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.