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|Heart of Darkness|
'Heart of Darkness' first appeared in Blackwood's Magazine (in three parts)
|Genre(s)||Frame story, Novella|
|Publication date||February 1899|
|Media type||Print (serial)|
|Followed by||Lord Jim (1900)|
|This article needs additional citations for verification. (November 2009)|
|This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. (December 2012)|
|Heart of Darkness|
'Heart of Darkness' first appeared in Blackwood's Magazine (in three parts)
|Genre(s)||Frame story, Novella|
|Publication date||February 1899|
|Media type||Print (serial)|
|Followed by||Lord Jim (1900)|
Heart of Darkness is a novella, written by Joseph Conrad, that is presented in the form of a frame narrative (a story within a story). Conrad retells the story of Marlow's job as an ivory transporter down the Congo River. Through his journey, Marlow develops an intense interest in investigating Kurtz, an ivory-procurement agent. Heart of Darkness explores the darkness potentially inherent in all human hearts, and deals with the themes of colonialism, racism, and savagery versus civilization.
Through the years the story gained in popularity. It has since been published in abundance, in several different forms (collected works, paperbacks, annotated studies, etc.), and has been translated into many different languages. In 1998, Heart of Darkness was ranked #67 on the Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century. and part of the Western canon.
About eight and a half years before writing the book, Conrad had been appointed by a Belgian trading company to serve as the captain of a steamer on the Congo River. Upon arrival at his station in the Congo, he found that the steamer he was to command had been damaged and was in need of repair. Yet the next day he headed up river on a different steamer that was captained by another. When that captain became ill during the journey Conrad assumed command. At the company's inner-most station they picked up its agent, Georges-Antoine Klein, who died on the return trip. Conrad himself became very sick and returned to Europe before serving out the full three-year term of his contract to the trading company.
The tale was first published as a three-part serial, February, March, and April 1899, in Blackwood's Magazine (February 1899 was the magazine's 1000th issue: special edition). Then later, in 1902, Heart of Darkness was included in the book "Youth: a Narrative, and Two Other Stories" (published November 13, 1902, by William Blackwood). In Conrad's own words, Heart of Darkness is:
The volume consisted of Youth: a Narrative, Heart of Darkness, and The End of the Tether in that order, to loosely illustrate the three stages of life. For future editions of the book, in 1917 Conrad wrote an "Author's Note" where he discusses each of the three stories, and makes light commentary on the character Marlow - the narrator of the tales within the first two stories. He also mentions how Youth marks the first appearance of Marlow.
On May 31, 1902, in a letter to William Blackwood, Conrad remarked;
Aboard the Nellie, anchored in the River Thames near Gravesend, England, Charles Marlow tells his fellow sailors about the events that led to his appointment as captain of a river-steamboat for an ivory trading company. He describes his passage on ships to the wilderness to the Company's station, which strikes Marlow as a scene of devastation: disorganized, machinery parts here and there, periodic demolition explosions, weakened native black men who have been demoralized, in chains, literally being worked to death, and strolling behind them a white Company man in a uniform carrying a rifle. At this station Marlow meets the Company's chief accountant who tells him of a Mr. Kurtz, and explains that Kurtz is a first-class agent.
Marlow leaves with a caravan to travel on foot some two hundred miles deeper into the wilderness to the Central Station, where the steamboat that he is to captain is based. Marlow is shocked to learn that his steamboat had been wrecked two days before his arrival. The manager explains that they needed to take the steamboat up-river because of rumours that an important station was in jeopardy and that its chief, Mr. Kurtz, was ill. Marlow describes the Company men at this station as lazy back-biting "pilgrims", fraught with envy and jealousy, all trying to gain a higher status within the Company, which in turn, would provide more personal profit; however, they sought these goals in a meaningless, ineffective and lazy manner, mixed with a sense that they were all merely waiting, while trying to stay out of harm's way. After fishing his boat out of the river, Marlow is frustrated by the months spent on repairs. During this time, he learns that Kurtz is far from admired, but is more or less resented (mostly by the manager). Not only is Kurtz's position at the Inner Station a highly envied position, but sentiment seems to be that Kurtz is undeserving of it, as he received the appointment only by his European connections.
Once underway, the journey up-river to the Inner Station, Kurtz's station, takes two months to the day. On board are the manager, three or four "pilgrims" and some twenty "cannibals" enlisted as crew.
They come to rest for the night about eight miles below the Inner Station. In the morning they awake to find that they are enveloped by a thick, white fog. From the riverbank they hear a very loud cry, followed by a discordant clamour. A few hours later, as safe navigation becomes increasingly difficult, the steamboat is hit with a barrage of sticks — small arrows — from the wilderness. The pilgrims open fire into the bush with their Winchester rifles. The native serving as helmsman gives up steering to pick up a rifle and fire it. Marlow grabs the wheel to avoid snags in the river. The helmsman is impaled by a spear and falls at Marlow's feet. Marlow sounds the steam whistle repeatedly, causing the shower of arrows to cease. Marlow and a pilgrim watch the helmsman die, and Marlow forces the pilgrim to take the wheel so that he can fling his blood-soaked shoes overboard. Marlow presumes (wrongly) that Kurtz is dead. Marlow notes that the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs commissioned Kurtz to write a report, which he did eloquently. A footnote in the report, written much later, states "Exterminate all the brutes!" (Later, Kurtz entreats Marlow to take good care of the pamphlet.) Marlow does not believe Kurtz was worth the lives that were lost in trying to find him. After putting on a pair of slippers, Marlow returns to the wheel-house and resumes steering. By this time the manager is there, and expresses a strong desire to turn back. At that moment the Inner Station comes into view.
At Kurtz's station Marlow sees a man on the riverbank waving his arm, urging them to land. Because of his expressions and gestures, and all the colourful patches on his clothing, the man reminds Marlow of a harlequin. The pilgrims, heavily armed, escort the manager to retrieve Mr. Kurtz. The harlequin-like man, who turns out to be a Russian, boards the steamboat. The Russian is a wanderer who happened to stray into Kurtz's camp. Through conversation Marlow discovers just how wanton Kurtz could be, how the natives worshipped him, and how very ill he had been of late. The Russian admires Kurtz for his intellect and his insights into love, life and justice. The Russian seems to admire Kurtz even for his power — and for his willingness to use it. Marlow suggests that Kurtz has gone mad.
From the steamboat, through a telescope, Marlow can observe the station in detail and is surprised to see near the station house a row of posts topped with decapitated heads of natives. Around the corner of the house, the manager appears with the pilgrims, bearing Kurtz on an improvised stretcher. The area fills with natives, apparently ready for battle. Marlow can see Kurtz shouting on the stretcher. The pilgrims carry Kurtz to the steamer and lay him in one of the cabins. A beautiful native woman walks in measured steps along the shore and stops next to the steamer. She raises her arms above her head and then walks back into the bushes. The Russian informs Marlow that Kurtz had ordered the attack on the steamer. The Russian refers to a canoe waiting for him and notes how delightful it was to hear Kurtz recite poetry. Marlow and the Russian then part ways.
After midnight, Marlow discovers that Kurtz has left his cabin on the steamer and returned to shore. Marlow goes ashore and finds a very weak Kurtz making his way back to his station - although not too weak to call to the natives. Marlow appreciates his serious situation, and when Kurtz begins in a threatening tone, Marlow interjects that his "success in Europe is assured in any case"; at this, Kurtz allows Marlow to help him back to the steamer. The next day they prepare for their departure. The natives, including the native woman, once again assemble on shore and begin to shout. Marlow, seeing the pilgrims readying their rifles, sounds the steam whistle repeatedly to scatter the crowd on shore. Only the woman remains unmoved, with outstretched arms. The pilgrims open fire. The current carries them swiftly downstream.
Kurtz's health worsens, and Marlow himself becomes increasingly ill. The steamboat having broken down and being under repair, Kurtz gives Marlow a packet of papers with a photograph. As Kurtz dies, Marlow hears him weakly whisper: “The horror! The horror!”
Marlow blows out the candle and tries to act as though nothing has happened when he joins the other pilgrims, who are eating in the mess-room with the manager. In a short while, the "manager's boy" appears and announces in a scathing tone: "Mistah Kurtz — he dead." Next day Marlow pays little attention to the pilgrims as they bury "something" in a muddy hole. Marlow falls very sick, himself near death.
Upon his return to Europe, Marlow is embittered. He distributes the bundle of papers Kurtz had entrusted to him: Marlow gives the paper entitled "Suppression of Savage Customs" (with the postscriptum torn off) to a clean-shaven man with an official manner. To another man, who claims to be Kurtz's cousin, Marlow gives family letters and memoranda of no importance. To a journalist he gives a Report for publication, if the journalist sees fit. Finally Marlow is left with some personal letters and the photograph of a girl's portrait — Kurtz's fiancée, whom Kurtz referred to as “My Intended”. When Marlow visits her, she is dressed in black and still deep in mourning, although it is more than a year since Kurtz's death. She presses Marlow for information, asking him to repeat Kurtz's final words. Uncomfortable, Marlow lies and tells her that Kurtz's final word was her name.
At the end of the day we find Charlie Marlow aboard a sailboat anchored in the Thames Estuary with a close group of men. From dusk on into the night, the passage of time and the darkening sky provides the atmosphere and tone for Marlow's upcoming narrative. After sunset, Marlow begins to tell a tale of an exotic adventure. He speaks of a time when for a European company he captained a steamboat up and down a large river deep within a mysterious wilderness; he was to transport supplies, company personnel, and ivory - all in the name of "progress" so as to veil the company's true intent of merely raping the countryside in pursuit of profit. What Marlow shares exposes the dark side of imperialistic endeavors - and its brutally cruel treatment of the African people, the natives, when at the hands of these company men. In the black of night, the symbolic nature of Marlow's tale expresses the unfathomable darkness within every human being, and their potential to commit heinous acts of evil.
But being that for Marlow: "the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out" - ultimately, as a whole, 'Heart of Darkness' reminds the reader that the dark underbelly of civilization is built on top of incomprehensible cruelties. As enveloping Marlow's tale, the story opens with the location being England, a loose reference to its worldwide empire, and a kind of glorification, a tribute of sorts, to the Thames River and its "ages of good service" - "It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud" - "Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch" - the light of civilization - "bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth!... The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires."
After this introduction, and after the sun sets, Marlow provides his own, more personal, introduction; with a description of white spaces on maps being filled in - where in a way, he almost insinuates that the world is becoming a darker place:
Following Marlow's tale there is a dark shift in sentiments as we learn a little more about the current conditions of their location in England on the Thames; and read at the story's end: "The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness."
—As if the "flicker" of civilization, the light that "came out of this river" has already begun to dim...
He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—"The horror! The horror!"
— Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
T. S. Eliot's use of a quotation from Heart of Darkness—"Mistah Kurtz, he dead"—as an epigraph to the original manuscript of his poem The Hollow Men contrasted its dark horror with the presumed "light of civilization," and suggested the ambiguity of both the dark motives of civilization and the freedom of barbarism, as well as the "spiritual darkness" of several characters in Heart of Darkness. This sense of darkness also lends itself to a related theme of obscurity—again, in various senses, reflecting the ambiguities in the work. Morality is, by its very nature, ambiguous: that which is traditionally placed on the side of "light" is in darkness, and vice-versa.
In the Victorian Era Africa was known as "The Dark Continent" and Europeans attributed many negative connotations to Africans. One of the possible influences for the Kurtz character was Henry Morton Stanley of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" fame, as he was a principal explorer of "The Dark Heart of Africa", particularly the Congo. Stanley was supposedly infamous for his violence against his porters while in Africa, although records indicate this was perhaps an exaggeration and he was later honoured with a knighthood. An agent Conrad met when traveling in the Congo, Georges-Antoine Klein, could also have served as a model for Kurtz (in German klein means "small" and kurz means "short"). Klein died aboard Conrad's steamer and was interred along the Congo, much like Kurtz in the novel. Among the people Conrad may have encountered on his journey was a trader called Leon Rom, who was later named chief of the Stanley Falls Station. In 1895, a British traveler reported that Rom had decorated his flower-bed with the skulls of some twenty-one victims of his displeasure (including women and children) resembling the posts of Kurtz's Station.
|This article is written like a personal reflection or essay rather than an encyclopedic description of the subject. (September 2012)|
Though evidence suggests Heart of Darkness may be pessimistic, Joseph Conrad's Darwinian world view can counter this understanding. Literary critic Walter Anderson maintains that Conrad is an ardent materialist with an unusual understanding of the implications of this reductionist paradigm. Conrad does not believe that the world is smaller because it is purely material. Rather, he believes that the world is greater for its lack of the metaphysical. The material world, as he dubs it, contains the "mere supernatural" which is not a transcendent reality but a vague treasure that belongs solely to humans. The world is self-contained, but that is mystery enough.
This theory lends itself to a form of materialistic mysticism in which the world is too grand to be understood by humans. Rather, the world is meant to be looked at with awe. This materialistic mysticism sets the backdrop for a majority of the motifs in Heart of Darkness.
Heart of Darkness attests to Conrad's paradigm through its motif of, as Sandya Shetty puts it, "[c]ontradictions, ambiguities, and discontinuities." Conrad contradicts himself in the novel both to discourage people from believing that they can understand the world and, paradoxically, to encourage people to explore the vast awe inspiring world more.
Conrad's mysticism manifests in the motif of cyclical life. Suggesting a kind of tangible Samsara, Professor David Cole notes how every life ends and leads into another. Conrad leaves evidence, through the death of many of his characters, that he sees life as fleeting. That he uses contradictory images suggests that Conrad sees life and death in continuum. When Marlow's helmsman dies, Conrad describes him as "heavier than any man on earth," but after Marlow throws him into the river, he is carried off "like a wisp of grass". Conrad furthers this cycle in his description of grass engulfing Fresleven's dead body. Grass — a new fleeting life — replaces the fleeting grass-like human lives of Conrad's characters.
While Conrad's materialism does not prove him an optimist, as he believed, or a pessimist, as a surface reading of his book may suggest, it provides an important filter through which one may discern his world view. Minimally, this filter uncovers evidence to counter belief in his pessimism.
Walter Anderson points out that as with most mystics, instead of limiting his action, Conrad's romantic paradigm inspired him to believe in seizing the day. That he believes life is short does not mean that he disbelieves in enjoying life. Rather, his writings suggests that a fleeting life is encouragement to do more and do so boldly — a belief antithetical to pessimism. In turn, this realization rebuts the idea that the dream motif represents a pessimistic world. Rather, the dream motif shows the freedom of an individual to shape their destiny. The foggy and vague world is a world that the bold optimist has yet to construct according to his will.
In fact, Conrad shows this power over darkness twice through the lies of Marlow. After his experiences in Africa, Marlow represents an enlightened figure, "in the pose of a meditating Buddha," who can turn darkness to light. When a company official comes to his door asking for the report on the savages, written by Kurtz, Marlow gives him the report. The body of the report, from Conrad's materialistic perspective, is good because it describes a people in tune with nature. However, the ending of the report menacingly urges the civilized world to "[e]xterminate all the brutes". The enlightened Marlow turns darkness to light by removing this section before giving the report to the official. Again, Marlow lies when he changes the last words of Kurtz from "The Horror!" to the name of Kurtz's fiancée. Though lies seem to present Marlow as a depraved hypocrite, Conrad intends them to show an enlightened and willful man who desires to undo the darkness caused by others.
As with the misconception that Marlow is hypocritical, only a few characters in Heart of Darkness are actually depraved. The characters that speak and dominate the forefront of the book are mostly perverted by their sins, but the characters who seem to hide in the background of the dream-like environment — the savages — glow with moral uprightness. This surprising depiction shows most evidently in the most savage of the savages, the cannibals. The cannibals are mistreated by the imperialists whom they outnumber "thirty to five". Yet, when the cannibals begin to starve, they do not turn the five imperialists to food. Rather, they act peacefully and even die for the imperialists. Furthermore, the fact that the savages are easily overlooked provides further evidence for Conrad's innate optimism. That which is unnatural is that which stands out. The savages do not stand out, despite their superior numbers, because they are holy, and to be "holy" is to be in accord with the natural order of the world. Though Heart of Darkness seems to represent a nightmarish gathering of the wicked, the novella contains mostly holy savages.
Finally, as the dream motif represents the holy lie and holy savage, the dream motif also displays a holy environment, uncorrupted by imperialism. Conrad's true experience of the Congo River from his time in Africa is that of a river "thriving" on the imperialist spirit. However, in the novella, he reveals a fictional river as pure and mysterious. To Conrad, the structure of civilization is too restraining. Therefore, in order to preserve the precious mysticism of his materialistic paradigm, he describes the story's setting as empty, vague, and above all enigmatic. In Heart of Darkness, the dream-like land of the savages is not a place of despair, but an optimistic land uncorrupted by the structures of civilization.
To emphasize the theme of darkness within mankind, Marlow's narration takes place on a yawl in the Thames tidal estuary. Early in the novella, Marlow recounts how London, the largest, most populous and wealthiest city in the world, was a dark place in Roman times. The idea that the Romans conquered the savage Britons parallels Conrad's tale of the Belgians conquering the savage Africans. The theme of darkness lurking beneath the surface of even "civilized" persons appears prominently and is explored in the character of Kurtz and through Marlow's passing sense of understanding with the Africans.
Kurtz embodies all forms of an urge to be more or less than human. His writings show in Marlow's view an "exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence" and they appeal to "every altruistic sentiment." His predisposition for benevolence is clear in the statement "We whites...must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings....By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded". The Central Station manager quotes Kurtz, the exemplar: "Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing". Kurtz's inexperienced, scientific self in the fiery report is alive with the possibility of the cultivation and conversion of the savages. He would have subscribed to Moreau's proposition that "a pig may be educated".
Themes developed in the novella's later scenes include the naïveté of Europeans (particularly women) regarding the various forms of darkness in the Congo; the British traders and Belgian colonialists' abuse of the natives and man's potential for duplicity. The symbolism in the book expands on these as a struggle between good and evil (light and darkness), not so much between people as in every major character's soul.
Conrad’s novel is a novel on the edge of modernism yet still attached to the Victorian values where the image of masculine heroism is prominent and women are moral and domesticated beings. In his exploration of Conrad’s women, Thompson discusses how critics claim that Conrad “sees man as lonely and morally isolated” and that he could not possibly “reconcile so dark a view with a belief in the panacea of love, wife, home, and family.”
Although the two main female characters in Kurtz’s life in Heart of Darkness appear on first description to be complete opposites, they share a common ground that bands them together. This shared element is the idea that their sole reason for appearing in the text is due to their relationship with the ultimate masculine presence, Kurtz. The difference between the two women in Kurtz’s life have often been noted as a “fairly conventional dichotomy of Whore/Virgin” but this idea is deceptive because the “real antithesis in the text between is the Intended as virginal, cerebral, idealistic” and the African woman as “passionate”, for she is “theatrical, statuesque, sensuous, yes, but not a whore, not cheap”. The woman, who is never named, is described as “draped in striped and fringed cloths” with “innumerable necklaces of glass beads on her neck” that “hung about her, glittered and trembled at every step” and, also noted, is that “she must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her”. This detailed description of her materialistic value highlights how Marlow views women in the text as the reader is not given a description of anything else except what she is wearing or how she looks, the superficial details. By wearing ivory, the symbol of Western imperialism and most likely to have been a present from Kurtz, the African woman is like a blank slate where Kurtz can flaunt his success. Therefore, Kurtz makes the woman appear to be his possession in the way that he views everything to be under his control in the lines “My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river”.
In the domineering list of Kurtz’s supposed possessions, the first ‘possession’ to be itemized is the Intended. Unlike the African woman, Kurtz’s Intended is given a thought and speech process by Conrad and interacts with Marlow. Despite this, she is still portrayed as virginal with a sense of propriety as she follows the conventional rules of society by dressing in black and mourning over a year after Kurtz’s death. In contrast to the African woman’s appearance, the Intended, one on first appearance to Marlow, is described as almost angelic or ethereal. The fiancé who, like the African woman, is never properly named and instead is given a rather inflexible name, as it allows no independent movement away from Kurtz. The idea that Kurtz’s fiancé is ‘Intended’ builds her character as having no other meaning, she is merely a female defined by her relationship to a male. In her article about women in Heart of Darkness, Nina Pelikan Straus highlights this domination and points out that if, as a woman, “You are the Intended” then “How can an Intended have Intentions?”. The use of ‘Intended’ highlights that the fiancé cannot possibly have her own purpose as Kurtz has imposed her purpose on her and therefore she is completely under his control, dependent upon his fortune in life.
As Straus points out, Heart of Darkness is a tale concerned with “a kind of mainstream male experience” such as the “penetration into a female wilderness, confrontation with monstrosity, life at the ‘edge’” which ultimately means that the stereotypical and patriarchal view of and control over women are littered through the text.
In a post-colonial reading, the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart, famously criticized Heart of Darkness in his 1975 lecture An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", saying the novella de-humanized Africans, denied them language and culture and reduced them to a metaphorical extension of the dark and dangerous jungle into which the Europeans venture. Achebe's lecture prompted a lively debate, reactions at the time ranged from dismay and outrage—Achebe recounted a Professor Emeritus from the University of Massachusetts saying to Achebe after the lecture, "How dare you upset everything we have taught, everything we teach? Heart of Darkness is the most widely taught text in the university in this country. So how dare you say it's different?"—to support for Achebe's view—"I now realize that I had never really read Heart of Darkness although I have taught it for years," one professor told Achebe. Other critiques include Hugh Curtler's Achebe on Conrad: Racism and Greatness in Heart of Darkness (1997).
In King Leopold's Ghost (1998), Adam Hochschild argues that literary scholars have made too much of the psychological aspects of Heart of Darkness while scanting the horror of Conrad's accurate recounting of the methods and effects of colonialism. He quotes Conrad as saying, "Heart of Darkness is experience ... pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the case."
The CBS television anthology Playhouse 90 aired a 90-minute loose adaptation in 1958. This version, written by Stewart Stern, uses the encounter between Marlow (Roddy McDowall) and Kurtz (Boris Karloff) as its final act, and adds a backstory in which Marlow had been Kurtz's adopted son. The cast includes Inga Swenson and Eartha Kitt.
The most famous adaptation is Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 motion picture Apocalypse Now, which moves the story from the Congo to Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam War. In Apocalypse Now, Martin Sheen plays Captain Benjamin L. Willard, a US Army officer charged with "terminating" the command of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz. Marlon Brando played Kurtz, and it remains one of his most famous roles.
A production documentary of the film, titled Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, exposed some of the major difficulties which director Coppola faced in seeing the movie through to completion. The difficulties that Coppola and his crew faced often mirrored some of the themes of the book.
In 1991, Australian author and playwright Larry Buttrose wrote and staged a theatrical production of Kurtz (based on Heart of Darkness) with the Crossroads Theatre Company, Sydney. The play was announced to be broadcast as a radio play to Australian radio audiences in August 2011 by the Vision Australia Radio Network, and also by the RPH - Radio Print Handicapped Network across Australia.
The video game Spec Ops: The Line, released on 26 June 2012, is a loose, modernized adaptation of Heart of Darkness. The character John Konrad, who replaces the character Kurtz, is a reference to the author of the novella.
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