Monday, June 20, 2011

We Have Met the Enemy: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness
"The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much."

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is (unfortunately) best recognized in popular culture for providing the backstory for Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 movie, Apocalypse Now, which is a classic in its own right.  The novel is based, not in Cambodia, but in a part of the African Congo that was a private colony of King Leopold II of Belgium in the latter part of the nineteenth century.     

While waiting for the tide to turn at the mouth of the Thames, the protagonist, Charlie Marlow, notes to his fellow travelers that London and the Britons were once dark and untamed in the period just prior to Roman domination of the island.  Marlow proceeds to recount his experiences as a steamship captain in darkest colonial Africa and, specifically, the recovery of Kurtz, an ivory trader, journalist, and poet-philosopher, who is lost to the darkness of the jungle and his own mind.  The sometimes brutal treatment of the African natives plays a central role in the story, as does the chaos and lawlessness that results from unrestrained domination of one culture by another.  Themes of darkness and light are interwoven in both story and character to show that each of us and each of our enterprises, at some level, are infected by that tendency toward evil that is witnessed by Kurtz in the moments before he utters his final words: "The horror!  The horror!" 

Given the theme of European colonialism, the novel is broader than Apocalypse Now in the scope of its treatment.  And because it focused more specifically on the inherent duality within each human soul, the novel is also more terrifying.  Conrad is a master of prolonged tension and in the subtle treatment of difficult and controversial themes--including colonialism--and both the topic and the prose gradually work their way under the reader's skin until he's strung as tight as a bow.  But there's never a release, at least not one that completely diffuses the tension, and the reader is left with a feeling of unsettling anxiety long after the work is read.

Truth be told, Heart of Darkness is one of those few works that keep us up at night, not simply because of the story or its basis in colonial reality, but because of its undeniable application to human existence.  Does anyone share this reaction to the work?  What other works, if any, keep you up at night?   


  1. If you like Conrad, you may like Juan Gabriel Vasquez's Reply to Nostromo called The Secret History of Costuagana

  2. I've this on my iPod and will start the audiobook soon. I'm not Belgian but live here, so there's also that incentive to reading it. Another great book about the Belgian Congo (non-fiction) is King Leopold's Ghost.

    Somehow I always associated Heart of Darkness with Lord of Flies, even though i haven't read any of them yet. Something about human instinct towards violence perhaps?

  3. Nicely done review on the book, very thorough.

    man and van in London

  4. I just read this book a few weeks ago and I must say that I did not really enjoy the experience. I found Conrad's writing style wasn't my thing. I'm glad you mentioned Apocalypse Now, because as I read parts of Heart of Darkness, I thought of that film. Now I know that wasn't accidental.

  5. @parrish - I DO like Conrad very much. At some point, we'll put up a review of The Secret Agent, which runs a close second to Heart of Darkness in my mind. Thanks for the recommendation of Vasquez. I'll definitely check that out.

    @Alexandra - I've grown to love audiobooks over the years, at least for certain genres. The brooding darkness of Conrad should be perfect. Let me know how you like it. And thanks for the recommendation of King Leopold's Ghost. It's a very interesting subject matter, so I'll have to check that out.

    @Timmy - Thanks for the kind words and for stopping by.

    @Thomas - Thanks for your comment. Conrad does take some getting used to, I think. I remember first reading The Secret Agent and being relatively ambivalent about it. Over time, his style grew on me and by the time I read Heart of Darkness, I was a fan. On another subject, hearty congratulations on your five year blog-o-versary.

  6. Nice! I really enjoyed reading your post. Thanks for sharing and keep up the good work.