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on 25 November 2010
What struck me about Conrad's tale was the richness of his descriptions. The way he combines words in a highly unorthodox way succeeds in giving sections of the work a very disturbing feel to them. I suspect this stems from English being Conrad's third language. In any case, it gives the text an unpredictable tenor that keeps the reader in a state of unease, just as the author intended.

The themes are no less profound. I particularly enjoyed Conrad's critique of Western civilization - comparing the tribesmen with the supposedly superior whites and comparing the Congo with the Thames of 1000 years ago.

For all its virtues, this book is quite disorientating and requires careful reading. At several points I had to reread pages to determine who was talking to whom. In particular, the point at which Kurtz finally makes his appearance is (perhaps intentionally) skimmed over without fanfare. I feel that another read or two is in order.

This Penguin Classics edition comes with some extras. Some, like the analysis of changes made between the typescript and the book, are for enthusiasts only. Others, such as the timeline and explanatory notes are essential to any reader. It's a slim volume that is appropriately sombre-looking.

A genuine classic.
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on 24 April 2012
Everyone probably knows the plot basics of Heart of Darkness and that it inspired the scenario for the Vietnam-war movie Apocalypse Now - if with a significant degree of adaptation. The narrator, Marlow, an English seaman, tells the story of his journey up an unnamed river that can only be the Congo. At the end of the trip awaits him the famous and infamous Kurtz, both master and slave to the brutal trade that is taking place in the depths of an uncharted jungle. 'The horror! The horror!' will be Kurtz's parting words. For both victim and executioner, he has only been able to accept the terrible violence that European exploitation expects of its henchmen by becoming a local blood-cult figure, by bending to his will the forest's darkest, most secret primeval practices.

The awesome strength of Heart of Darkness is in its simplicity. This is a short novella that does not dwell on or get lost in sub-plots. Marlow simply tells his story after the fact, as dusk settles on the Thames over the group of amateur sailors that is his audience. Joseph Conrad's purpose is likewise straightforward: to show us the conflict between the violent animal in man and rationality, and the impulse to do good. Fitting, moreover, with a contemporary art scene that was discovering African and island art, this upends conventional notions of civilization and humanity. The book's appeal is timeless, and it is a classic, told in deceptively straightforward yet effective terms.

But Conrad's masterpiece, published in 1902, also is an invaluable testimony in the historical sense. Though country names are left out, it is clear that the story takes place in the Belgian Congo, then the territory of the secretive Congo Free State, actually a corporation in the ownership of the Belgian king. The only difference is that the colonial undertaking was killing and causing deaths on an epic scale in the search for natural rubber, whereas in Heart of Darkness it is ivory. Conrad, having long been a seaman, had great credibility. At the time of publication, the Congo Free State was trying to fend-off a campaign to expose its terrible crimes by the journalist E.D. Morel. Conrad was taking a courageous stand. His descriptions of the colonialists are not kind. And this is, in many places, is an openly anti-racist novel. The Congo Free State's appalling exploitation of the Congo has been described in Adam Hochschild's book Leopold's Ghost (1999). Though the numbers Hochschild advances for the number of Africans killed are contested, the methods and nature of the exploitation carried out in the Congo are not.
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on 16 March 2015
As someone who greatly enjoyed both Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and the video game Spec Ops: the Line (both adaptations of Heart of Darkness and both wonderful examples of storytelling in their respective mediums, in my opinion), it was with great anticipation that I started reading Conrad's apparent classic.

I'm happy to say that I was not disappointed. While on the surface the book is a study, if not a criticism, of colonialism, at its heart, if you'll excuse the pun, is an examination of the most savage aspects of the human condition. Conrad presents the story in an interesting story-within-a-story format and I'm not sure there would be a more effective possible way of telling it.

As wonderful as the book is, it is not perfect. My chief criticism would be that the charisma, for want of a better word, of Kurtz is conveyed more through the opinion of the narrator than his words or actions within the story. Perhaps it is an unfair comparison but the character just doesn't have the same presence he had in Apocalypse Now, either when present or absent from a scene.

Overall, this book absolutely deserves its status as a classic and is well worth a read.
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on 13 May 2017
I'm currently trying to read though the classics at the moment and this was one of them. I didn't realise how short it is! the story itself is interesting and I liked the writing style. Plus the imagery was very effective. I can see how it would be appealing to a literacy class as there is evidently scope for it to be analysed in-depth. I think it would have been more enjoyable if so as, on it's own, it's a good read but not one to write home about or keep on the shelf for re-reading.
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on 26 September 2012
When reviewing a book as well known as Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness, there is little point in wasting time describing plot and characters. So much has already been written about this masterpiece that only a broad outline is needed. Heart Of Darkness is a tale told by a seaman to his fellow crew members while their ship is anchored in the Thames Estuary. Marlow, a veteran of the sea, relates the story of a job he once had when he was required to navigate a great river in Africa in a steamboat to find a man called Kurtz. He - and Kurtz were dealing with a company that traded in and out of Africa, darkest Africa, as it was then often called.

As ever with great literature, it is not what happens that matters. How things develop and how they are related is always the key, and Marlow, whose voice delivers almost all of the book's narrative, is not afraid of expressing opinion or offering interpretation alongside events. So subtle is Joseph Conrad's character, however, that the reader never feels that ideas are being hurled from the text. Throughout we are invited to share Marlow's world and world view in the same way that those imagined listening seamen share his story. We are never cajoled or commanded. The writer never uses the character merely to pontificate.

The darkness at the heart of the book is multi-faceted. Yes, obviously, it is the dark continent that Africa represents in the received values of the time that lies at the centre of the story. Yes, the darkness also represents the dark-skinned people who inhabited the place. One thing the modern reader must be prepared for is Conrad's use of language, especially terms that would not today be tolerated. But Conrad's language is already more than a century old, and sometimes things change.

On the other hand, another heart of darkness for Conrad was clearly the exploitative relationships that fostered and perpetuated colonialism. At the time, such a position would have run contrary to received assumptions. It is interesting to note that this aspect of darkness at the heart is mentioned at the outset, before the story has migrated to Africa, while we are still within sight of the heart of the Empire. There is another darkness, also, at the heart of human relationships. Sometimes people need protecting from the truth, it seems. Sometimes a little lie preserves a myth whose destruction would not help anyone who accepts its truth.

What makes Heart Of Darkness a masterpiece is that its messages manage to be both universal and timeless, despite its clear foundation at the nineteenth century. They go to the heart of how human beings interact, both as individuals and as groups. They examine motive, allegiance and self-interest. They epitomise our inter-dependence, the necessity to co-operate, but they also identify and describe an equally essential need to compete, to assert individualism, to survive, sometimes at another's expense.

At the heart of the novel, also, is the very experience of story telling. It is not just what Marlow relates to his companions that maintains our and apparently their interest: it is also how he tells the tale and how he offers interpretation of his feelings. Like Marlow himself, we are wiser for having relived the experience. And just like the unnamed listener who ostensibly wrote down Marlow's story, we remain spellbound by every word of this masterpiece.
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on 31 January 2017
I got this as a free book on Kindle, mostly on the principle that the author isn't around to get his fair share of any payment that might be involved! However I was extremely disappointed with what is supposed to be the novel that not only inspired 'Apocalypse Now', but is also lauded as a true masterpiece. I've read a lot of Conrad's work, and like it a lot, but this is probably the biggest let-down of a 'book that inspired the film' (for me personally) that I've ever read.
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on 28 August 2014
One of the book's theme is eloquence, the beauty of expression, and the power it evokes. When Marlow thinks that Kurtz is dead, he becomes despondent because he will never hear Kurtz talk. I also find it interesting how it seems that Kurtz's deficiences of being physically weak are not discussed in detail and is outweighed by his ability to speak, which empowers him to be a dominating figure over others.

The book at times was difficult to read because it made me become aware of the darkness inside people, and made me reflect on my personal dark periods. The ending is extremely painful, when Marlow and Kurtz's wife continuously complement Kurtz, and how as each praise is said, both their hearts feel darker, because they both know what this remarkable man did. Marlow does not reveal the explicit details to Kurtz's wife because he wanted to "keep back alone for the salvation of another soul."

For parts of the book, I could not understand why Marlow should continue to stay with Kurtz until the end. But I found parts towards the end brilliant when Kurtz's final words was 'horrible'. What I think this means, is that Kurtz (which includes his subconscious) knew all along that what he was doing was evil, and for Marlow to hear this revived his hope in human nature. And thus that Kurtz had essentially a pure heart. 'I went no more near the remarkable man who had pronounced judgment upon the adventures of his soul on this earth.'

I remember a description of a rich, starch-collared chief accountant and thought this was wonderful to read. It made me think of Churchill's outfit when he met Tito at Naples 12 August 1944. The account is on page 22: "Moreover, I respected the fellow. Yes; I respected his collars, his vast cuffs, his brushed hair. His appearance was certainly that of a hairdresser's dummy; but in the great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance. That's backbone. His starched collars and got-up shirt-fronts were achievements of character...this man had verily accomplished something. And he was devoted to his books, which were in apple-pie order."

I particularly enjoyed reading the following passages:

"I wasn't very interested in him. No. Still, I was curious to see whether this man, who had come out equipped with moral ideas of some sort, would climb to the top after all, and how he would set about his work when there."
"Perhaps he was just simply a fine fellow who stuck to his work for its own sake."
"I saw him extend his short flipper of an arm for a gesture...a treacherous appeal..to the profound darkness of its heart."
"I was cut to the quick at the idea of having lost the inestimable privilege of listening to the gifted Kurtz."
"Everything belonged to him- but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own."
"It gave me the notion of an exotic immensity ruled by an august benevolence. It made me tingle with enthusiasm. This was the unbounded power of eloquence-of words- of being noble words."
"...and to this day I don't know why I was so jealous of sharing with anyone the particular blackness of that experience."
"I made the strange discovery that I had never imagined him as doing, you know, but as discoursing. I didn't say to myself, Now I will never see him, or Now I will never shake him by the hand, but, Now I will never hear him. The man presented himself as a voice. Not of course that I did not connect him with some sort of action. Hadn't I been told in all the tones of jealousy and admiration that he had collected...his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words- the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness."
"...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."
"...and to this day I am unable to say what was Kurtz's profession, whether he ever had any- which was the greatest of his talents. I had taken...He was a universal genius...but heavens! how that man could talk! He electrified large meetings."
"...Who was not his friend who had heard him speak once? She was saying. He drew men towards him by what was best in them. She looked at me with intensity. It is the gift of the great, she went on."
"How can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man's untrammeled feet may take him into by way of solitude- utter solitude without a policeman- by the way of silence, utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbour can be heard whispering of public opinion. These little things make all the great difference. When they are gone you must fall back upon your own innate strength, upon your own capacity for faithfulness..the earth for us is a place to live in, where we must put up with sights, with sounds, with smells too, by Jove!- breathe dead hippo, so to speak, and not be contaminated. And there, don't you see? Your strength comes in, the faith in your ability for the digging of unostentatious holes to bury the stuff in- your power of devotion, not to yourself, but to an obscure, back-breaking buisness."
"This was the unbounded power of eloquence-of words- of burning noble words."
"He (Kurtz) won't be forgotten. Whatever he was, he was not common. He had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated with-dance in his honor; he could also fill the small souls of the pilgrims with bitter misgivings, he had one devoted friend at least, and he had conquered one soul in the world that was neither rudimentary or self-seeking."
"Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration."
"Soul satiated with primitive emotions, avid of lying fame, of sham distinction, of all the appearances of success and power."
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on 5 May 2016
I wasn't a fan of this. It's hard to put my finger on why because it's considered a classic but I found it repetitive. It's considered by many Conrad’s finest, most enigmatic story but I'm not sure I agree.

There was some interesting psychological penetration and the character development was good but I'm still not keen.

Give it a try though! Especially for the price =)
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on 23 August 2014
I decided to read this book because it is widely regarded as a great classic, but was disappointed and gave up having read about three quarters of it. It is certainly atmospheric but decidedly gloomy and I was often uncertain as to exactly what was going on. Although the writing is obviously of the highest standard, I found the story to be hard work and boring, so for this reason I have only given it two stars and would hesitate to recommend it.
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on 21 April 2015
Had been meaning to read this for a long time and never seemed to get round to it. There is some language and some sentiments which jar on our modern ears and which we wouldn't use now. In the day, Conrad was trying to comment on the idiocy underlying colonialism. It has been criticised by moder African literary figures. Still worth a read, with those caveats, as a step on the journey.
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