Book Review: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

One of the first things I noticed about this novel was the splendid use of language, the adjectives, similes, metaphors, and the descriptions. The second thing was the irony, enough to make me laugh aloud, although it is a serious and dark book.

Joseph Conrad was a river-boat captain in the Congo, and he experienced a similar journey to the one his protagonist, Charles Marlowe, endured.

The story is of an English adventurer who traveled into the Belgian Congo as a steamboat captain. The purpose of the trip was to bring back ivory from the center of Africa. It was a long and dangerous voyage, the steamboat broke down, and most of the boat crew turned out to be hungry cannibals. The narrator, talked about, indeed was obsessed by a man called Kurtz, who resided at the furthest point of the journey.

Kurtz was a successful trader of ivory, and apparently a remarkable man; a man of education, of understanding, of culture. Yet after a few years in the darkness of Africa he became unhinged, a despot, demented.

The steamboat was attacked by tribal natives as they neared Kurtz's outpost, but the crew survived and met the mysterious Kurtz who was near death and raving. As they took Kurtz back down-river, towards the coast and civilization, he died from an unknown illness that ravaged the inland.

The story was quite critical of European imperialism that treated the natives as beasts, commercial slaves, and the country as an opportunity to plunder. At the same time, the novel dehumanized the Africans, reducing them to the background of the story, part of the darkness of Africa. They lost their 'voice' their social life, being reduced to Kurtz's tribal army, and of course cannibals.

I wouldn't be too critical of Conrad for this weakness, because this was 1899, and like all of us he was a product of his time and culture. He showed his independence in being critical of imperialism, which, at the time, was still immensely popular with most of the European nations, not to mention Russia, Japan, and the United States.

It would be easy for literary experts to build a psychological story from the events of the novel, perhaps even to claim it was all an inner journey, rather than a physical one. I don't see that as a viable argument. It is largely a story as it was written, an adventure that was indeed dark, but told in crisp, intelligent, descriptive prose - a delight to read.

Heart of Darkness is consistently ranked in the top 100 English language novels of the 20th Century. It has been made into various plays, movies, and TV productions, the most famous being, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, which transported the story to the Vietnam War.