It’s the end of the 19th century. European leaders have carved up a continent for themselves, regardless of its native inhabitants and a limited knowledge of the land. The sun never sets on the British Empire, ivory is discussed in worshipful tones, and the Belgian King Leopold has established a reputation for the cruelest and most corrupt of colonial enterprises (which is saying something). And, against a backdrop of imperialist atrocities, Joseph Conrad sits down to pen a nearly impenetrable, wholly ambiguous novel about how gosh-darn confusing—how downright befuddling—it all is.
The numerous and incompatible interpretations of Heart of Darkness make me wonder why authors can’t just write their own SparkNotes. Fierce debate has raged over Conrad’s elusive message to this day. Was Conrad pro-imperialist? Anti-imperialist? A conflicted combination of the two?
Speaking through Marlow, our unhelpful protagonist, Conrad maintains a stubborn ambivalence about imperialist motivations and methods. But his criticism paints Europe as the victim: Marlow suggests that imperialism is degrading to Europeans, drawing them away from “civilized” nations and tempting them into violence. He also argues against attempts to “enlighten” and Christianize Africans, but only because he believes them to be savage beyond saving.
Conrad based much of the book on his own experiences as captain of a steamboat on the Congo River in 1890. Marlow, accompanied by “pilgrims” and “cannibals,” travels up the same river in search of Mr. Kurtz, an enigmatic agent and trading post manager who “sends in as much ivory as all the others put together.”
When Marlow and his companions finally discover Kurtz, he turns out to be totally normal—if you ignore his godlike status and the collection of severed heads decorating his fence posts. The once-idealistic Kurtz serves as a metaphor for the inevitable moral downfall of anyone with access to unlimited power. We can assume that at some point, Marlow is embarrassed about all that time he spent defending Kurtz.
Heart of Darkness has all the trappings of a great adventure novel, but none of the thrill. It was accused by Chinua Achebe of dehumanizing Africans and perpetuating racist stereotypes. And while this criticism is largely valid, it’s worth noting that this novel flatters no one—European or African.
Overall, I’m glad this book was short. I only had to spend a couple of hours navigating its murky depths, literary steamboat that I am. If Conrad’s goal was to baffle readers and generate debate, then Heart of Darkness is a job well done.
Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?
It’s kind of hard to tell.
Their home is always with them—the ship; and so is their country—the sea.
The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.
You can’t breathe dead hippo waking, sleeping, and eating, and at the same time keep your precarious grip on existence.