Review: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

I decided to read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as part of the Victorian Literature Challenge.

I have read Heart of Darkness before for a Comparative/Literary Criticism class in college. I’ll be honest, I didn’t care for it much then and I didn’t care for it reading it again two years later. Though I hoped that not having to write a paper on the book and not having to deconstruct the entire concepts would help me be able to get into it more but I was sadly disappointed.

Conrad’s novel is an interesting specimen in literature, it is more of a transitional book that has a foot in the Victorian era but also has a foot in modern literature. The book is about one man’s journey into madness while he travels the Congo.

The main character (Charles Marlow) is on the Themes on a boat waiting for the tide to change, he beings to tell his travel companions about his adventures in the Congo. He talks about the ‘evils’ he expeirences while there and how he worked to transport ivory down river….he was more or less a mercenary.

In the Victorian era, Africa was called the ‘dark continent’ which clearly lead to many negative connotations. To emphasize not only the darkness within people but also the duality of human nature, Marlow’s narration that takes place on the Themes, which symbolizes the ever changing human soul……one tide is high, the other low….the eb and flow of the human condition.

Early in the book, Marlow explains that London–though it was at the time the most wealthy and populated city in the world–it too at one point was the ‘dark city’ according to the Romans. This concept parallels Conrad’s tale of the Belgians conquering the savage Africans. The theme of darkness lurking beneath the surface of even “civilized” persons appears prominently and is explored in the characters.

Since I wrote a more scholarly paper on this subject already I thought I would share that paper here in this blog posting for those that are interested in a more ‘scholarly’ approach to the novel….I promise it isn’t that long AND it is well writing and interesting so keep reading:

In Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, the protagonist Marlow believes that: “the mind of man is capable of anything-because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future” (109). Marlow’s trip to Africa changes the way he perceives things geographically and historically but it was the mental journal which affected him the most. Marlow becomes removed from society in the jungles of the Congo where he is forced to adapt to extreme conditions both physically and mentally. In order to better understand Marlow’s mental journey and how the challenges in the jungle changed him, it is necessary to investigate the mind. The most widely accepted form of mental investigation is Sigmund Freud’s famous method, psychoanalysis.

Freud is most famous for his theories regarding the Oedipal Complex and the unconscious mind which interprets symbols embodied in dreams as a way of accessing access the inner workings of the unconscious mind (Booker 27). Both of these theories relate directly to Freud’s study of the human psyche which he referred to as the “id, superego, ego” model. This model shows how the psyche is not a singular principal but rather made up and influenced by three different parts. These three minds have different “goals, desires, and operate according to different principals” (Booker 29). The id is the minds intense desire with no limitations while the superego establishes strict limits. Between these two dueling minds lies the ego, a mediator between both sides which strives to bring balance to the psyche and outside world (Booker 29).

Marlow begins his journey into Africa as a “superego”. He is searching for adventure and to fill in all the blank spaces on his favorite maps: “When I was a chap I had a passion for maps” (71). He is young and idealistic, wanting nothing more than to experience life. He wants to see Africa and explore its blankness, so he applies to a trading company where he can operate a steam boat up. It is suggested by his Aunt that the Company is an imperialistic one, but Marlow states: “I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit” (77). When he arrives in the Congo, Marlow must quickly adapt to not only new physical conditions but also to new cultures and societies. Because of this shift, Marlow’s “id, superego, ego” become unbalanced and his psyche put to the test.

Marlow describes being in the Congo as, “travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world…you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert…till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once-somewhere-far away-in another existence perhaps” (Conrad 105-106). The isolation Marlow is feeling shows his abandonment of society and how the id is slowly taking over and moving the superego out of the way. Without the presence of society, there is no need for a superego, only the primal urges of the id.

As the story continues, Marlow meets the “very remarkable person” Mr. Kurtz who represents the power of the id. Kurtz has succumbed completely to the primal id and is seemingly not ashamed of it: “You can’t judge Mr. Kurtz as you would an ordinary man” (Conrad 135). Marlow and other could not judge him for the things he did because he was so far removed from society and traditional civilization that his id completely too over, his superego retreated deep into his mind. However the ego works to balance the id and superego within Kurtz which is likely the cause of his “madness” and “sickness”. As they continue back down river with Kurtz, he dies before reaching their destination muttering only: “The horror! The horror!” (154). Symbolically, retreating back down river toward civilization stimulates the ego so it will regain balance between both conflicting minds. When Kurtz says “The horror! The horror” it shows the ego has achieved balance. He is showing remorse for being controlled by the mental id, but he does not revert back to the superego controlled by society, he simply finds a balance. Kurtz’s mental journey mirrors what is happening to Marlow.

The wickedness is present in both Marlow and Kurtz because the Congo lacks reasonable, authoritative society. Here man must survive and the id is responsible for that survival, for Marlow in the jungle the motto is: “kill or be killed”. The reader becomes aware of this mental change toward savagery when Marlow tells Kurtz: “I will throttle you for good” (148). Marlow’s ego tries to correct this extreme urge by explaining what he meant: “Your success in Europe is assured in any case…I did not want to have the throttling of him you understand…I tried to break the spell-the heavy muted spell of the wilderness-that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten brutal instincts” (149).

Marlow notes Kurtz was not mad, but it was his soul which was mad and was made such from being out in the jungle all alone for so long that caused the madness. When Kurtz died Marlow explains that he considered suicide or as he put it, “wrestled with death” (154). However he goes on to explain that unlike Kurtz he did not commit completely to the desires of the id. He explains that unlike Kurtz he chose to live out the nightmare of the id rather then become completely consumed by it. As a reward of sorts, Marlow lives through the desires of the id and returns to the city an enlightened and wise man. He is still a mental wreck after his trip but unlike Kurtz, he is allowed a chance at redemption through his ego which steps in to give Marlow balance.

The reader becomes aware of this balance when Marlow goes to see Kurtz’s Intended who, like both Marlow and Kurtz in the beginning, is a superego character. She believes Kurtz to be the kind of honorable man people look up to and want to be like. She thinks he is a hero whose goodness showed in everything he did. Rather than let her see him for what he really was and expose his secret, Marlow chooses to lie to her so she will remain innocent of his evil character in the jungle. He tells her his last words were of her rather than the horror that he spoke up. She is relieved and believes what Marlow tells her. Marlow explains how he felt after telling this lie to her: “It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape…would they have fallen…if I had rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due” (164). This shows that Marlow is not controlled by society or primal desire. He has evolved into a balanced and enlightened individual.

Marlow’s mates on the Nellie liken him to the meditating Buddha as he sits apart, silent after the story is finished. Marlow has gone through three very profound mental phases throughout his trip to Africa which have forever changed him. He has become wise. He has not simply become worldly or experienced new cultures but he has completed a radical mental journey. He experienced extreme changes to his psyche which were brought about on the river up the Congo. He begins as a naive sailor who longs for adventure, mentally he is the superego. Then as he became isolated on the river, away from society’s restraints his primal id instincts came out. With the death or Kurtz he is faced with a choice, he can become like Kurtz or choose to carry on with the nightmare. He has the courage to continue and thus when he returns to society, his ego balances his two competing mental states. Freud’s model of the human psyche is vividly clear in Heart of Darkness. Marlow’s journey is powerful because it shows his statement is true, man is capable of anything.

Over all I recommend you read this book at some point…..yes, it is a classic and part of the British Literary Canon (depending on who you ask). So yes it is a good book with room for lots of interesting discussions and papers which can be written about it. However….as is true with Victorian Lit, the books are long and wordy and a little dry. It was a little hard for me to get into at first and it was a little boring-ish for me, you have to be in the mood for some heavy literature, reading, and psychology with this book.

Challenge/Book Summary:

Challenge/Book Summary:

Book: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

  • Paperback, 192 pages
  • Published August 5th 2008 by Signet Classics (first published 1902)
  • ISBN 0451531035 (ISBN13: 9780451531032)

This book counts toward: Victorian Literature Reading Challenge

Recommendation: 3 out of 5–read it because it IS a good subject for anyone interested in Lit Crit but it IS a little slow and dark…depending on your mood you might rank it higher who knows 🙂

Genre: Literature, Fiction, Victorian Literature, Classics

Memorable lines/quotes: NA


5 thoughts on “Review: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

  1. I seriously struggled through this book. I found it interesting, and I could see what he was trying to do, but I struggled with it all the same.
    I think maybe had a been in a different mood when I read it, it would have been different. I don’t know.
    I really liked your review though!

    1. Yes it was HARD for me to get through this book. The concept was good but I just felt like maybe I too wasn’t in the mood for it and maybe next time it would be better but then I read it again for this challenge and same thing….I just wasn’t feeling it 🙂 Thanks for the compliments!!! 🙂

  2. Since Marlow is an Englishman, on the surface he seems to be supporting and celebrating the popular European attitude towards imperialism. He seems to believe in the civilizing mission carried on by the European nations. But beneath this apparent frame of mind, we can sense his horror at the brutality and squalor of the imperial mission. Throughout the novel are scattered several symbols depicting the rapacity of the white men. The story also brings into sharp contrast white men as “civilized beings” and the African natives as “brutes”. This is an enlightening book by a writer who had experienced the ills of imperialism himself.

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