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...
(The entire section is 1,304 words.)