Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad (1899)

JOSEPH CONRAD exposed imperial hypocrisy and ethnic strife in his Congo novel Heart of Darkness, a triumph of first-person STORYTELLING. After witnessing European paternalism’s downslide into despotism, he hurled a rebuke at “deeds of empire” and offered a grudging salute to the frontiersmen who surrender body and soul for the sake of profit. In the first year of his writing career, he introduced the setting and themes of his future great novel in the story “An Outpost of Progress,” an ambivalent tale printed in Cosmopolis magazine in July 1896 and anthologized in Tales of Unrest (1898). This story of the demoralizing task of ivory trading depicts two men as victims: the trading station’s assistant, Carlier, and the chief, Kayerts. The latter accidentally shoots Carlier and then hangs himself out of despair from isolation and a sordid involvement in the slave trade. The story introduces the damaged conscience and sickness of guilt that deranges and destroys.

Three years later, the author’s exploration of the sullied soul took shape in meatier form in Heart of Darkness with the story of Kurtz, a crazed martyr to the empire’s depersonalization of natives and apathy toward their fate. Choosing the Englishman Charlie Marlow as narrator, Conrad begins the tale of the extended voyage of a Belgian steamer on a river in west Africa, the historic headquarters of the slaving trade. Marlow’s mission is to retrieve Kurtz, a company agent who has been alone in the interior for some time. As the newcomer loses his urbane detachment during the journey, he concludes that the business of imperialism in the Congo is indefensible.

In the beginning of the story, before he sets off on his mission, Marlow compares the Roman concept of empire to savagery and marvels at “the abomination—you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate” (Conrad 1983, 69). To heighten alienation on the frontier, the author identifies few characters clearly but pictures the self-aggrandizement of imperialism as an advancing monster, shapeless and menacing. Marlow introduces himself as a nomad impelled by boredom and intellectual curiosity to penetrate a jungle so compact that it appears more black than green, a suggestion of evil that defiles nature itself. Moving toward the 20th century, he describes colonialism as a “squeeze” and conquerors as brutes who “grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got” (69). As the British Empire displays its threadbare seams, Marlow accepts the mission to bring Kurtz downriver from his distant station. But ship repairs delay the journey. This image of breakdown haunts the entire mission, threatening with destruction Marlow’s steamer and crew as well as Kurtz.

Confrontation with Evil

The text symbolizes racial and cultural misgivings by picturing an impenetrable environment, the source of the ivory trade, which develops from commodity into a mystic icon. To extend the atmosphere of barbarism to two fronts, the action includes spears hurled from the bush and hints at cannibalism among the ship’s crew. Some 200 miles upstream into the Congo River, Marlow observes the chaining of moribund quarry laborers, “black shadows of disease and starvation” (82). Pushing 15 days against the current, he reaches the Central Station and is mesmerized by rumors and halftales about Kurtz, the company’s top trader. The trek becomes a retrogressive quest, “like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world” (102). Written 38 years after CHARLES DICKENS’S Great Expectations (1861), Conrad’s view of colonial opportunity scrutinizes the fiasco of those expectations at close range.

On the approach to Kurtz’s compound, the narrative describes an end to civilization and the outskirts of the “heart of darkness”—the compound, which Kurtz has lined with human skulls. Explaining the monstrosity of the stationmaster, Conrad asserts, “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz” (122-123), who has become an icon of outlandish greed. Of Kurtz's damnation, Marlow notes, “The wilderness had found him out early and … had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know” (133), a paganism of soul more forbidding than the jungle itself. The retreat downriver requires constant repairs to Marlow's vessel—“an infernal mess of rust, filings, nuts, bolts, spanners, hammers, ratchet-drills” (147). Like the limping steamer, Kurtz, a “pitiful Jupiter,” can only rave. At the end, his voice lapses into a whisper: “The horror! The horror!” as he sinks toward becoming a corpse for natives to inter in a “muddy hole” (148). The desolation and loneliness of Kurtz's life is the introit to madness, a severance from rationality that reduces him from man to beast—a punishment Conrad felt to be just retribution for his greed and cruelty.


Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer. New York: Signet, 1983.

Greaney, Michael. Conrad, Language, and Narrative.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.