Old School Sundays: Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”

Jungle River Ian L → in Plants & trees

I’ve always enjoyed the thematic elements of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness more than the story itself. I studied the book twice, once in high school and then again in college, and I have to admit, both times the story left me cold.

Of course why wouldn’t it? The characters are either evil or uncompassionate at best. The setting—The African Congo during the Age of Imperialism—is grim. And the plot—Marlow, a sailor working for a Belgian trade company, trekking through the jungle, witnessing horror after horror of “trade practices” on the native peoples, to find some lunatic named Kurtz—doesn’t exactly make for a good rainy day read.

Then again, the book did inspire the sensational film Apocalypse Now.

Either way, once the reading was through and I was able to step back and see the broader notions of Heart of Darkness my purpose for reading became clearer.

Thematically, the book explores the absurdity of evil and the greed of imperialism. This line, which I underlined in my copy of the book, says it all:

“Droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose” (Conrad, 87).

Aren’t most violent acts in this world essentially pointless? In the case of Heart of Darkness, a forced mutiny of an entire culture was all in the name of ivory.

Is life only as valuable as the worth of certain things? Oil. Diamonds. Money. Drugs. Alcohol.

Or concepts? Religion. Power. Influence. Fame.

For a relatively short novel Heart of Darkness encapsulates the whole of human nature’s ugly side. The attainment of evil often has no ulterior motives. What do we really get in exchange for wickedness? How far do we go before evilness becomes a goal in and of itself? And at what point does it all become pointless? Or as Marlow puts it “for a futile purpose?”

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9 Comments

Filed under Books and Literature, Old School Sundays

9 responses to “Old School Sundays: Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”

  1. Quite informative material the way you push up Conrad’s theme to the present status of common mind.

  2. I enjoyed your review. I agree, the story itself is rather grim, but thematically, and the imagery it conjures up, is deep and sometimes luscious. I’ll have to give it another read one of these days.

  3. I only recently ventured to watch Apocalypse Now, and now I’m really intrigued by this book. Funny how fiction makes it possible for me to go into the dark places I never dared to go before and ask questions I find difficult to ask in any other way.

    • It’s a great book if you ever get a chance to read it. I’ll say though, it’s one of those stories that’s best studied in a classroom than pleasure reading. I’m not so sure I would have ever picked it out for a beach read, LOL. Fiction makes a lot of things possible, you’re absolutely right. Definitely those “dark” places we tend to avoid.

      What did you think about Apocalypse Now? Eerie, wasn’t it? It’s basically the same story of Heart of Darkness in the Vietnam era.

  4. “We live, as we dream. Alone.”

    -Marlow

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