Heart of Darkness

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Heart of Darkness  
Author Joseph Conrad
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre(s) Frame story, Novella
Publisher Blackwood's Magazine
Publication date 1899
Media type print (serial)
OCLC 16100396

Heart of Darkness is a novella written by Polish-born writer Joseph Conrad. Before its 1902 publication, it appeared as a three-part series (1899) in Blackwood's Magazine. It is widely regarded as a significant work of English literature and part of the Western canon.

The story details an incident when Marlow, an Englishman, took a foreign assignment as a ferry-boat captain, employed by a Belgian trading company. Although the river is never specifically named, readers may assume it is the Congo River, in the Congo Free State, a private colony of King Leopold II. Marlow is employed to transport ivory downriver; however, his more pressing assignment is to return Kurtz, another ivory trader, to civilization in a cover up. Kurtz has a reputation throughout the region.

This highly symbolic story is actually a story within a story, or frame narrative. It follows Marlow as he recounts, from dusk through to late night, his adventure into the Congo to a group of men aboard a ship anchored in the Thames Estuary.


[edit] Background

In writing Heart of Darkness, Conrad drew inspiration from his own experience in the Congo: eight and a half years before writing the book, he had gone to serve as the captain of a Congo steamer. However, upon arriving in the Congo, he found his steamer damaged and under repair. He soon became ill and returned to Europe before ever serving as captain. Some of Conrad's experiences in the Congo, and the story's historic background, including possible models for Kurtz, are recounted in Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost.

The story-within-a-story device (called framed narrative in literary terms) that Conrad chose for Heart of Darkness — one in which an unnamed narrator recounts Charles Marlow's recounting of his journey — has many literary precedents. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein used a similar device, but the best known examples of the framed narrative include Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, The Arabian Nights and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

[edit] Plot summary

The story opens with five men, apparently old friends, on a boat on the Thames. One man, Marlow, begins telling a story of a job he took as captain of a steamship in Africa. He describes how his "dear aunt" used many of her contacts to secure the job for him. When he arrives at the job, he encounters many men he dislikes, as they strike him as untrustworthy. They speak often of a man named Kurtz, who has quite a reputation in many areas of expertise. He is somewhat of a rogue ivory collector, "essentially a great musician," a journalist, a skilled painter, and "a universal genius."

Marlow learns that he is to travel up the river to retrieve Kurtz (if he is alive), who was evidently left alone in unfamiliar territory. However, Marlow's steamer needs extensive repairs, and he cannot leave until he receives rivets, which take a suspiciously long time to arrive. Marlow suspects the manager of deliberately delaying his trip to prevent Kurtz from stealing the manager's job.

Marlow is finally able to leave on his journey with five other white men and a group of cannibals they have hired to run the steamer. He notes that the cannibals use a respectable amount of restraint in not eating the white men, as their only food source is a small amount of rotting hippo meat, and they far outnumber the white men, or "pilgrims" as Marlow refers to them.

Marlow's steamer is attacked by natives while en route to Kurtz' station - they are saved when Marlow blows the ship's steam whistle and frightens the natives into retreat. They arrive at the station and Marlow meets Kurtz' right-hand man, an unnamed Russian whose dress resembles a Harlequin and whose admiration and fear of Kurtz is palpable. The Russian explains that Kurtz is near-death and that Kurtz had ordered the native tribes to attack the steam ship. Harlequin explains that Kurtz had used his guns and personal charisma to take over tribes of Africans and had used them to make war on other tribes for their ivory, explaining how Kurtz obtains so much.

The Russian, who idolizes Kurtz, worries that Kurtz' reputation will be sullied by the Manager. Marlow promises to maintain Kurtz' reputation as a great man and advises the Russian to flee to friendly natives. The Russian thanks Marlow and leaves after collecting a few oddments.

At this point, near death, Kurtz has an enigmatic last desire to remain a part of the native culture, as exhibited by his ineffective striving toward tribal fire, dance and the darkness.

Marlow and his crew take the ailing Kurtz aboard their ship and depart. During this time, Kurtz is lodged in Marlow's pilothouse and Marlow begins to see that Kurtz is every bit as grandiose as previously described. During this time, Kurtz gives Marlow a collection of papers and a photograph for safekeeping; both had witnessed the Manager going through Kurtz' belongings. The photograph is of a beautiful girl whom Marlow assumes is Kurtz' love interest.

One night, Marlow happens upon Kurtz, obviously near death. As Marlow comes closer with a candle, Kurtz seems to experience a moment of clarity and speaks his last words: "The horror! The horror!" Marlow believes this to be Kurtz' reflection on the events of his life. Marlow does not inform the Manager or any of the other pilgrims of Kurtz' death; the news is instead broken by the Manager's child-servant.

Marlow later returns to his home city and is confronted by many people seeking things and ideas of Kurtz. Marlow eventually sees Kurtz' fiance about a year later, who is still in mourning. She asks Marlow about Kurtz' death and Marlow informs her that, instead of, "The horror! The horror!," his last words were her name.

The story concludes as the scene returns to the trip on the Thames and mentions how it seems the boat is drifting into the heart of the darkness.

[edit] Motifs

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 The 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. Moral issues are not clear-cut; that which ought to be (in various senses) on the side of "light" is in fact mired in darkness, and vice versa.

Africa was known as "The Dark Continent" in the Victorian Era with all the negative attributes of darkness attributed to Africans by the English. 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 infamous in Africa for horrific violence and yet he was honoured by a knighthood. However, an agent Conrad himself encountered when travelling in the Congo, named Georges-Antoine Klein (klein means 'small' in German, as Kurtz alludes to kurz, 'short'), could have possibly served as an actual model for the Kurtz that appears in Heart of Darkness. Klein died aboard Conrad's steamer and was interred along the Congo, much like Kurtz in the novel.[1] 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 traveller 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' Station.[2]

Conrad uses the river as the vehicle for Marlow to journey further into the "heart of darkness". The descriptions of the river, particularly its depiction as a snake, reveal its symbolic qualities. The river "resembl[es] an immense snake uncoiled" and "it fascinated [Marlow] as a snake would a bird." Not only is Marlow captivated by the river, representing as it does the jungle itself, but its association with a snake gives this "fascination of the abomination" its metaphorical characteristics. The statement, "The snake had charmed me" alludes to both the idea of snake charmer and the snake in the story of Genesis. While typically, a snake charmer would charm the snake, in this case, Marlow is charmed by the snake, a reversal which puts the power in the hands of the river, and thus the jungle wilderness. Furthermore, the allusion to the snake of temptation from the story of Adam and Eve demonstrates how the wilderness itself contains the knowledge of good and evil, and upon entering that wilderness Marlow will be able to see, or at least explore, the characteristics of humanity as well as good and evil.

Throughout the novel Conrad dramatizes the tension in Marlow between the restraint of civilization and the savagery of barbarism. The darkness and amorality which Kurtz exemplifies is argued to be the reality of the human condition, upon which illusory moral structures are draped by civilization. Marlow's confrontation with Kurtz presents him with a 'choice of nightmares'—to commit himself to the savagery of the unmasked human condition, as Kurtz exemplifies, or to the lie and veneer of civilized restraint. Though Marlow 'cannot abide a lie' and subsequently cannot perceive civilization as anything but a veneer hiding the savage reality of the human condition, he is also horrified by the darkness of Kurtz he sees in his own heart. After emerging from this experience, his Buddha-like pose aboard the "Nellie" symbolizes a suspension between this choice of nightmares.

Heart of Darkness explores the issues surrounding imperialism in complicated ways. As Marlow travels from the Outer Station to the Central Station and finally up the river to the Inner Station, he encounters scenes of torture, cruelty, and near-slavery. At the very least, the incidental scenery of the book offers a harsh picture of colonial enterprise. The impetus behind Marlow's adventures, too, has to do with the hypocrisy inherent in the rhetoric used to justify imperialism. The men who work for the Company describe what they do as “trade,” and their treatment of native Africans is part of a benevolent project of “civilization.” Kurtz, on the other hand, is open about the fact that he does not trade but rather takes ivory by force, and he describes his own treatment of the natives with the words “suppression” and “extermination”: he does not hide the fact that he rules through violence and intimidation. His perverse honesty leads to his downfall, as his success threatens to expose the evil practices behind European activity in Africa.

However, for Marlow as much as for Kurtz or for the Company, Africans in this book are mostly objects: Marlow refers to his helmsman as a piece of machinery, and Kurtz's African mistress is at best a piece of statuary. It can be argued that Heart of Darkness participates in an oppression of nonwhites that is much more sinister and much harder to remedy than the open abuses of Kurtz or the Company's men. Africans become for Marlow a mere backdrop, a human screen against which he can play out his philosophical and existential struggles. Their existence and their exoticism enable his self-contemplation. This kind of dehumanization is harder to identify than colonial violence or open racism. While Heart of Darkness offers a powerful condemnation of the hypocritical operations of imperialism, it also presents a set of issues surrounding race that is ultimately more troubling.

To emphasize the theme of darkness within all of 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 at the time, was itself a "dark" place in Roman times. The idea that the Romans, at one time, conquered the "savage" Britons parallels Conrad's current tale of the Belgians conquering the "savage" Africans. The theme of darkness lurking beneath the surface of even "civilized" persons appears prominently, and is further explored through the character of Kurtz and through Marlow's passing sense of understanding with the Africans.

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 symbolic levels of the book expand on all of these in terms of a struggle between good and evil (light and darkness), not so much between people as within every major character's soul.

[edit] Readings

Conrad's novella is so often identified as a archetypal modern text for a number of reasons, with one of these reasons being the way it is rich in its levels of interpretation. These different readings include;

Symbolic A symbolic reading of the text may pinpoint the constant contrasts between light and darkness as having been part of life since the origins of humanity, as the established train of thought of light equaling good, dark equaling evil playing an important part in the novel, as well as the vice versa. Symbolic comparisons are also made between the River Thames and the Congo river, as well as those between the City of London seen at the start of the novel and the African settlement Marlow resides at for some time during his journey. Marlow himself is also symbolically compared to the maverick Kurtz as the novel progresses, and Kurtz can also be seen as being a symbol of the imperial and the ignorant European mind.

Mythical A mythical reading brings in the ideas of the primitive, and the nature of primitive existence, and the role of a vague but powerful idea has upon humanity, as well as embodying a return to origin and a confrontation of darkness. The myth of the Seer, or apparent 'All-seeing Wise Man', is also included, with the character Kurtz occupying its role. Although this idea is not fulfilled, as we learn Kurtz is not this God-like figure described by colonists and natives alike, Marlow still learns from Kurtz, even at the imperial's demise.

Psychological This way of reading Conrad's tale has been the most common form of interpretation, and the most obvious and introspective as a journey of Marlow's inner self. It is an exploration of identity, with the focus being on how the outside world may alter and disrupt the inner ideals and morals of even the most incorruptible and faithful. Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 movie Apocalypse Now interprets the novel through a psychological reading.

Political Since the late 1960s, political readings of Heart of Darkness have increased, exploring and commenting on the ideology of imperialism. Marlow's reference at the start of the novella to the actions of the Romans is a comparison to the actions of those exploring the Africa in the novella's context, particularly the Congo river itself. Through a political reading, much of the text can be interpreted as a satire of the greed and ignorance of Europe, but Marlow experiences a somewhat revelation, as we see him change his opinions as the plot develops.

[edit] Historical context

The Roi des Belges, the ship Conrad used to travel up the Congo

The novel is largely autobiographical, based upon Joseph Conrad's six-month journey up the Congo River where he took command of a steamboat in 1890 after the death of its captain. At the time, the river was called the Congo, and the country was the Congo Free State. The area Conrad refers to as the Company Station was an actual location called Matadi, a location two-hundred miles up river from the mouth of the Congo. The Central Station was a location called Kinshasa, and both these locations marked a stretch of river impassable by steamboat, upon which Marlow takes a "two-hundred mile tramp."

The Company was in reality the Anglo-Belgian India-Rubber Company formed by King Leopold II of Belgium charged with running the country of the Congo Free State in 1885. The Congo Free State was voted into existence by the Berlin Conference (1884), which Conrad refers to sarcastically in his novella as "the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs."

Leopold II declared the Congo Free State his personal property in 1892, legally permitting the Belgians to take what rubber they wished from the area without having to trade with the African natives. This caused a rise in atrocities perpetrated by the Belgian traders.

The Congo Free State was taken out of the personal property of the king and made a regular colony of Belgium, called Belgian Congo, in 1908, after the extent of atrocities committed there became generally known in the West, partially through Conrad's novel.

[edit] Reception

In a post-colonial reading, the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe famously criticized the 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?"[3]—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," [4] one professor told Achebe. Other critiques include Hugh Curtler's Achebe on Conrad: Racism and Greatness in Heart of Darkness (1997).[5]

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 moral 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."[6]

Heart of Darkness is also criticized for its characterization of women. In the novel, Marlow says that "It's queer how out of touch with truth women are." Marlow also suggests that women have to be sheltered from the truth in order to keep their own fantasy world from "shattering before the first sunset."

[edit] Adaptations

The most famous adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 movie Apocalypse Now, which transposes the context of the narrative from the Congo into Vietnam and Cambodia.[7]

On March 13, 1993, Turner Network Television aired a new version of the story with Tim Roth as Marlow and John Malkovich as Kurtz.[8]

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Sherry 1980
  2. ^ Conrad 1998
  3. ^ "Chinua Achebe: The Failure interview". Failure Magazine. http://www.failuremag.com/arch_history_chinua_achebe.html. Retrieved on 2008-07-25. 
  4. ^ Achebe (1989), p. x.
  5. ^ Curtler, Hugh (March 1997). "Achebe on Conrad: Racism and Greatness in Heart of Darkness". Conradiana 29 (1): 30–40. 
  6. ^ Hochschild 1999, p. 143
  7. ^ Scott, A. O. (2001-08-03). "Aching Heart Of Darkness". The New York Times. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9404E6D9143CF930A3575BC0A9679C8B63. Retrieved on 2008-09-29. 
  8. ^ http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,301401,00.html

[edit] References

  • Conrad, Joseph (1998-01-05). Heart of Darkness & Other Stories. Wordsworth Editions Ltd. ISBN 1853262404. 
  • Hochschild, Adam (October 1999). King Leopold's Ghost. Mariner Books. ISBN 0618001905. 
  • Sherry, Norman (1980-06-30). Conrad's Western World. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521298083. 

[edit] External links

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