50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness

Hello again, class.

Heart of Darkness is controversial. It is a novella about Africa, written from the perspective of a European. It’s a story about the “lesser people” of Africa, the “civilized countries” attempting to conquer it, and the darkness men can succumb to in the attempt.

When I read it first, it was hard enough to simply follow the plot because it was so dense. The second time I read it, I felt as though I had conquered it myself—the fact that I could understand it was enough for me, and I dug no deeper into the racism and prejudice that was there. What I did notice, I excused with “it was a different time”, and that’s a sufficient defense for most art.

But I studied the novel a third time to write this post . . . the racism was much clearer than I remembered. Words like “savages” and “rudimentary souls” describe the people of a conquered continent, and scenes depict them worshiping a white man mad with power. Africa is shown as a backwards and evil land that corrupts the noble European cause—in the context of Heart of Darkness, that cause is stealing African ivory to sell back in Europe.

There’s no beating around the bush—racism is rampant throughout Heart of Darkness. My goal with this post is not to point out every racist moment in the story, though that’s a worthwhile cause. I think it’s more important to talk about why this book made the list of 50 Books to Read Before You Die, and whether or not the story’s racism had something to do with it. The reasons behind the story and it’s placement on the list may not be as important as the reasons we still read it today . . . maybe that makes all the difference.


Heart of Darkness opens with Marlow, a man with a story to tell about his time in Africa. He was sent there by a European company to investigate what happened to a man named Kurtz, one of the company officials. Marlow must journey into the heart of Africa in the hopes of finding Kurtz, and the further in he goes, the more “savage” things become.

Apocalypse Now (1979) is a Vietnam war drama adapted directly from Heart of Darkness. While the setting and time period have changed, the original characters and story points remain; Apocalypse Now is one of the most famous and most sincere adaptations of Heart of Darkness.

It’s not an adventure story, with epic battles or a heart-warming quest. It’s a disturbing journey, and we’re meant to hope Marlow turns back before it’s too late—in the same way that it’s too late for Kurtz, corrupted by the darkness of the environment. The longer these men stay in the heart of this dark land, the closer they are to reverting to savage ways—the ways of the African people.

This is the flaw in the story. To believe that civilized people are in danger of becoming savages by being around a continent full of savages, is to simultaneously demean a diverse group of people as uniformly savage (for differences of culture and skin color) and to antagonize that group of people as threats to one’s own standard of civilization. In Heart of Darkness, Africans are seen as slow-minded, low-born, and weak-spirited, and by some twisted logic they happen to have the ability to corrupt civilization elsewhere.


So why read Heart of Darkness? Easy: it’s written beautifully. I haven’t read a lot of Joseph Conrad’s work, but everything I’ve read by him has been just short of magical. It may be dense, but Conrad’s writing is unmatched. Knowing that English is not his first language (it’s his third language) makes it clear that he was a master in his craft. His words deserve to be read, and Heart of Darkness is some of his strongest writing.

Author Joseph Conrad

The problem, of course, is the content. If his other novels are written just as well, and are less problematic, wouldn’t those be better choices for the list? The controversy surrounding the novel (similar to the controversies of Huckleberry Finn) have made Heart of Darkness more famous, so that’s something—as if Heart of Darkness is the “gateway” to Conrad’s other works.

But if we’re to look at Heart of Darkness just as it is—if we focus on the story, rather than how it’s told or what it means—we get a pretty good idea of the evils of colonialism. Instead of reading Heart of Darkness and chalking up the apparent racism as byproducts of a “different time,” we can study the racism of the past—in all the glory of Conrad’s beautiful prose—to understand the racism of the present. The best way to read Heart of Darkness is as a historical artifact—appreciation with a grain of salt—and in that form, it deserves to make the list.


Next up is the final book on the list—Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I didn’t like reading it in high school, but I went in prejudiced against it—it didn’t match the Frankenstein myth of a reanimated corpse-turned-zombie, and it lost all its cool-factor. I hope I read it this time with more open-mindedness. But more on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

“It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror—of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:
‘The horror! The horror!'”

—from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

“[Kurtz] won’t be forgotten. Whatever he was, he was not common. He had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witchdance in his honour; he could also fill the small souls of the pilgrims with bitter misgivings: he had one devoted friend at least, and he had conquered one soul in the world that was neither rudimentary nor tainted with self-seeking. No; I can’t forget him . . . “

—from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

“[Kurtz] presented himself as a voice. Not of course that I did not connect him with some sort of action. Hadn’t I been told in all the tones of jealousy and admiration that he had collected, bartered, swindled, or stolen more ivory than all the other agents together? That was not the point. The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words—the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.”

—from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

” . . . Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.”

—from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Missing From the List: The Secret Agent

Author Joseph Conrad

Hello again class.

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad is something of an espionage thriller—it’s not James Bond, though. It’s more mundane than your average blockbuster hit. On the surface, anyway.

Before I started The Secret Agent, the professor assigning it hooked me by saying that Conrad’s novel predicted acts of terrorism like the 9/11 attack, almost one hundred years beforehand. That’s not exactly true—not in the way I expected. But the way the book follows a terrorist attack out of sequence (the suicide bombing of an observatory, linked to a group of radical anarchists) makes that fictional event thematically linked to the events of 9/11. The novel’s approach to radicalism, government, corruption, and ideology paints the portrait of an act of terrorism in a modern world. That’s a world we’re familiar with now—not only because of 9/11, but because of the normalcy of violence done by terrorists with easy-to-buy weapons and misguided ideologies. Conrad didn’t predict 9/11 itself, but he predicted the world in which it happened.


The Secret Agent takes place in the late 1800’s (right before the era of modernism in literature began to pick up speed). In it, we follow the agent Adolf Verloc, stationed in London on behalf of a foreign government. He owns a pornographic shop and lives with his wife and her family, and on the side he participates in an illegal anarchist group and reports back to his own government on their actions.

Just as we start to understand this setup, the novel jumps forward and backward in time. A set of characters begin solving the mystery behind the bombing at the observatory, marveling at the horror and “beauty” of it each in their own way. Then we go back to solve the mystery ourselves, and the twist is surprising enough for a novel like this, especially of it’s time.


Part of what makes The Secret Agent special is it’s treatment of time. The movement back and forth outside of chronology was not a standard like it is in today’s film and TV—it was an experimental way to tell this story to its greatest benefit, not done for thrills (not only for thrills, at least). The same thing happens when Conrad’s characters focus on the nature of the explosion, and the people who experienced it—the moment it happened must have lasted an eternity, while the eternity of life breezes by in a moment. Conrad’s point seems to be that time isn’t as stable a structure as we like to imagine—time is in flux, and our misguided perceptions of time only widen the discrepancies between perception and reality.

The characters of The Secret Agent are trapped in this revolving plot, fated to the doom of this explosion and its aftermath. There’s a sense that the explosion is relived when we jump back in time, and the memory of it helps us to do that. In that way, it’s related to the 9/11 attacks. While those directly affected by it suffered so much more, we all deal with a kind of global trauma from that day. Through our memories of the event we relive the experience, and those moments get played out again as if for an eternity. One second is not equal to another—the handful of seconds on that day, when billions of lives changed, had more of a cost than most of the insignificant seconds that make up the day-to-day.


What really makes the novel work is Conrad’s writing, which is difficult and beautiful. His total understanding of his characters and the political action they take are matched by his style. That style may not be for everyone, but for those willing to put in the time and effort, it’s incredibly rewarding. That same style earned Conrad plenty of acclaim with his novel Heart of Darkness, and we’ll go into more detail when that blog post comes along.

As for The Secret Agent . . . while it sounds like it’s inclined to glorify terrorism, I can assure you it doesn’t. The Secret Agent has lasted so long because it shows terrorism for what it is: misguided violence with unbelievable consequences, even beyond the lives lost. Conrad uses ideas like this to criticize radical thinking as well as government inefficiency, both of which our world still suffers from as much as acts of terrorism. It’s worth reading because of its continued relevancy, and that’s why it should have made the list.


I’m still working through Gulliver’s Travels again, and it’s special in its own way. If I had to choose, something like The Secret Agent would be on the list instead of Gulliver’s Travels, but I know which one has affected the world of literature more. The Secret Agent has had little impact beyond it’s own area of literature, but Gulliver’s Travels has a uniqueness that has affected everything after it. More on that next time.

Prof. Jeffrey