I started Book to the Future to fill in some of the considerable gaps in my reading.
But this week is different – because I’m reviewing a book I’ve already read.
Yes, I know there are many other books I could have easily read this week. Henry James published The Wings of the Dove in 1902. Andre Gide’s The Immoralist also came out this year. They’re both books that I wouldn’t mind reading. But, for some reason, I felt compelled to revisit a book I’ve already read.
Correction: a book I’ve already read more than once…
I’ve actually read this book twice in my lifetime: once, when I was in high school, and again when I was in university. Both times it meant something totally different to me. Now, this time, the third time, it’s all the more special, because I can share it with you. Ready? Good. Let’s go…
Heart of Darkness
by Joseph Conrad
Published in 1902
Some books have the capacity to change your life. Heart of Darkness is one of these books…
When I first read Heart of Darkness, I was seventeen, and I made extensive notes in the margins of the book in heavy pencil. I underlined passages. I folded over the corners of pages. At the time, I thought this was a scholarly thing to do.
At seventeen, I thought Heart of Darkness was a book about good and evil. I was wrong. It’s scarier than that. Heart of Darkness is a story about nothingness. In the absence of the often arbitrary rules of Western society – stop at the red light, don’t walk on the grass, thou shalt not kill, and so on – we’re left with the terrifying possibility of nothingness. All we have is the choices we make…and it’s up to us to make the right ones. Open any history book, and you’ll find a sad parade of wrong decisions.
Heart of Darkness is a story within a story; a tale told by Marlow, an old sailor, to his crewmates aboard a yacht sailing the Thames by night.
As a child, Marlow dreamed of Africa; a tantalising blank space on the map of the world, waiting to be filled. As a naive young man, Marlow remembers his childhood dream and sets off for Africa. But Africa is no longer a blank space…
Even before Marlow arrives in Africa, he’s confronted with the realisation that his dreams might have been a little idealistic.
“Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts” … “In the empty immensity of earth, sky and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the eight-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech – and nothing happened. Nothing could happen.”
– Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, page 31
Marlow arrives in Africa, and it’s like walking into a nightmare. The noble spirit of adventure has been replaced with the sheer hell of bureaucracy. Worse still – African natives are enslaved and chained, being worked to their painful, slow deaths. Marlow is told that some are “criminals”, but no-one knows their crime; they’re victims of a law that is not their own. The managers of the station are half-crazed with their greed for ivory – Africa’s most valuable export. But, worse than greed is their ignorant, impractical adherence to the rules of a distant continent.
Disgusted by what the absurdity and atrocity he finds, Marlow boards his steamer, headed towards the Congo’s innermost station, to meet the legendary Kurtz. The closer Marlow gets to Kurtz, the more he admires him. He’s a prodigy, a man of genius. He writes, paints, plays the piano, speaks a multitude of language. Kurtz, we are told, is a fine example of a man; the very finest Europe has to offer, much like Marlow himself. Marlow finds out that Kurtz is also the company’s leading source of ivory, somehow achieving an extraordinary influence over the natives.
But upon arriving at Kurtz’s station, all is not as it seems. Rather than the genius Marlow was expecting, he finds in Kurtz a man who has made himself a god over the native people. Of all the evil Marlow has encountered in Africa, Kurtz represents the greatest evil of them all. He is half-mad, greedy – and dying of disease. Marlow takes him back up the river. It’s on this trip that Marlow bears witness to Kurtz’s final moments on earth. His dying words leave Marlow changed for life.
Profoundly pessimistic, absolutely unforgettable, Heart of Darkness will leave you reeling. Like Marlow, you may never be quite the same.
It’s a book way, way ahead of its time. In 1902, Heart of Darkness criticised colonialism in mainstream literature, challenging the accepted ideas of the middle-class, male reader – exactly the kind of person who would have been Conrad’s primary audience. Cheeky? Definitely.
But what impresses me most about Heart of Darkness is Conrad’s amazing use of symbolism. The meaninglessness of European colonisation in Africa is shown through the symbolism of a ship firing uselessly into a continent, or a railway that appears to go nowhere, or the effort to put out a fire using a bucket with a hole in the bottom. If you’re interested in symbolism, consider Heart of Darnkess a masterclass.
Conrad’s writing style is also very in-the-moment. It shows us only what happens, and lets the reader do the rest of the work. For instance – “Something big appeared in the air before the shutter” … “and the man stepped back quickly” – is Marlow’s description of a crewmate being fatally struck by an arrow before him. Sometimes, it can be difficult to work out exactly what is going on, as Conrad doesn’t make it explicit for us. And then, to add to the difficulty of reading Heart of Darkness, much of what passes between Marlow and Kurtz is left unsaid. Marlow merely tells us that Kurtz talks, he describes the enticing, alluring nature of his voice in detail. But few of Kurtz’s words are quoted directly. Marlow doesn’t tell us exactly what Kurtz did to the natives – it’s left to us to construct our own story; a story that will be different for every reader.
Personally, I don’t mind doing some of the work myself. But I can see why some readers would be frustrated beyond belief with Heart of Darkness. I can still remember the confusion I felt as a seventeen-year-old. Now, on my third reading, I’m still making new discoveries; it’s a different book every time.
There’s a reason why I scrawled my confused observations about Heart of Darkness in the margins of the pages at seventeen with such a heavy hand. It’s a book that left a definite mark on me. I suspect I wanted to return the favour.
This is one book I wanted to leave with a scar.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should I read it?
Okay – I’ll be honest: I’ve seen Heart of Darkness on many people’s lists of books they’ve started but couldn’t finish. Or books they had to study in school but couldn’t stand. You might find the writing a little dense. You might find the subject matter depressing. Heart of Darkness mightn’t be for every reader – but I really think it’s worth reading. It’s definitely one of my all-time favourites…
Look, if you can’t read Heart of Darkness, at least promise me you’ll go and watch Apocalypse Now, ‘kay?
In a word: Haunting.