Jamelah Reads the Classics: Heart of Darkness

Despite official protest from one of my LitKicks compadres about having Heart of Darkness in my queue of classics, I’ve gone ahead and read it anyway. Because that’s what I do. And now that I’ve read it, I’m not really sure what the deal is with this book. Heart of Darkness? Really? Okay, People Who Decide What Goes In The Literary Canon, if you say so, but, um, really?

See, it’s like this. Once upon a time, I was a bright-eyed high school student. I was getting ready to take AP English, and the summer before school started, we students were supposed to read four books: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley, and Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad. It was summer, and I had plenty of other things to do, all of which involved being a 16-year-old on summer vacation, but still, I managed to get through three of the four. Heart of Darkness was the one that didn’t make the cut. I tried reading it, really, I did. I tried several times, but I’d make it to the third page, my eyes would glaze over, and I’d call up my friends and see if they wanted to go to the movies. It was a way of life, and I’m not ashamed. Now, ten years later, I have finally finished this high school reading assignment. I feel like I should feel something, because it’s been a long time coming, but really, eh. Heart of Darkness. Whatever.

The book centers around a sailor named Marlow, who is telling a story about how this one time, in Africa, he met this guy named Kurtz. In fact, the majority of the book is Marlow’s narrative of his trip to Africa and his subsequent sojourn up the Congo river into — are you ready? — the heart of darkness. This is all perfectly well and good, but if this is going to be the story, why can’t the book just be the story instead of an extended monologue? Am I really supposed to believe that there are people in the world who would sit around and let someone talk at them for 70-odd pages? Impossible. I could believe that Marlow’s listeners would stop him and say, “Uh, could you get to the point, mate? This whole business about not being able to get rivets for your steamboat — not that interesting.” Otherwise, well, who did Conrad think he was kidding?

Heart of Darkness is about imperialism and the darkness within people, which are very fine themes as far as themes go. It was made into a movie starring John Malkovich as that crazy scamp Kurtz, and also, more famously updated by Francis Ford Coppola into the film Apocalypse Now. It was short, which made me like it much better than this other classic I tried to read, and it was pretty quick, easy reading overall. With all that in mind, I’m not sure why it inspires absolutely no reaction from me whatsoever, because I feel like it should. And it’s really too bad, because this is the last book on my list for my Jamelah Reads the Classics series, so I really wanted to go out with something better than “I was supposed to read this in high school, and Marlow talks too much” but alas, that’s all I’ve got for you today. Maybe I should’ve listened to Levi after all. Who knew?

24 Responses

  1. Well now …I have to
    Well now …

    I have to clarify, Jamelah, that I totally did not object to the notion that Heart of Darkness is a classic. I love this book! I objected to the idea that it was a classic that is difficult to read, and to the idea that you could generate any sense of agony or sympathy regarding your struggle to get through it, as you did so well while reading Milton, Tolstoy, etc.

    And now that you have gotten through it, I guess I’ll just have to write it off as one of the great mysteries of life that you don’t love it.

    Let’s start at the beginning: a guy is in a rickety steamboat chugging up the Congo River. If that’s not a good setup, I don’t know what is. You know he’s going to find something interesting wherever he ends up, and you know he’s going to have a rough time getting there. Write about a guy on a rickety steamboat, and as far as I’m concerned you’ve written a good story (this may also explain my affection for Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera).

    Moving beyond the first few pages, I would plead for recognition of the excellence of the story’s central metaphor; plunging into a dark and unknown continent while plunging into the dark recesses of the human soul. Okay, maybe the device is too obvious to thrill you, Jamelah, but perhaps a strong metaphor must be somewhat obvious to serve its purpose.

    So that’s my response to your review — and I didn’t even mention Apocalypse Now once.

  2. the horror”It was a way of
    the horror

    “It was a way of life, and I’m not ashamed.” Hehehe, I like that. And well you shouldn’t be ashamed. It was bad enough they tried to impose that bogus Summer Weekly Reader on us all. Don’t get me started about homework.

    But why no more Jamelah Reads the Classics?
    What of Dickens? Voltaire? Thackeray? Thurman?

    Your series went by so fast . . . sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset . . .
    Swiftly flow the days . . .

    And what are we left with? A raggedy-ass steamboat boat in need of maintenance, teetering on disintegration for lack of rivets, chugging down an unimpressive tributary with a less impressive weasel-story-teller for a Captain . . . I’d sooner ride the Staten Island Ferry with Grandpa Al Lewis; at least that man had balls and could tell a good story.

    Kurtz was right. Annihilate them all.

  3. Well, I didn’t hate it. I
    Well, I didn’t hate it. I didn’t love it either. I just feel pretty ambivalent toward it. Maybe it’s because it was such an easy read that I don’t have much to say about it, I don’t know. I thought it was okay, but it didn’t inspire much out of me.

  4. Hey Bill. Heart of Darkness
    Hey Bill. Heart of Darkness was the last item on my list. This is not to say that there can’t be more lists in the future, but that’s all I’ve got on the classic literature front for now.

  5. Where is Africa if not inside
    Where is Africa if not inside myself

    I loved Heart of Darkness. It grabbed me right at a place inside myself that I cannot even name.

    I read it many years ago, only a few months after an extended time of travelling during which I had taken long, long train rides along the Nile – hours of crowded heat and train sounds, of contamplating and writing and exchanging poetry on small snippets of paper with a fellow traveller and later friend, while the train kept slowly and incessantly moving down south.

    One of the poems we wrote was called “Deeper into Africa”… it was about travelling into the heart of Africa, into our own core, and I remember that it contained the lines “Where is Africa / if not inside myself // Where is anything / if not inside myself?”.

    The poem wasn’t highly literary or brilliant and got lost on the trip, but those two lines stayed – and came to a new life for me when I read Heart of Darkness only a little later, after my return.

    So much about the book for me… personal trivia, again.

    A Question to those of you who’ve read it – what do you think about the controversy of critics (like, for example, the text “An Image of Africa”) by Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart) about Heart of Darkness being racist?

  6. Well, the book was written in
    Well, the book was written in a racist age — the height of European colonialism. It’s pretty clear that Conrad wanted to expose the Belgian administration in central Africa as exploitative and tragic, so I think the author’s own dark heart was in the right place.

  7. that’s my take on it as well
    that’s my take on it as well – plus, if you look closely at Conrad’s language and how he uses the metaphor of light and darkness, it is not necessarily the darkness that is described as inscrutinable and obscure; it seems to be the light, rather, that veils and glitters, that indicates deceit and does not illuminate the darkness – and therefore, in a sense, is the darkness itself….

    (note to staff: i have no idea how to put the commas in this. everything looks wrong. it’s so totally different in english than in german. correct me, please!)

  8. The Flip SideI’ve never been
    The Flip Side

    I’ve never been overly enamored with “Darkness”, either- I’ve taken a couple of stabs at it over the years. I did, however, enjoy and reap the benefits from “Sharer”- enough to give Conrad another chance. I have a raggedy copy of “Lord Jim” and I may make its acquaintance soon.

  9. Lord Jim hits all the right
    Lord Jim hits all the right buttons and is timeless. Lord Jim is one of my favorites because it is easy, vis-a-vis, The Secret Agent which never came to life, and it seems to mirror the second-most essential ethical question: what’s a guy to do? FYI, the essential ethical question is “What should one do in their free time?”

  10. It has been brought to my
    It has been brought to my attention that no one knows what I wanted to annihilate when I said, “Annihilate them all”. Also, the fact that in Apocalypse Now, Kurtz didn’t say “annihilate”…he said “”Drop the Bomb. Exterminate them all.”

    I was referring to all the classics; but, I was just kidding.

  11. ‘Classic’ doesn’t have to
    ‘Classic’ doesn’t have to mean good.

    This book bored the hell out of me. It’s about 100 pages long and it probably took me two months to read it. After reading the first page I was like this just has to pick up. But, by God, it didn’t. Not even for a single freaking page.

    Conrad was certainly a smart guy. I think he was fluent in several languages and English was not his native tongue. But he also must have had a ton of free time on his hands because he just wrote on and on about. . . nothing that was memorable.

    I actually purchased Lord Jim before I read Heart of Darkness. And I can all but guarantee that Conrad and I will not be spending any time together again. Anyone want to buy a copy of Lord Jim? It’s never been read.

  12. Ah freak Ah!I liked anything
    Ah freak Ah!

    I liked anything to do with the dark continent and this was no different. A place so different, so alien from my own existence that I slurped it up. (Tarzan at nine was my first glimpse and even tho it was totally NOT the real Africa…I loved it.)

    It has been so long ago that the details escape me. Maybe I was too young (probably 15 or 16) to have a frontal lobe approach, and give it a good critique, but it colored my life.

    Just watched “The Constant Gardener”, a lovely movie…and was reminded again of why I ‘heart’ Africa, its sorrows, pain and powerful beauty.

  13. That’s a fascinating thought,
    That’s a fascinating thought, “it seems to be the light, rather, that veils and glitters, that indicates deceit . . .”

    Light can certainly trick us. The Bible says that even satan can appear as an angel of light.

  14. I’ve bought quite a number of
    I’ve bought quite a number of Cliff’s Notes at garage sales, flea markets, and used book stores. Yes, I admit it. The Heart of Darkness Cliff’s Notes was kind of interesting. Other than that, I haven’t actually read it.

  15. sometimes we are blinder in
    sometimes we are blinder in the light than in the darkness, especially in a light that attempts to deny darkness.

  16. Exactly.Perhaps you’ve heard

    Perhaps you’ve heard the expression, “It’s done with mirrors.”

  17. hadn’t heard that expression
    hadn’t heard that expression before, bill, but its meaning is quite clear.

    it’s done with mirrors, with sudden flashes of light, with reflections conceiling what lies and happens behind.

    rivers glitter, eyes glitter.

    it is also done with a haze, with a vague and diffuse light, confusing and eerie, and still, so very still.

    a sky covered with gauze, a haze resting on a shore, a misty trip made visible through the illuminations of the tale only .

    “The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty holes that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illuminations of the moonshine…”

    (btw, shouldn’t i have written “more blind” instead of “blinder” in my post above? yeah, i think so…)

  18. Oh, yeah, that’s a great
    Oh, yeah, that’s a great quote from the book. It illustrates your point quite well.

    And yes, “more blind” is considered the correct usage. Those things they put on a horse so they can’t see to their left or right, are called blinders. Now, as for your comma usage, I did not notice any problems.

  19. Give Lord Jim a try before
    Give Lord Jim a try before you unload it. Many of the characters he captures are timeless and I’ve heard these conversations in the book repeated in the ’80s and ’90s.

  20. With great affection, I have
    With great affection, I have to say this: a bunch of you people are insane. This is a great book!

  21. Faulty MemoryMy god, I read
    Faulty Memory

    My god, I read Heart of Darkness so long ago, I can hardly remember it but I do remember being absolutely enthralled by the image of the old woman knitting in this, what was it?, waiting room? She was knitting, a widow of some kind perhaps, there was something compulsive in her knitting I’d say if I remember right, I think about that a lot, that image and the language used to convey it, if only I could remember… I know, I was really into Joseph Campbell in those days and I was thinking about the 3 Fates but I remember thinking how different this image was, this lonely spinster seeing this sailor off to the Congo, and what is he going for? To establish some kind of mine, I think, if memory serves, basically to tear the riches from the ‘backward abysm’ of dark time the same kind of forces Thomas Mann shows us in the Alpine Sanatorium in The Magic Mountain — see, we are all enriched by visiting the source place of our existence. For Conrad that place is actual; for most of the writers who followed him it was only metaphorical. They lacked the depth of experience of Conrad for Conrad, like Melville, had actually visited the places he wrote about.

    Who is she knitting for, this fate, who will don her dark garments? I think I’m going to read that again, if I can find my copy. Or maybe I’ll just read The Secret Sharer — that is one of my favorites. You can see and hear reverberations from that story in so many stories novels and plays since, from Pinter and his ‘rooms’ to Beckett’s Plays (I’m thinking Endgame here) to Pynchon’s stories like Entropy or those scenes in Gravity’s Rainbow where there is some kind of unseen watcher who we don’t quite understand… When I think of Conrad I think of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and Carlos Castaneda and of how mysterious and wonderful the world is, how large and unfathomable…

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