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Joseph Conrad The Heart of Darkness Analysis, Review, Themes and Criticism

Updated on August 23, 2012
The Heart of Darkness
The Heart of Darkness

The Heart of Darkness Analysis

Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness is widely considered as one of the significant works of English literature. Before its 1902 publication, the prose appeared as a three-part series (1899) in Blackwood's Magazine. The story details an incident when Marlow, an Englishman, took a foreign assignment as a ferry-boat captain, employed by a Belgian trading company (Adams, 1991). In The Heart of Darkness a detailed historical account is beautifully wrapped up in convincing story. Critics have attacked this wonderful work of Joseph Conrad from different angles. The book however still lives as the best of the works that deal with the historical period covered in the book.

The story of The heart of Darkness

The Heart of Darknesswas first published in a in a volume with two other stories ‘Youth’ and ‘The End of the Tether’. When the work was first published in 1902 it received applause because of its awesome depiction of the demoralizing effect life that was experienced by the European men in the African wilderness. The celebrated critic of the period, Hugh Clifford opined in the Spectator that even though several other authors have covered the topic of European's fall in a barbaric wildernessof Africa before Conrad, never "has any writer till now succeeded in bringing it all home to sheltered folk as does Mr. Conrad in this wonderful, this magnificent, this terrible study (Bloom, 1992) (Bloom, 1992).” Yet another reviewer, as quoted in Leonard Dean's Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness': Backgrounds and Criticisms, labeled the account as a brilliant coverage though he rated the story as unconvincing.

Edward Gamett about The Heart of Darkness

Edward Gamett in his review published in Academy and Literature in 1902, said about the publishing of Heart of Darkness as "one of the events of the literary year(Bloom, 1992).” Upon reading the serial form of The Heart of Darkness Gamett gave an opinion that the author had "here and there, lost his way (Bloom, 1992).” However he retracted from his opinion once the work was published in the book form. Gamett considered it "to be the high-water mark of the author's talent (Bloom, 1992).” He went on to call this wonderful book as one that "enriches English literature" and a "psychological masterpiece (Adams, 1991) (Bloom, 1992).” Garnett was particularly taken with Conrad's keen observations of the collapse of the white man's morality when he is released from the restraints of European law and order and set down in the heart of Africa, given free reign to trade for profit with the natives (Adams, 1991). Garnett was so excited with the quality of The Heart of Darkness that he dared to compare it with Crime and Punishment, the celebrated 1866 prose by the ever great Russian novelist Dostoyevsky. Garnett further praised the work as a "simply a piece of art, fascinating and remorseless (Bloom, 1992).”

Kingsley Widmer about The Heart of Darkness

According to Kingsley Widmer (which he mentioned in Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography) the literary reputation of Joseph Conrad fell sharply in the mid-1920s, following the publication of the novel Victory. Widmer dared to call the novel a "bad novel (Bloom, 1992).” However Conrad became the favorite of the periods because of few excellent works he produced between 1898 and 1910. The Heart of Darkness was the secret of that revival of interest in the works of Conrad even though, The Secret Agent, and Lord Jim (which were even given the status of modern classics) also contributed to his reputation.

Widmer's criticism of Joseph Conrad

Widmer said that even though "much of Conrad's fiction is patently poor", his sea stories contain a "documentary fascination in their reports of dying nineteenth-century merchant marine sailing experience (Bloom, 1992).” He criticizes Conrad for unpleasant sentimentality, substandard melodrama, and chauvinism. Widmer, however, acknowledged that Conrad's best fiction, among which he counts The Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, The Secret Sharer, and The Secret Agent, which he says may be "Conrad's most powerful novel," achieves a modernism that undercuts those heavy handed Victorian characteristics and provides the basis on which Conrad's reputation justifiably rests (Adams, 1991).

The heart of darkness critical analysis

The Heart of Darkness was later criticized for the blatantly racist attitudes portrayed in it. Certain critics have considered this issue with the matter-of-fact tone in which the author the novel thoughtlessly describes Africans as "savages" and "niggers (Achebe, 1988) (Bloom, 1992).” Conrad also names the life of the Africans as mysterious and inhuman. The famous Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, while giving his opinion about the novel in a Massachusetts Review article, argued that "the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art (Achebe, 1988). My answer is: No, it cannot (Bloom, 1992).” Certain other critics however nullified this argument by saying that Conrad was not trying to dehumanize the African race; he was rather portraying the views and attitudes of his time in an original way (Burden, 1991). Few other critics were of the opinion that the author of The Heart of Darkness was including the racist attitudes for ironically holding the African race for ridicule and criticism (Burden, 1991).

The Heart of Darkness criticisms, but being the best short novels in English language

Even though The Heart of Darkness went through various controversies and fiery criticism, it withstood the test of time and still shines as one of the best works of Joseph Conrad. Conrad took a wonderful approach in presenting the themes of moral ambiguity in this novel. He appears to be totally unbiased and makes the reader to decide the issue for him. This very technique of unbiased coverage, giving the readers to rate the issue was of course a forerunner of modern literary technique (Firchow, 2000). Frederick Karl, in Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives, labels Heart of Darkness as an awesome work in which "the nineteenth century becomes the twentieth (Bloom, 1992).” Other critics have named it as the best short novel in the English language. Albert J. Guerard in his introduction to the novel said that The Heart of Darkness is “among the finest of Conrad's short novels and among the half-dozen greatest short novels in the English language (Bloom, 1992).” The book continues to this day to be taught in high schools, colleges, and universities and to be held up as an example of great literature. Feminists have argued Conrad disenfranchises female readers by presenting the Victorian Patriarchal position regarding women (Adams, 1991). "We must help them stay in that beautiful world of their own (Adams, 1991) (Bloom, 1992).” In doing so, he shows from a man's viewpoint, a balance between power and goodness of the women behind powerful men (Adams, 1991). After The Heart of Darkness was written, the true meaning of darkness in the heart and human depravity was revealed in the horrors twentieth-century despots were willing to use to gain and keep power (Adams, 1991). Conrad's extensive description adds tension and period perspective to the classic internal and external struggles between good and evil (Adams, 1991).

The heart of darkness Review

Heart of Darkness according to me is one of the best historical accounts in the literary world. It is credible, unbiased and original. I have found the work as the best account of the value declination of the Europeans in the land of Africa. I do agree with of the criticisms of the work which say that it was not fair to openly declare the Africans as ‘savages’ or ‘niggers’ even though the author was including the realities. I recommend this book as a reference book for history learners from school level to university levels. The book is not only useful for people in the academic world but also for ordinary people who are interested in world history. I found the book quite interesting and informative. I agree with the critic Gamett to rate Heart of Darkness as a wonderful psychological masterpiece and convincing historical account that enriches the very world of English literature.


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    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 6 years ago from Taos, NM

      I really like this novel also. I think it was a reflection of its time - at least that is how I looked at racial parts of the novel. I think the novel is phenomenal but it is interesting that you give the criticism of the novel, too. Good writing!

    • profile image

      osa agbonlahor 6 years ago

      I didn't care much for the book, but this review prompts me to take another look at it ASAP.

      Job very well done.

    • dhannyya profile image

      dhannyya 6 years ago

      thank you my friends for the above comments

    • profile image

      Shiv S Kumar 6 years ago

      Concise, but in-depth analysis. I liked your article.

    • Jenna Pope profile image

      Jenna Pope 6 years ago from Southern California

      Excellent book review! You made me want to order it online today.

      Voted up.