Review: Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad, Penguin Books, 1899/2007, 115 pages, 2 of 5 stars

This is a book about the darkness of the human heart. And while the book explores the depravity of specific social evils like colonialism and the African slave trade, this is really a work about man’s soul—the heart of darkness.

Marlow is the narrator who while resting on his steamboat in England tells his friends of his experience in “one of the dark places of the earth.” It appears he was given a job along the Congo River searching for ivory. His real task, however, was to track down an eccentric but savvy ivory trader named Kurtz.

While Marlow repairs his boat, he begins to learn the mysteries surrounding the man who dominates everyone he meets. He is powerful, influential … and evil. The suspense builds as Marlow labors to find the European genius forgotten in Africa, a man apparently near death.

Marlow discovers that it was Kurtz who ordered the natives to sabotage his steamboat. At first the reader is made to believe that Kurtz was “shamefully abandoned” (76), but soon discovers he attacked Marlow in an effort to remain in the heart of darkness as a god to the natives. Perhaps he played this game to obtain more ivory. Maybe he began to believe it. Witchcraft was involved (“it had horns—antelope horns, I think—on its head… some sorcerer, some witch-man, no doubt”).

But with Kurtz losing his sanity and his death imminent, Marlow is able to get him aboard. In his final breath, Kurtz seems to understand the wickedness that had long overcome him and proclaims: “The horror! The horror!” The news of his death comes from a native, “Mista Kurtz, he dead.” Marlow returns to London and is unable to tell Kurtz’s still-naïve fiancé the truth of her beloved. Instead, he lies and says her name was the last upon his lips (101).

This novella was obscure, making objective theological conclusions difficult to find. Colonialism, the ivory business, the slave trade, and primitive Africans were all implicitly maligned. The equal deviance of Marlow’s London and Kurtz’s Africa was also implied. Beyond this, I could not determine exactly what Conrad was trying to do in this book. Perhaps this was the goal of Conrad, infamous for ambiguity in his writings.

In sum, though this is considered a great work, Conrad’s abstruse prose made the book too difficult to enjoy. It is short and rapid, which lures you in, but in the end the reader despairs to understand. It does however offer a host of quotes and word pictures highlighting humanity’s wicked nature, an idea modern culture denies but educators would do well to emphasize.

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