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Book review: Heart of Darkness (1902) – Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness (1902), Joseph Conrad

Title: Heart of Darkness (1902)

Author: Joseph Conrad (Poland/Great Britain)

Grading: 5/5

Genre: Fiction, novella

Reminds me of: One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Ken Kesey), Doctor Glas (Hjalmar Söderberg), The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson)

Why? A timeless classic, investigating the human mind, which through the film Apocalypse Now today is world-known for its dark imagery and merciless description of the human psyche and animal in its worst moment.


Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now is world-renowned and celebrated as one of film history’s best works ever. However, I have got the feeling that few people actually know from where the film originated, which is Joseph Conrad’s novel which is the subject of this post and of my reading the latest week.

Marlon Brando as the broken ivory hunter Kurtz.

The steamboat captain Charles Marlow retells to his fellow ship comrades during a pause at the Thames of his horrifying experiences during a mission along the Congo River. Marlow was sent to find and bring Kurtz back, and the ivory too, in his river boat, and the journey that follows not only exposes the evils of colonialism and imperialism, but also throws Marlow into a constant psychological limbo – his humanity is challenged and reshaped.

Now, what did I think about the novel? Well, first of all it was a rather tough read. It is full of symbolism, which in itself poses some obstacles although the jungle and the constant darkness obviously encloses the reader in a full-out claustrophobic feeling that just does not go away even after you have put the book aside. I, to be honest, found it to be a difficult message to follow, just because Conrad demands quite a lot from his readers, I suppose. Since I read the novel in English (I am Swedish) I had to use my dictionary application on my cellphone to decipher a large part of the text. Perhaps a second read would enhance my understanding, since I have translated all words already.

Apart from the heavy style, it is a heavy message, as I already have pointed out. Conrad himself was a sailor himself, from a very young age, and he based much of the novel on his own experiences. However, he was probably no angel himself, and his writing to a large extent mirrors the views of western society on African peoples at the time. The native tribes are described as mute, nervous, and very hostile albeit submissive. Conrad does not seem to blame the peoples themselves for their  primitiveness, but rather instead indicts the imperialist slave masters of extreme brutality and corruption. The criticism is clear, but not as biting as I thought it would be according to what I read before I read the book. It is not as much an attack on colonialism as it is a psychological journey, a journey into the obscure heart and soul of man.

A great novel, with a thrilling story full of suspense and with an increasingly claustrophobic mood. Altogether, a classic and a must-read for those interested in psychology – a book that questions your assumptions and presses you to take that extra step. It leaves you in limbo, just as the characters themselves:

”The horror, the horror.”

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