30 September 2009

Book Review: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Banned Books Challenge

On the deck of a ship moored in the Thames, Marlow regales his companions with another of his rambling stories. This one tells of how he signed up with a Belgian company to venture into the jungles of the Congo. Having heard much of a trader named Kurtz, he makes his way upriver to the trading station, only to find that the dark continent has brought out something very dark in Kurtz.

I closed this book feeling as if I needed a dozen extra IQ points in order to properly digest all that I had just read. Much of its significance was lost in Marlow’s torrent of words, and I don’t know whether I’m more annoyed with Conrad or myself. Is he not clear enough, or am I not smart enough? And my confusion is all the greater because I’m sure that if I try to write about it I’ll only end up confusing everyone else.

Bafflement aside, I did enjoy it, particularly the sense of unease and anticipation created as Marlow inched his way along the river. I was getting quite impatient for Kurtz’s arrival well before he showed up, which in a novella of under a hundred pages is quite an achievement. On finally meeting him I didn’t find him as compelling as I had expected, or as Marlow did. The most interesting thing about him was the sense that he should have meant more to me than he did. It’s a book that cries out for a re-reading in a few years, when I can give it the time and attention it needs to reveal itself properly.

As for it being challenged/banned on grounds of racism, so far as I could see all that means is that Marlow held, to an extent, the opinions of his times and the word “savages” was used. It was the powers that be in the company, not Marlow, who despised and exploited the Africans, and they weren’t portrayed flatteringly for doing so. Even those who merely failed to understand local life were shown as fools. And I got the impression that Kurtz would have lost it in any situation where he was so isolated from Western civilisation and mores for so long; that it was something within himself, not the “savagery” of Africa that affected him.

Rating: B


  1. It's interesting to look at it from the point of view of complaints against the book. I enjoyed this review ... good job!

  2. When we read Heart of Darkness in high school I definitely BS'd my way through it.
    However, I went back and read it again over one summer and only then realized what a cool book it actually is! Conrad may be a rambler, but he's a rambler with purpose. (Still, the rambles can be very very vexing, especially when he whips out his nautical terminology)
    Great review. I totally share your pain!

  3. Have you seen the film, Apocalypse Now, with Marlon Brando as Kurtz? Based on Conrad's book. I recommend it = a great film, does a lot to help understand the novel.

  4. Kristen: I'm so glad I didn't end up confusing people!

    notableindigo: BSing my way through things was my specialty in high school!

    Book Bird Dog: Thanks for the suggestion. I definitely feel in need of some assistance!


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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776