Joseph Conrad: “Heart of Darkness”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

Joseph Conrad’s classic 1899/1902 novella, Heart of Darkness, is both a critic of its times – and a product of its times. Intended by Conrad as a critique of European colonialism, the novella turns back in on itself and upholds the colonial system, at least according to some African writers, Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe foremost among them.

When narrator Marlow travels up the Congo River into the “heart of darkness,” the reader goes along for what seems like a bonafide African adventure. Marlow describes all the sights, sounds, and smells as his boat makes its way further into the African continent. And when Marlow meets Kurtz, the colonialist gone bad, our spines tingle and we get all goose-bumpy. Kurtz is creepy indeed, and we see what the heart of Africa can do to a white man. As one critic says, “[W]hat Marlow encounters, a thousand miles up the great river, is the embodiment of savagery, corruption and exploitation.” Through his depiction of Kurtz, Conrad shows how the colonialist system can warp the white mind, how having power over other people can lead to unspeakable hubris. (If this all seems a little bit familiar, perhaps you’ve seen Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film, Apocalypse Now, with the story moved to Vietnam and Marlon Brando as Colonel Walter E. Kurtz.)

But Conrad doesn’t stop with Kurtz’s corruption – this is also Marlow’s story. It’s easy to lose sight of this – to see Marlow merely as the storyteller. But Conrad cleverly gives us a two-layered novel. There’s the inner story Marlow tells of the Congo River journey and his encounter with Kurtz. But there’s also the outer story of his decision to tell the tale to his shipmates and to describe to them his visit with Kurtz’s fiancée.

Through this double narrative, Conrad seems to suggest that Marlow, too, has been affected by colonialism. Interestingly, Conrad himself had traveled up the Congo River as a young man. In 1890, at age 31, Joseph Conrad, who was born in Poland and who later made England his home, served on a Belgian trading steamer on a voyage up the Congo. (Got all that? Poland! England! Belgium!)

Conrad had been fascinated since he was a boy by maps – especially those with “empty” (i.e., “unexplored”) spaces. He very much wanted to explore the world – and explore he did.

But on his voyage up the Congo, into that “empty” space on the map, Conrad, says one source, “reportedly became disillusioned with [i]mperialism, after witnessing the cruelty and corruption perpetrated by the European countries in the area.” Marlow’s journey is said to be based on Conrad’s own experiences – and Conrad himself said the novella was based on “experience, pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the case.”

With a standard reading of Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s critique of colonialism seems assured. He definitely shows the way colonialism can warp the human psyche. Indeed, Kurtz (the anti-hero) is an object lesson in anti-colonialism. On his deathbed, Kurtz, made crazy by power, utters his last words – “The horror! The horror!” Certainly, Marlow sees the “horror” of what Kurtz has wrought in the Congo, and some readers wonder if Kurtz, too, ultimately rejects the colonial enterprise with his dying breath. According to The Guardian, “This line is often said to refer to the atrocities Conrad himself witnessed in Congo as it suffered under the colonial administration of the Belgians.”

But just when we all thought we understood Conrad’s vexing novella, along came Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe to overturn the apple cart. Where British and American readers saw a fierce critic of the colonialist system, Achebe saw Conrad as a racist, a product himself of the colonialist system.

In a 1975 lecture, Achebe famously denounced Heart of Darkness, arguing that in its depiction of Africa and Africans Conrad was revealed as a “thoroughgoing racist.” In the 1977 article based on the lecture, Achebe went a step farther, calling Conrad “a bloody racist.” The essay has provoked much debate but is widely seen as a call to other postcolonial writers to tell their own story. Next week, I’ll tell you about Achebe’s 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart, a response to Conrad’s novella – and I’ll talk more about what Achebe found so offensive in Conrad’s iconic work.

Heart of Darkness is, without a doubt, a famous and important novel. It first appeared in 1899 as a three-part serial in Blackwood’s Magazine. Since its publication as a novella in 1902, it has been translated into many languages and, according to one source, is “probably the most widely reprinted short novel in the English language.” It is an extensively read novel about the European exploration and conquest of Africa – and if Achebe is right, many more people have read Heart of Darkness than have read novels such as Things Fall Apart. With the advent of postcolonial African literature (a movement Achebe helped start), I think this is changing – but for many readers their view of the Congo is still the one Marlow describes.

Regardless of how you read Conrad’s book, it is “[a]llusive and purposefully elusive,” says one critic. It “remains a deeply troubling work, possessed of a haunting power which remains undiminished even after decades of critical study.”

For an extensive – and fascinating! – pictorial companion to Heart of Darkness, visit BookDrum. Follow the link to “bookmarks” for page-by-page visual references. This resource is just great, and I highly recommend taking the time to explore it. You may also find this hypertext annotation of the novella helpful.

If you’re hankering to read the novella right this minute, you can find a free online version at Project Gutenberg. If you’d like to have a hard copy, I recommend the Norton Critical Edition, which includes essays on how to read the novel from a variety of critical perspectives. (If you’re geeky and want to know that kind of stuff, this is the edition you want!)

Join me this week on Pinterest as I pin images and resources related to Joseph Conrad. Take a look around at all my boards – or go straight to “My Favorite Books” board for Joseph Conrad treats.

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Next week: Chinua Achebe. Stay tuned!

Listen:Listen as I read a 14-minute excerpt from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In this excerpt, Marlow describes his arrival in the Congo and his initial impression of Africans.

Image credit: Photo of Joseph Conrad by George Charles Beresford. Public domain.