Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad: A review

So, I'm ticking boxes beside titles on the list of Books I Always Meant to Read But Never Did. Heart of Darkness - check. Another one bites the dust.

This little book, published in 1899, has had an outsized influence on the world of art and the mind. Because of that, the story it tells is in the public domain and is a part of the culture, so even if we haven't read the book, we know the story.

It is a short book, a novella almost by today's standards of doorstop-sized best sellers. I think it would be best read in one sitting, because the narrative is continuous with no obvious resting places. Unfortunately, I was not able to read it in one sitting, so I had to make my own rest stops within the narrative. That was disconcerting at times because when I picked up the book again, it was difficult to remember just where I was in the story. 

Well, as I said, it was published in 1899, obviously another time and for a different audience, one that perhaps had more time to sit and read. Or maybe they just read faster than I do. 

The story is told by Marlow, a seaman and observer, an Everyman, Conrad's alter ego. The tale is told by him to three of his fellow seamen as they rock back and forth on a boat on the Thames. One of them is supposedly the anonymous fellow who writes it all down and presents it to us in finished form. 

Marlow had worked for a "company" that is never named, and had been charged with taking a steamboat up a great river in Africa, also never named but apparently it was the Congo. He was to travel to the encampment of an agent of the "company" named Kurtz. Kurtz had accumulated vast quantities of ivory, which Marlow and his boat were to transport to market.

The journey was a disaster from the beginning. The boat had been damaged and had to be repaired and made seaworthy enough to make the trip. There were problems getting a reliable crew. Then, when finally able to get underway, they encountered hostile natives.

When they finally reached Kurtz, he was surrounded by natives and it was not clear at first if he was their captive or their leader. Regardless, it was soon obvious that he was dying. And, indeed, he does die, with almost his last words being the famous cry, "The horror! The horror!"

That is the briefest of synopses of the plot, but, of course, the importance of this book is not so much in its plot, but in what the narrator, in the course of telling us the story, tells us about the attitudes of the time.

There is the casual assumption of the superiority of European over African culture. The Europeans traveling through the great heart of Africa treat the natives abominably, apparently considering them as somehow subhuman. Thus, colonialism is justified as a great good, as a way of improving the Africans. It seems clear to me that Conrad is offering a critique of such attitudes and yet there are those who consider the book and the author racist, particularly because of his use of the appalling language of the time.  

Conrad certainly knew his craft and he knew how to tell a mesmerizing tale. Kurtz, although we spend very little actual time with him, is an unforgettable character. Before we ever get to the enclave where he lives, we are infused with the wonder and dread of this almost supernatural persona as we hear about him from others. 

But, in the end, Kurtz is just a man and men die. The evil that infects the heart of darkness does not need a supernatural cause.
The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness. 
And as it was then, so it still is. 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


  1. I recently read a less glowing review than yours about this work. It seems to divide its readers. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'll read it someday.

    1. I can understand those who dislike the book. Written 120 years ago from the perspective of that time, it's not a particularly easy read, even though it is short. But it has had an enormous influence on our culture and our way of viewing people from other cultures and I think it is a worthwhile read for that reason alone. And it is, in fact, an impressive feat of writing.

  2. I don't believe I have ever read this one, but you are right. I feel I know the story. It inspired other novels about river voyages in Africa. I think you got it just right though in your review. It seems that modern readers can't get past the racism even though Conrad meant to expose it for the evil it is. What is it about humans that can't get beyond misunderstanding "the other?"

    1. Unfortunately, there does seem to be something in human nature that causes us to need an "other" to whom we can feel superior.


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