By: Joseph Conrad
Subject Matter: Europeans; Africa
Every time I read a classic like Heart of Darkness, I get to the awkward moment of rating it.
And to be honest, I kind of arbitrarily assign it a rating based on how much I enjoyed it. We know the writing is up to snuff – it’s stood the test of time already. So I just kind of go with how it made me feel, would I re-read, will I tell my friends to read it, etc.
And I don’t know that I can say that I would tell anyone to read Heart of Darkness. Joseph Conrad‘s title is so ubiquitous that this was one of those books, for me, that I could never quite remember if I had been assigned in school or read already.
And if you’re not sure either, you haven’t. This book isn’t exactly shocking – at least not now, in 2018 – but it’s so weird that I think you’d remember.
For those of you who, like me, were just a bit too embarrassed to admit that they have no idea what this book is about, here’s a brief synopsis. Marlow, our narrator, is sent to some snake-like river in Africa, to an American ivory company’s outpost. If you know anything about the ivory trade in Africa, this is red flag number one. The regular use of the n-word is red flag number two. Marlow gets sent on some sort of unclear mission up the river, deeper into the un-Westernized land, and eventually gets assigned to (for lack of better word) rescue a murky figure named Kurtz. At first, Kurtz is portrayed as some sort of legend, known for sending back unrivaled amounts of ivory. But it becomes increasingly clear that this laud is tempered by a very big dose of scandal. It’s never really revealed – NOTHING in this infuriating book is ever outright said – but there are hints and then egregious signs that Kurtz has diverged from the accepted, twisted morals of the ivory business. Spoiler alert: Kurtz dies, and Marlow is left to carry his memory.
That’s the book.
It’s confusing, for sure. The word “despair” is repeated probably 972 times, along with savage and desolation and horror and so on. There’s an obvious debate in today’s canon about the racist and stereotypical problems with this book. I won’t go there, because I think it’s been done by people who are infinitely more elegant and comprehensive.
For me, this book steers shy of being bone-chillingly depressing. It doesn’t feel like a book that will stick with me. And I think that’s in large part because SO MUCH of it is under the surface, obscured, alluded to. It was kind of frustrating, to be honest, but again, much more mildly frustrating than I anticipated. I think this book just comes with so much hype, that I expected to be rent after reading it. And I wasn’t.
So I give it a shrug, and vaguely displeased “Hmm”, and a checkmark on my “To Read” list.
(for other books about racism/colonialism)
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka
A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
Othello by William Shakespeare
(for more by Conrad)
Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
Almayer’s Folly by Joseph Conrad
Nostromo by Joseph Conrad
(for other infuriatingly vague classics)
The Trial by Franz Kafka
The Stranger by Albert Camus
Rejected Princesses by Jason Porath
Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett