Thursday, October 13, 2016

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a famous novel about the darkness that pervades both the outer world as well as the inner mind of humans. This is a short, dense novella that is full of ideas. Though the narrative is relatively straightforward, it is a story that is full of symbolism as well as philosophical and psychological musings.

Charles Marlow tells the story in first-person narration. The protagonist is a steamboat captain hired by a company that is involved in the ivory trade in the Congo during the late nineteenth century. Marlow is taking a steamboat up river. His ultimate destination is a remote trading station headed by Station Manager, Mr. Kurtz. The mysterious Kurtz is admired by the various people that Marlow encounters in both England and in the Congo. Both early and late in the story, Kurtz is portrayed as man of enormous talents and charisma who elicits near worship in people. 

As he proceeds with his journey, Marlowe is exposed to the horrors of Colonialism that include slave labor as well as indigenous people starved, beaten and worked to death. All in one passage, the European passengers of Marlowe’s steamboat unleash murderous gunfire upon a mass of helpless Congolese who have conglomerated on shore. 

When Marlow reaches Kurtz’s station, he discovers that the Station Manager has developed a messianic following among the locals. There are indications that Kurtz has led his followers to commit atrocities in their quest for ivory. Both the Europeans and the Congolese present at the station seem to worship Kurtz as a kind of god. 

The writing conveys a sense of ominousness. The story and themes of this work are fairly well known and have been written about extensively. It is an examination of the darkness within humankind. As is often the case with literary journeys, Marlowe’s trek up the river is symbolic of a journey into the worst aspects of the human soul. The themes of cultish personality, death and Colonialism are also explored within this work.

So much has already been said about this book. I want to write a few words on a specific and particular aspect of it.  Throughout the novella, images of jungle and natural world are common and play an important part that relates to the story’s themes.

Within this tale, the natural world plays a constant and ominous presence. It clearly reflects the darkness and near impenetrability of the dark angle of human nature. At times, it almost seems like a character in and of itself. 

When Marlowe first arrives in the region he observes the coast of West Africa. As he sails alongside it he observes, 

“Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you— smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, 'Come and find out.' This one was almost featureless, as if still in the making, with an aspect of monotonous grimness. The edge of a colossal jungle, so dark-green as to be almost black, fringed with white surf, ran straight, like a ruled line, far, far away along a blue sea whose glitter was blurred by a creeping mist. The sun was fierce, the land seemed to glisten and drip with steam. Here and there grayish-whitish specks showed up, clustered inside the white surf, with a flag flying above them perhaps. Settlements some centuries old, and still no bigger than pin-heads on the untouched expanse of their background. “

Coasts, as they are observed from ships, are given human characteristics here. They sometimes are smiling, frowning, mean, savage, and they even whisper. The particular coast that Marlow is observing exudes “monotonous grimness.” What I think is most important here is how human settlements are described as ”specks” and “pin – heads.” The symbolism seems to play a key part here. If the landscape represents the darkness and grimness in human existence, our efforts at building the pieces of civilization within it seem like insignificant specks. 

Later on, the forest takes on even more menacing characteristics,

The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence. And it moved not.

Here we have the contrasting image of nature that is unmoving, but at the same time, a “riotous invasion.” Perhaps this is how Conrad sees the evil in the souls of people. That evil is quiet and unchanging, but it affects the world like a “rioting invasion.” “Little men” are swept out of existence before it. 

The above quotations are just two examples, among many, of a threatening landscape that is capable of crushing humanity. Such a landscape seems to be a mirror upon the worst aspects of the human psyche.

There is so much more to this short tale than I have touched on above. The images and symbolism relating to the jungle are only a small part of a very rich piece of literature. This book was surprisingly dark for its time. Within its pages, it still has a lot to tell us about the darker nature of human beings. 


  1. Brian,
    I really appreciate the way your reviews are in-depth but succinct, and always highlight aspects of even very well-known books that I might not have thought of before. I can quite honestly say I have never really wanted to read "Heart of Darkness," but yours is the only review of it that I have read that makes me think maybe it's time to look it over.

  2. Brain Joseph,

    Thank you for this post about this book, which examines the darkness within humankind. It sounds like difficult yet rich, symbolic literature worth reading. Excellent commentary!

  3. If one could read only one book by Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness is the one.

    I have read it several times now, and I will go back again and again.

  4. Thanks Citizen.

    This is a short book so reading it should not be too time consuming. If you read it I would love to know what you thought of it.

  5. Hi Fred - This is the sought of book that that seems especially good to reread. There is much going on within its pages.

  6. Hi Suko - I do find Conrad's writing style to be a bit difficult, It is indeed very rich!

  7. Isn't this a good book? I do like Conrad. It has been ages since I read this one and Apocalypse Now has been overlaid on it, but that moment when Kurtz says The Horror! The Horror! Marvelous. Enjoyed your analysis of the role the jungle plays in the book.

  8. Hi Stephanie - It really is a great book.

    I think Apocalypse Now is a great film. It was in many ways so different from this book. In other ways it is so commented to it. "The Horror! The Horror!" will be forever burned into my brain!

  9. I haven't read this one yet, but I'd like to. His short story, "An Outpost of Progress," is also worth reading for its exploration of how two men - removed from the society they're accustomed to - begin to fall apart. Here's an excerpt from it:
    "They were two perfectly insignificant and incapable individuals, whose existence is only rendered possible through the high organization of civilized crowds. Few men realize that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings."

    I like how you focus your analysis on the use of nature to heighten the tension and bring out the darkness of the psyche even more.

  10. This novella should be on everyone's best literature of the 20th century list. I was completely blown away when I read this for the first time in 1968 when I was 17 years old and a senior in high school. It has never left me.

  11. I have not read this book in years. I remember enjoying the imagery very much, although I don't think I understood the symbolism.

    I agree with you that there is so much to this novella that you could spend a year of posts examining everything Conrad was trying to express in it.

    I wonder if Conrad approved or disapproved of the culture of that time that definitely considered itself superior because it was more developed industry and technology wise. Some authors condemned it but others were simply a product of their environment.

    Good post!

  12. Perceptive review. I don't think I often pick up on a lot of the symbolism in books. Do you think this is a good book to start with for someone new to Conrad? I think I have this one on a shelf somewhere but I also have Lord Jim - have you read that?

  13. Thanks Hila.

    I really like that quote. I will try to read "An Outpost of Progress,". Its themes seem similar and very interesting.

  14. Hi Sharon.

    In some ways he seemed to portray the culture of along the Congo as dark and sinister also.

    With that, he clearly protected again the brutal treatment of the indigenous people by the Europeans.

  15. Thanks Carol.

    The more I read the more symbolism I seem to pick up. I think that this is a great book to begin with for someone who wants to read Conrad. It is fairly short. It also has an interesting story and characters.

    I think that lord Jim is probably a good choice too but it has been decades since I read it so am a bit fuzzy on it.

  16. Thanks for stopping by Julia.

    The characters and plot of this one are so powerful. I can see them staying on one's consciousness for a lifetime.

  17. SUPERB commentary as always, Brian!! I greatly enjoyed reading this post!

    The only book of Conrad's I've read is "Victory", and that was several years ago. I own the book, but it's in storage, so I've ordered another copy from eBay, as I want to read it again. This story takes place on an island -- in the Pacific, as far as I can recall. It's also a love story. For some reason, I can't remember much of the plot, which is why I want to re-read it. I do remember enjoying it the first time around, though.

    As for "Hear of Darkness", I've had it in the back of my mind for some time, as it's probably Conrad's most famous work. However, having now read your post, I know I can't read this novel. As you know, I'm a very sensitive person. Reading about the evil in human nature really depresses me. I know it's there, as is evident from events in the real world. But reading about it just makes it all the worse....

    I remember, when I used to watch Tarzan movies as a kid, that the jungle was always portrayed as inviting, as an actual haven. I got the same feeling from Kipling's "The Jungle Book" when I read it, also as a kid. However, in "Heart of Darkness", the jungle is actually depicted in an ominous way. I find it very interesting that different authors would depict the same mass of vegetation in such radically different ways, according to their literary purposes. Thus, the jungle becomes symbolic of the themes they are working with in these two novels. Mowgli doesn't see the jungle as ominous or threatening in any way. Of course he wouldn't, since it's full of his animal friends! In contrast, Marlowe sees the jungle as an impersonal, brute force that is definitely evil. Much food for thought here!

    Thanks for another fascinating post!! :)

  18. Thanks Maria.

    This book is dark so agree that based on what you expressed it might not be something that you would like to read.

    You raise an interesting point about the depiction of nature in fiction. As you point out some writers depict it as a dark force, others as a positive force.

    I never related to the stories where it was dark as I related to those where it was light. As someone who spent a lot of times in isolated woodland as I was growing up, isolated natural scenes always seemed welcoming to me.

  19. Your review provides a unique view of this famous (infamous?) novel. The ominous aspect of nature that you highlight seems to subvert or even overturn the idea of the enlightenment (read Rousseau) who consider the original man in nature good.

  20. Hi James.

    You raise a good point about the original man in nature. This book indeed turns that concept on its head.

    On a related note, some of the writings of Steven Pinker, particularly in The Blank Slate and The Better Angels of Our Nature, also challenge that concept.

  21. Apocalypse Now with Marlon Brando was a powerful film rendition of the novel.

    I recommend it.

  22. I like the way you've focused on a particular aspect of the book, in this case the symbolism in relation to the natural world. In particular, I was struck by the following comments:

    What I think is most important here is how human settlements are described as ”specks” and “pin – heads.” The symbolism seems to play a key part here. If the landscape represents the darkness and grimness in human existence, our efforts at building the pieces of civilization within it seem like insignificant specks.

    I'm not sure if you've seen Max's (fairly recent) review of this book in which he put forward the view that the text is racist. What do you think based on your own reading if the book? Did it comes across in that way to you or do you think that Conrad was trying to expose something here without taking a particular stance?

  23. This is a wonderful review, as always, Brian. You have inspired me to add Conrad to my Classics Club list!

  24. What a fine review! I used to be surprised when students were informed of the link between the movie, Apocalypse Now, and the novella, Heart of Darkness. As for me, I prefer the Conrad treatment, and I have heartburn about the Marxist and post-colonial criticism that grew out of it in the last half century. I prefer to read it as a straightforward exploration of evil. Moral relativists now ignore that aspect and instead see the novel as a social justice indictment of the white man and western civilization. Sometimes a story is just a story without being a propaganda piece. And Conrad's story is a great story.

  25. I haven't read this since high school, but it made a big impact on me--I tend to romanticize Nature (being a Romantic myself), but this book doesn't do that, as you point out. It is an ominous, threatening novel that reflects the anxiety the world and society was feeling in 1899.

    When I read Ann Patchett's State of Wonder last year, I couldn't get Conrad's Heart of Darkness out of my mind.

    I though Apocalypse Now was a brilliant updating of Conrad's story, though incredibly hard for me to watch.

  26. I thought Apocalypse Now/Redux captured the tone of HofD, the insanity of war and the idiocy of Western colonization.

  27. Fred, you paint with such a broad brush. Is all war insane? Is all western colonization idiocy? Conrad may have been decrying both (perhaps but not certainly) -- as does the film, AN (almost certainly) -- but I'm not prepared to use that broad brush. Without war and colonization -- in certain cases -- we do not escape the isolation of our idyllic (arrested development) Gardens of Eden. And, more emphatically, none of us would be living in North America. I must reread HofD, but my recollection of the tale tells me that you're taking too many liberties with Conrad.

  28. Oh it's been a long time since I ventured into Conrad's Heart of Darkness, maybe since high school. It really is a classic tale. I liked to reread it. When I think of Kurtz I can't help but think of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. He seems like a great Kurtz -- godlike to the natives. Nice review.

  29. Hi Harvee - Apocalypse Now was great film. In fact, it is one of my favorites . With that, it is in many ways different from the book.

  30. Thanks JoAnn. If you read this I would love to know what you thought about it.

  31. Hi RT and Fred again - My take is this. In my opinion, What I would characterize as extreme Post Colonial and Marxist analysis of works like this is not all that helpful.

    With that, there is obvious criticism of the mistreatment of the indigenous people by Europeans in this book. There are passages where ingenious people are murdered and mistreated that seem clearly aimed to raise objects.

    Though this may seem like a contradiction, I think that one can examine the horror and madness of war without being a complete pacifist.

  32. Hi Jane - I also have a very positive view of nature so relating to ominous symbolism for me is a stretch.

    I also loved Apocalypse Now, but I look at it as a related, but different work presented in a different art form.

    As I get older I also find it hard to take some scenes in that film.

  33. Hi Susan - Kurtz is a great character in the book and in the film. With that, I find the two characters different. Thus I did not picture Brando in the book.

  34. Hi Jacqui - I will take a look at Max's review.

    I know that there is a lot of commentary out there arguing that this book is racist. I have read some of it.

    In my opinion Conrad was making a point about culture. He seemed that the culture of the folks who lived in the Congo was dark and primal. There are many who believe that such cultural criticism is in itself racist. This is a major argument that persists today when it comes to folks commenting upon and critising Twenty First Century cultures. I do not agree that this is racism. With that I think that Conrad mischaracterized the culture in question.

    I would add that there may aspects to the narrative that I missed. I need to read additional commentary.

  35. R.T.,

    What right does any people have to go someplace else, take possession of land that is already occupied by another group who have done no harm to the invading people, and enslave them? You right: it isn't idiocy but criminal.

    As for the insanity of war, what could match that scene of the French warship lobbing cannon shell after cannon shell into the jungle along the seacoast of Africa? The scenes of US helicopters bombing miles of jungle for the same reason stands for an image of the insanity of war.

  36. Fred, you're right. I'm an old fool. I know nothing. I should not even have spoken.

  37. R.T.,

    You are right. I did paint with a broad brush, but even in the most justifiable of wars, there is insanity. I think it is part of our contradictory natures--our need to survive and our ability to empathize with our victims, even non-human ones.

  38. R.T. - You are no fool :) These are complex issues that the worlds greatest thinkers have grappled with for millennia. There are so many ways that we can view these things. Examining way as we have here is a good example.

    Fred - I agree that there is no justification for colonialism.

  39. Oh Wow, we have this book at home - sweatheart adored and read it twice-
    I really like your review and to be honest, I have never wanted to read "Heart of Darkness," but your review (and sweetheart enthusiasm) makes me think maybe it's time to give it a chance. Have a great day Brian :)

  40. Thanks Reader's Tales - I would to know what you thought if you read this.

  41. Everything about this sounds wonderfully dark. Not a genre I'd normally pick but I'm oddly drawn to this book, a copy of which (albeit it with a different cover) I believe we have on our shelves.

  42. Hi Tracy - This was indeed dark.

    It sounds as if you have an impressive library.

  43. I think it's interesting that HOD is a "somewhat" autobiographical novel - what must Conrad's actual 6 month voyage upriver been like?! Also, I think that postcolonial analysis can show us a lot about the past, and let us see why things are so awry in so many previously colonised countries. And as far as I'm concerned, war is always insane. If people weren't so keen to get rich selling arms, stealing resources, and generally exploiting Others, I think the world would be a better place. So, I guess I'd side with the anti-imperialist socialists, too. :)

  44. Hi Violet.

    Indeed I would love to know more about Conrad real voyage. Currently I know little of it.

    I agree that understanding the ills caused by Colonialism is something that is well worth pursing. But I tend also tend to think that folks sometimes find messages in literature that are non there in order to support ideologies.

    With that, Conrad was clearly critical of European abuses in this work.

  45. For me, there is no "real" meaning to be found in any text: I think that each reader "creates" the text as he or she reads through particular cultural and ideological lenses. It's interesting to think about what the text is saying by "not saying" certain things to do with class, race, gender, etc., As I see it, for every "inclusion" there is an "exclusion", and I find what people don't say a lot more interesting that what they do say. A lot of critical analysis is engaged in exploring power structures using texts as the means to do it, but particular readings are not to everyone's taste. I guess whether we agree with a particualr interpretation depends on our own ideology. It's interesting to see a variety of opinions, I think. :)

  46. Hey Violet - It seems that we have run into the differences that exist between some of the different schools of literary criticism.

    I tend to shy away from criticism that attempts to take the meaning of the text into directions that it clearly was never meant to go. I do think that on some level there is original meaning to all texts. With that, I am not too strident in this view, I think that such criticism can be occasionally insightful as long as original meaning is not forgotten and discarded.

  47. This is one of those books that I've been wanting to read, but am a little afraid to start because I've been told so many great and terrible things about it. People either love it or they hate it. If I read it, I'll probably go for a critical edition with interpretive essays and footnotes. Seems like the type of book that will be rich in history / allusions that I am not familiar with.

    Glad you liked it!

  48. Hi Rachel- There is a lot going on in this book symbolically. With that, there is a lot that is relatively transparent. Thus I think that it is not too difficult to get a lot out of this.

    As dark narratives go, I also did not think that this was too disturbing.

    If you gave this a try I would love to know what you thought of it.

  49. wow loved your commentary ..feels like a interesting read.Na d thanks for introducing me to the book sure give it a try after clearing up my current list.I love the way the psychological musings and ideas go around.

  50. Thanks VB.

    This one is very psychological. I would love to know what you thought of this if you read it.

  51. Heart of Darkness sounds like an interesting read. This one sounds like it really delves into the darkness in mankind. It's crazy to think about Colonial times when pretty much anything went in an attempt to gain lands and goods. Whenever I stop by your blog I know I will be reading a thought provoking and insightful post!

  52. Thanks so much Naida.

    Without a doubt, striving towards wealth has been a driver of immoral behavior throughout history.