I review “Heart of Darkness”

This story is supposed to be one of the Most Important Stories ever written. I’m not going to go into why (Western Civilization vs. the Primitive Jungly Darkness racism blah blah blah). I’d never bothered to read it, having gone to school during the education system’s brief hiatus from Dead White Malelandia. Anyway, I finally read it some time last year. Here is my review. (Full disclosure: this is elaborated from a comment I left on another website.)

I decided to finally read “Heart of Darkness” and found it on Gutenberg or some other free e-text website. I’m doing this catch-up thing with the so-called Western Canon; not because I think that all the works therein are the greatest things ever written, but because they’re part of my civilization’s history and if I’m going to fight certain aspects of Western culture I need to know where these ideas are coming from. So, to the story. I was… unimpressed. The plot is simple: a European guy goes to a country in Africa to look for another European guy. He takes a boat down a river through a jungle, finds the guy, the guy dies, the narrator returns. And that’s it. There’s not a lot of action. And I’m not sure why I should care about the characters: neurotic, coddled white guy leaves “civilization” for the scary jungle, realizes during the journey that he’s out of reach of warm beds, hot baths, and people who care about his feefees to the exclusion of all else, and doesn’t like it one bit. All the other white guys are typical of white guys in a white male supremacist society: they’ve always been on the top so have never had anything really difficult asked of them, and when they find themselves far away from the creature comforts they think they are entitled to they react like big babies and “go native” — that is, become supreme assholes that no actual “native” culture would tolerate from its own. Maybe in the 19th century this was a new, novel, horrifying concept, but now it’s old hat at the very least and I’ve never been interested in male characters who lose control. I think people who stay in control of themselves and are civilized and gracious no matter what their circumstances are so much more interesting.

The theme of the story is supposed to be about how civilization is a safe haven from the darkness that lurks within the human soul, and that it’s all too easy to leave civilization and go into the darkness, civilization is so fragile, etc. About that: actually, in the story the protagonist was on a boat (a steamboat I think or at least it wasn’t a native canoe or raft) built by his civilization, which could at any moment turn around and take him safely back home, and in fact (spoiler!) it did. His quarry, Kurtz, died from being old and sick (as far as I can tell, the text doesn’t elaborate), which totally could happen in the middle of Victorian London as well as the “uncivilized” jungle. And actually, the guy had built a house, so it wasn’t like he was living on the ground covered in mud and worms. I’m afraid that “no civilization” is represented mostly by the scary dark jungle (well, it’s a fucking bunch of trees at night, of course it’s going to be dark), and worst of all, by the scary “primitive” native tribespeople, especially the female chieftain or whoever she was supposed to be. (Which character, however, struck me as a perfectly normal woman grieving normally and in a rather dignified if non-European fashion for someone she apparently had come to esteem. If Conrad meant to write her as some savage dark earth goddess capable of eating men’s hearts raw or whatever, he failed with this one. This character — unnamed — came off as more civilized than the pathetic white guys.)

Anyway, I was rather bored with the story. At least Apocalypse Now, the film inspired by the story, had explosions and a tiger.

5 thoughts on “I review “Heart of Darkness”

  1. “The theme of the story is supposed to be about how civilization is a safe haven from the darkness that lurks within the human soul”
    Or the darkness just finds more civilized-looking ways to express itself…

    I haven’t read this one but I enjoyed your take on it. If you want to read a book about a European who goes to Africa and stays civilized and gracious, try Mary Kingsley’s memoir, Travels in West Africa. She was a Brit who lived in the 19th century, and after several years of taking care of her ill parents, she was expected to move in with her brother and keep house for him after they died. Instead she managed with the little money she’d inherited to go alone into the African interior, work there as a trader of small goods to support herself, and just explore because she’d always been interested in Africa. She was well aware of the risks, but ultimately made two or three good trips. When she passed away I think it was a nurse during the Boer War, in a typhoid or maybe cholera outbreak.

    She discovered a few new species of fish that were named after her and sent a whole bunch of specimens of wildlife back to Britain. She studied West African religions and tribal practices and wrote about them while traveling among different tribes of people, approaching them with real honesty and perceptiveness. She learned to travel by canoe, and at all times wore Victorian dress, which saved her by cushioning her impact when she fell once into a pit of wooden stakes meant to trap and impale large animals. I enjoyed reading her book. I think you can also find it on Project Gutenberg.

  2. Pingback: dustbury.com » Everybody Kurtz-y

  3. Try Jerzy Kosinkski if you have not already.

    BTW the theme of HoD is “the thin veneer of civilization” the pov of what makes a society civilized is simply the a reflection of the 1890s.

    The reality is that in spite of the intervening years the fundamental point is the same.

  4. “I think people who stay in control of themselves and are civilized and gracious no matter what their circumstances are so much more interesting.”

    Marlow kept in control of himself and I found him interesting.

    “There’s not a lot of action.”

    I agree to an extent. To someone whose idea of action is Hollywood blow-em-up movies, there was little action, but to anyone who has been in dangerous and difficult circumstances, or can imagine being so, a lot was going on there.

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