(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Tales of Unrest 1898

Typhoon 1902

*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 published as A Personal Record, 1912

Under Western Eyes (novel) 1911

Chance (novel) 1913

Victory (novel) 1915

The Arrow of Gold (novel) 1917

The Shadow-Line (novel) 1917

The Rescue (novel) 1920

Notes on Life and Letters (essays) 1921

Notes on My Books (essays) 1921

The Rover (novel) 1923

The Nature of a Crime [with Ford Madox Ford] (novel) 1924

Suspense (novel) 1925

Last Essays (essays) 1926

Conrad to a Friend: 150 Selected Letters from Joseph Conrad to Richard Curle (letters) 1928; also published as Joseph Conrad to Richard Curle, 1928

The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad. 4 vols. (letters) 1983-1990

*This work contains the novella Heart of Darkness, which was published separately in 1942.

J. Hillis Miller (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Michael Levenson (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Robert Hampson (essay date spring 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Rita Bode (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Kimberly J. Devlin (essay date winter 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Cedric Watts (essay date 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Carola M. Kaplan (essay date summer 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Ode S. Ogede (essay date 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Tony C. Brown (essay date spring 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Dorothy Trench-Bonett (essay date summer 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Donald S. Wilson (essay date summer 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Peter Edgerly Firchow (essay date 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

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.

—Goethe, Maxims

An historian of hearts is not an historian of emotions, yet he penetrates further, restrained as he may be,...

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Padmini Mongia (essay date summer 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4913 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 596 words.)