this book. As a central device, the parallel journey into the heart of Africa and the dark centre of the human experience, remains as powerful as ever. The writing in the opening pages, depicting the men and the Thames and the wide possibilities that rise with every outgoing tide, remain as evocative as anything in English. Conrad's subject is barbarity, a theme as relevant now as then. His dark view of the colonial instinct also stands as a warning at this very hour. With "Lord Jim" a thicker, but in many ways easier book to read, Conrad poses the great existential question that was to dominate personal politics throughout the 20th Century, the taking of personal responsibility, the search for personal redemption - as one character puts it: "How to be - Ach! How to be?" With "Heart of Darkness" he articulates what Michael Ignatieff has described as "the seductiveness of moral disgust." Faced with the darkness around him, the character Kurtz advises "exterminate the brutes." His final, dread epiphany, his message from the heart of his own darkness "The Horror! The Horror!" is as chilling now as it was a century ago - a century that has seen more horror than even Conrad could have imagined.
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182 of 205 people found the following review helpful
on June 19, 2001
Format: Paperback
Several people I am acquainted with have questioned my reading of "Heart of Darkness," using as argument the fact that they read it "in high school." Apparently, for these very well-read souls, if the book was in their high school reading list, then it should never be approached again. Well, both the poem of "El Cid" and the novel "Don Quijote" first revealed their wonders to me when I was in high school, and now that I have read them again (and "Don Quijote" complete this time), they have just proved to be timeless classics with something to tell a person of any age. "Heart of Darkness," by Joseph Conrad, is a classic that, given its length, invites several readings, particularly if one goes beyond the "high school-depth" sadly evident in those acquaintances of mine. The different, dark, alien world of the Congo as barely seen through Marlow's eyes, juxtaposed with the author's subtle-but-powerful condemnation of a system that promotes exploitation of those seen as "inferior," is one of this novella's most important, and often missed, commentaries. Marlow is the English sailor who does not, and cannot, understand anything that is not English, from the nameless city across the Channel (Brussels, most probably), to the ghost-like figures that people his employer's offices, to the multi-coloured map that shows how Africa has been carved, to the multi-coloured Russian whose language Marlowe cannot recognize and believes is cypher, to the river itself, to the native inhabitants of the land he is invading. This trip up the Congo river that Marlow tells his shipmates about while on the Thames is a journey after a man's voice, his treasure of ivory, and his report on the natives. This man, Kurtz, is the one who will state "kill the brutes!" in his report, expressing the opinion of so many Europeans regarding most, and maybe all, non-European races.
"Heart of Darkness" can be read simply as an adventure, but there are several, better, adventure books that have better "hooks" and are, at the same time, more easily forgotten. This is an extraordinary short book by an extraordinary author. Do not deprive yourself of a magnificent, early 20th century masterpiece of literature, just because someone was not hooked by it, or because someone read it in high school and it just wouldn't do to read it again. The power of this book is not in its "easy" prose, because its prose is definitely not easy. It is not in an artificially complex prose, either. This second fault seems more the refuge of other writers, plenty of them modern ones, who have confused "good" with obscure, and "better" with unreadable. Conrad knows how to tell a story, and there is a method to this dark tale told by Marlow, a man much closer to Kurtz than he would like to admit. Since the reader is presented only with Marlow's account, the jump from the reader to Marlow to Kurtz and back to the reader is a troubling one. Here is Conrad's mastery. Read the book. If you have read it, try it again. It may surprise you what new revelations prowl its pages.
This 3rd Norton Critical edition is the best I have seen so far. The essays are all good, but Chinua Achebe's deserves special attention: the Nigerian author advocates not reading "Heart of Darkness" at all, a statement that, coming from a writer, is not just surprising, but deeply disturbing. I sincerely believe that this form of intentional ignorance, of voluntary censorship on the part of the reader, only serves to foment a generalized, public ignorance of the world around us.
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106 of 120 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon July 25, 2009
So help me, I tried. I really tried. Paragraph upon paragraph was read, re-read, and sometimes read a third time, trying to soak it all up. My efforts were often rewarded, but not necessarily with a mind-blowing epiphany or an intoxicatingly rich literary morsel. There were many times when I found myself asking if that was all there was to the stream of consciousness rambling, the scaffold of metaphors threatening to topple under their own weight, or the lofty word choices. Yes, there was insight. Yes there was truth. Yes there was a candid essay on imperialism, racism, and the consistently mentioned eponymous phrase that lingers in all of us. Is that all? How much am I missing? I found myself wishing I had Cliff's Notes or a critical edition just to see what others more experienced in deciphering this novella had to say. Alas, I had nothing but my own head and I came up short. Nothing in this story made me pause and wonder. Nothing in this story made me want to read it again. Nothing in this story helped me to understand why it is so widely regarded as a classic. One thing that did strike me, however, is the fact that it is regarded as a book to be read by young adults. Many of the reviewers were in high school when they read it. My God, how much harder would it be at that age? I'm freaking forty-six and have lived and learned a great deal and I found it hard to plow through. What sadistic bastard would assign this to a fifteen year old and expect anything but a lot of confusion and frustration?
Maybe I am not mentally up to what Conrad offers. Like pearls before swine, the book's brilliance is wasted on me. I'm cool with that. If I couldn't get it after putting my best into it, then it is something I'll never get. There are too many books out there with the label of "classic" and I'll try my luck with them. If you are like me and wonder what the fuss was all about, here's a raised glass to us all. Oink oink.
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36 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on July 13, 2008
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I was motivated to re-visit Conrad's early masterpiece by Sebald's Walk in Suffolk, which contains a bio chapter on Conrad with emphasis on his Congo experience, which was a traumatic one. Conrad had taken up the job of a skipper of a river steamboat, but he quit after a short time, in disgust with the colonial practices of the Belgians and their crude exploitation methods.
Marlow is Conrad's alter ego here, a captain who tells his story to some other guests at a dinner party. The party takes place on a ship in the Thames estuary around the turn of the 19th century. An initial narrator gives us the frame of the five men coming together for a chat and a drink and dinner. Marlow then takes over and tells us 'one of his inconsequential stories', as the introducer expects with some sarcasm: how he got the Congo job and went there with curiosity. He is appalled from the start by the crude colonialist violence that he observes on the African West Coast and then in the Congo territory itself, and by the raw greed of the colonialists. Kurtz of course, the main protagonist of Marlow's tale, who has not much of a 'life' role to play in the story, stands for the fallen white man, the one whose character cracked and who gave in to temptations and demons, his personal ones and from the world around him. He had the reputation of being a superior specimen, a man with morality and efficiency. The 'heart of darkness' is an ambiguous place and title. It can mean the center of the unknown inner Africa, but it also means the soul of the fallen man.(Kurtz is best known with the face of Marlon Brando and the whispered words: the horror! the horror! But Apocalypse Now transformed the story from Congo colonialism into Indochina war cruelty.)
Marlow's attitude is ambiguous, he thinks like a benevolent white man with an essentially racist attitude himself, but with a more 'humane' approach. He is realistic about imperialism: the conquest of the earth means mostly the taking it away from those who have a different complexion and flatter noses. He even takes history with a broader sweep: looking over the Thames at sunset towards the 'monster' city he is reminded of the times when this was a dark place for the invading Roman army.
The book is written in a remarkably opaque language. One struggles with every single sentence just to follow the story line. This is unfortunate, I am sure a more straightforward narrative technique would have opened a broader audience for the subject.
Conrad was a man who produced stunning visual effects of the mind with his inventions, but he was not a chief engineer of narrative simplicity. If one is looking for a good straightforward narrative, this is not it. If one is willing to take up the struggle, one is rewarded though. One has to wrestle meaning out of his writing, it is not a walk in the park. The style is highly contextual, every sentence implies worlds and assumes you know which ones. At the same time, he is also able to come up with pretty gems of sentences like when Marlow describes his steamboat: she rang under my feet like an empty biscuit tin, but she was nothing so solid in make, and rather less pretty in shape.
In line with the frame narrator's low expectations for Marlow's story, half of the audience is asleep by half way. I was not.
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on July 28, 1998
Format: Paperback
There can be long debate about the hidden meanings, etc. in Heart of Darkness. And, of course, if one pays even a scintilla of attention. one's mind will no doubt be provoked by this deep, mysterious and moving tale. For example, there could be (I'm sure there has already been) a century long debate on the exact meaning of the title. However, besides the import of its moral/human/instinctive/spritual teachings, Heart of Darkness is often overlooked for the sheer excitement and anticipation the words cause. This is, to put it bluntly, a terriffic story. I was so anticipating the meeting between Marlow and Kurtz that I could barely stand it. And the visual imagery is astonishing. I will never forget the stakes with heads of savages. One must wonder how familiar Conrad was with the story of Vlad the Impaler (Dracula)!! Of course, it is the importance of the work that has made its immutable mark on literature. Any reader will surely be able to recognize his or her ! own instinctive/unconscious capabilities (desires, perhaps?) when they read this book. Who among us can wholly deny that we would not have behaved like Kurtz when left unrestrained by our society and placed in a position where it was not difficult to make a relatively unchallenged rise to power? Perhaps imperialism, left unchecked, is human nature, and our nature, our instinct is to civilize those different from us by way of any means feasible, which, with "savages" or the "uncivilized", is violence, fear or terror. Do a quick check of history, and you will find this to be true. The Heart of Darkness may in fact be the heart of man, a metaphor for the instinctive nature of man.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on February 9, 2010
Format: Paperback
Joseph Conrad is one of the greatest short story and novella writers, and this excellent omnibus has four of his best short works: "Youth," "Heart of Darkness," "Amy Foster," and "The Secret Sharer." All are essential for any fan or critic and an excellent place for the curious to start. However, all are available in many editions with widely varying supplemental material and prices. Readers must decide what edition suits their needs, but anyone wanting a representative selection with substantial supplementary material at a reasonable price could do no better.

"Youth" is one of Conrad's most famous and acclaimed stories but is in my view the weak link. Like the better-known "Heart of Darkness," it is told by the character Marlow through another first-person narrator, but the plot is more akin to the symbolic, adventure-esque seafaring stories of prior Conrad. There is more traditional excitement and suspense than in most Conrad, especially later work, which may attract those who usually dislike his fiction. However, as nearly always with him, symbolism is the real point. As the title suggests, this is a tale about youth and all it stands for and arguably one of its best literary representations. Marlow recalls the excitement and elation he felt when he first captained a ship, fondly recalling exuberance and naïveté long since lost. However, as so often in such situations, nearly everything goes wrong, and youthful ideals are put to experience's harshly dramatic test. "Youth" is thus a sort of mini-bildungsroman, though Marlow's mad rush for the symbolic finish at the end of his story proper shows he learned very little at the time. However, he is now wiser and older, and retelling the old story brings several ambivalent feelings. He sees how much he has conventionally grown and learned but cannot help lamenting the loss of idealism that is possible only in youth and that steadily dissipates with age to the extent that it becomes hardly recognizable. Many will unfortunately relate strongly to this, and there is a good dose of Conrad's always beautiful prose and, very unusually for him, even a little humor. "Youth" would easily be most writers' masterpiece but lacks the scope, ambition, and style of Conrad's best works.

"Heart of Darkness" is Conrad's most famous and arguably best work - not only one of the greatest short works ever but simply one of the greatest period. At once vividly realistic and profoundly symbolic, it on the one hand did much to expose the Belgian Congo's atrocities and on the other is a brilliant allegory whose precise meaning is still hotly debated over a century later. One would be very hard-pressed to find a text of such length with so many and various interpretations - nay, a text of any length; Shakespeare and a few other mainstays aside, hardly any other English language text has proven so malleable. It has been seen through lenses ranging from historical to psychoanalytic to seemingly everything between them - not least including biographical, as the scariest thing about the story is just how closely it is based on Conrad's experience. "Heart" is in many ways the culmination of early Conrad, which featured, among other focuses, a strong sea element and an emphasis on European colonialism in Africa and elsewhere. It fuses both into a dark masterpiece that works on many levels. Most simply and obviously, it can be appreciated as a sort of adventure story involving exploration and human endurance pushed to its limit; it has some fine suspense in this sense. Far more importantly, it is an unflinching look into the darkness of humanity's heart - a dramatization of just how low human nature can sink. This is most overt in the depiction of brutal inhumanity toward fellow human beings, but multiple symbolic layers make it all the more disturbing. Conrad shows that, for all civilization's supposed progress, the bestial instincts underlying humanity are only repressed - and quite weakly at that. It takes only an ostensibly primitive setting to bring them out, and when unleashed they can be at least as vicious as any wild animal's and worse in being malicious. Marlow's own harsh experience suggests all this, but it comes across most forcefully in the legendary character Kurtz. Like many ambitious but unethical Europeans of the era, Kurtz had no problem exploiting those in the Congo for personal gain, but the shocking conditions and enforced brutality eventually wear him down to the point where he snaps. It is debatable whether his days end in madness or some extreme guilt/shock combination, but his immortal final words - "The horror! The horror!" - sum up the whole story and all it symbolizes. The realization of just how bad things are hits Marlow so hard that he cannot bring himself to tell Kurtz's widow the truth, letting her think that his last words were her name, though he was so far gone that he had no time to even think of such things. As his final comment says, "It would have been too dark--too dark altogether..." Much the same may be said of the story itself, so realistically unflattering is its humanity depiction, which is a large part of the reason it is a masterwork. There are many others, not least Conrad's hauntingly beautiful and complex prose. Much of his reputation as a stylist comes from this, and it is simply incredible that he was not a native English speaker.

These factors among many others made "Heart" a standard of English curricula for decades, and its popularity shows no sign of lessening. However, it has been the focus of attention for another reason in the last few decades - racist accusations stemming from African writer Chinua Achebe's famous essay. Conrad was certainly prejudiced and ethnocentric, if not necessarily racist in today's sense, which is reflected in "Heart" and most of his other work. That said, for what it is worth, he was no more so than the average writer - much less the average person - of his day. Indeed, his experience as a Polish, initially non-English speaking outsider on ships around the world and in England gave him more empathy for those outside mainstream Western culture than nearly anyone else in it could have had. One can even argue that it is perverse to pick on "Heart" when racist overtones can be found in nearly every work from the Victorian era - nay, nearly everything right up until the last few decades - since it shows some empathy for Africans, is generally seen as anti-colonialist, and eventually helped lead to reform. Many also say that such a stance misses the story's larger point, racist or not. Yet there is much to Achebe's reading, and all serious fans should read it and make their own decision. Many editions include it, but all should seek it out.

This debate is also relevant to "Amy Foster"; Conrad's most underrated story, it shows the sufferings and uncertainties of outsiders in Western culture. Again inspired by Conrad's life, though considerably more dramatized than "Heart," it shows that he was keenly aware of just how alone even an ostensibly well-adjusted foreigner could be in nineteenth century Western Europe. Drenched in pathos, this is one of Conrad's most moving works and very thought-provoking. It is also of historical interest for those curious about the era's treatment of foreigners and other outsiders and abounds with anthropological significance. Including this is one of the collection's true strengths, as it is not as frequently anthologized as the rest.

"The Secret Sharer" is one of Conrad's final works of major short fiction and one of his best. It finds him returning to the sea after a long absence and has much of the suspense and adventurous spirit of his early works. Indeed, it may well be his most suspenseful and conventionally entertaining work of all; its influence on later writers is easy to see. This is so much so that it can be enjoyed by nearly anyone on this surface level, but as always with Conrad, there is deep symbolic value. "The Secret" again dramatizes outsider status, though more subtly and ambiguously than "Amy." It also deals with other important themes, including the clash of rules and personal morality, authority vs. individualism, etc. The story ends the collection on a very high note and will, along with the rest, lead readers to seek more Conrad.

Like all Barnes & Noble Classics editions, this has a wealth of supplemental material. Perhaps the most valuable is Conrad's own introduction, as his non-fiction pieces are always interesting and often insightful. Secondary material includes a long introduction giving an excellent overview of Conrad's life and thought, the historical context of the stories, and some critical analysis; extensive notes; a Conrad timeline; a rundown of works inspired by "Heart"; a summary of the stories' critical history; discussion questions; further reading suggestions; and even a map of the Belgian Congo. "Heart" aside, the stories are among Conrad's most accessible, but he can be a difficult read, making supplemental material necessary for most and invaluable for many. There are so many extras here that even hard-cores who already have the stories may be interested. That said, those who care not for extras will be able to find these stories - likely along with others - in cheaper editions, and those wanting more stories will also have to look elsewhere. All others can rejoice in this excellent collection.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on January 25, 2001
Format: Paperback
English majors are justly fond of Conrad, who packs his stories with subtlety, symbolism, parallels, and rich imagery. "Heart of Darkness" is a brief and strangely absorbing read. Its plot is simple enough on the surface, about a sailor who guides a steamer up the Congo in search of a vaunted ivory trader. But beneath the surface, in a palpable atmosphere of unease, lie the book's complicated themes. This isn't just a condemnation of European activity in Africa, but a glimpse at the evil within every man. In some ways this book is a precursor to "Lord of the Flies" and other twentieth century books of despair, and yet Conrad does not leave the reader without hope. In skilful, mystical passages about light and dark, black and white, tall and short, jungle and sepulchre, Conrad gives us much food for thought about the nature of humankind and the possibilities for both good and evil. I see this book more as a warning than a simple cry of despair - though it pays ample attention to "the horror" of it all.
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41 of 47 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon November 15, 2006
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Heart of Darkness is one of those classics of literature that should be read by everyone. It is dark and deeply psychological. But more than just a great novel, it is probably one of the most frequently referenced culture touchstones in the western world (if you think Apocolypse Now was an "important film," then you should read the inspiration behind it--Heart of Darkness). But anyone can find "what is this book about" on many websites. THe Norton Critical edition is probably the best way to read Heart of Darkness. THe Norton Critical edition includes contemporary reviews, and major literary critics discussing the importance of the book. In other words, if you read the Norton Critical edition you'll of course be able to talk about "what happens" in the book but also "why it is significant"
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