This was required reading during my college days. It was made into a movie that won multiple accolades. It is a story that reads like a diary and feels like a morality play. It transcends the time (late 19th century) and place (the Congo), yet is as relevant to the reader of today as it was when it was first released…a full decade before World War I.
Since there have been so many editions and I no longer have the college text, I chose the version which is referred to as the Norton Critical Edition (Dover Publications, released July 1990). As one review commented, though this functions as a timeless story, it can be best appreciated for its unique historic perspective if you are aware of that time period. The Congo was then a British colony. The end of the 19th century was also the end of man’s collective innocence. After that time the inventions of the telephone and moving pictures brought reality crashing to our doorstep. Society could no longer wax poetic about the poor, uneducated natives who would surely benefit from the direction of civilized man.
It’s just this exploration of what a civilized man really is that sits at the pivot point of this startling story. Marlow, as everyman, is compelled to seek out Kurtz by a promise he makes to the man’s wife. She’s worried about him, he hasn’t written in a long time, and the last time he did, the words were difficult to believe. The journey Marlow makes is the reader’s journey, both the physical one into the unknown jungle and the mental/emotional one which stretches our ideas about ourselves and the rest of society.
If there are any drawbacks to this novel, they are in the way Conrad put language on the page. He succeeds in showing us the barriers that are inherent in the way we communicate with each other as much as he slows down the actual reading as the reader (most likely) struggles to interpret the dialects and idioms. The payoff is the ending. Here is the classic finale which brings the reader so much satisfaction that the words (“The horror”) continue to resonate long after the book itself is put away.