In one sense, Heart of Darkness is a compelling adventure tale of a journey into the heart of the Belgian Congo. The story presents attacks by indigenous peoples, descriptions of the jungle and the river, and characterizations of Europeans who, sometimes idealistically and sometimes simply for profit, invade the jungles to bring out ivory. The journey into the heart of the Congo, however, is also a symbolic journey into the darkness central to the heart and soul of humanity, a journey deep into primeval passion, superstition, and lust. Those such as the district manager who undertake this journey simply to rob the Congolese of their ivory without any awareness of the importance of the central darkness can survive. Similarly, Marlow, who is only an observer, never centrally involved, can survive to tell the tale; but those such as Mr. Kurtz who are aware of the darkness, who hope with conscious intelligence and a concern for all humanity to bring light into the darkness, are doomed. They are themselves swallowed up by the darkness and evil they had hoped to penetrate.
Joseph Conrad manages to make his point, a realization of the evil at the center of human experience, without ever breaking the pattern of his narrative or losing the compelling atmospheric and psychological force of the tale. The wealth of natural symbols, the clear development of character, and the sheer fascination of the story make this a novella that has been frequently praised and frequently read ever since its publication in 1899. Heart of Darkness is, in style and insight, a masterpiece.
Christened Jósef Teodor Konrad Nacz Korzeniowski by his Polish parents, Conrad was able to write of the sea and sailing from firsthand knowledge. He left the cold climate of Poland early in his life to travel to the warmer regions of the Mediterranean, where he became a sailor. He began reading extensively and chose the sea as a central shaping metaphor for the ideas that were forming in his imagination. He traveled a great deal: to the West Indies, Latin America, Africa. Eventually, he settled in England and perfected (through the elaborate process of translating from Polish into French into English) a remarkably subtle yet powerful literary style.
Criticism of Conrad’s work in general and of Heart of Darkness in particular has been extensive and varied. Many critics concern themselves with Conrad’s style; others focus on the biographical aspects of his fiction; some see the works as social commentaries; some are students of Conrad’s explorations into human psychology; many are interested in the brooding, shadowy symbolism and philosophy that hovers over all the works. It is easy to see, therefore, that Conrad is a distinctively complex literary genius. E. M. Forster censured him as a vague and elusive writer who never quite clearly discloses the philosophy that lies behind his tales. Such a censure ignores Conrad’s notion about the way some fiction can be handled. Partly as Conrad’s mouthpiece, the narrator of Heart of Darkness states in the first few pages of the novel: The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of those misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.
The mention of the narrator brings up one of the most complex and intriguing features of Heart of Darkness: its carefully executed and elaborately conceived point of view. Readers can detect (if careful in their reading) that the novel is in truth two narratives, inexorably woven together by Conrad’s masterful craftsmanship. The outer frame of the story—the immediate setting—involves the unnamed narrator who is apparently the only one on The Nellie who is profoundly affected by Marlow’s tale, the inner story that forms the bulk of the novella. Marlow narrates, and the others listen. The narrator’s closing words demonstrate his feelings at the conclusion of Marlow’s recounting of the events in the Congo: Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha. Nobody moved for a time. “We have lost the first of the ebb,” said the Director suddenly. I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.
Since Marlow’s narrative is devoted primarily to a journey to the mysterious “dark” continent (Africa), a superficial view of the tale is simply that it is essentially an elaborate story involving confrontation with exotic natives, treacherous dangers of the jungle, brutal savagery, and even cannibalism. Such a view, however, ignores larger meanings with which the work is implicitly concerned—namely, its social and cultural implications, the psychological workings of the cultivated European mind confronting an uncivilized wilderness, and the richly colored fabric of symbolism that emerges slowly but inevitably from beneath the surface.
Heart of Darkness portrays a perverted version of the “white man’s burden” in the philosophy adopted by the ivory hunters at the inner station. Kurtz’s “Exterminate the brutes!” illustrates the tendency of Europeans to exploit and oppress indigenous peoples. The figure of a gunboat on the coast futilely shelling the jungle itself, rather than any specific target within it, also vividly portrays the useless, brutal, and absurd attitude adopted by a nominally stronger culture toward a nominally weaker culture that it is unable to control.
The psychological characteristics of Marlow’s tale emerge most forcefully in the figure of Kurtz, a man relieved of all social and civilized restraints, who goes mad after committing himself to the total pursuit of evil and depravity. His final cry, “The horror! the horror!” suggests his ultimate realization of the consequences of his life. Marlow also realizes this and is allowed (because he forces restraint upon himself) to draw back his foot from the precipice of madness. The experience leaves Marlow sober, disturbed, meditative, and obsessed with relating his story in much the same way Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ancient mariner must also relate his tale.
On a symbolic level, the story is rich; many books have been written on this facet of the novel. Some of the major symbols employed in the text include the Congo River, which reminds Marlow of a snake as it uncoils into the darkness of Africa and furnishes him with an uncontrollable “fascination of the abomination”; the symbolic journey into Marlow’s own heart of darkness, revealing blindingly the evil of human nature and the human capacity for evil; and the irony of the fact that truth is portrayed as bringing not light but rather total darkness. The entire symbolic character of the work is summarized at the end of Marlow’s tale, when he is forced to lie to Kurtz’s intended spouse in order to preserve her illusions; the truth appears to Marlow as an inescapable darkness, and the novel ends with the narrator’s own observation of darkness.
Heart of Darkness is one of literature’s most somber fictions. It explores the fundamental questions about human nature: the capacity for evil, the necessity of restraint, the effects of isolation, and the necessity of relinquishing pride to achieve spiritual salvation. E. M. Forster’s censure of Conrad may be correct in many ways, but it refuses to admit that through such philosophical ruminations Conrad allowed generations of readers to ponder humanity’s heart of darkness.