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Heart of Darkness

Term Definition
Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness is a novella by Polish-British novelist Joseph Conrad, about a voyage up the Congo River into the Congo Free State, in the heart of Africa, by the story's narrator Marlow.

Background of Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness was written in 1899 by Anglo-Polish writer Joseph Conrad. The story is told by narrator Marlow as he and his friends embark on a voyage up the Congo River. Set in the time after imperial commands sliced up African and distributed it amongst themselves, these various European powers were clamoring for the continent’s ivory and found no qualms with seizing and brutalizing the native people in order to do so.

Conrad drew comparisons between Africa and London as places of darkness by telling the story while Marlow sits aboard a boat anchored in London, providing the frame for Marlow’s obsession with Kurtz, the ivory trader. Marlow describes his passage down the coast of Africa and his shock at the devastation he witnesses. Namely, he is horrified by the treatment of the African people by European occupiers, and his distaste for these atrocities is reflected continuously throughout the story. 

Common theme - Evil

The novella implies that there is little difference between those who are considered civilized and those who are so-called savages. In addition, it eloquently challenges both racism and imperialism. Conrad’s displeasure with both of these injustices stem from his experiences in Africa while captaining a steamboat down the Congo. After witnessing the corruption and cruelty of European powers there, he grew a great disdain for Imperialism.

Conrad also saturates the book with messages about the absurdity of evil (through allusions). It continually explores the dangers of ambiguity, hypocrisy, and moral confusion and often finds characters having to choose between the lesser of two different evils. For example, Marlow must choose a side; with the rebellious and malevolent Kurtz or with the hateful, hypocritical bureaucracy? He often presents scenes that are simply ridiculous; laborers blast away chunks of land for no reason, a man attempts to carry water in a bucket with holes in the bottom, etc. In this strange, imperialistic world, nothing seems to make sense.

Historical context of Heart of Darkness

When it was originally published, Heart of Darkness was printed in Blackwood’s Magazine as a three part serial story. Now printed and distributed as a novella, the book has been translated and published into many different languages around the world. In 1998, Heart of Darkness ranked sixty seventh in Modern Library’s list of the best one hundred novels in English of the twentieth century. 

The book was inspired by Conrad’s time spent in Africa. At the age of 31 in 1890, Conrad was appointed to serve as the captain of a steamer on the Congo by a Belgian trading company. Born in Poland before moving to England, he became a sailor at an early age in hopes of such an opportunity. When the captain of the ship fell ill, Conrad became commander of the vessel and steered the ship to its destination safely. The character of Charles Marlow is based on Joseph Conrad himself. 

As previously stated, this was a rough and dangerous time in history. European powers were straining to maintain control over their African colonies and riots were becoming all too common. Heart of Darkness implies that this chaos and turmoil is the direct result of imperialism and oppression. Without checks and balances, things can get out of hand, as demonstrated in the story. Humans having power over other humans in both corrupting and, in itself, corrupt. 

Related reading: Read more about military intervention in northern Africa during World War II.

Like the vast majority of his works, Heart of Darkness provides the reader with a bridge between the principles of modernism and traditional Victorian values. They all feature a hero who is constantly under attack by the evils at hand. Also like most of Conrad’s works, the role of women is reduced to being symbols of domesticity, though their presence is always minimal and slightly irrelevant.

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Synonyms: heart-of-darkness

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