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Essay On The Heart Of Darkness

Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad

(Born Josef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski) Polish-born English novelist, short story and novella writer, essayist, dramatist, and autobiographer.

The following entry presents criticism of Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness (1902) from 1985 to 2001. See also, "The Secret Sharer" Criticism and Joseph Conrad Criticism.

Heart of Darkness is considered one of the greatest novellas in the English language. On the surface it is a dreamlike tale of mystery and adventure set in central Africa; however, it is also the story of a man's symbolic journey into his own inner being. A profusion of vivid details that are significant on both literal and symbolic levels contributes to the ambiguity of Conrad's narrative and has led to conflicting interpretations of its meaning. Written in 1899, Heart of Darkness was initially published in serial form in Blackwood's magazine and finally published in book form in Youth: A Narrative, and Two Other Stories (1902). It was later published separately in 1942.

Plot and Major Characters

Throughout Conrad's career Heart of Darkness remained one of his most popular and highly regarded works. The novella details the story of the seaman Marlow who, fresh from Europe, is sent on a boat journey up the Congo River to relieve Kurtz, the most successful trader in ivory working for the Belgian government. Prior to their personal encounter, Marlow knows and admires Kurtz through his reputation and his writings regarding the civilizing of the African continent and sets out on the journey excited at the prospect of meeting him. However, Marlow's experience in Africa inspires revulsion at the dehumanizing effects of colonialism, a disgust that culminates when he discovers that Kurtz has degenerated from an enlightened civilizer into a vicious, power-hungry subjugator of the African natives. Marlow's journey forces him to confront not only Kurtz's corruption but also those elements within himself that are subject to the same temptations that affected Kurtz. When Marlow finally meets Kurtz, the mythical figure is near death, ravaged by disease and dissipation. After Kurtz's death, Marlow returns to Belgium and is visited by Kurtz's fiancée. During the visit he lies to her about Kurtz's activities and falsely claims that he called her name before he died. Critics have debated the motives behind this last deception: some feminist critics view the lie as an act of condescension; other commentators contend that Marlow wants to preserve his own illusions about Kurtz; and yet others perceive the lie as a compassionate act that functions to contrast Marlow's humanity with Kurtz's inhumanity.

Major Themes

Like many of Conrad's novels and short stories, Heart of Darkness is based in part upon the author's personal experiences. In 1890, after more than a decade as a seaman, Conrad requested the command of a Belgian steamer sailing for Africa. A diary kept during the subsequent voyage provides evidence that many of the characters, incidents, and impressions recalled in Heart of Darkness have factual bases. Contemporary critics, however, contend that Conrad's manipulation of the African environment in the novel, and the portraits of greed, destruction, and psychological regression that he creates, should be credited solely to his imaginative genius. Moreover, the relationship of Conrad to his character Marlow has been a fertile area of critical discussion. Marlow has been variously perceived as the spokesman for Conrad, a complex and separate creation, and as a combination of both. The affinity between Marlow and Kurtz is considered the most crucial relationship between characters in the story. Critics identify Kurtz's death scene and Marlow's lie to Kurtz's fiancée as seminal scenes in the novella; these scenes have been subject to a wide range of critical interpretations.

Many critics have commented on Conrad's evocative powers in Heart of Darkness, paying particular attention to his use of imagery, which manages to evoke a sinister atmosphere through the accretion of objectively described details of the African jungle and natives. The visual imagery, which heavily depends upon contrasting patterns of light and dark, contributes most appreciably to the consistently ambiguous tone of the work. To demonstrate the moral uncertainty of this world and of life in general, Conrad consistently alters common symbolic conceptions of light and dark. Thus, white is not synonymous with good, nor black with evil, but rather both symbols are interchangeable. Throughout the novella, white and black characters are alternately examples of acute suffering, civilized dignity, moral refinement, or violent savagery, demonstrating that no race is wholly good or evil, and that all human beings are a confusing mixture of propensities for all types of behavior. While some critics consider Conrad's imagery vague and confused in a manner that does not present a clear picture of the principal characters and events, most find that the ambiguity of description lends a psychological depth to the story that demands the close attention and involvement of the reader.

The political significance of Heart of Darkness has also received much critical attention. Social Darwinism and a strong belief in the Carlylean work ethic are two of the Victorian standards that are attacked in the novella. The first served to justify European exploitation of Africa and other areas of the world by purporting that the indigenous peoples were in need of the superior technological and religious knowledge of Europe. In Heart of Darkness, the hypocrisy of these aims is illustrated by the all-consuming scramble for wealth by the Europeans, who destroy the land and people without remorse. Critics contend that by contrasting the harmony that exists between the native Africans and their natural environment with the lazy, brutish grotesques that white imperialists become in Africa, Conrad proves that it is the Africans who are the fittest to survive in their native land and that Darwin's theory was in fact never intended to be applied to races or nations. In similar fashion, the work ethic that Marlow seems to embrace, praising its effectiveness in keeping his mind free of undesirable thoughts, is in fact instrumental in blinding him to the events around him. Throughout the novella, Conrad's portrayal of the failure of various European ideologies in Africa suggests the consequent failure and moral bankruptcy of Europe.

Critical Reception

Heart of Darkness remains a work popular with critics and readers alike. It has been studied from feminist, psychoanalytical, racial, and political perspectives. Conrad's consciously ambiguous presentation of the relative nature of truth and morality, which compels the reader to take an active part in understanding the novella, is often considered a forerunner of many modernist literary techniques. For this reason Frederick R. Karl has called Heart of Darkness the work in which “the nineteenth century becomes the twentieth.” The novella's artistic cohesion of image and theme, its intricately vivid evocation of colonial oppression, and its detailed portrait of psychological duplicity and decay have inspired critics to call Heart of Darkness the best novella in the English language.

While in England between 1898 and 1899, Joseph Conrad wrote the novella Heart of Darkness. Taking place during the height of European imperialism in Africa, Heart of Darkness follows the journey up the Congo River of Marlow, a steamboat captain. Marlow comes to Africa to escape the strict confines of European society. Marlow is very idealistic, and during his travels up the Congo, he is eager to prove that there is some good to the European presence in Africa. Although Marlow looks for signs of the good of imperialism, he finds none. Because of this, Marlow is eager to meet with Kurtz, another trader in the Congo. Marlow is so eager to meet with Kurtz because he believes Kurtz is the man the will prove to him that there is good in the European presence in Africa. However, as Marlow journeys up the Congo, viewing the effects of European imperialism on Africa, he realizes that there is no good in the presence of Europeans; furthermore, he is exposed to his own heart of darkness that he has seen in all the other Europeans in Africa.

Joseph Conrad was inspired to write Heart of Darkness because of a journey through the Congo early in the 1890’s. Heart of Darkness deals with European imperialism in Africa during the 1890’s. During this time, Africa was the property of King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold believed that his mission statement was to reduce the barbarism of the African people by bring civilization to the African people. For most Europeans, the continent of Africa was the Dark Continent because the people of Africa were considered to be uncivilized, uneducated, lacking a real government, and lacking any culture. Europeans considered it their duty to bring all that the Africans lacked in culture and civilization to the continent; thus, imperialism in Africa began.

Conrad explores the heart of darkness through the Protagonist of the novel: Marlow. As Marlow journeys up the Congo River, viewing the atrocities of European imperialism on the African people, the reader realizes what the heart of darkness is. The heart of darkness is in the heart of every person where each person is faced with his or her true and often inherently evil nature. A person’s encounter with their own heart of darkness is almost always brought about by a person’s own immoral actions that allows them to see the true nature of themselves or others. As Marlow journeys up the Congo, he sees European society’s heart of darkness, and he realizes that European imperialism is not the selfless mission for the civilization of the African continent, but rather a mission of exploitation based greed and ambition in the hearts of Europeans in the Congo.

Marlow comes to Africa because he feels very separated from the imperialism in Africa; furthermore, Marlow has heard what the critics say about imperialism in Africa. When he goes to Africa, he is very idealistic about the European presence there despite some of the stories he has heard. From the beginning of his journey, Marlow is confronted with the insanity of imperialism in Africa when he sees a French ship repeatedly shelling a spot of forested coast for no apparent reason saying, “Nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of native–he called them enemies!–hidden out of sight somewhere.” Pg. 11 As Marlow continues his way up the Congo River, he encounters decay and death at an alarming rate. He was overwhelmed by the horror of the death and destruction he sees: It is here that Marlow first encounters the heart of darkness and slowly begins to realize what it is. Marlow is once again faced with this overwhelming sense of decay and death when he reaches the outer station of the company, he encounters a group of native African people who have basically been enslaved in a chain gang; furthermore, he sees that also the Europeans are suffering as well: disease, biting insects, and outrageous heat. This scene at the outer station is an important one because it shows that not only is the African people suffering because of imperialism, but so are the Europeans as well. Basically, no one is reaping any real advantages from the European presence in Africa. During a ten-day wait at the outer station, Marlow is first told about Kurtz. After being exposed to an overwhelming amount of evidence against imperialism, Marlow is now introduced to the idea of man doing good for the people of the Dark Continent. Marlow realizes this; thus, he has a strong desire to locate and talked to Kurtz in hopes of seeing first hand the good that Kurtz does for the people of the dark continent.

A Marlow travels up the Congo River, he is being exposed more and more to the savagery, this heart of darkness, which all the Europeans in Africa seem to posses. For example, Marlow overhears a conversation between the Manager of that company and his uncle about the condition of Kurtz. Marlow discovers that these men wish to hang Kurtz and are discussing ways in which to accomplish this. They wish to hang Kurtz in order to level the competition in their favor because “anything can be done in this country.” These two men, both civilized at first glance, posses these savage and primal tendencies. Marlow sees this and is once again exposed to the heart of darkness that man possesses. Conrad does an excellent job of conveying this savagery and animal actions when he has Marlow describe the uncle of the manager’s mannerisms during the conversation saying, “extend his short flipper of an arm for a gesture. . .that seemed to beckon with a dishonoring flourish before the sunlit face of the land a treacherous appeal to the lurking death, to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart.” (Pg.27) As Marlow continues up the river to find Kurtz, the signs of European society were replaced by a more primal and savage feeling. I believe this to be a metaphor for the heart of darkness: A person may look civilized on the surface, but as you further explore them, you begin to see that they are truly savage at heart.

Once Marlow reaches Kurtz’s station, he encounters a young man. The young man tells Marlow about Kurtz’s tendency to wander off into the forest alone, raiding nearby villages for ivory and gaining the loyalty of the natives. The young man also confided in Marlow that Kurtz had almost shot him once for some ivory saying, “He declared he would shoot me unless I gave him the ivory and then cleared out of the country, because he could do so, and had a fancy for it, and there was nothing on earth to prevent him killing whom he jolly well pleased.” (Pg.50) With this description by the young man of Kurtz, Marlow’s hope’s of finding the presence of good in European imperialism is Africa is crushed. The situation of Marlow being told of Kurtz reputation as a good man and now seeing that he too has been corrupted and has done terrible things to the African people is another metaphor for the heart of darkness that Conrad places in the book.

After arriving at Kurtz station, Kurtz in taken aboard Marlow’s ship, and the two meet and speak for the first time. Later that night, Marlow tracks Kurtz off the ship and finds him watching some kind of tribal ceremony. Marlow trys to get Kurtz to come back to the boat, but as he looks at Kurtz alone in the wilderness he comments that he realizes that because Kurtz had been alone in the wilderness, his soul was alone and had gone mad; furthermore, Marlow realizes that his soul has this very same feeling to it. At this moment, Marlow comes to the realization that he too has his own heart of darkness. The next night, as the ship sailed down the Congo, Marlow witnesses Kurtz’s death. As Kurtz died he said, “The horror, the horror.”( pg.62) I believe this quote is a commentary on what man can do when not inhibited by society’s restrictions. In the case of Kurtz, society was willing to over-look any of his more questionable actions because Kurtz supplied them with ivory. When Kurtz says these words on his deathbed, he is speaking to the atrocities man can commit when there are no restrictions placed on him by society.

Marlow comes to Africa with the hope of seeing the good of European Imperialism first hand. Instead, Marlow is exposed to the heart of darkness: a primal and savage instinct that all man posses, yet is never truly exposed unless the circumstances are correct. As Marlow journeys up the Congo, his encounters with the heart of darkness become more frequent and powerful. Through the novel, he battles his own heart of darkness until he finally gives into it at the end of the novel. Through Kurtz’s death, Kurtz was able to say something true about the mess that human life has become: “The horror! The horror!” Because of Kurtz, Marlow was able to look into the darkness that Kurtz had gotten lost in, and learn from that darkness–whether this was beneficial or harmful is an uncertainty.

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