Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness: A Signature Performance by Kenneth Branagh | [Joseph Conrad]Summary: A superb performance by Kenneth Branagh of the modern classic about the decent into madness brought on by the savage heart of Africa.

The Heart of Darkness is one of those book that I feel like I have to read. Even if it really is not all that appealing initially.

Kenneth Branagh has narrated a version at Audible.com and I picked it up for free.  So I just did not have any more excuses for not listening to it on audiobook.

I have seen Apocalypse Now, and I knew that Apocalypse Now was loosely based on Heart of Darkness.

The story is of a British man that decides to go to Africa and try his hand at being a river ship captain.  About the first third of the book is introduction and deciding to go.  Roughly the second third is getting to Africa and adapting to the job.  This is a fairly racist book so there are all types complaints about the natives, or the cannibals, etc.

I think in this book, you can either read it as matching the views of the time or an example of how far the sinful hearts of man have already gone even before it starts its real decent (the way I choose to.)

The last third of the book I would have completely not gotten if I had not watched Apocalypse Now.  It is not that they are the exact same (there are some pretty big differences) but it gave me enough context to understand.

Kenneth Branagh did masterful job narrating.  Audible has a number of very good classics that they produced with actors (both their Signature Performance series and their A+ Actors series).

But in the end this is another classic that I get the point, I understand the importance, but the story and the characters are just not worth celebrating.

Heart of Darkness Purchase Links: Paperback ($1.50), Free Kindle Version, Audible.com Audiobook (if you purchase the free kindle version first) 


Although the Belgian colonial rule of the Congo Free State was an era that had long lacked a great degree of literary documentation, two books written on the topic, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost have both provided a literary treatment of the subject. Both of these works deal extensively with the violent occupation and exploitation that occurred in the area, but each one has different understandings and perspectives on the historic impact of the colonial experience. The impact of Heart of Darkness on the Western perception of the Congo Free State is significant, as it is the first literary introduction that many readers have to the topic, but it contains a biased view of the topic that continues to affect the way that people perceive the colonization of the area. Conrad’s fictitious Marlow views the Congo, and particularly the slave trade, in a much different way than actual visitors to the area, such as missionary William Henry Sheppard, perceived it. King Leopold’s Ghost provides a valuable alternate view of the Congo colonialism by detailing the visits and written documentation that visitors such as Sheppard undertook, and in doing so, attempts to not only reverse the “forgetting” of the truth of the Congo that Conrad’s novel has fostered, but also provides the West with a post-colonial perception of the history of the region. Only by reading Heart of Darkness in light of other experiences can the facts be separated from the inherent author bias, thus allowing the reader to better understand the Congo Free State and the Belgian exploitation there.
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a fictitious account of a journey along an implied Upper Congo River, and was initially heralded as a documentation of the cruelty of European presence in Africa, as it described events based on Conrad’s, as well as other Europeans’, experiences. However, later critics have pointed out the inherent hypocrisy and bias in Conrad’s account, as it was written from a position of privilege, and does not fully demonstrate the impact that the Belgian colonial presence had on the area, with author Chinua Achebe referring to it as a document of European racism more than a criticism of colonialism.1 Although it is the gateway for many readers to consider the impact of colonialism, these biases must be considered in order to avoid taking the novel as historical fact. The acquisition of land in the Congo, for a sizable period of time held by King Leopold II before being transferred to the Belgian state, was conducted under the mantle of freeing the locals from “barbarism” and the alleged influence of “Arab-African” slave traders in the region, although the ways that Leopold II’s agents used to seize the land was just as exploitative as the methods used by slave traders, such as having village chiefs sign contracts with an “X”, granting Leopold II their land, mining rights, taxation rights, and so on, in exchange for, in some cases, “a piece of cloth per month”.2 In Conrad’s text, the conquest of this land is already taken for granted; nowhere in the novel is the influence of Arab slave traders mentioned, nor Leopold II’s propaganda campaign that, for a time at least, convinced Europe, and the world, that Belgium would be a civilizing influence on the area, allowing the plunder of natural resources to continue unchecked, and largely unquestioned, for decades.
Throughout Heart of Darkness, the reader is subject to the narrator, Marlow’s, interpretation of the events in the Congo, and therefore the opinion of Conrad, who had, himself, visited the area some eight years prior to writing the novel. Although Marlow is disgusted by the excesses of the Europeans in the area, one of whom sums up their attitude in the statement “Anything — anything can be done in this country,” he also takes a high-handed, implicitly superior attitude toward the Africans he encounters, who are nameless forms that largely communicate through “grunting” and the occasional incoherent “hullabaloo”.3 In denying any characterization of the Africans in his novel, Conrad effectively relegates them to the background, where the natives of the area become just as much a part of nature as the river, with their exploitation being, in effect, similar to the exploitation of the ivory trade, as resources to be plundered, rather than lives to be ruined. Marlow does not seem to object to colonialism per se, but only by the methods that Leopold II, specifically, was employing in the Congo Free State; at one point, he notes that in British colonialism, “some real work is done,” thus revealing his nationalist bias, although it is difficult to determine whether this reflects an actual bias of Conrad’s; the acceptance of colonialism as the working of the world, and the formless haze that the natives are relegated to, may simply be narrative devices employed by Conrad to establish the fictitious nature of the story.4, 5
In order to fully understand the bias in Heart of Darkness that taints an understanding of the history of the Congo Free State, one must compare Marlow’s narration with the accounts of actual travelers to the region during this era, some of which are presented in King Leopold’s Ghost. William Henry Sheppard, an American missionary that traveled to the area in order to investigate allegations of slave labor and maltreatment of the native peoples, found that brutal treatment of the Congolese at the hands of Belgians was rampant, discovering mass graves that contained even children whose hands had been severed.6 Whippings, dismemberment, and beheadings were common tactics used by the Belgians against “rebels” in order to keep natives working to produce rubber for export; although Marlowe, in Conrad’s book, views heads on stakes outside of Kurtz’s compound, even this documentation of abuse seems to be an aberration on Kurtz’s part, and evidence of him “going native” rather than perpetrating the same form of extreme cruelty as other Europeans.7,8 For the most part, the main sins of the Europeans in Conrad’s book seem to be laziness and inefficiency, and Kurtz is notable because of his cruelty, although Sheppard’s account, which later earned him a libel lawsuit prosecuted by King Leopold II, contends that the actions of Kurtz were commonplace among the Belgian overseers in the area.9
In some ways, Conrad’s novel has had such a far-ranging impact on the perception of the Congo Free State that it can be said to have led to the forgetting of the history.10 The conflation by readers of the novel with reality, and a refusal to attempt to seek out more information on the topic, supports this allegation. Many of the reports of travelers to the region decried abuses by the Belgians, but also were quick to judge the culture and the practices of the Congolese; even Sheppard attempted to convert the individuals he met in the area, and other travelers like Roger Casement, who prepared reports of his travels for British newspapers, disparagingly referred to religious practices as “superstitious” and “ju-ju,” emphasizing those acts that would shock European readers, such as a group laying bloody hands on him in order to protect him from curses.11 Hochschild reveals that the European and American biases of these travelers are almost unavoidable in their accounts; although Sheppard provided vital information about the systematized brutality of Leopold II’s private police force in the area, the Force Publique, as well as rubber quotas that they collected as rubber began to take precedence over the formerly coveted stocks of ivory that dominated trade for decades, he did not, for example, attempt to learn about the history of the people he encountered, or the workings of their culture.12 Consistently, European travelers, plagued by the inherent bias of their civilization’s superiority, simply neglected to discern how the diverse Congolese civilizations functioned, and in doing so, contributed to the forgetting of the history of the area by failing to give it due attention in the first place. Conrad’s relegation of the natives of the area, in particular, to the status of cannibals that may not even have a culture worth discovering, means that his portrayal provides no alternative to the civilization foisted upon the Congolese by Europeans, and thus factors into this active role of forgetting.
The history of the Congo Free State, and, in particular, the institutions of slavery and forced labor inflicted upon the people by the Belgian occupiers, is one that is still being unraveled and fully articulated. Many of the accounts from the time, including Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, provide only a biased and Eurocentric view of the situation within the area, and these inherent biases have meant that readers, for decades, have received only a partial and slanted account of the activities there. In particular, Heart of Darkness makes a variety of assumptions about the necessity of European colonialism, the inevitability of slavery, and the inherent superiority of Western culture that cause readers to consider only the fictionalized excesses of the Europeans, while forgetting about the Congolese that actually suffered through these excesses. In actuality, travelers such as William Sheppard have revealed that the excesses were much more systematized and brutal than Conrad portrayed them, but, as revealed in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, even these accounts suffer from their own issues of bias. However, because these accounts are not, by and large, as widely read as Heart of Darkness, it is Conrad’s book that has had the largest impact on the forgetting of the history of the area, as well as the native cultures whose traditions have been largely extinguished as a result of European intervention. Only through a careful consideration of the biases in Conrad’s, and others’, works can people begin to assemble a more complete and post-colonial knowledge of the Congo Free State.

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