Thoughts on reading “The Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad

I recently read Joseph Conrad’s famous novella, “The Heart of Darkness.” It’s one of those stories that I would put in the category of books-I-would’ve-read-had-I-ever-taken-an-AP-English-class-in-high-school.

It’s the tale of an English sailor named Marlow who sails deep into Africa on the Congo river. His goal is to retrieve an Englishman who lives among tribal people, and is dying. I read a Barnes & Noble hardcover edition of this story that included a lengthy introduction, discussion questions, and end notes with considerable commentary. Based on what I read of that material, and my own reaction to the story, I can say that this tale is an exploration of human depravity. I don’t mean to say that it details evil actions or anything like that, but rather, Marlow’s voyage into the darkness of the jungle is representative of the voyage a human soul may take if they pursue narcissism to its end.

At least I think that’s what it’s about.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not really qualified to give a critical review of this book. I read it because I’ve heard about it. I read it because I want to read challenging material. And admittedly, I read it because it was short and I needed a quick filler while I wait on a library book I requested. :)

The story is narrated by Marlow to his friends. He recalls the tail at some point much later in his life. This is not my favorite storytelling method. Parts of the book were not that engrossing. However, as Marlow drew closer to the end of his tale the tension mounted and I hurriedly finished it. It grew in tension, I suppose, as the jungle grows in darkness. (Tangentially, I read that the film “Apocalypse Now” is based on this book.)

This is the first story by Conrad that I’ve read. Another of his short stories, entitled “Youth” was included in my edition. I read it as well. Conrad is a good writer (though not one of my favorites yet). Here are some quotes from the story that I found interesting:

“Beyond the fence the forest stood up spectrally in the moonlight, and through the dim stir, through the faint sounds of that lamentable courtyard, the silence of the and went home to one’s very heart – its mystery, its greatness, the amazing reality of its concealed life.”

“No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work – no man does – but I like what is in the work, – the chance to find yourself. Your own reality – for yourself, not for others – what no other man can ever know. They only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.”

“Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest.”

“I slipped the book into my pocket. I assure you to leave off reading was like tearing myself away from the shelter of an old and solid friendship.”

“The glimpse of the steamboat had for some reason filled those savages with unrestrained grief. The danger, if any, I expounded, was from our proximity to a great human passion let loose. Even extreme grief may ultimately vent itself in violence – but more generally takes the form of apathy…”

My copy of this story also included this quote from Conrad, which makes a fitting close to this post:

“My task is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see. That – and no more, and it is everything.” (From “The New Review,” December 1897)

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