heart of darkness

Author: Joseph Conrad (1857 – 1924)
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics (1999 edition)
Bought from: NoQ Store


Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, better known as Joseph Conrad, was born to a Polish family in Ukraine, then part of Tsarist Russia. He became a British citizen in 1886,  Although he only learned English in his twenties, he is remembered today for his English works including Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1900), Nostromo (1904) and The Secret Agent (1907). These books were very different in style from those of late Victorian and Edwardian novelists who were active then, such as Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928) and Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 – 1930). Conrad’s works are considered early examples of modernist literature.

Conrad lived most of his childhood in a family of political exiles. He left Poland in his teen to avoid conscription and made two voyages to the West Indies with the French merchant navy (1875 – 1877). He went to England in 1878 and joined the British Merchant Marine. From 1878 to 1889, Conrad sailed to Australia, Madras, Singapore, the Malay Archipelago, the Indonesian islands, Bangkok, Melbourne and Mauritius. On 10 May 1890, he departed from Bordeaux on the S.S. Ville de Maceio bound for the so-called Congo Free State which was actually a personal fiefdom of King Leopold II of Belgium. He arrived in Boma on 12 June and travelled overland to Kinshasa. From there, he sailed up the Congo River on a steamer on 3 August and arrived at Stanley Falls (present day Kisangani) on 1 September. He returned to Brussels in January 1891. His journey to the Dark Continent exposed Conrad to the brutality of 19th century European colonialism. He witnessed firsthand the horrific exploitation of the people and resources of Congo by Leopold. His experience left a profound effect on him and formed the basis of his novella Heart of Darkness.

What is the story about?

The narrator Marlow was tasked by his employer to retrieve Kurtz from his inland trading post in the Congo.


The novella is a criticism of 19th century European colonialism of Africa. However it has been argued that Conrad opposed colonialism not so much because of the devastating impact on the native Africans but more because of the corrupting effect on the Europeans themselves.

Before he went to Africa, Kurtz was a “great musician” (p 100), could have been a “great leader of an extreme (political) party” (p 100) and a “universal genius”. He arrived in Africa as a “prodigy … an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else” (p 53). The Company had big plans for him and there was talk that he would be “a somebody in the Administration before long” (p 47). But by the time Marlow reached him, “[t]he wilderness … had taken him, loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation” (p 76). He impaled the head of his enemies on stakes (p 85) and led his army of natives to raid nearby tribes for ivory instead of trading for them (p 84)). He was “adored” by the natives (p 84) and (apparently) had a native mistress (p 88 ff). His uncompleted report on “Suppression of Savage Customs”, which was generally benevolent to the natives but in which he scrawled in an unsteady hand at the foot of the last page “Exterminate all the brutes” (p 78), is testament to his insanity. And with his very last breath, he had cried:

The horror! The horror!
(p 97)

How is the book?

This is a complete and unabridged edition from Wordsworth Classics. It comes with an introduction and brief notes written by Gene M. Moore of Universiteit van Amsterdam. Joseph Conrad’s works are in the public domain. But this Wordsworth Classics edition, costing only S$3.60 net during a free-delivery promotion, is attractively priced.

Unfortunately, the publisher did not include any of Conrad’s preface or introduction in this volume. Here is the Author’s Note from the 1917 edition:

The three stories in this volume lay no claim to unity of artistic purpose. The only bond between them is that of the time in which they were written. They belong to the period immediately following the publication of The Nigger of the “Narcissus”, and preceding the first conception of Nostromo, two books which it seems to me, stand apart and by themselves in the body of my work. It is also the period during which I contributed to “Maga”; a period dominated by Lord Jim and associated in my grateful memory with the late Mr William Blackwood’s encouraging and helpful kindness.

“Youth” was not my first contribution to “Maga”. It was the second. But that story marks the first appearance in the world of the man Marlow, with whom my relations have grown very intimate in the course of years. The origins of that gentleman (nobody so far as I know had ever hinted that he was anything but that)—his origins have been the subject of some literary speculation of, I am glad to say, a friendly nature.

One would think that I am the proper person to throw a light on the matter; but in truth I find that it isn’t so easy. It is pleasant to remember that nobody had charged him with fraudulent purposes or looked down on him as a charlatan; but apart from that he was supposed to be all sorts of things: a clever screen, a mere device, “a personator”, a familiar spirit, a whispering “dæmon”. I myself have been suspected of a meditated plan for his capture.

That is not so. I made no plans. The man Marlow and I came together in the casual manner of those health-resort acquaintances which sometimes ripen into friendships. This one has ripened. For all his assertiveness in matters of opinion he is not an intrusive person. He haunts my hours of solitude, when, in silence, we lay our heads together in great comfort and harmony; but as we part at the end of a tale I am never sure that it may not be for the last time. Yet I don’t think that either of us would care much to survive the other. In his case, at any rate, his occupation would be gone and he would suffer from that extinction, because I suspect him of some vanity. I don’t mean vanity in the Solomonian sense. Of all my people he’s the one that has never been a vexation to my spirit. A most discreet, understanding man….

Even before appearing in book-form “Youth” was very well received. It lies on me to confess at last, and this is as good a place for it as another, that I have been all my life—all my two lives—the spoiled adopted child of Great Britain and even of the Empire; for it was Australia that gave me my first command. I break out into this declaration not because of a lurking tendency to megalomania, but, on the contrary, as a man who has no very notable illusions about himself. I follow the instincts of vain-glory and humility natural to all mankind. For it can hardly be denied that it is not their own deserts that men are most proud of, but rather of their prodigious luck, of their marvellous fortune: of that in their lives for which thanks and sacrifices must be offered on the altars of the inscrutable gods.

“Heart of Darkness” also received a certain amount of notice from the first; and of its origins this much may be said: it is well known that curious men go prying into all sorts of places (where they have no business) and come out of them with all kinds of spoil. This story, and one other, not in this volume, are all the spoil I brought out from the centre of Africa, where, really, I had no sort of business. More ambitious in its scope and longer in the telling, “Heart of Darkness” is quite as authentic in fundamentals as “Youth”. It is, obviously, written in another mood. I won’t characterise the mood precisely, but anybody can see that it is anything but the mood of wistful regret, of reminiscent tenderness.

One more remark may be added. “Youth” is a feat of memory. It is a record of experience; but that experience, in its facts, in its inwardness and in its outward colouring, begins and ends in myself. “Heart of Darkness” is experience too; but it is experience pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the case for the perfectly legitimate, I believe, purpose of bringing it home to the minds and bosoms of the readers. There it was no longer a matter of sincere colouring. It was like another art altogether. That sombre theme had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck.

After saying so much there remains the last tale of the book, still untouched. “The End of the Tether” is a story of sea-life in a rather special way; and the most intimate thing I can say of it is this: that having lived that life fully, amongst its men, its thoughts and sensations, I have found it possible, without the slightest misgiving, in all sincerity of heart and peace of conscience, to conceive the existence of Captain Whalley’s personality and to relate the manner of his end. This statement acquires some force from the circumstance that the pages of that story—a fair half of the book—are also the product of experience. That experience belongs (like “Youth”’s) to the time before I ever thought of putting pen to paper. As to its “reality”, that is for the readers to determine. One had to pick up one’s facts here and there. More skill would have made them more real and the whole composition more interesting. But here we are approaching the veiled region of artistic values which it would be improper and indeed dangerous for me to enter. I have looked over the proofs, have corrected a misprint or two, have changed a word or two—and that’s all. It is not very likely that I shall ever read “The End of the Tether” again. No more need be said. It accords best with my feelings to part from Captain Whalley in affectionate silence.

Finally …

This is a short book but by no means easy to read. Worth rereading. The title is a brilliant play on words and capable of multiple meanings.

Et Cetera

Francis Ford Coppola’s movie Apocalypse Now (1979) was loosely based on Heart of Darkness. This novella is timeless.




Author: Wilkie Collins (1824 – 1889)
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics (2008 reissue)
Bought from: NoQ Store


Wilkie Collins was an English author. He was a friend of and collaborated with Charles Dickens.

Collins was a prolific writer but is remembered today for The Woman in White (serialised Nov 1859 – Aug 1860) and The Moonstone (1868). The Woman in White was first published in Dickens’ periodical All The Year Round, right after A Tale of Two Cities.

The Woman in White is noteworthy for several reasons. It is possibly the first and most famous work of the genre known as sensation fiction, in which evil-doings take place under the veneer of Victorian respectability. This genre was popular between 1860 to 1880 but often derided by critics (philosopher Rev H. L. Mansel described it as “preaching to the nerves instead of the judgment” (1863)). The Woman in White is also an early example of detective fiction with the main characters Walter Hartwright and Marian Halcombe taking turns as amateur investigators. Next, the novel may have been the first to use the multiple-narrator device. In Collins’s own words: “The story of the book is told throughout by the characters of the book. They are all placed in current positions along the chain of events; and they all take the chain up in turn, and carry it on to the end” (Preface to the 1860 Edition). Finally, The Woman in White is an example of epistolary fiction in which the story is told by the narrators using letters, journal entries and other documents.

It was voted number 77 in a poll of the top 100 best-loved novels conducted by the BBC’s The Big Read (2003) and picked as number 23 in a list of the 100 greatest novels of all time published by the Observer (2003).

What is the story about?

The story contains all the elements associated with sensation fiction: loveless marriage, romantic triangle, madness, illegitimacy, kidnapping, heroine in peril, drug and poison, disguise, heiress with a substantial inheritance and aristocratic villain.

How is the book?

This is a complete and unabridged edition from Wordsworth Classics. It comes with an introduction and brief notes written by Dr Scott Brewster of University of Central Lancashire. Wilkie Collins’ works are available online for free. But this Wordsworth Classics edition, costing only S$3.85 net bought during a free-delivery promotion, is attractively priced.

Finally …

This is a real page-turner. The central mystery depends on “a discrepancy between the date of the doctor’s certificate and the date of Lady Glyde’s journey to London” (p 350). The story is quaintly set in an age without CCTV in train stations, DNA testing and telecommunication.


Author: Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870)
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics (2007 edition)
Bought from: NoQ Store


Charles John Huffam Dickens is one of England’s most beloved writers. His novels and Christmas–themed novellas were well–received on both sides of the Atlantic during his lifetime and have remained popular to the present day. He helped make the novel the dominant form of English literature during the Victorian Period (1837 – 1901), in place of poetry from the preceding Romantic Period. The literary world celebrated the bicentennial of Dickens’ birth on 7 February 2012.

Dickens’ work is greatly informed by the England he lived in. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Wealth and political power were no longer monopolised by the landed aristocracy. A middle class of merchants, industrialists and professionals was emerging. Young men from humble backgrounds (like Dickens himself) began to have great expectations of escaping their old lives and becoming gentlemen. However, for the majority of the population, ie. the working class, everyday life remained extremely harsh. Many flock to cities like London looking for jobs, leading to overcrowding and pushing down wages. Young children often worked to support their families in horrendous and dangerous places like mines and factories and as chimney sweeps. Many young girls became prostitutes.

Great Expectations was first published as weekly serials in Dicken’s own periodical All The Year Round from December 1860 – August 1861. It was his penultimate complete novel. It was voted number 17 in a poll of the top 100 best-loved novels conducted by the BBC’s Big Read (2003). In an amazing testament to the novel’s timelessness, in July 2013, the American website Entertainment Weekly voted it number 4 in its list of All-time Greatest Books.

What is the story about?

Six-year old orphan Philip Pirrip, called Pip by everyone, appeared destined to life as a blacksmith in the marshes of Kent when he encountered an escaped convict named Abel Magwitch. Shortly after, he was invited by a mysterious and wealthy lady named Miss Havisham to play with her adopted daughter Estella.

When Pip was older, a mysterious benefactor offered him an opportunity to escape his way of life:

… that he [Pip] will come into a handsome property, that he be immediately removed from his sphere of life and from this place, and be brought up as a gentleman – in a word, as a young fellow of great expectations.
(Chapter 18, p 117)

Pip seized the opportunity to join the upper class and left for London, leaving behind his brother in law Joe Gargery and childhood friend Biddy. He became ashamed of his humble beginnings and believed that Miss Havisham was his benefactor and meant for him to marry Estella. His self-delusions came crashing down when he discovered Miss Havisham’s real purpose and the identity of his benefactor.

How is the book?

This is a complete and unabridged edition from Wordsworth Classics. It comes with an introduction and brief notes written by John Bowen, Keele University. It also contains the original ending to the novel which Dickens discarded at the request of a friend.

This volume also includes illustrations by F.W. Pailthorpe from a Robson & Kerslake edition published in London in 1885. A previous edition of this volume may have contained illustrations by Marcus Stone as stated in the back cover (these must be Marcus Stone’s illustrations from a 1862 publication). The original weekly and three-volume publications of 1861 did not contain illustrations.

Dickens’ works are available online for free. But this Wordsworth Classics edition, costing only S$3.32 net bought during a free-delivery promotion, is attractively priced.

Finally …

The melodrama is punctuated with doses of humour. The novel has its share of characters with wonderful Dickensian names, including Abel Magwitch, his nemesis Compeyson, and Pumblechook. Coincidences are employed as plot devices, eg. Estella’s father just happened to be … and the man who jilted Miss Havisham at the altar just happened to be …!

Pip must be one of Dickens’ least likable protagonist. He was blinded by his desire to escape life in the forge. Ashamed of his past and family, he became a willing pawn in Miss Havisham’s machinations. I prefer Dickens’ original ending for Pip.

Et cetera

Great Expectations was adapted as a three-part serial by the BBC in 2011 starring Ray Winstone as Magwitch and Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham. A feature length movie was released in 2012 starring Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch and Helena Bonham-Carter as Miss Havisham.