Another tough read I acquired due to book club. I guess it’s a good thing I joined; I’m now reading literary classics and brooding over their meanings. I’ve been told excerpts of this book have been chosen for the AP literature exams for seniors, which almost made me cringe. Any book that is famous for being on standardized tests is pretty intimidating. Luckily, it isn’t a long novel, so I didn’t have to trudge through hundreds and hundreds of pages.
The Heart of Darkness is basically about an English man who heads off to England’s African colonies to captain a steamboat and find ivory. Marlow, the main character, is telling a couple other men about his adventures in Africa when the story unfolds. The whole book is just one long speech from him about his experiences.
Supposedly this book is really dark, but unless dark is code word for boring, it was nothing of the sorts. Sure, it was unapologetically racist at some parts, but I chalked that up to the time period (1899). Other than that, Marlow went through some tough times, but nothing I would consider “dark.”
I think one of the themes Conrad wanted to portray was savagery vs. civilization. I’ve read a plethora of books with the same theme, so I recommend picking up a different book such as Lord of the Flies if you want to read about this. Marlow talks about the cannibals they’ve enlisted to help to be quiet and orderly while the “pilgrims,” or Englishmen, seemed to be quite bloodthirsty and chaotic. He also talks extensively about the natives and their way of life. He seems to be curious about the natives and wonders how they can be so… savage.
Kurtz, a somewhat mythical man to Marlow, plays a big role in the book. He is the man everyone loves: he’s a painter, a poet, a listener, a talker, a writer, and everything else one could want. Marlow continues to find people and places the mighty Kurtz has touched, and he begins to long to talk to this man who can do no wrong.
I didn’t understand Kurtz. I couldn’t really find a way to tie him into what I thought was the main theme. He’s too important not to have some sort of thematic or symbolic significance. Kurtz was the only one who understood and– could I go as far to say– liked the natives. I think maybe he liked Africa better than the “civilized” Europe. I’m not really sure.
Marlow gives the reader oxymora throughout his narration. He has a calloused disregard towards the treatment of the Africans, but he still finds them to be helpful and hard workers. On the other hand, his crew of white men drive him crazy and are pitiful workers. Which again brings up the question: What is civilized? Just because the natives live differently doesn’t mean they’re barbaric, and just because the English have fancy clothes and language, doesn’t mean they’re civilized.
I dragged my feet the entire book, and I don’t feel any better for it. For one, I don’t understand the cultural value of the book. It seems to me just a guy wanting money so he goes to Africa to get ivory. No big deal. In my opinion, there is no reason for the book to be considered a “must read.”