Heart of Darkness (1899) is a novella by Polish-English novelist Joseph Conrad about a narrated voyage up the Congo River into the Congo Free State in the Heart of Africa. Charles Marlow, the narrator, tells his story to friends aboard a boat anchored on the River Thames. This setting provides the frame for Marlow's story of his obsession with the successful ivory trader Kurtz. Conrad offers parallels between London ("the greatest town on earth") and Africa as places of darkness.
Central to Conrad's work is the idea that there is little difference between "civilised people" and those described as "savages." Heart of Darkness implicitly comments on imperialism and racism.
Originally issued as a three-part serial story in Blackwood's Magazine to celebrate the thousandth edition of the magazine, Heart of Darkness has been widely re-published and translated into many languages. It provided the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film Apocalypse Now. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Heart of Darkness 67th on their list of the 100 best novels in English of the twentieth century.
Composition and publication
In 1890, at the age of 32, Conrad was appointed by a Belgian trading company to serve on one of its steamers. While sailing up the Congo River from one station to another, the captain became ill and Conrad assumed command. He guided the ship up the tributary Lualaba River to the trading company's innermost station, Kindu, in Eastern Kongo; Marlow has similar experiences to the author.
When Conrad began to write the novella, eight years after returning from Africa, he drew inspiration from his travel journals. He described Heart of Darkness as "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. The tale was first published as a three-part serial, in February, March and April 1899, in Blackwood's Magazine (February 1899 was the magazine's 1000th issue: special edition). In 1902 Heart of Darkness was included in the book Youth: a Narrative, and Two Other Stories, published on 13 November 1902 by William Blackwood.
The volume consisted of Youth: a Narrative, Heart of Darkness and The End of the Tether in that order. In 1917, for future editions of the book, Conrad wrote an "Author's Note" where he, after denying any "unity of artistic purpose" underlying the collection, discusses each of the three stories and makes light commentary on Marlow, the narrator of the tales within the first two stories. He said Marlow first appeared in Youth.
On 31 May 1902, in a letter to William Blackwood, Conrad remarked,
There have been many proposed sources for the character of the antagonist, Kurtz. Georges-Antoine Klein, an agent who became ill and died aboard Conrad's steamer, is proposed by scholars and literary critics as a 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 leader, Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley. Conrad's biographer Norman Sherry judged that Arthur Hodister (1847–1892), a Belgian solitary but successful trader, who spoke three Congolese languages and was venerated by the Congolese villagers among whom he worked to the point of deification, served as the main model, while later scholars have refuted this hypothesis. Adam Hochschild, in King Leopold's Ghost, believes that the Belgian soldier Léon Rom influenced the character. Peter Firchow mentions the possibility that Kurtz is a composite, modelled on various figures present in the Congo Free State at the time as well as on Conrad's imagining of what they might have had in common.
Aboard the Nellie, anchored in the River Thames near Gravesend, Charles Marlow tells his fellow sailors how he became captain of a river steamboat for an ivory trading company. As a child, Marlow had been fascinated by "the blank spaces" on maps, particularly by the biggest, which by the time he had grown up was no longer blank but turned into "a place of darkness". Yet there remained a big river, "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". The image of this river on the map fascinated Marlow "as a snake would a bird". Feeling as though "instead of going to the centre of a continent I were about to set off for the centre of the earth", Marlow takes passage on a French steamer bound for the African coast and then into the interior. After more than thirty days the ship anchors off the seat of government near the mouth of the big river. Marlow, with 200 mi (320 km) to go yet, takes passage on a little sea-going steamer captained by a Swede. He departs some 30 mi (48 km) up the river where his company's station is. Work on the railway is going on, involving removal of rocks with explosives. Marlow enters a narrow ravine to stroll in the shade under the trees, and finds himself in "the gloomy circle of some Inferno": the place is full of diseased Africans who worked on the railroad and now lay sick and gaunt, awaiting death. Marlow witnesses the scene "horror-struck."
Marlow must wait for ten days in the company's Outer Station. He sleeps in a hut. At this station, which strikes Marlow as a scene of devastation, he meets the company's impeccably dressed chief accountant who tells him of a Mr. Kurtz, who is in charge of a very important trading-post, and a widely respected, first-class agent, a "'very remarkable person'" who "'Sends in as much ivory as all the others put together'". The agent predicts that Kurtz will go very far: "'He will be a somebody in the Administration before long. They, above—the Council in Europe, you know—mean him to be'".
Marlow departs with a caravan of sixty men to travel on foot about 200 miles (320 km) into the wilderness to the Central Station, where the steamboat that he is to captain is based. On the fifteenth day of his march, he arrives at the station, which has some twenty employees and is shocked to learn from a fellow European that his steamboat has been wrecked in an accident two days earlier. He meets the general manager, who informs him that he could wait no longer for Marlow to arrive, because the up-river stations had to be relieved and tells him of a rumour that one important station is in jeopardy because its chief, the exceptional Mr. Kurtz, is ill. "Hang Kurtz", Marlow thinks, irritated. He fishes his boat out of the river and is occupied with its repair for some months, during which a sudden fire destroys a grass shed full of materials used to trade with the natives. While one of the natives is tortured for allegedly causing the fire, Marlow is invited in the room of the station's brick-maker, a man who spent a year waiting for material to make bricks. Marlow gets the impression the man wants to pump him and is curious to know what kind of information he is after. Hanging on the wall is "a small sketch in oils, on a panel, representing a woman draped and blindfolded carrying a lighted torch". Marlow is fascinated with the sinister effect of the torchlight upon the woman's face, and is informed that Mr. Kurtz made the painting in the station a year ago. The brick-maker calls Kurtz "'a prodigy'" and "'an emissary of pity, and science, and progress'", and feels Kurtz represents the "'higher intelligence, wide sympathies, a singleness of purpose'" needed for the cause Europe entrusts the Company with. The man predicts Kurtz will rise in the hierarchy within two years and then makes the connection to Marlow: "'The same people who sent him specially also recommended you'".
Marlow is frustrated by the months it takes to perform the repairs, delayed by the lack of proper tools and replacement parts at the station. He learns that Kurtz is not admired but rather resented by the manager. Once underway, the journey up-river to Kurtz's station takes two months. The steamboat stops briefly near an abandoned hut on the riverbank, where Marlow finds a pile of wood and a note indicating that the wood is for them and that they should proceed quickly but with caution as they near the Inner Station.
The journey pauses for the night about 8 miles (13 km) below the Inner Station. In the morning the crew awakens to find that the boat is 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 attacked with a barrage of small arrows from the forest. The helmsman is impaled by a spear and falls at Marlow's feet. Marlow sounds the steam whistle repeatedly, frightening the attackers and causing the shower of arrows to cease. Marlow and a pilgrim (Marlow's word for the European hangers-on in the steamer) watch the helmsman die. In a flash forward, Marlow notes that the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had commissioned Kurtz to write a report, which he did eloquently. A handwritten postscript, apparently added later by Kurtz, reads "Exterminate all the brutes!"
At Kurtz's station Marlow sees a man on the riverbank waving his arm, urging them to land. The pilgrims, heavily armed, escort the manager on to the shore to retrieve Mr. Kurtz. The man from the bank boards the steamboat and turns out to be a Russian wanderer who had happened to stray into Kurtz's camp. He explains that he had left the wood and the note at the abandoned hut. Through conversation Marlow discovers just how wanton Kurtz can be; how the natives worship him; and how very ill he has been of late. The Russian admires Kurtz for his intellect and his insights into love, life and justice and suggests that he is a poet. He tells of how Kurtz opened his mind and seems to admire him even for his power—and for his willingness to use it. Marlow, on the other hand, suggests that Kurtz has gone mad.
From the steamboat, Marlow observes the station in detail and is surprised to see near the station house a row of posts topped with the severed heads of natives. Around the corner of the house, the manager appears with the pilgrims, bearing a gaunt and ghost-like Kurtz on an improvised stretcher. The area fills with natives, apparently ready for battle but Kurtz shouts something from the stretcher and the natives retreat into the forest. The pilgrims carry Kurtz to the steamer and lay him in one of the cabins, where he and the manager have a private conversation. Marlow watches a beautiful native woman walk in measured steps along the shore and stop next to the steamer; literary commentators say she is Kurtz's mistress. When the manager exits the cabin he pulls Marlow aside and tells him that Kurtz has harmed the company's business in the region, that his methods are "unsound". Later, the Russian reveals that Kurtz believes the company wants to remove him from the station and kill him and Marlow confirms that hangings had been discussed.
After midnight, Marlow discovers that Kurtz has left his cabin on the steamer and returned to shore. He goes ashore and finds a very weak Kurtz crawling his way back to the station house, though not too weak to call to the natives for help. Marlow threatens to harm Kurtz if he raises an alarm but Kurtz only laments that he had not accomplished more in the region. The next day they prepare for their journey back down the river. The natives, including the ornately dressed woman, once again assemble on shore and begin to shout unintelligibly. Noticing the pilgrims readying their rifles, Marlow sounds the steam whistle repeatedly to scatter the crowd of natives. Only the woman remains unmoved, with outstretched arms. The pilgrims open fire as the current carries them swiftly downstream.
Kurtz's health worsens on the return trip and Marlow becomes increasingly ill. The steamboat breaks down and while it is stopped for repairs, Kurtz gives Marlow a packet of papers, including his commissioned report and a photograph, telling him to keep them away from the manager. When Marlow next speaks with him, Kurtz is near death; Marlow hears him weakly whisper "The horror! The horror!". A short while later, the "manager's boy" announces to the rest of the crew, "Mistah Kurtz—he dead" . The next day Marlow pays little attention to the pilgrims as they bury "something" in a muddy hole. He falls very ill, himself near death.
Upon his return to Europe, Marlow is embittered and contemptuous of the "civilised" world. Several callers come to retrieve the papers Kurtz had entrusted to him, but Marlow withholds them or offers papers he knows they have no interest in. He then gives Kurtz's report to a journalist, for publication if he sees fit. Finally Marlow is left with some personal letters and a photograph of 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 has been more than a year since Kurtz's death. She presses Marlow for information, asking him to repeat Kurtz's final words. Uncomfortably, Marlow lies and tells her that Kurtz's final word was her name.
Movie the book inspired: Apocalypse Now (we'll watch full movie Saturday)
ASSIGNMENT: Write about a dark trip full of foreboding, 50 to 200 words. Or translate a paragraph like in the excerpt link. Or narrate a 30 second video of a river boat heading up river.