Heart of Darkness Historical and Social Context
by Joseph Conrad

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Historical Background

Conrad based Heart of Darkness on his journey to the Belgian Congo in 1890. By checking his diaries at the time, we can trace his experience against his fictional portrayal. But this novella is more than an autobiographical account of his time spent there. It is a modern work that challenges the basic ethical question of good and evil in mankind, a topic explored by many authors. We need only think of the Adam and Eve myth, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange to name a few. Francis Ford Coppola based his film Apocalypse Now on this philosophical concept by updating Conrad’s story to the Vietnam War and the Southeast Asian jungle of the 1960s.

Conrad also tackled the political environment of the Congo in Heart of Darkness. When King Leopold of Belgium founded the “International Association for the Suppression of Slavery and the Opening Up of Central Africa,” he attempted to impose civilization and order. Greed, though, fostered widespread abuse. By the time Conrad visited the Congo, exploitation festered everywhere. Brutality and degradation reigned, not progress and enlightenment. The natives’ sufferings and Kurtz’s writings about them reflect the historical reality.

A number of factors influenced Conrad and other twentieth-century British writers. We have to first understand Victorian England and the reasons why the modern novelist rejected the values and beliefs of that time to mold a new society founded on different ideals.

Victorian England believed in materialism and progress. Their bourgeois (middle class) values served to stabilize all facets of society, so they believed. The writings of Jane Austen Charles Dickens and George Eliot represented the standards of their time, with Pride and PrejudiceGreat Expectations, and Middlemarch serving as landmarks in fiction at that time. Their novels usually followed the traditional three-volume format. They focussed on many details, often writing at length about seemingly insignificant details.

As the era closed, reaction against Victorian life, commercialism, and community spread. The artist stood, not as a member of society, but in isolation from it. Once embraced by authors, religious faith even declined.

With formal religion destroyed, writers needed to discover a new faith to follow—with art often filling the void. In his preface to The Nigger of Narcissus, Conrad wrote: “Art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its very aspect.” For him, art was religion.

New techniques emerged for novelists to tell their stories. The stream of consciousness and internal monologue emphasized a shift in focus from the external world to the interior world. Dreams, thoughts, and explanations of a character’s mental process replaced lengthy descriptions of external objects. Even though Conrad did not use these devices per se, he did focus on the internal world of his characters, and the reality of their dreams and thoughts. Marlow’s story suggests a nightmarish journey into the unknown.

More than any other factor, the advent and progression of psychology shaped the new vision of man in the universe, as well as the artist’s conception of him. Freud’s ideas showed the different aspects of man’s personality. With Freud’s analysis, man is not easily understood unless we consider his multi-layered make-up. His terms “ego,” “id,” and “super-ego” reveal the depth of our conscious and subconscious mind. After Freud’s work appeared, many works received a “psychological” interpretation. This added a depth of meaning to each work which had not existed before.

If we look at Heart of Darkness  specifically and apply Freud’s concept of the human psyche, we can analyze Marlow’s journey not only as a literal one, but a psychological one....

(The entire section is 3,177 words.)