Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Okay, so you know how sometimes you just never read a classic book for years and years—because even as an English major you can’t possibly read all of them in college—and then you finally get around to it and you realize that it is some missing piece of your soul that has finally come home to rest?

Well, this wasn’t one of those times. It’s true that I managed not to read Heart of Darkness till now, but I kinda wish it had stayed that way. It’s one of those books that skates by on its historical significance and once-revolutionary themes, so no one bothers to mention the totally crappy storytelling.

John and I read this for our own personal book club, and basically spent the entire discussion complaining about it and tallying up all the things we wished Conrad would have done instead.

But let’s break it down.

Setting: Late 19th century, England and the Congo

Story: Naive English dude becomes a ferry-boat captain headed to the Congo. He is charged with 1) transporting ivory, and 2) picking up a guy named Kurtz, who is some fiendishly successful ivory trader who needs to be returned to civilization. Kurtz is a genius, they say, but seems to be dabbling in some shady practices.

Themes: As good little 19th century Brits, we all know that the “heart of darkness” refers to the jungle itself, the black-skinned heathens who live there. Or does it? Could it be that raping the African land in the name of Christianizing the savages is not such a pure motive after all, that true darkness perhaps germinates in the human soul?

Writing: I have no complaints with Conrad’s style. It’s the freaking plot and structure.

First, the whole thing is a frame story, which as far as I can tell has no function except to jolt the reader out of the story periodically for no good reason. But the main problem is that the book fails to deliver the goods. Conrad piques our interest for pages and pages about this Kurtz fellow. All the characters go on at length about his persuasive methods, his amazing speeches, his heroic proportions. And Conrad never shows us, never tells us, never gives us any satisfying details about who Kurtz actually is or what Kurtz actually does. I walked away from this book with literary blue balls, and I’m still angry about it.

Best thing about it: It’s short.

Worst thing about it: See “writing” above.

Final thoughts: Watch Apocalypse Now instead. It’s actually supposed to be an adaptation of Heart of Darkness, though from what I understand (I’ve only seen the big famous scene with the Wagner) it actually has a good plot.

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