Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad | Book Review

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a bit of a rite of passage for all English mayors. At some point in your career you have to read it because it’s a classic. And if you’re a teacher, at some point you will have to teach it.

One of the most interesting things about this novel is that its author, Joseph Conrad, was not English- born; he was actually Polish and he learned English when he was 20. And, curiously enough, this novel became one of the most beautifully written novels in English language. In a way, Heart of Darkness is your typical story of the sea because there are lots of voyages and adventures and fights and discoveries, but the story takes a darker turn because it was based on Conrad’s trip to the Congo River. The narrator also goes to the Congo River and we see the effect that going into the wild and seeing the slavery provoked in him as well as how his quest to find a man called Mr. Kurts affected him by the end of the novel. One of the main themes is precisely this idea of the utopic travel and discovering unknown lands and how that is contrasted with the reality that the sailors see ones they arrive.

At the beginning of the story, Marlow confesses that while he always had a passion for adventure, the Congo River held a special appeal, and he describes the river as a snake that seduced him. With this, there’s also the idea of the fall of men after the acquisition of certain type of knowledge, and we definitely see that by the end of the novel. We see that a change has taken place in Marlow and that this idea or this believe in the British Empire is shattered.

There’s also the duality between light and darkness, which is evident from the title, but what’s interesting is that the type of light that we see in the novel is not bright, but rather dim, spectral and intermitent, like flashes of knowledge that the narrator has in his experience. The character is always surrounded by darkness and this creates a feeling of claustrophobia and this darkness is related to the horrors of colonization. Whenever there’s the acquisition of knowledge, is more of an intuitive perception rather than something that has been outspoken, so the change that takes place in the character is within, and this emphasizes the feeling of claustrophobia. I love the description of the setting because the see and the jungle are very tangible: you feel the humidity and you feel the wilderness. And there’s also the constant presence of a mist that kind of creates a veil in your perception, so nothing is seen clearly; and with that, you feel that the surrounding darkness is very threatening. This is actually a framed narrative, so at the
beginning we have an unknown narrator who allows Marlow to tell his story and is Marlow’s story what is at the core, at the heart, of the novel. It’s interesting that, as he tells the events from the past, he narrates them as if he were living them for the first time, so we are immersed in his perception and, as he gains knowledge, we gain it as well. Because we are trapped inside of his perception, there are many things that he doesn’t see or hear clearly, and we don’t hear them as well, so this lack of knowledge remains with the readers throughout the novel.

What I love about this novel is that most of the characters don’t have a name, or if they do it’s not very memorable, and this is used so that you can focus on the two characters that do have a name, which are Marlow and Kurtz. The novel works in pairs and dualities so light and darkness, black and white, civilization and barbarism, so there’s this idea that Marlow and Kurts can be doubles of the same entity. Marlow is a sailor that is always seen as an outsider, so he prefers to observe rather than take action, and he has longing to hear Mr. Kurts. Kurts is seen as an idol; people admire him and expect great things from him because he’s very talented, he’s cunning, and there’s an idea that whoever hears him becomes a convert to his ideals.

The language is very poetic and it’s careful constructed to give you these specks of light, of knowledge and the rest is held back, so it deals a lot with the unsaid and what’s insinuated. It’s also solemn and it has a musicality that is beautiful to hear. You can kind of hear the waves and the river and the wilderness around you because of the language. I’m going to quote a paragraph from it just so that you can see how beautiful the language is. This is when Marlow first arrives at the Congo River and he says:

“Nowhere did we stop long enough to get a particularized impression, but the general sense of vague and oppressive wonder grew upon me. It was like a weird pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares”.

I mean, its’s just so beautiful. Obviously, I give this book a five out of five stars. I think it is a book that everybody has to read at one point in their lives.

Lots of love,

Published by Dany Szelsky

I worked as a TA at university from 2017-2018 teaching the seminars of Gothic Literature, Postmodernist Literature, and Modernist Literature. I worked from 2018-2019 as a High School Literature teacher with six groups on 10th grade and one in 12th grade. I taught 7 classes to over 180 students. I am currently studying an MA in English and American Studies at Ca' Foscari University of Venice.

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