Book Review: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad


One of the so-called greats of the western canon and one of the Modern Library’s Top 100, The Heart of Darkness, for whatever its merits, was such a slog for me. Its 96 pages might as well have been 996. This is the kind of book that sours students on literature for a lifetime. I can’t exactly put my finger on the reason why I found this book so difficult to get through. Whether it was sentence structure, or word choice, or transitions from scene to scene, I often found myself confused and needing to re-read whole paragraphs.  It was as if Conrad wanted to convey the disorientation one feels in the heat of the jungle. If that was his intent, then well done.

There were moments when I was actually engaged in the story but they were brief moments. I worry that my aversion to this book is an indication of what I might feel when I attempt Lord Jim, Nostromo, or The Secret Agent. All of these are on the Modern Library Top 100 list, and I am attempting to read that whole list. I have made pretty good headway, I am at 62 at this point, but I have already decided I am not reading the multiple Joyce and Faulkner titles on the list. Am I going to have to add Conrad to that “no chance in hell am I going to read them again” file? (Not to mention that Philip Roth might not be too far behind in joining that company.)  I get it, they are all authors with important things to say and they do so in brilliant ways, but I guess my mind isn’t up to the task. The good news is I am not going to lose sleep over my inability to understand these important authors.
I have Chinua Achebe’s An Image of Africa (from the beautiful Penguin Great Ideas series) which is a critique of Heart of Darkness. While I think Conrad successfully challenged the imperial orthodoxy of his day, I am interested to see what an African thinks of the book.

17 thoughts on “Book Review: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

  1. rhapsodyinbooks June 10, 2011 / 9:22 am

    I have found that novels I appreciated in college leave me cold now that I am way past that age. I can only think that these novels presented a bunch of ideas and philosophies that were new to me then and so the books seemed worthwhile, but that are “old hat” to me now.


  2. Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) June 10, 2011 / 9:23 am

    I read this book in high school in an AP Lit class, and at first I felt the same way. I HATED it so, so much. But this book is also the book that made me actually understand symbolism and the power of literature, and I actually started to like it. I'm not sure if it's a book I'd call a favorite, but it's one that made a huge impact on me as a reader.


  3. Amy June 10, 2011 / 9:37 am

    I haven't read this yet but have heard many bad things about it. I have read some of Achebe's critiques of it and they are fantastic. Of course, I think everything and anything by Achebe is fantastic!!


  4. Susan in TX June 10, 2011 / 2:28 pm

    I read this one last year, and I have yet to consider seeking out another Conrad book. When I, like you, have piles of good stuff just waiting to be picked up and read, I figure why bother?


  5. Jessica June 10, 2011 / 3:22 pm

    Perhaps it was because Conrad wasn't writing in his original lanuage? Ah well we all have authors like that, Thomas Pynchon is my number one on my list.


  6. StuckInABook June 10, 2011 / 4:06 pm

    I had exactly the same reaction to Heart of Darkness. So short, but felt so very, very long. I did like the last two pages. Perhaps because they were the last two…


  7. Ruthiella June 10, 2011 / 5:54 pm

    I also read this in order to complete the Modern Library 20th century 100 best list (55 so far!). I liked it as I recall, but I read “Lord Jim” and “The Secret Stranger” in high school and really liked them, so maybe I have a soft spot for Conrad?


  8. reviewsbylola June 10, 2011 / 7:09 pm

    I read Heart of Darkness for the first time as a freshman in college and I HATED it. It is actually the only part of that class I even remember. I then had to read it again a few years later for a different college class. For some reason, it wasn't as repellent the second time around, but I will never count it among my favorites.


  9. Tom June 11, 2011 / 11:16 am

    Glad to read your comments as I thought it was just me. I have tried to read this book several times and always put it down and don't come back to it. I also tried it as a audio book which as even worse as I lost rack of the plot so many times.


  10. Thomas at My Porch June 11, 2011 / 1:57 pm

    Rhapsody: I have also run into that. In college I loved Atwood's first novel, The Edible Woman. I re-read it a few years ago and I didn't like it as much.

    Kim: If I were in a class where we dissected this book I think I would like it better.

    Amy: I haven't read anything by Acehbe, so I am looking forward to that.

    Susan: Exactly. The life is too short syndrome.

    Jessica: Pynchon is on my list too, and I haven't even tried to read him.

    Simon: Funny thing is, my edition had so much back matter (notes, glossery, etc.) that I didn't know I was on the last two pages until the last two paragraphs.

    Ruthiella: You may have a soft spot for Conrad. Do you have your list of 55 somewhere on your blog? I would love to see where we overlap.

    Lola: Is a book successful if you hate it yet it is the only one you remember? Kind of funny when you think about it.

    Tom: Reading the wikipedia page for the book was more enlightening than the book itself.


  11. music-books-steve June 11, 2011 / 9:34 pm

    I have not read H of D, but Nostromo was a shatteringly intense experience for me. So please don't give up on Conrad.


  12. Mystica June 11, 2011 / 11:43 pm

    I read this book for first year English Literature in university and hated it!


  13. Ti June 12, 2011 / 9:48 pm

    I'm working my way through the Modern 100 list too.

    I have Heart of Darkness waiting for me on audio. I recently ditched The Moviegoer, which is also on the list. I couldn't get through the abundant details of what amts to basically nothing.


  14. Teresa June 13, 2011 / 2:11 pm

    This is one of the few books I was assigned in high school that I did not like. At all. But, like Lola, I liked it more when I read it in college. It's not a favorite, but it's *interesting.* I liked the Secret Agent more, however.

    And if you read Achebe's critique (which I haven't read), you might want to check out Nicole's posts a Bibliographing responding to his critiques.


  15. Thomas at My Porch June 14, 2011 / 9:31 am

    Steve: Good to know about Nostromo. It encourages me to keep trying with Conrad.

    Mystica: The assigned book can be such a curse.

    Ti: I enjoyed The Moviegoer, but I think I got half way through and started to lose interest. I did finish it, but don't remember anything about it.

    Teresa: I can't imagine how painful the book must have been in high school.


  16. nishitak July 7, 2011 / 10:59 am

    I never knew Achebe had written a critique of this book. I read this book, but didn't really have any strong reactions to it. Somehow, very short novels make me feel that way. By the time, I start getting engrossed in the story, it's all over for me.


  17. Thomas at My Porch July 7, 2011 / 1:54 pm

    Nishita: The odd thing about this short book is that I got engrossed more than once but then Conrad's language would start to make me glaze over.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.