It’s a literary classic this week in the form of the legendary, enigmatic Heart of Darkness. The Polish-British writer Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) penned this for release in 1899 – he was part of the early modernism movement, a progressive shift that embraced societal change following the Industrial Revolution.
“Make it new” as Ezra Pound went on to state in 1934 – Conrad was way ahead of the game with his eerie classic, which challenged racism, imperialism, and introduced the world to the notorious Mr. Kurtz.
This is a novella, we should make clear. At just over a slight 100 pages, this is a classic from the literary canon you can tick off your list rapidly if you’re looking for something important to read.
Heart of Darkness
It’s a brooding, mysterious work about the narrator Marlow, who has recently travelled up the Congo River to the heart of Africa where he became obsessed with ivory trader Mr. Kurtz. With a surname like that, you know there will be drama.
"This is a journey into the heart of Mr. Kurtz - so sensitive, so civilised - who, at the savage centre of the jungle, sees into the darkness of himself."
That’s the synopsis on the 1977 Penguin Modern Classics edition we have. The novel is a bit battered and has a front cover called the Steamer Stanley by F. Hens. This is why it’s not in keeping with more abstract front covers we see today. The copy is 40 years old!
Heart of Darkness is a rather dark allegorical work – as Marlow heads up the Congo River, he sees horrendous slavery and abuse in the name of imperialism.
At the head of it all, he comes across the enigmatic Mr. Kurtz who is ruling local inhabitants with impunity despite his brutal actions, which is a literary condemnation of the nature of imperialism in Conrad’s era.
Marlow becomes quite infatuated with Mr. Kurtz due to his darkly engaging personality, with the novella offering a detailed psychological study of the man, myth, and legend.
It makes for unsettling reading to this day and is a masterful work – eerie, creepy, and something of a historical record of a bygone era.
Some of you will be aware Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now is based on Heart of Darkness.
It’s famous for its disastrous production, which included the difficulties created on-set by its leading stars (half of whom seemed to be losing their minds, not least in the form of an ungainly Marlon Brando).
Despite these problems, as with other production troubled ’70s smash hit Jaws, it’s ultimately gone on to be a cinema classic.
Elsewhere, its adaptations have been wide and varied. Orson Welles adapted the book into a radio play in 1938 (this was re-adapted by the BBC in 2015 for a production with James McAvoy).
There were also unofficial sequels written by different writers. T.S. Eliot’s poem the Hollow Men is inspired by the novel. And the video game Far Cry 2 (2008) is adapted from it the novella well.