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Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness

Category: Fiction | Published: 1902 | Review Added: 18-11-2018

Rating: 4 - A top read

In Joseph Conrad's most famous novella, the narrator Marlow recounts a journey he made as the captain of a small steam boat up a large central African river. Not knowing in advance the purpose of the boat's journey, he had a strange intuition that this region unpenetrated by civilisation would yield up to his inquisitive mind dark but fascinating secrets.

So it proves: but paradoxically, the secrets are concentrated not in native sources, but in the person of a white man called Kurtz, whose residence is Marlow's destination. Kurtz is an ivory trader who has become infected with the mysterious and sinister atmosphere of the land, to the point of abandoning civilised values altogether. His mode of business is implied to be violent, and he is said to preside over horrifying ritual acts with local tribes.

Kurtz's employers consider his methods "unsound", and want him returned to Europe for fear of bad publicity. There are rumours, which Marlow picks up from trading posts downstream, that Kurtz is seriously ill, though the precise nature of his illness - whether it is mental, or physical, or both - remains unclear.

As Marlow heads up the river, there mounts an atmosphere of formless menace. In part this emanates from the sense of the vastness and invincibility of the natural environment:

The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling waves of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence. And it moved not.

But it is also immanent in the character of the native people:

The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there - there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were - No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it - this suspicion of their not being inhuman.

The story's climax is Marlow's encounter with Kurtz, who is brought to the steam boat on a stretcher, raving incoherently. "Climax" might be the wrong word. There has been such a build-up to the scene that after it occurs, there is a swift falling-off of dramatic momentum. Marlow has drip-fed us a great deal of information on Kurtz during his account of his trip upriver, so that when we finally meet the tormented man there is little left for us to learn. Conrad has skillfully built suspense, but doesn't convincingly close the story. The last scene of Marlow's account is an encounter between the narrator and Kurtz's fiancée in Europe. It is a disappointing lapse into sentimentality, with both characters acknowledging their "love" for the fallen visionary in hackneyed language.

Heart of Darkness is a flawed masterpiece. Its ending is weak, and there are occasional lapses in continuity that necessitate some flipping back and forward by the reader. But Conrad's prose is like no one else's - until the very last section, there isn't a page of the novella that isn't rich in both poetic description and brilliantly condensed philosophical insight. On another level, it is a book with a horrible fascination. It disturbs, but it has to be read.

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