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Heart out of darkness

Book Book Review, Title Heart Of Darkness, Author Joseph Conrad, Rating 5.0, Heart out of darkness

Heart Of Darkness

Joseph Conrad

Book Review

In Joseph Conrad's classic novella, Heart of Darkness, the sailor Marlow serves as the author's version of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, compelled to tell his story of conscience to whatever audience he finds. The story he tells is indeed dark, and indeed about the heart, albeit mostly the lack thereof. Conrad takes apart the European colonial enterprise, particularly the carving-up of Africa in the nineteenth century, and strips bare all of the tales of adventure from those times and places, along with the high-flown language of imperialism which was used to mask the utter barbarity of the undertaking.

The story takes place in Central Africa on a great river, where dominant Europeans dehumanized native Africans so as to enrich themselves with ivory. (This story is based on Conrad’s experiences in the Belgian Congo Free State during the late 1800’s.) He reveals the arrogant and amoral elitism which employed high-flown causes and euphemistic language to explain away the theft of land and resources from natives. It is easy to recognize the twentieth century dismissal and destruction of the Untermenschen by Nazi Germany in this European treatment of the natives, built on pure indifference to what should have been a civilized and Christian concern for life, family and health; Europeans systematically overworked, underpaid, starved, enslaved, and killed. The result? Europe became materially richer, and native cultures were maimed or destroyed, along with many millions of people.

Marlow’s path leads inescapably to Kurtz, renowned for his mastery of colonial ivory trade, expected thereby to be elevated to high position. As it becomes clear to Marlow that the Kurtz, in this time and place, is a man of great talents and ambition, so much so that he yearns to meet him and learn from him, the sailor is confronted with the means and morality that Kurtz employs to high success, and finally the man himself. In Kurtz he finds a heart mired in darkness, the blackness amplified as it is hidden from societal view on the dark Continent, a man who subverts moral suasion to terrible ends, for the sake of? . . . more ivory.

In the telling, Marlow’s story also reveals a heart out of darkness: his own. Marlow’s initial plans were to profit from colonial opportunities, and his own prejudices were not initially respectful of the native people. But he was unable to stomach cold cruelty in the name of advantage: he did not become brutal, but despaired over the brutality he surveyed. Marlow’s witness and recognition of cynical inhumanity was not itself a cynical exercise: As long as there are those who refuse to hard-heartedly exploit the relative weakness of others, there is hope for a world with less ruthless destruction and one-sided profit.

Conrad’s skills as a novelist are on display here: This is tremendous writing, even more extraordinary as it was written in Conrad’s third language, English.


Is the book hard to read? If only because the subjects are contempt for the lives and property of the other, and acquisitive savagery. Conrad does not shrink from his psychological description of the thoughts that are offered in the exercise of gain without moral restraint. His protagonist Marlow describes "the horror! The horror!" (page 215) 

This novella maintains a passion and raison d’etre similar to Solzhenitsyn’s master work, The Gulag Archipelago, which at many times the length of Heart of Darkness, retained a burning outrage at the deliberate destruction of Russians by their own government, and spelled out a truth of human existence: We can choose to be good to one another, or we can choose to destroy each other. Both are books that tell not only dark and ultimately unfathomable tales of inhumanity, but also of counter-currents of humanity, the impulse to treat others as fellow human beings, to share rather than to dominate. It has always been and will always be a choice.

Thanks to my brother Craig and my friend Tim, who were recently telling me how much they admired Joseph Conrad’s writing, stimulating me to finally read some of his books for myself.

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