Read Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness (1899) is a novella by Polish-English novelist Joseph Conrad about a narrated voyage up the Congo River into the Congo Free State in the Heart of Africa.[1] Heart of Darkness tells the story of Charles Marlow, a sailor who takes on an assignment from a Belgian trading company as a ferry-boat captain to lead an expedition into Africa. The novel is widely regarded as a critique of European colonial rule in Africa, whilst also examining the themes of power dynamics and morality. Although Conrad does not give the name of the river, at the time of writing the Congo Free State, the location of the large and economically important River Congo, was a private colony of Belgium’s King Leopold II. Marlow is given a text by Kurtz, an ivory trader working on a trading station far up the river, who has “gone native” and is the object of Marlow’s expedition. Marlow, a recurring character and alter ego of Conrad himself, describes that journal as “a beautiful piece of writing” or “vibrating with eloquence”, among others.

Central to Conrad’s work is the idea that there is little difference between “civilised people” and “savages.” Heart of Darkness implicitly comments on imperialism and racism.[2] The novella’s setting provides the frame for Marlow’s story of his obsession with the successful ivory trader Kurtz. Conrad offers parallels between London (“the greatest town on earth”) and Africa as places of darkness.[3]

The Heart of Darkness is a fascinating exploration of place, character and context. There is something mesmerising about Kurtz, is he a bad person himself or a product of his surrounds?

I also found a reading by Kenneth Branagh on Audible.

Marginalia

Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. (Page 18)

“No use telling you much about that. Paths, paths, everywhere; a stamped-in network of paths spreading over the empty land, through long grass, through burnt grass, through thickets, down and up chilly ravines, up and down stony hills ablaze with heat; and a solitude, a solitude, nobody, not a hut. The population had cleared out a long time ago.(Page 26)

It was as unreal as everything else—as the philanthropic pretense of the whole concern, as their talk, as their government, as their show of work. The only real feeling was a desire to get appointed to a trading-post where ivory was to be had, so that they could earn percentages.(Page 33)

We live, as we dream—alone. . . . (Page 37)

Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once—somewhere—far away—in another existence perhaps. There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare to yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect. I got used to it afterwards; I did not see it any more; I had no time. I had to keep guessing at the channel; I had to discern, mostly by inspiration, the signs of hidden banks; I watched for sunken stones; I was learning to clap my teeth smartly before my heart flew out, when I shaved by a fluke some infernal sly old snag that would have ripped the life out of the tin-pot steamboat and drowned all the pilgrims; I had to keep a look-out for the signs of dead wood we could cut up in the night for next day’s steaming. When you have to attend to things of that sort, to the mere incidents of the surface, the reality—the reality, I tell you—fades. The inner truth is hidden—luckily, luckily. But I felt it all the same; I felt often its mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks, just as it watches you fellows performing on your respective tight-ropes for—what is it? half-a-crown a tumble—”(Page 46)

I was within a hair’s-breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it. Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness. He had summed up—he had judged. ‘The horror!’ He was a remarkable man. (Page 99)

He had faith—don’t you see?—he had the faith. He could get himself to believe anything—anything. He would have been a splendid leader of an extreme party.’ ‘What party?’ I asked. ‘Any party,’ answered the other. ‘He was an—an—extremist.’ (Page 102)

“‘His last word—to live with,’ she murmured. ‘Don’t you understand I loved him—I loved him—I loved him!’ “I pulled myself together and spoke slowly. “‘The last word he pronounced was—your name.'”(Page 108)