From the Shelves | “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a dark and extremely dense book — the first few times I spent reading it, I felt as though I were inching through the pages. (I read the Norton Critical Edition, which contains about 77 pages of the actual text, and it took me about 4 hours to read less than 30 of those pages.) At first, I’ll admit that I couldn’t stand it. It was difficult to read and it’s not exactly one of the fast-paced thrillers we’re used to reading today. But after reading it twice and analyzing it through discussions, I slowly grew to like it. There is literally so much material packed into this book that you have no choice but to read it carefully so as not to miss details (and, even then, you’ll miss a ton — I’m certain I did). But it is worth it. Because, in the end, you will have read such a thought-provoking work of literature that your head will be spinning with ideas and questions that seem to branch off in endless directions.

The book, published in 1902, is set aboard a ship on the Thames river, where several seamen sit watching as the dusk fades, waiting for the tide. Marlow, one of the men on the ship, spends much of the novel recounting his time spent in the Congo during the illicit ivory trade. He spends much of his venture there searching for the infamous Kurtz, the chief of one of the ivory trading company’s inner stations buried deep in the jungle. Marlow describes his experience as unsettling and illusory, but he ultimately shows an ambivalent devotion to Kurtz, claiming that he must remain loyal to “the nightmare of his choice.”

With so much of the story being consumed by Marlow’s tale, it is important to remember that he is not the narrator of the novel — indeed, one of the nameless seamen aboard the ship is in truth telling the story. Which brings us to one of the key nuances of Heart of Darkness that makes it such a complex novel: the different layers of storytelling within the book itself, and the different ways in which our opinion of the situation at hand is manipulated by the interpretation of the storyteller. In many cases, this is Marlow, who, as we see throughout the book, is not the most perceptive, nor dispassionate, translator of events. At the beginning of the book (page 5 in the Norton Critical Edition), Marlow is described by the narrator of the novel as finding the true meaning of an episode “not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze.” This makes the book much harder to analyze and understand thoroughly because the reader cannot completely trust the primary storyteller.

The 1979 film Apocalypse Now is based on Heart of Darkness. Although the setting and context of the story are different (the movie is set during the Vietnam War), the details and ideas that really define the book — racism, loyalties and motivations, individual perceptions of events, restraints, etc. — are what make the movie so similar. If you haven’t watched the film yet, I would highly recommend reading the book before seeing it, as it will make the experience of watching it so much better.

There is so much to say about this classic! I really enjoyed reading it and I would suggest reading it at the same time as a friend, so you can discuss it together. This is one of those reads that really benefits from thoughtful analysis, and you need to be alert to pick up on important details and themes. It is well worth the read, I promise — just be aware that it is difficult to get through the beginning, but once you acclimate to Conrad’s dense writing style, it becomes easier to understand. Happy reading!

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