Modern Library Revue: #67 Heart of Darkness

March 31, 2010 | 2 books mentioned 13 3 min read

Sometimes you can make a cheese sandwich, pick up a book, and change the way you think about life.  More often, you can make two, open the computer, and read Postcards from Yo Momma.  The former infinitely rare and precious experience is preferred, but it’s impossible to manufacture.  You cannot prime yourself for epiphany, even if the the book is pithy, the mustard piquant, and you’ve arranged yourself prettily, nay, beatifically, in a sunbeam.

coverI have tried it many times with Heart of Darkness, which is a work that feels like it should impart some kind of something.  Every time I open the book I think, like a young man bound for the colonies, “My god, I’ve really started something.”  And every time I open the book I raise a crust to Joseph Conrad the polyglot, who in this novel gives a fine demonstration of the fact that some brains are different than others.  Some brains take words in any language and make minions of them (others make mincemeat).  Conrad, in a third language, wrote one of the most epic beginnings ever.  I challenge someone to find a second paragraph that portends such greatness:

The Sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway.  In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas, sharply peaked with gleams of varnished sprits.  A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness.  The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.

It keeps going like this, all his words perfectly arranged, the narrative artfully made. And yet in spite of Conrad’s virtuosity, by the middle of this slim but theme-sodden novel, I usually find myself musing on the accomplishments of Martin Sheen, wishing I hadn’t made so many unhelpful underlines in my copy, wondering if the first sandwich feels lonely in my gullet, and realizing I missed the part (again) that explains who the Pilgrims are.  This last read, I sent myself into a paroxysm of giggles by imagining one of the fellows on deck cutting Marlow off halfway with an emphatic cry of “Boooo-ring.”

I actually did have an epiphany this last time, but it was not the kind I had been trying for. I did not glean arcane truths and readerly thrills from the novel. No, I realized that my feeling about Heart of Darkness is not hate, but something akin to contempt, the contempt bred of school-day familiarity.

Unless things have changed considerably in the last few years, if you go to college and study literature, you will encounter this novel.  You will see it in a class that builds it up, then you will see it in a class that tears it down.  You will talk about the Other, and the Intended, and the Horror.  You will make much of colonial ineptitude and Conrad’s startling frankness re: it.  You will read Chinua Achebe (then several years later you will read him again and marvel at how fucked up the world, and you, must have been to necessitate the writing of an essay pointing out that Conrad was racist).  At the end of it all, you will do a group project on Apocalypse Now.

Heart of Darkness is not bad or boring, but it bores me, badly.  I almost feel guilty getting bored, because I think Conrad had significant things to say.  And he had a sense of humor, a grim one, my favorite kind.  He knew, for example, that many colonials were idiots and that Marlow was an inspired windbag.  But I get bored, and think how I can pare the story down to just a few words: “White man oppresses black man, is oppressed in turn by jungle mysteries.”

I will never regret studying literature.  Reading novels is fundamental to my particular brand of personhood, and so it’s important to understand how they work and why they do and what they tell us about the world.  And studying Heart of Darkness is important and I’m glad I did it.  But I suspect there’s nothing like prolonged study to turn some books stale for some people.  Indeed my copy of Heart of Darkness, one of those scholarly critical editions, is an object lesson in making novels loathsome by burdening them with six different levels of pointless annotations and distracting hieroglyphics, and entombing them in essays that total several hundred pages longer than the novel itself.

Of course, as we are told by the lovable old salt, “it’s queer how out of touch with truth women are! They live in a world of their own and there had never been anything like it and never can be.”   I know intellectually, in my fragile bird brain, that Heart of Darkness is a Great Work.  But I don’t know it in my own, less inscrutable heart.

is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at


  1. Thank you for another entertaining review. (That sounds so People mag. What I mean is your reviews are never boring. I never find myself thinking about what I need to get done today while I read them.)
    My most loved line is “I will never regret studying literature.” My next most loved line is the next sentence after that.
    You know how there is a recent trend of novels based on earlier classics, i. e. Edgar Sawtelle based on Hamlet, etc? I wonder if T C Boyle’s Water Music wasn’t a rewrite of Heart of Darkness, with humor of course.
    I was eating a cream cheese and turkey sandwich while I read your review and just meandered into my woman’s out of touch with truth world and came up with these thoughts.

  2. I think your less inscrutable heart is correct.

    I read the novel for the first time while living in a small African village and found it violated everything I’d worked so hard to understand about the people I lived among.

    Critical inertia is perhaps the main reason why it is still taught so often in literature courses . . .

  3. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I was assigned this novel in my very first Literature course and was never able to finish it. Some of it is so achingly beautiful, but some of it is as muddled and as heavy as the jungle it describes.

  4. Thank you, Lydia. I must say that I find these essays most entertaining as well. Like you, I do not have any regrets about studying literature, but I do not think that literature should be studied out of context, particularly of history. This may not be one of Conrad’s best efforts–the classic lines “The horror! The horror!”–strike me as being quite vague, a century later. It is easy, now, to say Conrad was a racist. Perhaps he was. But you have to remember, a century ago, almost everyone was a racist. This was the height of colonialism. Kipling was writing his poetry–jingoistic, proudly supportive of colonialism, racist by today’s standards–of “taking up the white man’s burden.” Here in the US, in Plessy v. Fergusson, the US Supreme Court had held up separate but equal education as constitutional. Jim Crow was the law of the land. The native people were thought to be a dying race–and an inferior one at that. Indian children were taken from their families and moved across country to Indian vocational schools–they were thought too inferior to attend any sort of regular schooling.

    But at the same time–even though Conrad can be classified a rather Victorian novelist–he also was quite perceptive. One could argue he had quite a grasp of realpolitik, in such novels as Nostromo–set in Central America, with revolution and counter-revolution as background and part of the plot. Another part of the problem with reading Conrad a century later is that we have forgotten some of the background, particularly for Heart of Darkness, that contemporary readers knew all too well. And in this case, the atrocities being committed in the Congo, then a Belgian colony. Like I said, contemporaries knew all about this. I found a work I did not know existed until I started researching to write this, a work by Mark Twain called “King Leopold’s Soliloquy.” I was looking up a historical study done by Adam Hochschild about the horrors of the Congo, “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa.”

    Finally, I would like to quote from two other books, contemporaneous with Heart of Darkness, but on another topic, though closely related. Another that was common and accepted by the Victorians and people of the early 20th Century (but that makes us cringe today): Anti-Semitism.

    Quote one: “He (Prince Amerigo) was to meet them at Charing Cross on the morrow: his younger brother, who had married before him, but whose wife, of the Hebrew race, with a portion that had gilded the pill, was not in condition to travel…..”

    Quote two: “Had he been born in Jerusalem under the shadow of the Temple, and circumcised in the Synagogue by his uncle the high priest, under the name Israel Cohen…..”

    The first of these is from Henry James, The Golden Bowl. The second is from Henry Adams’ The Education of Henry Adams. I would argue that the second is far less offensive than the first, but I can still see where some may argue that both are anti-Semitic, especially in our more highly politically correct world-view today. Any rate, I hope that I have successfully argued my point–books were written at a particular point in time, by people who lived and understood the codes of their times and place. Times change, understandings change, and people develop amnesia. Was Conrad racist? I do not know. Nor do I think that it really matters a century later. He was actually a very perceptive man, with a deep understanding of the human spirit. The books are all that really matter in the end.

  5. Another thought just occurred to me. That is overlaying Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart with Heart of Darkness. I don’t believe that what Conrad was writing about was the horror of tribalism, but rather the horrors of colonialism. Achebe’s Commissioner could be a furter extension of Kurz: “The Commissioner went away, taking three or four of the soldiers with him. In the many years in which he had toiled to bring civilization to different parts of Africa he had learned a number of things. One of them was that a District Commissioner must never attend to such undignified details as cutting down a hanged man from the tree. Such attention would give the natives a poor opinion of him. In the book which he planned to write he would stress that point.” Achebe’s may be a more mature achievement than Conrad was capable of. Another write, equally good at realpolitik as Conrad, is George Orwell. Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant,” though it takes place in India, not Africa, may be another good work to consider along with Heart of Darkness.

    Like I said, just a thought.

  6. Thans for your comments, everyone. Michael, I don’t argue that HoD lacks value because of the systemic racism it espouses; if anything, the book is most valuable as an artifact, as you say, a key to the time and place it was written. I don’t think Conrad’s views on race were central to my revue. Re: your quotations, yes, think one would be hard-pressed to find a work of Western canonized literature that lacks racist or otherwise prejudicial elements, whether they are covert or overt. I think that identifying these elements is necessarily a part of, er, responsible literary study. Sorry to quibble, by the way, but I take issue with “almost everyone was racist,” because I think you’re talking about a particular demographic there.

    I don’t dislike HoD solely because I think Conrad was a bigot, although I do think he was a bigot (like, as you point out, most of his crew would have been). And his condemnation of the colonial system (more along bureaucratic/policy lines rather than moral ones, I think) is one of the most interesting parts of the book. I just find, when I read it, that I’m making shopping lists or fretting about unrelated things, and that’s what I tried to address in the revue. It’s not so much the Horror as the Boring.

    BTW Judy, cream cheese and turkey sandwich kind of sounds like the Horror to me, but I respect your choices. Maybe i should give it a try.

  7. So many reasonable people with good taste share your feelings about Heart of Darkness. Bums me out, because I think it’s amazing. A savage little haymaker. I re-read it just a few months ago and got rocked on my ass all over again.

  8. I would add that Conrad, in the case of Heart of Darkness, is not at all perceptive when it comes to depicting Africans. They seem nothing like the very real villagers I’ve lived among off and on for years.

    Unfortunately, Conrad’s portraits of Africans are given some credence because he was “there.” But they seem to me to be a template for every subsequent mumbo-jumbo’d version of Africans coming out of Hollywood for nearly a century after.

  9. Don’t feel bad, Alex! Different strokes and all that. I am the president and sole member of a Sinclair Lewis fan club chapter that meets in my apartment. When I wrote a revue of Main Street I think the first comment was “ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.” (but maybe that was actually about my revue.)

  10. Thanks for pointing that out. I should not have made such a blanket statement. Obviously I am neither a professional writer nor a professional historian. I just meant to point out that racist attitudes were common at the time, and that though Conrad may have been a racist, it does not invalidate his work. And I guess that I should point out that the James quote does not necessarily mean that James was anti-Semitic. The quote, in fact, is fairly loaded, and does show a great deal about the class and background of Prince Amerigo–his brother married a Jewish woman, something that probably would not have been acceptable–but because she “had a portion,” i.e., she had money, it made the marriage more acceptable (“gilded the pill.”). There were much more openly racist novels available about the same period–Dixon’s The Klansman is a rather glaring example, which was later made into the film The Birth of a Nation.

    However, that is another topic altogether. I am now going to reread some Sinclair Lewis, thanks to you. I do remember reading Elmer Gantry many years ago, and will now try Main Street and Babbitt.

  11. I love Main Street too. Possibly, the intensity of the affection has something to do with it being the first book I read after moving to Albuquerque but I don’t think so. And I too always come up empty with HoD.

    Always a pleasure, Lydia.


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