Monday, June 30, 2008

"Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad

Date of publication: 1899
Genre: fiction, novella, adventure,
Setting and time: The River Congo, end of the 19th century
Themes: colonialism, capitalism, civilization vs. barbarism, darkness vs. light, degradation of human morality

Plot: (*may contain spoilers*) Marlow, is the commander of a riverboat looking for ivory to trade in the Belgian Congo. His journey into the heart of the Congo is both a thrilling adventure and a symbolic excursion into the depths of the human psyche to confront the evil that exists there. Marlow's encounter with the mysterious and corrupted Kurtz, who has become a sort of deity for the African people, is the key moment of the story. The ‘horror’ that Kurtz claims to have found in the Congo allows Marlow to go back to England, but he’s not able to leave this terrible experience behind.

Some thoughts: I don’t want to write an essay on Heart of Darkness; too much has been written on this book (even though Calvino said that ‘a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say’). It is a metaphorical, ambiguous, highly symbolic and complex story about the moral degradation of imperialism in Africa.
However, I cannot see how this novella can be considered postcolonial, because Conrad criticizes European colonialism using the rhetoric of racism. I can see why Chinua Achebe denounced the novel as racist (read his essay here). African people in Heart of Darkness are just ‘limbs and rolling eyes’, even ‘cannibals’ and ‘savages’. They don’t have names and they don’t speak (and if they do, they say ‘Mistah Kurtz – he dead’!). In other words, they are barely human! Conrad’s only intention is making them mysterious and morbidly fascinating. As Achebe wrote in his essay, it can be argued that the attitude to the African is not Conrad’s but his fictional narrator’s, Marlow. The narrator behind the narrator clearly serves the purpose of creating a distance between the moral message of the story and the author. If this was Conrad’s intention, however, he fails to hint at an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the opinions of the characters. Sure, Conrad wrote this novel in 1899 and I live in 2008, but I find quite alarming that the text is studied so much without acknowledging that! Of course I value the symbolism and the ambiguity of the tale, but I find it terribly dated.
I also didn’t like the end of the story, when Marlow lies to Kurtz’s girlfriend about his last words. I have the impression that Conrad was a male chauvinist (is that the right word in English?). I quote directly from the text: ‘It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are’. When Marlow suggests that women have to be sheltered from the truth in order to keep their own fantasy world from ‘shattering before the firs sunset’ I was very offended!
Nonetheless, I admire Conrad because English was not his native language: he began learning it at 21 and yet he’s one of the most significant authors in the Western canon. He writes very well and his narrative is engaging, but I can’t really say that I enjoyed this book. Maybe my expectations for this classic were too great, but I can't be the only one with this feeling of uneasiness about it.


  1. I have heard of this book but have not had a copy to read yet. hope to read it sometime soon.

  2. I'd love to hear your opinions on "Heart of Darkness" and after having read it please read Achebe's essay (the one I linked in the post).
    Sometimes I am a bit afraid of saying that I didn't like a book that is considered a classic, like "Heart of Darkness", but then I think that I'm giving only opinions and I'm ready to change my mind if people give me a different perspective on the book. "Heart of Darkness" is very ambiguous and to a certain extent complex, even though it's a very short book.