I signed up for the 2016 Classics Challenge – with its goal to read one classic book each month of the year – and was failing miserably! As of June, I had not read a single classic. So, I read the shortest one I could find at home, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (less than 60 pages!). By the end of July, I was desperate to once again at least squeeze in a short classic, so I chose to re-read the novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, which I last read in 10th grade. I remembered liking it back then, and I enjoyed reading it again as an adult.
There’s always a bit of conundrum with a review of a classic: does everyone already know the plot synopsis? This one is particularly well known, as it is very frequently taught in high school and college English classes. It was also the basis for the Academy-Award winning movie Apocalypse Now (I just learned that & have never seen the movie), and – little-known fact – also the basis for the movie Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, which I did see (though my friends didn’t believe me when I said it was based on Heart of Darkness!). Just in case you missed those movies and your schools didn’t teach the book, I will avoid spoilers, though its conclusion is probably known to most.
Heart of Darkness is framed as a story told by one of the main characters, Charles Marlow. As the novel opens, he is onboard a ship in London, sitting on the River Thames, waiting for the tide to turn with his shipmates. He regales them with a story of another journey that he took some years ago. The rest of the novella is that story. Marlow was hired by a Belgian ivory-trading company to pilot a ship up a wide river through the densest jungles of the Belgian Congo (what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo). He encounters many challenges and adventures along the way, including severe damage to his ship and angry natives shooting at them with arrows and spears.
The goal of Marlow’s journey in the Congo is not only to bring ivory back from the interior of the region but also to rescue a man named Mr. Kurtz who is in charge of an outpost. Kurtz is commonly regarded as the best manager they have, but disturbing rumors say that he is now very ill and needs to be brought out immediately. The further Marlow goes, the more he hears about Kurtz, until he – like many others working for the company – is in awe of this great man he’s never met.
Like most classics, Conrad’s novella is not just an interesting story; he was trying to make a point (or several of them), hence its extensive analysis for the past 100+ years. Heart of Darkness is all about the thin line between civilization and savagery or wildness. Conrad uses the story to show that everyone has a savage center, that this wildness is a part of human nature. He shows that the trappings of “civilization” are all that separate us from our wild nature, and, in the absence of civilization, humans will quickly devolve into a baser form.
There has been a lot of controversy over the years about Heart of Darkness being racist and showing a very defamatory, warped view of the African continent and the African people (whom he describes throughout the novella as savages). Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian novelist, is an especially vehement opponent of Conrad who first spoke out in 1975 against the novella because of its racial stereotypes. In fact, his novel, Things Fall Apart, is said to be in direct response to Heart of Darkness, presenting a far more accurate view of central Africa and its people.
For my part, I took the novella for what it is: a story written in 1899 about human nature, set on a continent that was unknown and quite mysterious to white Europeans like Conrad. That’s the way that people back then saw Africans, and yes, it’s deplorable by today’s standards, but it is accurate in terms of the perceptions of the time, much like reading historical fiction about white Europeans coming to America; they also saw Native Americans as savages. Of course, we know better today and are rightfully appalled by the way the native population was treated. To me, Heart of Darkness is that same kind of outdated historical perspective (same with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, too): we can read it today, recognizing that it was of its time, and still find value in the story and the writing itself and the points that Conrad was trying to make about humanity.
Controversies aside, Heart of Darkness is a classic for a reason: it’s an original, interesting story with plenty of complexities to think about (or discuss if you are in English class!). In fact, the copy I read was the same copy I had from 10th grade, and I enjoyed reading all of my notes in the margins and underlining about symbolism, metaphors, and parallels (though I couldn’t figure out what “p.d.” meant – any guesses?). It is a suspenseful adventure tale of a journey into the unknown…and of man’s inner journeys.
132 pages, Bantam Classic