As enthralling as any adventure story, but what sets this apart is how the morality of things is presented through an unusually grey worldview.
Heart of Darkness’ credentials as a literary classic are undeniably impressive. Frequently hailed as one of the most influential works of the twentieth century and as a pioneer of literary modernism, no one has ever disputed Joseph Conrad’s master craftsmanship. Yet for some indiscernible reason, it’s the kind of text that often causes modern readers to roll their eyes in frustration.
When justifying their ambivalence, said readers will usually cite the novella’s notorious impenetrability, slow pacing and puzzling ambiguity. Whilst their aversion is somewhat understandable, I can’t help but feel that it’s a little unwarranted. So instead of prattling on about the novella’s opaque symbolism or polemic implications, all of which have been quantified by far more intelligent writers than myself, I’m going to try and sell this infamous classic based upon the most populist criteria that I can. Because after all, what good is a classic if you can’t even will yourself to turn the pages?
So the first bone of contention is typically the plot. Told through a framing device, in which Captain Charles Marlow regales his sailors with the tale of his travels down the Congo, the story is concerned with his search for the rouge agent Kurtz, a man with whom he becomes increasingly obsessed. After that, the minutiae of the plot becomes a little fuzzy. The lack of adherence to a traditional cause and effect model of storytelling may frustrate some, but clichéd as it may be, in this case it is most definitely the journey and not the destination which takes centre stage.
Something’s always happening and the narrative is littered with memorable events. Every three or so pages another character is shot, another boat is ambushed, and at one point there’s even a brutal murder over a chicken. And though it may be grossly simplistic to read Kurtz as a villain, he sure is a fascinating antagonist. Add to that a startlingly contemporary critique of slavery, one that cuts to the bone of even the most desensitised reader, and there’s plenty to keep you engaged.
As for the aforementioned ambiguity, it is from this that Heart of Darkness derives its true staying power. Rather than seeing the story as a puzzle to be solved, the reader is encouraged to realize that there are no concrete answers. There are no definitive, black and white certainties. It is through this ethical murkiness that Heart of Darkness is able to really grab a hold of its readers. And whilst none of this is to say that Conrad in any way patented literary ambiguity, there is something distinctively ahead of its time about that.
Heart of Darkness by Jasper Conrad is published by all majore publishing groups under the classic heading.