Sunday, December 4, 2011

Thoughts: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness is probably the most misleading book in existence. It's thin, barely 70 pages, and makes you think you can finish it in an hour or so. The book lulls you into a false sense of security regarding how well-read and intelligent you are.

As soon as you get comfortable with the first few pages, it pulls the covering off your eyes, and you realize that this book will not be easy. In fact, this book will be pretty goddamn difficult.

I know practically nothing about Belgium, King Leopold (King Leopold II?!?), and the Congo, and this book is about an Englishman on a steamboat in the Congo. It doesn’t ease you into the action or the context of the story. It drops you right into the middle of it—right into the controversy between the ivory agents and everyone wondering what happened to the oh-so-mysterious Kurtz.

Yes, my friends, Kurtz might show up near the end of the book, but he’s a palpable presence right from the beginning.

This book shows the effects of imperialism on Africa, and how being part of a screwed up system can screw you up as well. All the other white men are arguing over who gets more money (ivory) and more credit, while Kurtz, in his far corner of Africa, is going batshit crazy. Tah-dah. I get how Conrad deplored imperialism, but I didn’t find that impressive. Not at all.

Sure, Conrad depicts how cruel the imperialists were to the Africans, but he portrays the latter with a sense of detachment. In some passages, he even refers to them as black things or black shadows in the wilderness. He doesn’t show them as individuals with feelings and thoughts.

In one scene, Marlow grieves over the death of his black helmsman, but also refers to him as “machinery.” The fact that the Africans are humans is acknowledged, but they aren’t considered equals. (And don’t even get me started on how women are portrayed in this book. That’s for an entirely different blog post.)

I still need more time to figure out what the heart of darkness really stands for. You know that feeling when a word is on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t quite figure out what it is yet? That’s exactly how I feel about this book, like I’ve figured it out but don’t know how to tell you.

Does the heart of darkness refer to the evil acts of men in Africa? Or to the depravity of humans in general? A second read might clear things up, but I don’t think I’m rereading this book any time soon.

Rating: 2/5


Eclectic Indulgence said...

Heart of Darkness is notorious for being abridged - methinks you read an abridged version. I know a couple of other bloggers that have made the same mistake.

Darlyn (Your Move, Dickens) said...

@Eclectic Indulgence: I actually own an unabridged edition of this book. Maybe it was just the length or because I knew very little about the historical context of the book before diving into it? :)

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

I hated this book. I actually knew a lot about the history of the Congo and colonialism before reading it (I did a module on it at uni) and thought the book was just a rehash of the same tired metaphors about a heart of darkness that has multiple meanings. Not for me at all.

Allie said...

"The book lulls you into a false sense of security regarding how well-read and intelligent you are."

^That had me cracking up.

I think you pulled more from it than I did. I mean, your post sounded way more put together. But yeah, I hear you on all of it.

Zibilee said...

I have never met anyone who actually likes this book, and I can't say that I have ever been tempted to want to read it before. I must admit that your review confirms all my suspicions about this one, and I will be staying far, far away!

mooderino said...

I found this quite an odd book, like it was a rough draft. Very disjointed. I was however very pleased about its length. Weird books should always be short, I think.


Trisha said...

I get such a perverse pleasure when I find out I'm not the only one who just really doesn't like this book at all.

Jenna Blake said...

I also did not enjoy Heart of Darkness at all. In fact I only found it meaningful when read in conjunction with Things Fall Apart. Things Fall Apart is in my opinion a much more accurate representation of events in the Congo. Heart of Darkness, while professing to feel sympathy for the African people is simply the product of white colonial imperialism


mel u said...

I in fact liked The Heart of Darkness a lot-

I did a post on it not long ago and got a very high level of responses to it centering around the depiction of Africans in the book. As Jenna Blake said, Chinua Achenda, the author of Things Fall Apart, has denounced this work in a famous essay as a deeply racist book. On the other hand, the dean of anti-colonialism Edward Said, author of Orientalism (who also wrote his dissertation at Harvard, I think, on Conrad has a well known essay in which he repudiates this claim. I think Said is totally right. What people lose sight of is that the narrator is telling this story for the benefit of the directors of his company. It is in part the story of a man driven partially insane by his own racism. Yes there are many negative remarks about Africans in The Heart of Darkness, just like in Kenzaburo Oe's story about a captive African American held during WWII in a remote Japanese village the villages describe him in grossly racist terms-this does not mean Oe is a racist. I did a post in which I attempted to go into both sides of the question after I did my main post on H of D because there was so much interest in the question

The narrator in Heart of Darkness is no way to be seen as the voice of Conrad-

Ok I have raved on enough!

I hope readers will rethink Conrad-

Jenna Blake said...

very interesting points Mel. I must admit I have only read this one once so it may require a reread. I still find it hard to believe that Conrad would be able to completely escape the opinions of his time...although maybe he was a visionary?? One thing I do know is that overall most people find this book a struggle. Subject matter aside I do not find the characters in novel engaging what so ever. Basically I just don't care what happens to them. This is in great contrast to Things Fall Apart in which the main character seems to come alive.

Anyway that's my two cents worth! Thanks for presenting an alternate point of view Mel.

mel u said...

Jenna Belle. True the characters in h of d have little charm. Perhaps Conrad had a wider than normal freedom from pejudice due to his extreme travels and living in excile. i look forward to reading When Things Fall Apartbbhopefully next year.

Ben said...

I LOOOOVED Heart Of Darkness, Darlyn. One of my "special" novels (or novella).

Mel U basically laid out my argument for me, but yeah. The heart of darkness is what Marlowe has tapped into and what is surrounding Kurtz. I like to think it's a "male-centric" story about a guy who "does what he has to". That's where I found the beauty in. That ruggedness. But maybe I'm mistaken. I don't have the ultimate truth or anything

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I read this one a few years back and wasn't a fan. It's a strange book.

Teacher/Learner said...

Ack, this book was also a thorn in my side. I had the same impressions about the lack of African perspective on it, but whether Conrad was racist or was depicting racism was a fine line he often crossed too far. Have you read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe? It's in response to HofD and is an amazing read.

bibliophilica said...

A good non-fiction book that I'd recommend here is "King Leopold's Ghost" which is the story of the colonial Belgian Congo. Disturbing in its tales of exploitation, but I learned a lot from it.

Rebecca Reid said...

I read this in high school but remember nothing. I'm shuddering thinking of how I have to read it for my book club in a few months.


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