"Like a running blaze in the plain, like a flash of lightening in the clouds. We live in the flicker.” Joseph Conrad

Uncomfortable Reading to Explore Your Own Heart of Darkness

This summer, two of my sons spent the better part of a long weekend at my house working on their trucks. One came equipped with tools, the other with his wife and two delightful children. In telling the story of those three days, my grandchildren would report on story time, art projects, and the mingling of chocolate and marshmallow between two graham crackers. I would point to a roasting pan full of macaroni and cheese, another full of lemon ginger chicken, five homemade pizzas, and a rather large batch of waffles. In their accounts, my two sons would mention a CV boot, a new muffler, front shocks, and the relative merits of the new wooden bed they constructed for a fairly old truck.

In order to get the full story about any event, we must rely on a multiplicity of perspectives. A careful listener will pay attention to the narrator and ask questions about whose story it is to tell and how much of the truth the narrator has been able to see. This is a helpful approach to keep in mind when reading Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

Set in the Congo in the late 1800’s, the story unfolds on the deck of an anchored yacht as Marlowe, the story’s named narrator, entertains his audience with his adventures and the dark tale of his encounter with the mysterious explorer named Kurtz. Marlowe seems to spin his tale as much for his own ears and for his own sorting process as for his listeners. In his quest for truth and understanding along the way, he keeps tripping over his inability to distinguish between darkness and light or to settle on what he actually knows to be true.

I was introduced to Heart of Darkness as a college freshman, and in spite of dear Dr. Kaye’s inspiring lectures, I found it to be complicated and dark. Fortunately, this time around I was reading from the edition that included Karen Swallow Prior’s Guide to Reading and Reflecting. (Part of a series published by B&H) Her introductory insights steal none of the narrative’s surprises but provide help with problems of interpretation and clear up some of the story’s (and in this case the story teller’s) ambiguities.

What Makes a Great Book?

Heart of Darkness is an uncomfortable read, but an important one. I found myself reading with hope that in a generation or two, our present day obtuseness around race will jolt future readers as some of Marlowe’s narrative startled me.

Too, Conrad wrote in an era when travel delays were measured not in hours but in days or even weeks. This handling of time and “action” makes for a challenging read for this present era in which a three hour layover in Baltimore requires a carry on bag weighted down with books and a well-stocked Kindle (just in case). Even with a length more akin to a novella than a novel, the story’s pacing and pausing left plenty of time for Marlow’s ponderings on life’s mysteries and the fleeting nature of time:

Like a running blaze in the plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker.”

Living “in the flicker” as we do, can we justify devoting our precious reading time to books with ugly words and blatant prejudice? Reading Heart of Darkness with eyes informed by anti-racist sensibilities, the characters’ blatant imperialism and racism seem alarming and repugnant. Literature of the 19th century was characterized by colonialism cloaked in Christianity, and the best argument for reading Heart of Darkness in the 21st century is that it holds a mirror up to some of our own ignorance, our embrace of error, and our cultural blind spots, both within the church and in society at large.

My recommendation to readers is to make of this reading project a “Heart of Darkness sandwich,” beginning with Karen Swallow Prior’s introductory notes, reading the book itself, and then returning to Prior’s commentary, which will be even more helpful and enlightening the second time around. While it is hardly ever pleasant to be reminded of the dark side of history and humanity’s propensity for turning good things (exploration and progress) into sadness (exploitation and materialism), in our reading of older classic works, we receive the gift of perspective and the push toward reading at a slower pace that may help us to explore our own heart of darkness.

Many thanks to B&H Publishing for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees. If you should decide to purchase Heart of Darknesssimply click on the title, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Subscribe to Living Our Days to get regular content delivered to your inbox. Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

Newsletter Sign Up

In my July newsletter, I’ve offered a free resource to readers and writers: How to Write Helpful and Engaging Book Reviews. If you haven’t signed up to receive regular encouragement in your email inbox, it’s not too late to sign up and get the free PDF. You can either hop on the handy (and only slightly annoying) pop up form here on the blog–or simply click here.

If you know someone who would appreciate encouragement in writing their book reviews, please share subscription details with them!

Photo by Faisal Waheed on Unsplash

39 thoughts on “Uncomfortable Reading to Explore Your Own Heart of Darkness”

  1. It is interesting to read 19th and even 20th century literature solely from the perspective of reflecting on how culture and tradition colour our views and close our minds.It has to be a warning, especially in this age when discussion is being shut down by rhetoric, to keep challenging and expanding our vision. Thank you for your review…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As always you provide an excellent review of a book that is difficult, but more understandable thanks to you. I have not read the book and may not get into it this summer, but if I do, this review will be invaluable.

    So great for you to have the time with sons and grands! We have not been so fortunate so savor each moment (I know you do.)💕

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I was just thinking earlier this morning about different perspectives family members have about events. There is a seventeen-year-difference between me (the oldest of six) and my youngest sibling. With various ages, family situations, and personalities, it’s enlightening to hear family memories from other points of view.

    I may have read this, or part of it, in college, too. I don’t remember anything about it if I did, except that sense of darkness. I’d love to read Karen’s notes on this or any book. I enjoyed so much her thoughts in Booked (I have On Reading Well on my shelf to read, too).

    Someone one said that a classic is a book that hasn’t finished saying what it has to say. I love to read classics for that reason. They still speak to me, even though circumstances and perspectives have changed.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I like your perspective of reading older books to help us in better understanding our current world. It sounds like this book has an advantage with the introductory notes to help the reader.

    I’m glad you had some quality time with family.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Perspectives of each individual on the same events fascinate me, you captured them beautifully. Lovely to read about your delightful time with your family Michele.

    I came across the Heart of Darkness in my uni days, we had it as a core read for English Literature. I was in my thirties & found it very dark indeed but also could see the juxtaposition of the opposing forces of light & dark within the pages.
    An interesting review! 😀
    Bless you,


  6. I think I need to give this book a look. I feel like I have read it but a part of me isn’t sure. I guess that happens when you read as much as we do. Ever happen to you?


  7. Great review! I have been curious about this book since I read Karen Swallow Prior’s edition of Sense and Sensibility in this same series and really enjoyed her insights and commentary. I recently read A Grief Observed… also a difficult but amazing read. I will link it if interested!


  8. ********************************************************
    Thank you for sharing at #OverTheMoon. Pinned and shared. Have a lovely week. I hope to see you at next week’s party too! Please stay safe and healthy. Come party with us at Over The Moon! Catapult your content Over The Moon! @marilyn_lesniak @EclecticRedBarn


  9. I remember disliking Heart of Darkness when I was younger. So I reread it again a few years back, and still didn’t like it. ha. But reading it with Karen Swallow Prior’s guide might have made me think differently about it. It does help to get others’ perspectives as we read.


  10. For some reason even easy reading is hard for me right now. It should be a good time to enjoy books, but I can’t seen to focus long enough. Hopefully soon, I do love to read. I am easing back into it by reading in a floating chair in the lake next to our cabin. I have to read print books, but that’s okay. I have quite a few regional books about off grid living and strong women role models to enjoy as I float in the cool water. I do write book reviews once a month because I participate in an online book review club. That keeps me going. – Margy


    1. I do hope you can get back to reading soon, Margy. At least, I’m grateful for your eyes here in my little writing space. Easing back into it in a floating chair sounds just about perfect! Your online book review club sounds like a great motivator!


  11. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book. I haven’t heard of it.

    How terrific it is to see you at ‘My Corner of the World’ this week!! Thanks for linking up with us.


  12. You are so right about perspective, Michele – and I love how you drew on the example of your sons’ visit. I have not read Heart of Darkness yet. It does sound like a challenging read, but sometimes the things we need most to read are the most challenging. I was interested by your take on it. Thank you for sharing and for being a part of the Hearth and Soul Link Party community!


  13. I read this book a long time ago so maybe it’s time to read again with the current mindset and with your other reading recommendations. Thanks for linking up with #globalblogging


  14. I read this at school and didn’t enjoy it at all, mainly because I was 15 and had to read it for GCSE and it was read from that point of view. I probably need to go read it again!

    #pocolo from last week. Sorry for late catch up comments

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.