Saturday, 23 March 2013

Book Review: Heart of Darkness

Book: Heart of Darkness

Author: Joseph Conrad

Publisher: Blackwood Magazine

ISBN: 9780786158676

Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" is a fascinating text that lends itself fruitfully to continued analysis over the past hundred yes. The novella was first written in 1898 and first published serially in Blackwood magazine from February to April 1899. If it is true that works of literary merit can be and should be open to endless debate and interpretation, then Heart of Darkness is certain exemplary. Little wonder then, it is considered as his most enigmatic stories.

King Leopold-II of Belgium, had set his sights on the Congo river basin in Africa and had called a conference in Brussels in 1876 to examine the African situation and to pierce the darkness surrounding the continent. Eight years later, the details of the genocidal regime became public and Conrad's experiences there inspired him to write Heart of Darkness, as one of the most powerful condemnations of imperialism and still a deeply unsettling read.


At the most basic level, the tale is a literary exploration of the phenomenon of colonialism--that reveals the difference between the ideology and the subsequent practice. Structurally, the text is a classic example of a frame narrative. Set in a yawl docked at the Thames estuary, we meet two narrators. An unnamed narrator and Marlow, the primary narrator in the novel who provides the inner frame for the story of Kurtz. The deeply layered framing device, travelling inwards to find the "truth" at the centre is one of the most obvious structural metaphors for the physical and psychological journey that Marlow undertakes to "find" Kurtz. Yet, as Marlow gets closer to Kurtz, there is a growing suggestion that he has in some way become corrupt and descended into savagery. 

Heart of Darkness is a masterfully constructed parable on human nature. It comes across as a dark allegory that describes the writer's journey in the Congo River Basin and his meeting with, and fascination with Mr. Kurtz. The story in itself is laced with richness, tussled with ideas and meanings, portrays wide gaps and impenetrable silences and has depths and texture. Since it is a layered novella, it is difficult to keep grip on the book as it works on multiple levels and invites deconstruction at every sentence. 

At the crux of it, Heart of Darkness is a tale of complex psychology and symbolism  woven around the project of imperialism in the nineteenth century. This book is strongly recommended for its artful blend of adventure, character development and psychological penetration.

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Heart of Darkness as the 67th top novel of the 100 best novels in English of the twentieth century. Albert Guerard, one of the best known early critics, explored Heart of Darkness in "Conrad the Novelist" (1958) as one of the great dark meditations in literature. 

"Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream,
bearing the sword, and often the torch, 
messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. 
What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! ... 
The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires!"

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