Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad, 1899
Book Review by Molly Lundquist
Gandhi was asked once what he thought of Western civilization. "It would be a good idea," he quipped. That exchange is very much at the heart of Heart of Darkness, a novel that in many ways was ahead of its time.
Conrad wrote his novel at the height of European colonialism, a system he witnessed in much of its gory brutality. Yet he was also writing for a British audience, which believed that bringing civilization to "untamed" lands was a sacred imperative.
The novel begins as a group of men relax on the deck of a pleasure ship on the Thames River. Marlow, one of the five, recounts a trip he once took as steamboat captain on the Congo, a river considerably less tame than the English Thames. He was hired by a Belgian mining company to head up river into the jungle to find out what had happened to Kurtz, one of the company's most promising managers. Marlow's jounney to find Kiurtz is the novel's central narrative.
The story of that journey story exposes the myth of colonialism: no enlightened mission but a rapacious, predatory enterprise. Colonialism degrades all involved, not just Africans, the object of the violence, but also Europeans who wield the power.
Marlow recognizes an atativstic connection with the native peoples. Traveling deeper into the heart of the Congo, he glimpses villagers and hears their chants, drums, and howls, all of which engage his imagination. At first thinking of them as "inhuman," he begins to feel a "kinship" because of "the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you...could comprehend."
At the same time, Marlow is sure to separate himself from Africans, casting them as "other"—primitive versions of his civilized self rather than full equals.
Heart of Darkness, then, is ambiguous; critics are still trying to figure it out. Is it a harsh indictment of colonialism...or an endorsement, albeit with reservations? This is a rich, complicated novel and can yield thoughtful discussions of man's inhumanity to man.
See our Reading Guide for Heart of Darkness.
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