Monday, February 25, 2013

Book Review: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad



Title: Heart of Darkness
Author: Joseph Conrad
Publisher: Blackwoods Magazine (originally published there in three parts)
Publication Date: 1899
Source: personal purchase

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

One of Conrad's finest stories, loosely based on the author's experience of rescuing a company agent from a remote station in the heart of the Congo, Heart of Darkness is set in an atmosphere of mystery and lurking danger, and tells of Marlow's perilous journey up the Congo River to relieve his employer's agent, the fabled and terrifying Mr. Kurtz. What Marlow sees on his journey horrifies and perplexes him, and what his encounter with Kurtz reveals calls into question all of his assumptions about civilization and human nature. 

My Review:

Last week, when I reviewed Just One Day, I was complaining to myself that there is nothing harder than reviewing a book that is a wildly-popular current fave.  But I was wrong--it's harder to review a classic!  What can you say about a book that's been around for 100+ years that hasn't already been said?

And what if you thought it was...just okay?  How do you approach a review of a classic with, "Eh, you know, it was so-so"?  English professors the world over would promptly drop dead.

Well, English profs, get your heart meds handy, because Heart of Darkness is going solidly in my "meh" category.  (The horror!)

...yes, that was a bit of a meta-joke, for those who got it.

Anyway, I think part of the issue for me was that my expectations were high.  I had no idea that the movie Apocalypse Now was based on this novella, and I think we can all agree that Apocalypse Now is a fan-friggin-tastic movie.  So when I found that out, I was pretty stoked.  However, I quickly realized that the movie is based more on the themes and tone of this book, rather than the actual details.

Heart of Darkness is the tale of Marlow, currently on a ship in England, who is telling his shipmates about a previous journey he took as a steamboat captain in the Belgian Congo.  The purpose of this journey was to recover Mr. Kurtz, an ivory trader gone rogue in the wilderness.  Which, if you've seen the movie, will get you amped up for some really weird stuff, because the movie-version Kurtz (Marlon Brando) is CRAY-CRAY.  However, the book-version Kurtz actually has very little physical presence in the story--he is only around for a small portion of it.  Instead, the "idea" of him and what he represents plays a much bigger role in the plot than what he actually says and does.

Don't get me wrong, the book is not a total disappointment.  I understand why it's used so much in literature classes, because Conrad touches on a lot of important themes (good vs evil, roles of women, colonialism, etc).  And the narrative style is interesting: Marlow is telling the story to his shipmates, so you get steeped in the plot for a while, and then randomly get pulled out of it as Marlow jumps back to present day at times. If I felt like doing a lot of analysis and interpretations, there's plenty here to keep me busy.  However, as far as just straight entertainment value, the book moved a lot slower than I expected, and ended on a rather anticlimactic note.

Overall, it's a classic, so I won't deter anyone from reading it.  It's one of those books you just have to say you've read at some point (at 105 pages, you have no excuse!).  But it's certainly a book to save for when you have the time for thoughtful reflection.

What are some of the best classics you've read lately?

4 comments:

  1. I loved this book myself, but can appreciate that it won't appeal to everyone.

    I haven't read many classics lately, at least not for the first time. I am currently re-reading Jane Austen's Persuasion, which is not only my favourite classic but also my favourite book, period. I guess the best ones I've read in the last few years would have to be North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, and Vanity Fair by William Thackeray. While I liked them well enough, I wasn't as impressed by George Eliot's Daniel Deronda or Charlotte Bronte's Villette.

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  2. I think it's almost ridiculously hard to review a classic. I haven't read this one. If my memory wasn't so awful I'd be able to remember if I have it on a shelf (I think so?) or if it's on my Classics Club list (maybe?) What I do know is that it's not one that I'm chomping at the bit to read ;)

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  3. I'm with you on this one. It's one of those classic novels that just didn't connect with me at all.

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  4. Melissa, I adore Persuasion. Haven't read your other two recommendations yet though--will add them to the TBR.

    I'm glad I'm not alone in my assessment of this one! :)

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