First serialized in London’s Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899 and then published in book form three years later, Heart of Darkness has been called the best short novel written in English—a bridge between nineteenth and twentieth-century literature and a forerunner of modern literary methods, as well as Joseph Conrad’s most critically acclaimed work. A lifelong interest in Africa finally propelled the thirty-two-year-old Conrad, originally from Poland, to the continent in 1889 where he became captain of a river steamboat, like the book’s protagonist, Charlie Marlow. A seasoned sailor and traveler who had spent the previous ten years as part of the British merchant marines, Conrad witnessed atrocities in the Belgian Congo during his six-month stay that would remain with him for the rest of his days; they lie at the very heart of his unrelenting novel.
During the 1890s, the novel’s timeframe, ivory was in great demand in Europe. Belgian traders, under the rule of King Leopold II, committed many horrifying crimes against native Africans in their zeal to extract as much profit as possible from the territory. While the events portrayed in the book unfold in the nineteenth century, Conrad turns a more modern and ferociously skeptical eye on the conceits of European colonialists and their paltry justifications for acts of moral depravity in the name of profit. The book’s title, then, refers not only to a voyage into the heart of the Belgian Congo, but also to the journey into man’s dark, uncharted soul.
Conrad portrays the Congo as a mysterious and forbidding land of wild, impenetrable forests, bisected by a serpentine and treacherous river. The narrative’s pervasive atmosphere produces an eerie and potentially maddening effect on the story’s foreign opportunists, as it certainly does on the chilling character of Kurtz, the deranged and depraved ivory trader Marlow brings out of the jungle. Heady, intense, and unremitting from the start, Heart of Darkness pulls readers into this strange and sinister world and holds them there, as if in a trance, until the very end.
Conrad frames his novel as a story within a story, introduced by an unnamed narrator who prepares readers for the tale Charlie Marlow will tell. The narrator observes, “to him [Marlow] 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. . . .“ Indeed, this is as good a description of the novel itself as it is of the way Marlow then recounts his stunning personal experience. Charlie Marlow’s specific story is unique to Heart of Darkness, of course, but Conrad’s novel has been called a reinterpretation of the German legend of Faust, a man who trades his soul to the devil for earthly success and pleasures. Heart of Darkness itself has been reinterpreted, most famously in Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematic tour de force.
While many of the geopolitical realities have changed since the novel was first published, much of what Conrad explores remains relevant and profoundly significant: the ephemerality of man and his endeavors, the ambiguous nature of truth and morality, the interconnectedness of humans with each other and their environment, the nature of work, the corrupting nature of power, the perils of the arrogant belief in the superiority of one culture over another, and the capacity for both good and evil that lies within the human heart. In its artistic rendering of these universal themes, Heart of Darkness endures as a literary masterpiece.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Discuss how Marlow’s first-person narrative point of view impacts the story. Is he a trustworthy narrator? How would this story affect the reader differently if it were told instead by an omnipotent narrator?
2. Describe the key character traits of Marlow and Kurtz, and discuss motivations for their actions in the novel.
3. Identify the various literary devices the author employs, including personification, metaphor, simile, irony, and juxtaposition.
4. Gain an appreciation for Conrad’s masterful description, particularly in regard to setting. How does Conrad’s nuanced description of setting contribute to tone and mood?
5. Identify key images and symbols from the novel—the river, the sea, the forest, the drums—and discuss their significance.
6. Gain a basic understanding of the setting of the novel and the historical/cultural background of the colonization of Africa by European countries, and find examples in the text.
7. Discuss the significance of the novel’s title and how it relates to some major themes in the book—the nature of evil and morality, colonialism, racism, and cultural superiority.
8. Explain and give examples of the colonial mindset and how the novel shows the dangers of this concept.
9. Explore the themes of the corrupting nature of power, self-deception, and the perils of the arrogant belief in the superiority of one culture over another.
10. Identify these themes and cite specific examples from the story: man’s ephemerality, the ravages of colonialism and capitalism, and the ambiguous nature of truth, evil, and morality.