Heart of Darkness (1899)

Scan 4‘Exterminate all the brutes” – Kurtz.

Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘Heart of Darkness’, written in 1899, is perhaps most well-known for having inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film adaptation ‘Apocalypse Now’. If you’ve seen the movie, which I’m sure you have, then you already know the basic premise of ‘Heart of Darkness’ – a man’s journey upriver to find the elusive ‘Kurtz’, who has gone insane. The journey is both physical and metaphorical, in the sense that the closer the protagonist gets to Kurtz, the closer he gets to confronting his own demons. While the novella tackles the -ism themes of imperalism, racism, and barbarism, its main target is the inherent darkness dwelling in every human heart and how easily a well-adjusted and conditioned member of society can fall prey to its influence. This is a theme that was further fleshed out by William Golding in his groundbreaking ‘Lord of the Flies’, written 55 years after Heart of Darkness.

I first read Heart of Darkness in high school, many years ago, for my literature class. I had the choice to either write my final essay on it or ‘Passage to India’, and I chose the latter. The main reason was I found it difficult to really get into Heart of Darkness due to its stream of consciousness approach – the entire book is a monologue from Marlow, the protagonist, retelling his story of meeting Kurtz to his fellow crew in England.

It’s impossible for me to review Conrad’s masterpiece without comparing it to Francis Ford Coppola’s (arguably greater) masterpiece, Apocalypse Now. They’re both essentially the same, except the movie changed the setting from the Congo River in 1890 to the Mekong Delta in 1968, during the Vietnam War. In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz is an educated Englishman and ivory trader, and Marlow is sent to check up on him and his operation. In ‘Apocalypse Now’, Kurtz is a highly decorated American colonel who fled to Cambodia to lead a small army of natives outside of the US militaries jurisdiction, and Willard, the protagonist in the film, is sent on a top-secret mission to assassinate him. In both texts Kurtz has suffered from ‘jungle fever’ and has a large group of followers who look up to him as a sort of God-like figure. Both texts also share the allegorical journey to the ‘heart of darkness’, where everything that appears externally actually serves to represent the inner battle that they are constantly fighting; the battle for their soul.

“There’s a conflict in every human heart, between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes, the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Every man has got a breaking point. You and I have one. Walter Kurtz has reached his. And very obviously, he has gone insane.” – Apocalypse Now

“Everything belonged to him—but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own.” – Heart of Darkness

I have to say I prefer the film adaptation to the book, and that’s because it’s paced a lot better (Heart of Darkness doesn’t really pick up, or make much sense, until halfway through), and does a better job of capturing the dark tone that is paramount to the theme of the novella. The film’s combination of an excellent script, eery synth music, and the unflinching violence juxtaposing the beautiful jungle scenery, makes for a better synthesis of the book’s themes. I also found the PTSD suffering Willard to be a better suited character to be drawn to Kurtz’s descending madness, as he shares Kurtz’s resentment of the military institution and has the same seed planted in his mind that lead to Kurtz’s own disintegration. With Heart of Darkness, Marlow’s fascination with Kurtz never felt justified as there was no real similarities between the characters. Marlow felt more like a spectator to Kurtz, while Willard was in many ways linked to him.

That said, Heart of Darkness is still a fantastic book, and contains some beautifully poetic prose, especially in its descriptions of the Congo river and its surrounding jungle; the jungle in Heart of Darkness is very much alive, and its presence is so dominant that it is almost fair to say that it, and not Marlow, is the protagonist of the story. Without Heart of Darkness there never would’ve been an Apocalypse Now, and for that reason alone I have a deep respect for Conrad’s book.

* * * 3 stars 

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