Heart of Darkness

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Heart of Darkness

Jun 2, 2008, 10:55pm

Heart of Darkness has been one of my literary stumbling blocks. I found the writing to be extremely dense and difficult to read. My focus kept wandering, making it one of the longest short books I have ever read.

I know there are quite a few people who love this novel. I want to hear why from both the supporters and the non-supporters.

Thanks in advance.

-- M!001.

Jun 7, 2008, 5:07pm

Bumping this post.

Does anyone have an opinion of Heart of Darkness?

-- M1001

Jun 7, 2008, 8:04pm

Not a good one, to be totally honest. I think I'm just not a Conrad fan - the only one I've liked is The Secret Agent, and not enough to read again or anything.

I also found Heart of Darkness hard to read, and I kept thinking I was missing something. You're right - it's very dense, it's not my kind of story - didn't like it.

Whenever I say something along the lines of "Oh, Conrad, not for me" in a post or my 50 book challange, the Conrad fans really come out of the woodwork! Those who like him really, really like him.

Jun 7, 2008, 10:04pm

I honestly wish I could defend it, mostly because this is one of those books in high school that everyone else seemed to hate but me. (I remember being in a similar situation with Siddhartha and Farenheit 451.) Seriously, though, I don't remember enough about it to come up with a good defense of the book, especially when it comes to style.

Although, on a somewhat generic note, I think the use of a dense style seems like the kind of thing that would work (at least for me) to narrate a man's metaphorical descent down the scale of madness/wickedness.

Jun 7, 2008, 10:48pm

I took a great books class last year and Heart of Darkness was one of the books. On the surface it just seems a story, but when it gets analyzed it turns into something completely different. I don't always want to think that hard. At the moment I can't recall all the psychology, symbolism, etc., but it's chocked full.

Edited: Jun 7, 2008, 11:55pm

It is indeed full of stuff, but I can't remember it all either. Lots to do with the evils of colonialism. I studied it in a first year English class and then again in a second year English. I swear I will never again take a course that includes the Heart of Darkness. It's a short book, but it took me forever to plod through it the first time, and even longer the second time.

I have the Norton Critical Edition, which has tons of extra material which was pretty interesting. Maybe if you get a hold of some criticism of it you'll see something fresh? Have you read it in tandem with watching Apocalypse Now? I did that in preparation for an essay I ended up not writing, but it was a helpful exercise.

The one image that I've kept from the book that I did like was Conrad's description of the bright white fog that was so scary. I thought that was pretty cool--for one thing, even though I haven't' been on a river in the middle of Nowhere'sville, Africa, I could picture it perfectly, and it was as scary as any Stephen King story I've ever read.

I also appreciate Conrad's skill with language, especially considering that English was what? His third language? I don't particularly like his writing style, but I can appreciate it.

I'm looking forward to hearing someone from the Conrad is the Best group.

Jun 9, 2008, 12:21pm

I read this book at least once a year. I am one of those oddities, a Conrad fan. To me, each time I read this story it drops more pearls of wisdom on me.

On the surface the question is who are the "savages", us or the Africans. What does it mean to be a "savage"? But after one scrapes the layers away you find the "Heart of Darkness" all around. I've defended this work several times in various fora here, and don't wish to do it again at this time.

The River by the way, is the Congo. A quick survey of conditions in the Congo at the end of the 19th century will illustrate the situation Conrad was trying to bring to our attention. Oh, this book is a marvel of raising the consciousness of the West to the evils, the true evils, of European empire.

I also like the density of the writing, I'm just funny that way. If I'm going to invest the time in reading a book, I want to feel like i've accomplished something.

Jul 6, 2008, 8:42am

It's been too long for me to give a good defense, but I would like to say that I read it back in high school...and HATED it. It was a struggle to get through, and while I Thought I understood it, I didn't see any real value in it. I read it again some years later (I think at around age 22), and four years and a good teacher made a huge difference. I'd recommend sitting down to talk over it with someone who's read it more recently, or even sitting in on a class just to listen if you have the time/opportunity. The ideas there are complicated, but I think they're worth the time, whereas it seems many contemp. authors lead you around in circles and only Sound like they're getting at something more profound than the obvious.

Oct 18, 2008, 12:32pm

I listened to it on audio, and thought it was good. Nothing exceptional, but worth it.

May 13, 2010, 7:31pm

Definitely one of those books you read only because it is assigned...but that doesn't mean it can't still affect a transformation. I made it through fine in English class, but when it came time to discuss and write a (retrospectively short) paper on it, I actually got it. Specifically, the concept I seemed to be able to internalize was that the main character had looked over the edge at darkness and deliberately stepped back. Don't quote me on that, it was a few years ago.

However, only a year after parts of my paper were read aloud in class (a great honor from that teacher), I chose to compare Heart of Darkness with Apocalypse Now in a film history class. I liked to say later that I only got a B+ because I ultimately claimed that the movie did not hold to that concept I had so strongly taken from the book (Martin Sheen appeared to embrace the darkness from my viewpoint), but honestly it was probably just me having freshman writing skills.

I still have my copy of the book, though I haven't read it again. I haven't watched the movie again either since I really disliked the ending.

May 13, 2010, 8:54pm

Conrad is one of my favorite authors. His Victory was one of the first "serious" books that I really enjoyed.

Heart of Darkness works on so many levels. It's about colonialism. It's about nature versus civilization. It's about the human soul. It's a rich, dense work that I find something new in every time I read it. It's not that long. It spawned Apocalypse Now, one of the great works of cinema.

Strong in metaphor, rich in description . . . ahhh . . .

Kurtz is wrestling with human nature, with oblivion. With the savagery of nature, and human hubris in conflict with it.
So many tasty bits . . . .

One of the greats.

May 13, 2010, 9:41pm

The woman in black in the heart of the whited sepulchre knitting the disastrous future is one of the greatest metaphors for the decay at the heart of western civilization ever created. The Heart of Darkness is not only a thousand miles up the Congo, it's in the heart of each and every one of us. We are no better than the white faced natives lining the river bank, only more efficient in our cruelty.

The smoking lamp is lit, the tide is running, tell us a tale Marlowe, tell us a tale. Tell us about The Nigger of the Narcissus, or Lord Jim, or Almayer's Folly. Tell us a tale.

May 13, 2010, 10:07pm

You're really making me wanna go read some RIGHT NOW.

I haven't ever finished Nostromo. I'd better get right on that.

May 28, 2010, 9:12pm

You'll have to bull through the first one-third or so, before the plot starts to develop...

Feb 24, 2012, 7:26am

Try watching 'Apocalypse Now', whilst simultaneous getting horribly drunk. It will all make sense then.

Edited: Aug 30, 2021, 3:45pm

1899. Classified as one of the three most important colonial novels, with A Passage to India and Burmese Days. I read it at 17 and was impressed. Conrad uses a lot of these very Latin words in English. Latin means ancient Rome. I had the feeling that this expedition could happen anywhere, at any time in older history. It's like with Moby Dick. People in ships. Note the chaos in the Congo even now, cannibalism, rapes. Some peoples there are still wild at heart. From this short novel, I remember mainly the evening meeting on the Thames, Kurtz's wife, the narrator in Brussels, gunboats shelling the coast in Dahomey, the black woman, Kurtz's diary. The phrase "Exterminate all the brutes" has been used recently as the title of a book and TV series about colonialism. I see these images in my mind quite often. An important book for anyone interested in old Africa. What was it really like to be white and in its belly? The assumption is that the tribes in the great jungle were extremely backward and isolated, which is not neccessarily true. They could be well-organized, belong to some large tribal organism, even a kingdom. The Congo Kingdom was one of the strongest states in Africa. Brussels means Belgium, Leopold II ruled the Congo from 1885. If you dig deeper, there is literature on the Congo, H. M. Stanley and earlier an Italian missionary, Cavazzi. These are travel or stay accounts, not fiction. There exists The Congo Diary by Conrad, and his short story An Outpost of Progress. Stanley acted for Leopold II. Stanley was not an amateur, but one of major explorers in Africa.
Wikipedia says about Zaire: "The country's name, Zaïre, was derived from the name of the Congo River, sometimes called Zaire in Portuguese, which in turn was derived from the Kikongo word nzere or nzadi ('river that swallows all rivers'). The use of Congo seems to have replaced Zaire gradually in English usage during the 18th century and Congo was the preferred English name in 19th-century literature, although references to Zahir or Zaire as the name used by the local population (i.e. derived from Portuguese usage) remained common." Maybe the truth was like in this article, without any secrets and unknown states: https://atlantablackstar.com/2015/04/22/10-interesting-facts-from-dr-john-henrik... Which tribes could Kurtz reach? https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/congo/images/congo-ethnic-2003.jpg Ngala, Ngombe, Mongo, Ngandu? "The deities of the Ngombe include the supreme creator Akongo and the ancestor goddess Mbokomu." Ngando are farmers. "The Bongando have a patrilineal lineage system, and wives come to live near their husband's family. Usually close relatives live close together."
There is a book named In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, but it's about Mobutu. Someone should really check how true the situations in Heart of Darkness are, the part deep in the Congo. In the 70s, 80s, Zaire was peaceful, and that was the time for such on-site research.
Let's see how far Conrad went on his steamship. Kurtz's station was the most remote one along the Congo. Conrad was employed by the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo in 1890. He was to work there for three years, but after one return trip from Stanley Pool to Stanleyville (13 August to 24 September) he got serious dysentery, which he treated in Europe for most of the next year. Stanleyville is now Kisangani, really far along the river. Farther than I thought, Conrad was courageous, it's up the Lualaba. Let's say he reached the Lengola territory. 100,000 people nowadays. "The population is ethnically diverse and is changing rapidly, especially in large cities such as Kisangani, so it is not always easy to get an exact picture of the ethnic origin of all the population from census statistics." Read about the history and demographics of Kisangani on Wikipedia. Stanley Pool is now practically Kinshasa. 1,000 miles between these cities. Conrad doesn't mention Arab slave traders, but soon after his departure, the Congo–Arab War was fought (1892–1894), between Europeans and Arabs, around Kisangani. In 1899, the Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral was built in Kisangani. Knowing this context, the book now seems very simplified to me. It's like with Rimbaud when you study colonialism in Aden and Harar. HoD is fiction for the popular European market. Debunking is useful, even if you destroy your good reading memories.
There is a movie with Malkovich from the 90s, faithful to the book from what I remember.
One of many Internet articles: https://lokoleyacongo.com/2017/06/03/joseph-conrads-congo-journey/ Lulonga, the last entry in Conrad's diary, is much earlier on the route.
I also read that Conrad accepted the mate position because he wanted to command any ship anywhere, and that the job resulted in a prolonged psychological and health breakdown. He soon (after 2 years on a British ship) quit the sea and started to write.
I've noticed that authors, especially from that age, leave certain clues for posterity in characters' names preferably. Kurtz - kurz means short in German. "Call me Ishmael" - small. Short and small. Just guessing. The trick is that we are not sure if Conrad read Moby Dick. But of course he did. Even the surname Marlow is similar to Melville. Of course this can't be proven, the problem is possible plagiarism. But I've already seen one such case, hiding the maybe slightly plagiarized source (the author was Sienkiewicz, his novel from 1911, in his research he probably used a German travel account by Schweinfurth). Melville was maybe a bit forgotten then, and Schweinfurth would be unknown in Poland, there is still no translation into Polish. Conrad and Sienkiewicz are Polish literary giants, Sienkiewicz probably knew English well and sometimes visited London. No one writes about their meetings, but maybe they met, maybe often. They use the same code. In Sienkiewicz's Quo Vadis (1895–1896), I have found lots of code in characters' names, which indicated that Sienkiewicz used Tacitus for that work. Just these two authors so far. And Tacitus is a Latin author. Maybe they had some pact? Sienkiewicz made a 2-months-long trip to Africa in early 1891, he chose Zanzibar, a British protectorate, also saw the mainland around German Bagamoyo, and wrote an account. It's still prestigious in Poland to be a 'Victorian gentleman' and to make trips to Africa. Sienkiewicz's daughter translated Conrad into Polish, only several works.
Maybe they were connected through a secret patriotic proindependence organization? They were plagiarists - Polish agitators? Maybe the organization had some support in London? The connection between Poland and London goes back to the Middle Ages, or maybe even to the beginnings of the Polish state around 1000. Poles knew that beyond Germany there is another Western state, England. This started when monks from Ireland, England came to Germany to strengthen Christianity there. Just my theories.
Wikipedia says that Conrad went even much farther, to Kindu, a really remote station. The tribe there would be Lega, Kusu, or Zimba. It's close to Rwanda and Burundi, which are, however, different ethnically. Lega are described in detail on Wikipedia. Much more advanced than in the novella. Ivory use.
Maybe Conrad also used Schweinfurth? That German traveler used attractive language in his descriptions of almost virgin forests (published in 1873 in English translation). Today the area is South Sudan and northeastern DR Congo. Several letters 'urt' could indicate this. Or 'Curts.' Poles would have reasons to conceal their use of a German source.
An article to the point: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/18/opinion/joseph-conrad-congo-river.html
Here, Kisangani (Stanley Falls) is the final point in a quite detailed description of Conrad's route: Conrad's https://scrapsfromtheloft.com/books/heart-of-darkness-origins-and-critical-histo...
But why are there so many articles on the subject? And I still don't know the real facts. The source for Kindu is Bloom, Harold, ed. (2009). Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, p. 15.
Alexandre Delcommune - an explorer who traveled on that steamboat, his final destination was Katanga. Conrad was not the captain, but a supernumerary, that is "an assistant or substitute in case of necessity" (RHWUDictionary). But Wikipedia says about Delcommune: "The expedition left Kinshasa on 17 October 1890 on two steamers. Ville de Bruxelles was provided by the state and Florida was provided by the Haut Congo Society." Conrad's steamer was called Roi des Belges. Chaos. Maybe Delcommune left some account? Delcommune used Roi des Belges earlier, in 1886. Wikipedia: "The future author Joseph Conrad had traveled to the Congo in the hope of joining Delcommune's 1890 expedition as captain of the Florida, but was met with hostility by Delcommune's brother Camille and did not get the job." Finally, Conrad traveled with the other Delcommune brother, Camille. I suppose they talked a lot on board.
Read about the nearby Tetela people. In the 1890s, they worked as soldiers for Belgium in all parts of the Congo Free State. Tetela - "tell a tale"?
I know that in the Congo, the Bantu tribes see themselves as a large group, and there are people who travel across the country. The reality could be much different than in the novella.
Today, Kindu has an airport, a hospital, a university, a supermarket, but a white reporter or travel writer will stress its exoticism and dangers, just like Conrad because this sells.
Tippu Tib (slave trader from Zanzibar) along the Lualaba and Msiri in Katanga were important rulers in 1890. Msiri indeed kept heads of his enemies on poles, stakes around his residence. But his favorite wife was from Angola, with a Portuguese surname, a mulatto.
According to Hochschild, Conrad reached only Stanley Falls, meaning Kisangani probably, not the entire long falls. The proof is in Conrad's later writings somewhere, in the essay from 1923 "Geography and Some Explorers"? Meyers confirms this in his biography, providing concrete dates for events during the trip back. The source? Not the diary because the diary doesn't cover the trip at all, only June 13 to August 1, and certainly not Lulonga.
There is something more, it's called "The Up-river Book," Conrad's technical notes, some 30 pages. https://bookramblings.blog/2018/05/01/conrads-congo/ There, Lulonga is mentioned near the end, but dates are generally not given.
Probably Conrad's letters are the source. The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad Volume I 1861–1897, eds. Karl and Davies. 512 pages.
Map of Stanley Falls, 1885: https://www.ebay.com/itm/Boyoma-Falls-Stanley-Falls-Lualaba-river-Congo-1885-old...
Kindu in Wikipedia is just a lie in fact, prominently displayed. The source is fake. "While sailing up the Congo River from one station to another, the captain became ill and Conrad assumed command. He guided the ship up the tributary Lualaba River to the trading company's innermost station, Kindu, in Eastern Congo Free State" - many inaccuracies, in a credible language.