Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad
(Born Josef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski) Polish-born English novelist, short story and novella writer, essayist, dramatist, and autobiographer.
The following entry presents criticism of Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness (1902) from 1985 to 2001. See also, "The Secret Sharer" Criticism and Joseph Conrad Criticism.
Heart of Darkness is considered one of the greatest novellas in the English language. On the surface it is a dreamlike tale of mystery and adventure set in central Africa; however, it is also the story of a man's symbolic journey into his own inner being. A profusion of vivid details that are significant on both literal and symbolic levels contributes to the ambiguity of Conrad's narrative and has led to conflicting interpretations of its meaning. Written in 1899, Heart of Darkness was initially published in serial form in Blackwood's magazine and finally published in book form in Youth: A Narrative, and Two Other Stories (1902). It was later published separately in 1942.
Plot and Major Characters
Throughout Conrad's career Heart of Darkness remained one of his most popular and highly regarded works. The novella details the story of the seaman Marlow who, fresh from Europe, is sent on a boat journey up the Congo River to relieve Kurtz, the most successful trader in ivory working for the Belgian government. Prior to their personal encounter, Marlow knows and admires Kurtz through his reputation and his writings regarding the civilizing of the African continent and sets out on the journey excited at the prospect of meeting him. However, Marlow's experience in Africa inspires revulsion at the dehumanizing effects of colonialism, a disgust that culminates when he discovers that Kurtz has degenerated from an enlightened civilizer into a vicious, power-hungry subjugator of the African natives. Marlow's journey forces him to confront not only Kurtz's corruption but also those elements within himself that are subject to the same temptations that affected Kurtz. When Marlow finally meets Kurtz, the mythical figure is near death, ravaged by disease and dissipation. After Kurtz's death, Marlow returns to Belgium and is visited by Kurtz's fiancée. During the visit he lies to her about Kurtz's activities and falsely claims that he called her name before he died. Critics have debated the motives behind this last deception: some feminist critics view the lie as an act of condescension; other commentators contend that Marlow wants to preserve his own illusions about Kurtz; and yet others perceive the lie as a compassionate act that functions to contrast Marlow's humanity with Kurtz's inhumanity.
Like many of Conrad's novels and short stories, Heart of Darkness is based in part upon the author's personal experiences. In 1890, after more than a decade as a seaman, Conrad requested the command of a Belgian steamer sailing for Africa. A diary kept during the subsequent voyage provides evidence that many of the characters, incidents, and impressions recalled in Heart of Darkness have factual bases. Contemporary critics, however, contend that Conrad's manipulation of the African environment in the novel, and the portraits of greed, destruction, and psychological regression that he creates, should be credited solely to his imaginative genius. Moreover, the relationship of Conrad to his character Marlow has been a fertile area of critical discussion. Marlow has been variously perceived as the spokesman for Conrad, a complex and separate creation, and as a combination of both. The affinity between Marlow and Kurtz is considered the most crucial relationship between characters in the story. Critics identify Kurtz's death scene and Marlow's lie to Kurtz's fiancée as seminal scenes in the novella; these scenes have been subject to a wide range of critical interpretations.
Many critics have commented on Conrad's evocative powers in Heart of Darkness, paying particular attention to his use of imagery, which manages to evoke a sinister atmosphere through the accretion of objectively described details of the African jungle and natives. The visual imagery, which heavily depends upon contrasting patterns of light and dark, contributes most appreciably to the consistently ambiguous tone of the work. To demonstrate the moral uncertainty of this world and of life in general, Conrad consistently alters common symbolic conceptions of light and dark. Thus, white is not synonymous with good, nor black with evil, but rather both symbols are interchangeable. Throughout the novella, white and black characters are alternately examples of acute suffering, civilized dignity, moral refinement, or violent savagery, demonstrating that no race is wholly good or evil, and that all human beings are a confusing mixture of propensities for all types of behavior. While some critics consider Conrad's imagery vague and confused in a manner that does not present a clear picture of the principal characters and events, most find that the ambiguity of description lends a psychological depth to the story that demands the close attention and involvement of the reader.
The political significance of Heart of Darkness has also received much critical attention. Social Darwinism and a strong belief in the Carlylean work ethic are two of the Victorian standards that are attacked in the novella. The first served to justify European exploitation of Africa and other areas of the world by purporting that the indigenous peoples were in need of the superior technological and religious knowledge of Europe. In Heart of Darkness, the hypocrisy of these aims is illustrated by the all-consuming scramble for wealth by the Europeans, who destroy the land and people without remorse. Critics contend that by contrasting the harmony that exists between the native Africans and their natural environment with the lazy, brutish grotesques that white imperialists become in Africa, Conrad proves that it is the Africans who are the fittest to survive in their native land and that Darwin's theory was in fact never intended to be applied to races or nations. In similar fashion, the work ethic that Marlow seems to embrace, praising its effectiveness in keeping his mind free of undesirable thoughts, is in fact instrumental in blinding him to the events around him. Throughout the novella, Conrad's portrayal of the failure of various European ideologies in Africa suggests the consequent failure and moral bankruptcy of Europe.
Heart of Darkness remains a work popular with critics and readers alike. It has been studied from feminist, psychoanalytical, racial, and political perspectives. Conrad's consciously ambiguous presentation of the relative nature of truth and morality, which compels the reader to take an active part in understanding the novella, is often considered a forerunner of many modernist literary techniques. For this reason Frederick R. Karl has called Heart of Darkness the work in which “the nineteenth century becomes the twentieth.” The novella's artistic cohesion of image and theme, its intricately vivid evocation of colonial oppression, and its detailed portrait of psychological duplicity and decay have inspired critics to call Heart of Darkness the best novella in the English language.
Tales of Unrest 1898
*Youth: A Narrative, and Two Other Stories 1902
Typhoon, and Other Stories 1903
A Set of Six 1908
‘Twixt Land and Sea 1912
Within the Tides 1915
Tales of Hearsay 1925
The Sisters 1928
The Complete Short Stories of Joseph Conrad 1933
The Collected Edition of the Works of Joseph Conrad. 21 vols. (novels, short stories, essays, and memoirs) 1946-55
Congo Diary, and Other Uncollected Pieces (diary and short stories) 1978
Almayer's Folly (novel) 1895
An Outcast of the Islands (novel) 1896
The Children of the Sea (novel) 1897; also published as The Nigger of the “Narcissus”, 1898
Lord Jim (novel) 1900
The Inheritors [with Ford Madox Ford] (novel) 1901
Romance [with Ford Madox Ford] (novel) 1903
Nostromo (novel) 1904
One Day More (drama) 1904
The Mirror of the Sea (autobiography) 1906
The Secret Agent (novel) 1907
Some Reminiscences (autobiography) 1908; also...
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SOURCE: Miller, J. Hillis. “Heart of Darkness Revisited.” In Conrad Revisited: Essays for the Eighties, edited by Ross C. Murfin, pp. 31-50. University: The University of Alabama Press, 1985.
[In the following essay, Miller views Heart of Darkness as a parabolic and apocalyptic text.]
I begin with three questions: Is it a senseless accident, result of the crude misinterpretation or gross transformation of the mass media, that the cinematic version of Heart of Darkness is called Apocalypse Now, or is there already something apocalyptic about Conrad's novel in itself? What are the distinctive features of an apocalyptic text? How would we know when we had one in hand?
I shall approach an answer to these questions by the somewhat roundabout way of an assertion that if Heart of Darkness is perhaps only problematically apocalyptic, there can be no doubt that it is parabolic. The distinctive feature of a parable, whether sacred or secular, is the use of a realistic story, a story in one way or another based firmly on what Marx calls man's “real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind,”1 to express another reality or truth not otherwise expressible. When the disciples ask Jesus why he speaks to the multitudes in parables, he answers, “Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not,...
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SOURCE: Levenson, Michael. “The Value of Facts in the Heart of Darkness.” In Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism, edited by Robert Kimbrough, pp. 391-405. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1988.
[In the following essay, Levenson traces the development of Heart of Darkness, maintaining that “it is clear that Conrad markedly altered his conception” of the story as he was writing it.]
Although the point has been strangely neglected, it is clear that Conrad markedly altered his conception of Heart of Darkness during the period of its composition. His act of writing was at the same time a discovery of his subject. This issue possesses independent interest, but it will be pursued here as a way of approaching a problem in the interpretation of the tale. Heart of Darkness does not simply record the unfolding of an action; it unfolds its own mode of understanding, and by the time it has reached its conclusion it has redrawn its own boundaries, redescribed its facts, and revaluated its values.
In a letter to William Blackwood dated 31 December 1898, Conrad refers to a new story that he is preparing for Blackwood's Magazine, “a narrative after the manner of Youth” that is already “far advanced.” He discloses his working title, The Heart of Darkness, but quickly adds that “the...
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SOURCE: Hampson, Robert. “‘Heart of Darkness’ and ‘The Speech that Cannot be Silenced’.” English 29, no. 163 (spring 1990): 15-32.
[In the following essay, Hampson investigates the role of racism in Heart of Darkness.]
James Clifford, in an insightful essay on Conrad and Malinowski, at one point observes:
It would be interesting to analyze systematically how, out of the heteroglot encounters of fieldwork, ethnographers construct texts whose prevailing language comes to override, represent, or translate other languages.1
As Clifford notes, behind this observation lies Talal Asad's conception of ‘a persistent, structured inequality of languages’ within the process of ‘cultural translation’. In Asad's own words:
The anthropological enterprise of cultural translation may be vitiated by the fact that there are asymmetrical tendencies and pressures in the languages of dominated and dominant societies.2
Elsewhere in the same essay, Clifford refers, in passing, to ‘the many complexities in the staging and valuing of different languages in Heart of Darkness’.3 I would like to take this perception and the observations about the problems of ‘cultural translation’ as the starting-point for an investigation of racism...
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SOURCE: Bode, Rita. “‘They … Should Be Out of It’: The Women of Heart of Darkness.” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 26, no. 1 (1994): 20-34.
[In the following essay, Bode asserts that “a close focus on the females in Heart of Darkness suggests that the extent and nature of their power are formidable.”]
Conrad's women in Heart of Darkness have bewildered critical commentators as much, perhaps, as his Congo experience bedevils Marlow. Though Conrad's text seems to proffer an invitation to read the work as a kind of male ritual, a moral and sexual initiation into “manhood,” the wide range of critical approaches has not neglected the work's female figures. Recent feminist studies have focused on the women characters to explore Conrad's methods and ideology. Valerie M. Sedlak, for instance, looks at Marlow's “search for interpretation,” which elucidates the novella's patterns of “fictive discourse,” and Johanna M. Smith assesses Conrad's complex approach to imperialist ideology through the female figures.1 Other studies have drawn conclusions about the women themselves.2 Frequently, critics have sensed danger among the women for the novella's male protagonists. Some commentators, like Addison C. Bross and Bruce R. Stark, locate this danger in the female characters' “link with evil and darkness.”3 while others,...
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SOURCE: Devlin, Kimberly J. “They Eye and the Gaze in Heart of Darkness: A Symptomological Reading.” Modern Fiction Studies 40, no. 4 (winter 1994): 711-35.
[In the following essay, Devlin analyzes the textual symptoms found in Heart of Darkness and asserts that the novella was written with a colonial bias.]
In their initial theorization by Freud, symptoms engage the body's performative registers on several levels: they can traverse, for instance, behavioral patterns (as in compulsive gestures or tics), sensate functions (as in dyspnoea), communicative abilities (as in aphonias), and mental processes (as in supervalent thoughts). They are characterized alternately as excesses (as in phobias or obsessions) and absences (as in amnesic gaps), and they are marked by their formal variety, their ingenious refusal to confine themselves to any particular expressive mode of the embodied subject. Symptomology illustrates the ways in which the body's numerous performative registers are inseparable from the linguistic, are enmeshed in the discursive. The symptomatized body emerges as a site of hyper-signification.
Psychoanalysis can be said to narrativize the signifying embodied subject, that is, to construct from its specific symptoms a larger narrative. Several of Freud's case histories suggest that the overdetermined origins of this narrative remain entangled in history and fantasy....
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SOURCE: Watts, Cedric. “Heart of Darkness.” In The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad, edited by J. H. Stape, pp. 45-62. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Watts traces the critical reaction to Heart of Darkness and places the novella within the nineteenth-century literary tradition.]
Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a rich, vivid, layered, paradoxical, and problematic novella or long tale; a mixture of oblique autobiography, traveller's yarn, adventure story, psychological odyssey, political satire, symbolic prose-poem, black comedy, spiritual melodrama, and sceptical meditation. It has proved to be ‘ahead of its times’: an exceptionally proleptic text. First published in 1899 as a serial in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, it became extensively influential during subsequent decades, and reached a zenith of critical acclaim in the period 1950-75. During the final quarter of the twentieth century, however, while its influence became even more pervasive, the tale was vigorously assailed on political grounds by various feminist critics and by some left-wing and Third World commentators.1 In this essay, I discuss the novella's changing fortunes in ‘the whirligig of time’ (Feste's phrase from Twelfth Night) and argue that even now it retains some capacity to criticize its critics.
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SOURCE: Kaplan, Carola M. “Colonizers, Cannibals, and the Horror of Good Intentions in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.” Studies in Short Fiction 34, no. 3 (summer 1997): 323-33.
[In the following essay, Kaplan explores Conrad's treatment of race, gender, and colonialism in Heart of Darkness.]
Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.” Nowhere is William Butler Yeats's adage more clearly illustrated than in the narrative of Charlie Marlow in Heart of Darkness. Throughout the text, Marlow insists upon the distinction between truth and lies; between men and women; between civilization and savagery; and, most of all, between Self and Other. Of these, the most important distinction is between Self and Other, for it is this opposition that sustains the colonial enterprise. The lure and the fear of the Other initiate the pursuit and “discovery” of colonialism; the conviction of the inferiority of the Other justifies the undertaking. Yet despite Marlow's insistence, all binary oppositions collapse in the course of his narrative: colonists prove to be conquerors, the gang of virtue is indistinguishable from the gang of greed, the illusions of women merely echo the illusions of men, and there is no clear distinction between lies and truth. Most importantly, the fundamental difference between Self and Other disappears and, with it, the unbridgeable gulf between men and women and between...
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SOURCE: Ogede, Ode S. “Phantoms Mistaken for a Human Face: Race and the Construction of the African Woman's Identity in Joseph's Conrad's Heart of Darkness.” The Foreign Woman in British Literature: Exotics, Aliens, and Outsiders (1999): 127-38.
[In the following essay, Ogede argues that Conrad's representation of African women in Heart of Darkness perpetuates standard European myths about Africa.]
“A study of the so-called arbitrariness of the sign, of the ways in which concepts divide reality arbitrarily, and of the relation between a sign, such as blackness, and its referent, such as absence,” Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has written, “can help us to engage in more sophisticated readings of black texts. But it can also help to explain the figuration of blackness in Western texts” (Black Literature and Literary Theory 7). The principle set forth by Gates in this excerpt can be usefully applied to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1910)1 because Conrad's conviction that he could decode the identity of Africans through their physical landscape and appearance indicates that the kind of experience that most interested him was to keep alive the standard European myths about Africa. Although this essay will primarily discuss the image of the African woman delineated in Heart of Darkness, it also examines the general idea of Africa that dominated the...
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SOURCE: Brown, Tony C. “Cultural Psychosis on the Frontier: The Work of the Darkness in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.” Studies in the Novel 32, no. 1 (spring 2000): 14-28.
[In the following essay, Brown maintains that the darkness in Heart of Darkness produces a larger “cultural psychosis.”]
Therein consists the most elementary formal definition of psychosis: the massive presence of some real that fills out and blocks the perspective openness which is constitutive of “reality.”
—Slavoj ˘Zi˘zek, “Grimaces of the Real”1
Heart of Darkness has perversely proved a central document in postcolonial discourse. As Homi K. Bhabha puts it, “the long shadow of Conrad's Heart of Darkness falls on so many texts of the postcolonial pedagogy.”2 Notably, Bhabha cites Edward W. Said's Culture and Imperialism as an exemplary example of such a text:
Heart of Darkness is the novel that invites the most comment and interpretation. It serves as a resource for many of the central arguments in the book. In Said's early discussions of the complex address and consolidation of the imperial idea as ideology, Heart of Darkness features prominently. In the later, postcolonial perspectives that deal with resistance and opposition,...
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SOURCE: Trench-Bonett, Dorothy. “Naming and Silence: A Study of Language and the Other in Conrad's Heart of Darkness.” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 32, no. 2 (summer 2000): 84-95.
[In the following essay, Trench-Bonett counters the charge that Conrad is a racist by examining the way the author utilizes names and silence in Heart of Darkness.]
Chinua Achebe makes some grave charges against Joseph Conrad in his well-known analysis of Heart of Darkness. Conrad, he says, is a “thoroughgoing racist” who ignores the cultural achievements of Africans and represents them not as people, but as “limbs and rolling eyes,” refusing even to confer language upon them. The writer has “a problem with niggers,” and uses “emotive” language and “trickery” to dehumanize his African characters and present a view of Africa as “a place of triumphant bestiality” which functions as a “foil” for an enlightened Europe.1 Achebe's essay deserves serious consideration, not only because racism and the denigration of Africans (and those of African descent) are real and continuing problems, but because he is a writer of skill and sensitivity himself, whose novels are of great value in presenting the people of that continent. However, neither of these facts mean that Achebe's criticism of Conrad is necessarily fair. In this essay, I propose to look in detail at two...
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SOURCE: Wilson, Donald S. “The Beast in the Congo: How Victorian Homophobia Inflects Marlow's Heart of Darkness.” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 32, no. 2 (summer 2000): 96-118.
[In the following essay, Wilson investigates elements of homophobia and homoeroticism in Heart of Darkness.]
Writing in 1899 about the serial publication of Heart of Darkness in Blackwood's Magazine, Joseph Conrad claimed: “One was in decent company there … and had a good sort of public. There isn't a single club and messroom and man-of-war in the British Seas and Dominions which hasn't got its copy of Maga.”1 Evidently Conrad had written his novel exclusively for a male readership.2 However, there were actually two male audiences present for Marlow's tale: Conrad's literal, predominantly male readership, and Marlow's “crowd of men”3—entirely male (from stem to stern, so to speak)—who bear silent witness to the narrator-within-a-narrator's discourse. These four men—a lawyer, an accountant, a Director, and the nameless and non-occupationally established narrator, are based on an actual group of cronies with whom Conrad regularly associated:
Conrad was a lively raconteur who used to swap yarns with G. F. W. Hope, W. B. Keen, and C. H. Mears on Hope's yawl, the Nellie, anchored in the Thames....
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SOURCE: Firchow, Peter Edgerly. “Envisioning Africa.” In Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, pp. 18-30. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2000.
[In the following essay, Firchow discusses Conrad's vision of Africa as found in Heart of Darkness.]
True symbolism is where the particular represents the more general, not as a dream or a shadow, but as a living momentary revelation of the Inscrutable.
An historian of hearts is not an historian of emotions, yet he penetrates further, restrained as he may be, since his aim is to reach the very fount of laughter and tears.
—Conrad, “A Familiar Preface”
Joseph Conrad's African experience was of relatively short duration. Not counting his somewhat muddled preparations in London and Brussels or the slow sea journey to and from the Congo Free State, it actually lasted a little less than six months, from mid-June to early December 1890.1 Psychologically and emotionally it must have seemed a great deal longer, what with the disappointment of not being able to assume command of the small steamer that had been promised him by company officials back in Belgium; the increasing discomfort of illness; and the unavoidable necessity of...
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SOURCE: Mongia, Padmini. “The Rescue: Conrad, Achebe, and the Critics.” Conradiana: A Journal of Conrad Studies 33, no. 2 (summer 2001): 153-63.
[In the following essay, Mongia considers the charges of racism against Conrad and Heart of Darkness.]
I am interested in touching upon numerous concerns raised by Heart of Darkness, all of which radiate around the fraught issue of race and its construction in the novel. For many Conradians, this issue boils down to the charge of racism leveled against the novel, and Conrad, most prominently by Chinua Achebe. Achebe wrote his essay now over twenty years ago. Since it was published, there have been several responses that have apparently revealed the many problems with his argument to demonstrate solidly its ineffectuality.1 Many of these responses are developed in terms of an opposition between the African author who speaks out of his “race”—therefore only with hostility—and the critical expert—the “objective” European critic. These responses are therefore mounted in terms of Achebe's “misrepresentation” of Conrad's text; in terms of Conrad's difference from other European authors at the time; and in terms of the invalidity of bringing a contemporary understanding of race and racism—assumed uncritically to be a progress over the past—to bear on a text of the 1890s. First, I want to unravel some aspects of these...
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Bergenholtz, Rita A. “Conrad's Heart of Darkness.” The Explicator 53, no. 2 (winter 1995): 102-06.
Investigates the role of the two women in the waiting room in Heart of Darkness.
Bodek, Richard. “Conrad's Heart of Darkness.” The Explicator 59, no. 1 (fall 2000): 25-7.
Maintains that “one of the central themes of Heart of Darkness is Europe's wanton destruction of Africa.”
Bongie, Chris. “Exotic Nostalgia: Conrad and the new Imperialism.” In Macropolitics of Nineteenth-Century Literature: Nationalism, Exoticism, Imperialism, edited by Jonathan Arac and Harriet Ritvo, pp. 268-85. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1991.
Examines the representation of Africans in Heart of Darkness and contends that Conrad's attitude toward imperialism in the novella is ambiguous.
Harkness, Bruce. “An Old-Fashioned Reading of Conrad; or, ‘Oh No! Not Another Paper on Heart of Darkness!’.” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 32, no. 1 (spring 2000): 41-6.
Focuses on Marlow's personal journey in Heart of Darkness.
Hyland, Peter. “The Little Woman in the Heart of Darkness.” Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies 20, no. 1 (1988): 3-11....
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