'Heart of Darkness,' now More Readable

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a pain in the ass to read — not because of thematic depth or dense, erudite prose — but because of the formatting. You know what I’m talking about. When you and I first read it in high school, we both suffered from the same confusion and thought: Who the hell is speaking? Marlow? The narrator? Some other guy? 


During that first read, I wished someone would produce an edition formatted like a regular novel, where a new paragraph begins when a new person starts speaking.

Conrad uses a framed narrative with an unnamed narrator retelling Marlow’s tale, which Marlow told to him on the deck of the cruising yawl Nellie. In the original text, Marlow’s words, which make up the bulk of the story, are placed in regular, double quotation marks. Dialog from other characters reported by Marlow is in single quotation marks, which look like apostrophes. Most frustratingly, new speakers are not indicated by the start of a new para­graph, which is the convention today. For many readers, these non-standard formatting choices make it difficult to keep track of who is speaking.


I realized I could solve this problem since Heart of Darkness  is in the public domain and the full text is available at Project Gutenberg. I took the Project Gutenberg text and made the following changes, which produce a much more pleasurable reading experience.:

  • words of the unnamed narrator have been placed in italics
  • words spoken by Marlow (to the narrator) are neither in italics, nor placed inside quotation marks
  • a new paragraph begins when a new character speaks

In order to share this work with the world, I created a PDF of the novel. The layout is that of a professionally produced 8.5” by 5” paperback book and if you print the PDF with two pages to a sheet, it feels like reading a novel you bought at Barnes and Noble.

Heart of Darkness - reformatted.pdf
Adobe Acrobat Document 531.7 KB

I know some people will be offended by what I’ve done. I made no other changes to the text but nevertheless I’ve done enough to infuriate purists. They’ll say I desecrated the novel, disrespected Conrad’s vision, have no respect for art, et cetera.


I could argue that I am disrespecting the original publisher, William Blackwood, not Conrad. After all, Heart of Darkness was first published in 1899 as a three-part serial in the February, March, and April issues of Blackwood’s Magazine. Three years later in 1902, Blackwood republished the novel in Youth: a Nar­rative, and Two Other Stories, an anthology of three short novels by Conrad. As editor and publisher, the formatting decisions were Blackwood’s, not Conrad’s.


I could also argue that Kindles let readers reformat texts, and so society has already accepted that formatting is no longer married to the novel as part of its ascetic identity.


But I won’t make these arguments. Instead, here is my actual rebuttal to the purists: I don’t care. Read my edition for yourself, and I think you'll like it.

4 May 2013