Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. A review.

[CATEGORIES: Literature, Lapham’s Quarterly, Reading, Book Review]
[Click HERE to see my previous posts referencing Lapham’s Quarterly.]
[Some of LQ’s contents are available free.]

After reading and reviewing Conrad’s The Secret Agent I learned his better known work Heart of Darkness was fairly short.  With that for an excuse I dived in.  It was gripping.  I read it in 48 hours, a good speed for me.  I suspect many of you would read it in an evening, though the severe introspection calls for even more careful reading than did ‘Agent’.

I haven’t yet read any reviews or info on the book other than to confirm the publishing year of 1899 and learn a bit about the 1975 accusations by Chinua Achebe, which I  will address later.  My point in mentioning is that I’d bet good money the movie Apocalypse Now (Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando) was based on the book.  The parallels are so obvious I may be the only person not previously aware of it.

Both plots involve an arduous journey up the backwaters of a jungle river (Vietnam/Cambodia in Apocalypse during that American war, Africa in Heart of Darkness, though the words Africa or Congo do not appear in the book).  The mysterious protagonist sought is Kurtz (Colonel in Apocalypse, Mr. in Darkness).  The clincher is the exact quote shared by both Kurtzes near the end: “The horror.  The horror.”  I’ll check my suspicions before the end of the review.

Nearly the entire book is narrated by a seafarer seeking a change of pace who is hired to captain a river steamboat in the aforementioned jungle.  Writing in English, Polish-born Conrad’s descriptive powers are almost poetic:

“We felt meditative, and fit for nothing but placid staring. The day was ending in a serenity of still and exquisite brilliance. The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex marsh was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds. Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more sombre every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun.”  (p. 4 of 199 p. e-book.)

“The woods were unmoved, like a mask—heavy, like the closed door of a prison—they looked with their air of hidden knowledge, of patient expectation, of unapproachable silence.”  (p. 144 of 199 p. e-book.)

The words heart and darkness are generously juxtaposed throughout the entire novella.  I thought ‘Secret Agent’ was introspective but it pales in comparison to ‘Heart’ which plunges, plummets and plumbs the depths of… uhh… man’s… soul?… soullessness?… psyche?… despair?  The steamboat captain?  Mr. Kurtz? I’m never quite sure but it’s dark. Very dark, and deep, all the way through.  Fortunately it’s intriguing and not depressing. Perhaps a quote or two will enlighten:

“You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies—which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world—what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do. Temperament, I suppose.” (p. 64 of 199 p. e-book.)

“I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know.”  (p. 70 of 199 p. e-book.)

“I take it, no fool ever made a bargain for his soul with the devil; the fool is too much of a fool, or the devil too much of a devil—I don’t know which. Or you may be such a thunderingly exalted creature as to be altogether deaf and blind to anything but heavenly sights and sounds. Then the earth for you is only a standing place—and whether to be like this is your loss or your gain I won’t pretend to say. But most of us are neither one nor the other. The earth for us is a place to live in, where we must put up with sights, with sounds, with smells, too, by Jove!—breathe dead hippo, so to speak, and not be contaminated.  (p. 124 of 199 p. e-book.)

“He struggled with himself, too. I saw it—I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith,”  (p. 170 of 199 p. e-book.)

What of Nigerian Chinua Achebe’s accusations in his 1975 essay that Conrad was a racist? If I hadn’t stumbled across this factoid in Conrad’s Wikipedia entry I wouldn’t have noticed or pondered the question in my reading.  Conrad’s era was of different times and attitudes. It’s the excellent writing in which I’m interested.  His depiction of African natives is no better or worse than that of the soft, white Europeans totally out of their element in the 19th century jungles.  He does use the ‘n-word’.  OMG!

Apocalypse Now?  Confirmed.  From Wikipedia: “The most famous adaptation is Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 motion picture Apocalypse Now, which moves the story from the Congo to Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam War.”…  …”A production documentary of the film, titled Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, exposed some of the major difficulties which director Coppola faced in seeing the movie through to completion. The difficulties that Coppola and his crew faced mirrored some of the themes of the book.”

Personally I’m glad I didn’t read too much about the book before hand, though Wikipedia was informative afterwards.  At least my perspective wasn’t steered toward trying to affirm or deny a particular philosophical bent.

I obtained and read this book for free via Apple’s iBooks.  Like many e-readers it allowed me to highlight passages and access dictionary definitions.

Authors such as Conrad are the reason I read Lapham’s Quarterly.  Had I not been exposed to some of his writing there he would have remained an author of whom I had heard but had not read.  I am grateful.  Am I repeating myself?

I recommend this book.

Drats!  What, no photos?  There goes 98% of my readers, though YOU know I admire photography as much as anyone.  This will have to do:


10 thoughts on “Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. A review.

  1. I obtained and read this book for free via Apple’s iBooks. Like many e-readers it allowed me to highlight passages and access *dictionary definitions*.



    1. Hmm. An idea (for which you never have a shortage) for not-too-far-in-the-future technology. The circuitry to connect to WiFi or cellular would even today easily fit within the back hardcover. Perhaps the book printer’s ink could be sensitized to at least recognize a word for search or definition, maybe even a phrase. A display would be needed for the response, which even today would thinly fit within the inside front hardcover. Essentially you would have a Kindle with pages and thin covers. It would not be heavy, thick, or cumbersome. Hmmmmm…


      1. Oh, I forgot. The tree-huggers will complain you are still de-foresting the planet and robbing it of precious oxygen via photosynthesis. Never mind.


  2. Wow –I have not read fiction in quite awhile

    “I had then, as you remember, just returned to London after a lot of Indian Ocean, Pacific, China Seas—a regular dose of the East—six years or so, and I was loafing about, hindering you fellows in your work and invading your homes, just as though I had got a heavenly mission to civilize you. It was very fine for a time, *but after a bit I did get tired of resting.* Then I began to look for a ship—I should think the hardest work on earth. But the ships wouldn’t even look at me. And I got tired of that game, too.”

    Excerpt From: Joseph Conrad. “Heart of Darkness.” iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewBook?id=668FE51AC5DB1A30FC848AF47CC80BA6

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I read this book as a late teen – since I hardly watch movies I didnt know Apocalypse now (which Ive heard of) was based on the book! I find that a lot with books and movies! Im always disappointed with the movie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Though the movie has the same theme as Darkness and a lot of direct references, being transposed to the setting of the Vietnam War makes it quite different.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s