Heart of Darkness Book Review

Heart of Darkness Book Review

Emily Kim, Staff Writer

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

The famous novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a narration of a journey the author took up the Congo River in the nineteenth century during King Leopold II of Belgium’s horrific rule. It is centered around an introspective British sailor named Marlow, who stands for the spirit of adventure. He takes a job as the captain of a river steamboat with the Company, a Belgian business organized to trade in the Congo, and starts a journey up the Congo River. As the story proceeds, he begins to hear of a man named Kurtz, who is supposedly unrivaled in his ability to obtain ivory from Africa’s interior.


Fascination of Abomination

There’s a reason why we love horror movies and scour creepy articles on the internet. People naturally have an allure to horror, evil, and shame. “‘The fascination of abomination—you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.’” It is an inexplicable, mesmerizing evil people keep trying to understand and explain. 

Since he was a young boy, Marlow has been obsessed with maps. Many regions of the map were already explored, but there was one exotic, black and empty space in the center of Africa that fascinated him. The Congo River, which resembled a snake that had uncoiled itself, was particularly enticing to him. As if it were Marlow’s fate, it provides him with a smooth and tranquil journey only for him to fall into the belly of the beast, or the utter pit of darkness. The snake charms Marlow and gradually deceives him as it waits, ready to strike.

Fascinated by the mystery and hype surrounding his name, Marlow develops an extreme desire to meet Kurtz, a commander of a trading post in the Company. He feels a bond with him in that they aren’t letting images of themselves as “civilized” Europeans influence their actions, so when Marlow finally meets Kurtz and realizes that there is a possibility that he will die from illness, he tries his best to stop that from happening. 



In the Middle Ages, the knights-errant were an order of knights who traveled the world in search of adventure and opportunities to perform virtuous acts of chivalry. Marlow had always heard stories about the knights-errant of the great sea who were so-called “heroes” carrying the torch of civilization to spread good, but this illusion is dispelled once he encounters the deplorable state and evil imperialism in the Outer Station. In reality, the knights-errant of the sea are men who murder and rob all in the name of honor and “‘[go] at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness.’” If those who enter the heart of darkness wear blindfolds and have a myth in their faces that they have good intentions, they will not see the dark truth of their greed or feel guilt from their devilish actions.

Like Marlow, Kurtz hopes to travel to Africa in search of adventure and complete great acts of civilization, but once he tastes the power he could hold in the jungle, he unleashes his darkness and presents himself as a god to the natives at the Inner Station. After all, once you pass the barrier and remove yourself from the eye of civilization, there is no need to be afraid of judgment.

Kurtz is feared for his practice of absolute force and brutality at the Inner Station, but he is only an embodiment of Europe’s entirety and an outward representation of their values, except he doesn’t hide his greed behind a facade of good intentions. In some ways, isn’t Kurtz more acceptable for admitting to his obsession with power? By fearing Kurtz, aren’t the people fearing the darkness within themselves?


The Horror! The Horror!

Kurtz’s final words, “‘The horror! The horror!’” left the literary world with a widespread debate. “It was as though a veil had been rent. [Marlow] saw on that ivory face that expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, or craven terror–of an intense and hopeless despair.” Marlow is fascinated by the horrible look on his face and witnesses him pronouncing a judgment of how he has lived his life. Was he horrified by his own darkness and the corruption of human nature as he had a brief moment of sanity before he died, or did he feel he could have utilized his power so much more?

Marlow is fortunate to return to Europe without being absorbed by the darkness. He is enlightened by his experience in the Congo, realizing that everyone has a dark side to them but some may conceal it to look good in front of the eyes of civilization. He visits Kurtz’s fiancee and decides to lie to her that his last word was her name. Marlow’s character stands for his hatred of lies, but it was probably for the better to keep the darkness he witnessed in Africa to himself and preserve the blindfolds. Since he understands Kurtz, he decides to stay loyal to him and not reveal his insanity to the people who never experienced the darkness.

In all honesty, Heart of Darkness was not the easiest read for me, as there were many layers of themes to uncover throughout the novella. However, it is an excellent and educational read exposing the exploitation the Europeans inflicted on Africans, and it deals with the parallelism between the outer darkness and the darkness within.

And, in conclusion, a fun fact: the film Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, is loosely based upon Conrad’s novel.