Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness was a work far ahead of its time, in many ways the first truly twentieth-century novel. Though rooted in the realistic style of the late nineteenth century, it addressed numerous themes that would typify the modernist era that followed. It is also notable as one of the first literary works to look critically at the rampant abuses that European imperialism had wreaked in Africa and Asia during the 1800s.

Heart of Darkness is concise, only about eighty pages long. It is told in flashback by a man named Marlow, who has taken a job with a Belgian colonial trading business called only “the Company.” He is sent to the Belgian Congo to captain a steamboat up the Congo River to the Company’s remote Inner Station, which is run by an ivory trader named Kurtz. Upon arriving in Africa, Marlow is struck by the decaying Company facilities and the racist Europeans’ unabashed exploitation of native Africans.

Conrad’s Congo is a shadowy, intensely atmospheric world in which virtually every character remains ominously nameless—the Manager, the Accountant, and so on—and the jungle looms massive and impenetrable just beyond the edge of each isolated Belgian settlement. As Marlow makes his way up the river into increasingly remote territory, his journey becomes as much psychological as physical. The trappings of civilization fall further away at each outpost, and he begins to see himself as traveling into the primal, unknown reaches of the human mind itself. Meanwhile, as Marlow
learns more about the enigmatic Kurtz, it becomes evident that Kurtz’s intent to civilize the African natives has gone awry. He has succumbed to his own fascination with the darkness and savagery of Africa.

Heart of Darkness is particularly familiar today because of its unorthodox but spectacular film adaptation, Apocalypse Now (1979). The film resets the novel in 1970s Vietnam, with Marlon Brando in the Kurtz role as a US Army colonel gone dangerously insane in a remote part of Cambodia. The screenplay preserves many elements of Conrad’s story while updating it with hallucinatory music and visuals influenced by the 1960s counterculture.

ADDITIONAL FACTS

  1. All of Conrad’s major works are in English, despite the fact that he was of Polish descent (his birth name was Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski); after Polish and French, English was his third language.
  2. Conrad’s exploration of the human unconscious in Heart of Darkness mirrors some of the ideas set forth by his contemporary, Sigmund Freud. To this day, critics often analyze the novel from a Freudian viewpoint.
  3. T. S. Eliot reused one of the book’s famous lines, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead,” as the epigraph to his poem “The Hollow Men” (1925).
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