The Penguin Great Books cover of Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness

  • Rank:  #8
  • Author:  Joseph Conrad  (1857  –  1924)
  • Published:  1899  (serial),  1902  (book)
  • Publisher:  Blackwood’s Magazine  (serial);  William Blackwood  (book)
  • Pages:  96
  • First Line:  “The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest.”
  • Last Line:  “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flower sombre under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.”
  • Acclaim:  Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century #67
  • ML Version:  included in Great Modern Short Stories (#168); gold hardcover (1993 – published with Youth and Typhoon); 1999 (Modern Library classics)
  • Film:  long planned by Orson Welles; 1979 / 2001 (as Apocalypse Now / Apocalypse Now Redux – ****); 1993 TV film
  • First Read:  Fall 1991

The Novel:  A lot of the books on the Top 100 list are books that I read in various classes in college.  And some of them are ones that I re-read in college, having already read them before I got to particular classes.  But here on up we have an interesting group of books.  Four of the top 8 books on my Top 100 list I read for the same class.  And it was in high school.

If we are lucky along the way, we can get great teachers.  I have had my share of them.  And the best of them was Carol Mooney, my 9th grade English Teacher, who I had again for AP English when I was a senior.  The reading list we had was phenomenal, a good walk through the greatest novels ever written.  And because I read them with her, I was well-prepared before I got to any of them in college.  And I can be thankful that I had a teacher who was so good, to make me so prepared, and as is clear, I have never forgotten these books.

Heart of Darkness made an indelible impression on me.  Somewhere, buried among all my papers, is the journal that I kept at the time, and a response to the line “Perhaps all the wisdom, and all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible.”  And when I wrote my story “After the Flood” the first real piece of writing that I ever felt good about, it was Conrad that I returned to in the end.  I wrote it in stages, sending it out to friends as a serial (shades of how publishing was done back in Conrad’s day).  But it began with the crossing over the border into Oregon, and I always knew it was going to end with the three friends crossing the Columbia, and leaving Oregon behind them.  And it all, from the very first words, lead up to this line: “The hills behind us are barred by a black bank of clouds but before us we can see the sun and we seem to be heading out of the heart of an immense darkness.”  Not the happiest picture of Oregon, but it was what was being left behind, and it was essential for the end of the story that the heart of darkness was no longer before them.

I have already written about Conrad’s mastery of the language.  There are many who would tear this novel down for it’s colonial view but there are few who could possibly argue with its claims for brilliance on language alone.  Here is an example that plays to both its critics and its admirers: “The edge of a colossal jungle, so dark-green as to be almost black, fringed with white surf, ran straight, like a ruled line, far, far away along a blue sea whose glitter was blurred by a creeping mist.  The sun was fierce, the land seemed to glisten and drip with steam.  Here and there greyish-whitish specks showed up clustered inside the white surf, with a flag flying above them perhaps.  Settlements some centuries old, and still no bigger than pinheads on the untouched expanse of their background.”

But there is more to this book than to his others.  Conrad is one of the greatest novelists to ever write (in any language), with Nostromo, Lord Jim and The Secret Agent among his best books.  But this is the one where he delves the most deeply into the human state of mind.  “We felt meditative, and fit for nothing but placid staring.  The day was ending in a serenity of still and exquisite brilliance.”  That is the beginning of the novel, as the men sit around waiting for the tide, passing stories around.  “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 halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.”  That is a great dive into the psyche of the man whose narrative captures our attention.  “We live, as we dream – alone.”  That seems to be a Conrad maxim and can be applied to any of his books, but it is here where the line is actually said.  Or just look at his description of Kurtz: “The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all of his gifts the one that stood out preëminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words – the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.”  This is certainly the man who has seen “the horror, the horror.”

And I don’t feel so bad if I honor Conrad with my final line.  I am not the first to do so.  Hunter himself could find nothing original to say at the end of his first magnificent book, Hell’s Angels, so he settled for: “On my way back to San Francisco, I tried to compose a fitting epitaph.  I wanted something original, but there was no escaping the echo of Mistah Kurtz’ final words from the heart of darkness: ‘The horror!  The horror! . . . Exterminate all the the brutes!'”

The 2001 revised Apocalypse Now Redux

The Film:  In 1979, Francis Ford Coppola finally released his epic version of Heart of Darkness.  But Apocalypse Now was not set among the darkest regions of Africa, but rather up the river in the ever-growing darkness of the Vietnam War.  Of course, Apocalypse Now is more a vision of the war than The Deer Hunter was.  Both of them are visions of darkest violence and complete insanity and the war serves as a useful metaphor for that.  But this had the added benefit of using the Conrad book as a jumping off point for its journey into the darkness.

What more can be said about this film that has not been said by so many others over the years?  In reviewing it for the Best Picture project, I wrote “It’s as if Coppola wants us to feel the journey that brought this film into the world.  But so much at the end just dissolves into a haze.”  But how is it as an adaptation of the novel?

Well, it holds up surprisingly well, because so much of that journey transplants so well into the madness of Vietnam.  The basic gist of the story comes through – the journey upriver, the strange rumors of what the enigmatic Kurtz is doing with the natives.  There are signs of the colonial establishment.  And in the Redux version we get a much better vision of what the years of colonization had done to Vietnam.  We get the weird dreamlike state of the old French plantation.  Then we go farther upriver and we see the natives, brandishing their spears.  Throughout the journey, Willard is holding himself together, apart from the madness along the riverbanks, much like Marlow does.  And we can see that the real damage done to this country is not what they have done themselves.  The true savages are us, and we destroy each other in the jungle.

Then he finally gets to the majestic kingdom of Kurtz.  And we get the attempt at understanding between them.  We can understand Kurtz’ dying words, because Coppola has allowed us to see “the horror, the horror” all around us.  Kurtz dies, not because this is Willard’s task, but because at this point there is no other choice.  Kurtz can not possibly be allowed to live, carving out a wider swath of destruction. The novel comes alive because there is so much madness in the heart of that impenetrable darkness and Coppola has seen the heart of it and shown it to us.