I’m not hugely ashamed to say that I decided to cross Heart of Darkness out from my list, having done a cursory view of the page numbers of various books up for consideration and, feeling rather fatigued of ‘serious reading’, was persuaded by the meager 188 pages. Naively, I thought, ‘how hard can it be?’
It turns out, it was actually rather hard. Heart of Darkness may look flimsy, but these few pages conceal a story that I would classify as perhaps academically interesting, but not very enjoyable. It reminded me of the books that I studied at school – a lot to discuss in an essay (if forced), but not one that I would ever choose to pick up again. Apparently, it’s one of the most analysed books of those studied in schools and universities, according to literary critic, Harold Bloom. However, as Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man taught me, a book that is good for literary criticism doesn’t automatically equal a great read (sorry, Joyce),
Heart of Darkness is a cult classic, a work published by author, Joseph Conrad, in magazines in 1899, drawing on his own personal experience of commanding a steamer through the Congo eight years earlier. The work is regarded as an insightful commentary on imperialism and racism, drawing parallels between the apparent ‘civilisation’ of London and the ‘barbarism’ of Africa, concluding that the two are not so different after all. It has been both applauded and critiqued on its depiction of colonial Africa and her inhabitants – notably by Chinua Achebe who called it criminal that native African people were described so two dimensionally and inaccurately, perpetuating the racist view of Africa and her people into the rest of the world.
The main reason I didn’t really enjoy it was because I was neither interested nor invested in the characters. I find it immensely difficult to be really engaged in a book if I don’t care about any of its protagonists. The main thrust of the story is the narrative told by Marlow of his voyage through the Congo as part of the ‘Company’, journeying to the depths of the jungle to make contact with a Mr Kurtz, who is hailed as a first-rate member of the Company. Mr Kurtz’s discovery is probably the most interesting part of the book, as he appears to be quite mad, yet also worshipped as a god by the local population. Mr Kurtz is extricated from his post and there is the strong allusion that he has gone to great and terrible lengths in order to engender this adulation, fulfilling every barbarous expectation of colonial rule. However, much of this is implied rather than detailed and, I will confess, that I found myself actually quite confused about what was happening at many stages.
I think greater readers than I will find many things to enjoy and admire in this book. The writing is certainly beautiful at times, and there are, as mentioned, many discussion points to be mulled over and debated as to the author’s true meaning. For me, however, this just doesn’t make for a good read. I wanted a faster pace, greater clarity, more characterisation and interaction between the characters. Heart of Darkness is not one that will be gracing my Kindle screen again and the very best thing that I can sayabout this book is that it’s a free download so no money lost.