Heart of Darkness

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Heart of Darkness
Blackwood's Magazine - 1899 cover.jpg
Heart of Darkness first was published as a three-part serial story in Blackwood's Magazine
AuthorJoseph Conrad
CountryUnited Kingdom
GenreFrame story, Novella
PublisherBlackwood's Magazine
Publication date
February 1899
Media typePrint (serial)
Followed byLord Jim (1900)
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Heart of Darkness
Blackwood's Magazine - 1899 cover.jpg
Heart of Darkness first was published as a three-part serial story in Blackwood's Magazine
AuthorJoseph Conrad
CountryUnited Kingdom
GenreFrame story, Novella
PublisherBlackwood's Magazine
Publication date
February 1899
Media typePrint (serial)
Followed byLord Jim (1900)

Heart of Darkness (1899) is a short novel by Polish novelist Joseph Conrad, written as a frame narrative, about Charles Marlow's life as an ivory transporter down the Congo River in Central Africa. The river is "a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land". In the course of his travel in central Africa, Marlow becomes obsessed with Mr. Kurtz.

The story is a complex exploration of the attitudes people hold on what constitutes a barbarian versus a civilized society and the attitudes on colonialism and racism that were part and parcel of European imperialism. Originally published as a three-part serial story, in Blackwood's Magazine, the novella Heart of Darkness has been variously published and translated into many languages. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Heart of Darkness as the sixty-seventh of the hundred best novels in English of the twentieth century.[1]

Composition and publication[edit]

Joseph Conrad based Heart of Darkness on his own experiences in the Congo.

Joseph Conrad acknowledged that Heart of Darkness was in part based on his own experiences during his travels in Africa. In 1890, at the age of 31, he was appointed by a Belgian trading company to serve as the captain of a steamer on the Congo River. Conrad, who was born in Poland and later settled in England, had eagerly anticipated the voyage, having decided to become a sailor at an early age. While sailing up the Congo river from one station to another, the captain became ill, Conrad assumed command of the boat and guided the ship to the trading company's innermost station. He reportedly became disillusioned with Imperialism, after witnessing the cruelty and corruption perpetrated by the European companies in the area and the novella's main narrator, Charles Marlow, is believed to have been based upon the author.[2]

There have been many proposed sources for the character of the antagonist, Kurtz. Georges-Antoine Klein, an agent who became ill and later died on board aboard Conrad's steamer, has been identified by scholars and literary critics as one basis for Kurtz. The principal figures involved in the disastrous "rear column" of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, have also been identified as likely sources, including column leader Edmund Musgrave Barttelot, slave trader Tippu Tip and the expedition's overall leader, Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley.[3][4] Adam Hochschild, in King Leopold's Ghost, believes that the Belgian soldier Leon Rom is the most important influence on the character.[5]

When Conrad began to write the novella, eight years after returning from Africa, he drew inspiration from his travel journals.[2] In his words, Heart of Darkness is "a wild story of a journalist who becomes manager of a station in the (African) interior and makes himself worshipped by a tribe of savages. Thus described, the subject seems comic, but it isn't."[6] 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).

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;

"I call your own kind self to witness [...] the last pages of Heart of Darkness where the interview of the man and the girl locks in—as it were—the whole 30000 words of narrative description into one suggestive view of a whole phase of life and makes of that story something quite on another plane than an anecdote of a man who went mad in the Centre of Africa."[7]

Plot summary[edit]

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 into 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 beside them an African guard 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.

Old Belgian river station on the Congo River, 1889

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.

The Roi des Belges ("King of the Belgians"—French), the Belgian riverboat Conrad commanded on the upper Congo, 1889

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. In a flash forward, 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 disembodied 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 representative of the company that employed both him and Kurtz, knowing that the man was really looking for papers that might disclose the whereabouts of ivory, and not a humanistic treatise. The company representative refuses the document. To another man, who claims to be Kurtz's cousin, Marlow gives family letters and memoranda of no importance. To a journalist he gives the report on the suppression of savage customs 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.


Furious debates resulted when Chinua Achebe accused Joseph Conrad of racism in Heart of Darkness

Harold Bloom wrote that Heart of Darkness had been analyzed more than any other work of literature that is studied in universities and colleges, which he attributed to Conrad's "unique propensity for ambiguity" but it was not successful during Conrad's life.[8][9] When it was published as a single volume in 1902 with two more novellas, "Youth" and "The End of the Tether", it received the least commentary from critics.[9] F. R. Leavis, who considered Conrad to be part of a "great generation" of writers, referred to Heart of Darkness as a "minor work" and criticized its "adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery".[10] Conrad himself did not consider it to be particularly notable.[9]

Heart of Darkness became popular and controversial in post-colonial reading, with interest in the novella at its height in the 1970s, partly due to accusations made by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe.[8] Achebe drew strong reactions when he criticized Heart of Darkness in his 1975 lecture An Image of Africa. He called Conrad "a bloody racist" and the novella "an offensive and totally deplorable book" that de-humanized Africans.[11] Achebe argued that Conrad, "blinkered...with xenophobia", incorrectly depicted Africa as the antithesis of Europe and thus to civilization and ignored the artistic accomplishments of the Fang people who lived in the Congo River basin, at the time of the book’s publication. Achebe acknowledged that Heart of Darkness, as a work of fiction, had no real obligation to "please the people about whom it [was] written". That the book promoted and continues to promote a prejudiced image of Africa that "depersonalizes a portion of the human race", meant that it should not be considered a great work of art.[12] Achebe's lecture prompted a debate in the lecture hall, with initial reactions ranging from dismay and outrage to support for Achebe's view.[13][14] According to Bloom, a number of scholars were upset by the accusations and defended Conrad.[8] In 1983, Cedric Watts published an essay criticizing Achebe's "cool, mocking, sarcastic, and angry" approach towards the subject. Watts also expressed indignation at what he considered to be an implication by Achebe, that only black people could accurately analyze and assess the novella.[11] Rino Zhuwarara, broadly agreed with Achebe but considered it important to be "sensitized to how peoples of other nations perceive Africa".[15] Achebe later toned down his attack on Heart of Darkness, though he continued to criticize Conrad for failing openly to condemn racism. Gene E. Moore responded, "Achebe is apparently unaware that the words racist and racism did not exist during Conrad's lifetime."[15]

In King Leopold's Ghost (1998), Adam Hochschild wrote that literary scholars have made too much of the psychological aspects of Heart of Darkness, while paying scant attention to Conrad's accurate recounting of the horror arising from the methods and effects of colonialism in the Congo Free State. "Heart of Darkness is experience ... pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the case."[16] Other critiques include Hugh Curtler's Achebe on Conrad: Racism and Greatness in Heart of Darkness (1997).[17]


Orson Welles adapted and starred in Heart of Darkness in a CBS Radio broadcast November 6, 1938, as part of his series, The Mercury Theatre on the Air. In 1939 Welles adapted the story for his first film for RKO Pictures, writing a screenplay with John Houseman. The project was never realized. Welles hoped to still produce the film when he presented another radio adaptation of the story as his first program as producer-star of the CBS radio series This Is My Best. Welles scholar Bret Wood called the broadcast of March 13, 1945, "the closest representation of the film Welles might have made, crippled, of course, by the absence of the story's visual elements (which were so meticulously designed) and the half-hour length of the broadcast."[18]:95, 153–156,136–137

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.[19]

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.[20] In Apocalypse Now, Martin Sheen plays Captain Benjamin L. Willard, a U.S. Army Captain assigned to "terminate" the command of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz. Marlon Brando played Kurtz, in 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.[21] The play was announced to be broadcast as a radio play to Australian radio audiences in August 2011 by the Vision Australia Radio Network,[22] and also by the RPH – Radio Print Handicapped Network across Australia.

On March 13, 1993, TNT aired a new version of the story directed by Nicolas Roeg, starring Tim Roth as Marlow and John Malkovich as Kurtz.[23]

The video game Far Cry 2, released on October 21, 2008, is a loose, modernized adaptation of Heart of Darkness. The player assumes the role of a mercenary operating in Africa whose task it is to kill an arms dealer, the elusive "Jackal". The last area of the game is called 'The Heart of Darkness'.[24][25][26]

In 2011, an operatic adaptation by composer Tarik O'Regan and librettist Tom Phillips was premiered at the Linbury Theatre of the Royal Opera House in London.[27] A suite for orchestra and narrator was subsequently extrapolated from it.[28]

The video game Spec Ops: The Line, released on June 26, 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.[29]

The novel Hearts of Darkness, by Paul Lawrence, moves the events of the novel to England in 1666. Marlow's journey into the jungle is reimagined as the journey of the narrator, Harry Lytle, and his friend Davy Dowling out of London and towards Shyam, a plague-stricken town that has descended into cruelty and barbarism loosely modelled on real-life Eyam. While Marlow must return to civilisation with Kurtz, Lytle and Dowling are searching for the spy James Josselin. Like Kurtz, Josselin's reputation is immense, and the protagonists are well-acquainted with his accomplishments by the time they finally meet him.[30]

Poet Yedda Morrison's 2012 book "Darkness" erases Conrad's novella, "whiting out" his text so that only images of the natural world remain.[31]


  1. ^ 100 Best, Modern Library's website. Retrieved January 12, 2010.
  2. ^ a b Bloom 2009, p. 15
  3. ^ Bloom 2009, p. 16
  4. ^ Hochschild, Adam: King Leopold's Ghost. New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998, pp. 98; 145,
  5. ^ Ankomah, Baffour (October 1999). "The Butcher of Congo". New African.
  6. ^ Karl & Davies 1986, p. 407
  7. ^ Karl & Davies 1986, p. 417
  8. ^ a b c Bloom 2009, p. 17
  9. ^ a b c Moore 2004, p. 4
  10. ^ Moore 2004, p. 5
  11. ^ a b Watts, Cedric (1983). "'A Bloody Racist': About Achebe's View of Conrad". The Yearbook of English Studies. Retrieved November 18, 2013. 
  12. ^ Achebe, Chinua (1978). "An Image of Africa". Research in African Literatures. Retrieved December 13, 2013. 
  13. ^ "Chinua Achebe: The Failure interview". Failure Magazine. Retrieved April 12, 2013. 
  14. ^ Achebe (1989), p. x.
  15. ^ a b Moore 2004, p. 6
  16. ^ Hochschild 1999, p. 143
  17. ^ Curtler, Hugh (March 1997). "Achebe on Conrad: Racism and Greatness in Heart of Darkness". Conradiana 29 (1): 30–40. 
  18. ^ Wood, Bret, Orson Welles: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1990 ISBN 0-313-26538-0
  19. ^ Cast and credits are available at "The Internet Movie Database". Retrieved December 2, 2010. A full recording of the show can be viewed onsite by members of the public upon request at The Paley Center for Media (formerly the Museum of Television & Radio) in New York City and Los Angeles.
  20. ^ Scott, A. O. (August 3, 2001). "Aching Heart Of Darkness". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-09-29. 
  21. ^ The Playwrights Database: Larry Buttrose
  22. ^ Vision Australia Radio – Services – Vision Australia Website
  23. ^ Tucker, Ken. "Heart of Darkness". EW.com, March 11, 1994. Accessed April 4, 2010.
  24. ^ [1]
  25. ^ [2]
  26. ^ [3]
  27. ^ Royal Opera House Page for Heart of Darkness by Tarik O'Regan and Tom Phillips
  28. ^ Suite from Heart of Darkness first London performance, Cadogan Hall 
  29. ^ [4]
  30. ^ [5]
  31. ^ http://yeddamorrison.com/words/darkness/2/


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