I am very fond of the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. I am one of the only two people I know with this fondness. The other one is my mother.
I’m writing this guide to Heart of Darkness to help people make sense of a book that can be hard to read and harder to understand.
If you don’t know what Heart of Darkness is about, a brief summary: The narrator, Marlow, tells us the tale of his expedition into the heart of the dark continent during the colonization of the Congo in the 1800s. This expedition’s goal was to rescue one of the stars of the ivory trade, a man named Kurtz, who has ceased communicating with the Company. This was a brutal and horrific time in Africa’s history. Marlow describes this brutality at length on several occasions.
I feel like this book doesn’t get a fair shake. The writing style can be hard for many readers. People think seeing Apocalypse Now is an adequate substitute. Modern…sensibilities…have decided it is doubleplus ungood.
None of these are reasons not to read Heart of Darkness.
For a very short book, it’s very dense. The prose can be opaque unless you let it truly carry you along. It’s one of the few books I remember in images rather than words. Conrad writes in what I can only describe as an Impressionistic style. When you look at Van Gogh’s Starry Night, you know it’s not a photorealistic depiction, but it is still real in a profound, gut-feeling way. Joseph Conrad’s writing is similar, especially in Heart of Darkness.
Apocalypse Now is not an adaptation of Heart of Darkness. Saying it’s inspired by it is generous. A true movie adaptation of literature should communicate the core ideas of the book in a different medium. The first part of Apocalypse Now is good. The movie is well-done and iconic. It uses some lines and situations from the book. But it misses a lot of the major ideas of the novel. The movie doesn’t say the same things, which I think are important things to think about. Watch the movie because it’s a classic (first part). Read the book because it is a very different classic.
It has been argued that Heart of Darkness is racist. It can be argued so from the text, this is true, but that also dismisses the narrator’s low, low, ninth-circle-of-Hell option of many of the white men he encounters. I’ve read analyses dating the book for viewing colonization as a tragedy for white men alone, inflicting upon them a spiritual damage, while not addressing the damage done to the African people.
Listen, Conrad wrote a book about particular things. He had certain things to say and certain ideas to explore. He could have written it set on the Lost Continent of Atlantis or set on another planet. It could easily be adapted to these settings without losing much. Conrad was not of such fantastic bent and frankly a book written in those settings would not have the same punch it gets from realistic grounding. It is the book it is. Being angry at it because it is not the book you think it should be because it does not express the ideas you think it should, is silly. That’s not how you study literature. You want a book that says those things? Write it yourself. It may last, it may not. Time and the tide are beyond all of us. When studying Heart of Darkness, study Heart of Darkness.
I do not adhere to the “lenses” that have become so common in modern literature study because they tend to bend the text very forcibly. If you’re going to study a book, you don’t need to use “corrective vision” to read it. Great books may or may not reaffirm our beliefs about the world. Largely, they offer up ideas for you to think about.
I also find authorial intent a silly thing to include when reading an individual book, especially if a writer did not write about the meaning at length. I have a lot of Conrad’s books, but I don’t want to turn this into a deep dive into Conrad’s work and the ideas that run through his work. I’m going to try to avoid referencing any works or even details about his life. A lot of them are trivia when it comes to studying a book. Authorial intent can be interesting, but it’s where you go when you think you’ve bled the text dry of meaning that stands on its own. Or you’re bored.
When studying Heart of Darkness, study Heart of Darkness. That’s what this guide is going to do. This ain’t James Joyce’s Ulysses, folks. You don’t need to know the entire canon of Western culture to make sense of this book. I do not think you even need much knowledge of the history of the Congo or the dreadful colonization of Africa. However, for the sake of some grounding, here’s the wiki article on the Congo Free State, the primary setting. I would not recommend reading it while in a depressed mood.
I’m not sure how long this is going to take. The novel is not very long, but it is dense and strong on imagery and meaning. We’re going to stick with a sequential organization rather than a thematic one. It’s going to be a bit of a read-along. I’ll include links to every section of this guide below, as well as links to the previous and next section on every post. Anticipate these sentences being erased once we’ve gone through the book.
Feel free to ask questions and give your thoughts about the book!