Saturday, February 22, 2014

Book Review: Heart of Darkness

After reading Ann Patchett's State of Wonder and noticing so many other reviewers referencing the similarities to Joseph Conrad's classic, Heart of Darkness, then learning that my son was reading Conrad's book for his AP English class, I decided to give the classic a try. Oh my! I was a high school English teacher, yet I had never read this book before. If I ever find myself in a teaching position again, I can guarantee I will never willingly teach this book to high school students.

I know the book receives countless glowing endorsements. I stumbled upon a fair share of them on the Internet, swooning about Conrad's masterful technique of the story within a story, his grasp on the terror of British imperialism and the rape of Africa's ivory, his effective example of how one person can dramatically change another person. One reviewer said the book brought her to tears. Seriously?

All I can share is my opinion. I found the book tedious and long-winded. The whole of the story is that a man gets a job aboard a steamer bound for Africa, where he meets and attempts to save the remarkable Mr. Kurtz, a man with an astounding reputation for gleaning the most ivory and securing the support of the natives. Plot? Hardly any. Interesting characters? None. Fine writing? Only if you consider it to be noble to tell a limited story with as many words as possible.

The writing was so dense it was hard to make sense of what was trying to be conveyed. My son admitted to really struggling with the reading assignment and I can imagine there are many other high school students struggling under this burden as well. To what end? So they can say they read a fine little classic about a sailor who travels into the heart of darkness and reveals the darkness within all mankind, the greed for more spoils.

I'm sure there are good things which could be said about the novel. I am amazed to consider that the author wrote the novel in English, when it was not his native tongue. He uses far more English words than I have command of in my vocabulary. There are deep truths beneath the story, no doubt. I merely felt the writing got in the way of getting to the heart of the story, let alone the heart of darkness (a phrase repeated numerous times in the telling of the story). By comparison, Patchett's novel was more accessible and interesting.

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