Historical Background

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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.

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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. Marlow and Kurtz represent different aspects of man’s personality. Marlow reflects the “ego” (man’s more rational side), while Kurtz represents the “id” (man’s primitive force within). This difference explains why Marlow recoils at Kurtz’s barbaric behavior.

The recurring symbols in Conrad’s work show Jung’s influence. Many things represent not only their actual meaning, but a symbolic one, as well. The jungle, Marlow’s journey, and even Kurtz himself suggest other ideas and meanings besides their literal ones. Since Conrad gives no clues, the reader must interpret each one.

Bergson’s theories of time relate to Conrad’s use of a non-chronological narration. He could have had Marlow tell his story without any alteration in time, by starting at the beginning and proceeding straight through until the end. Instead, Conrad lets Marlow jump ahead, then return at whim. This technique merges the past with the present, making the reading more challenging. It shuffles the pieces of a strict chronological plot. As with the symbols, the reader must order the time to organize the sequence of events.

In his preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus Joseph Conrad wrote how an artist’s (writer’s) success allowed readers a “glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.” He also said: “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 every aspect.” In each case, notice his reference to the “truth.” Here, Conrad proclaimed what his contemporaries felt. Only the artist could lead society to the truth. Only the work itself could enable society to understand the truth. The modern artists stood before their audience like prophets addressing the multitudes. The twentieth-century novelists’ work represented a way for the reader to see the new reality.

Historical Context

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European Presence in Africa

In 1890 Joseph Conrad secured employment in the Congo as the captain of a river steamboat; this was also the approximate year in which the main action of Heart of Darkness takes place. Illness forced Conrad's return home after only six months in Africa, but that was long enough for intense impressions to have been formed in the novelist's mind. Today, the river at the center of Heart of Darkness is called the Zaire and the country is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but at the time Conrad wrote of them, the country was the Belgian Congo and the river the Congo.

European explorers first discovered the Congo River in 1482 and maintained a presence on it for hundreds of years thereafter, never traveling more than two hundred miles upstream. It was not until 1877, after the English-born American explorer Henry Morton Stanley had completed a three-year journey across central Africa, that the exact length and course of the mighty Congo River were known. Stanley discovered that the Congo extends some 1,600 miles into Africa from its eastern coast to its western edge, where the river empties into the Atlantic Ocean, and that only one stretch of it is impassable. That section lies between Matadi, two hundred miles in from the mouth of the Congo, and Kinshasa, yet another two hundred miles further inland. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad calls Matadi the Company Station and Kinshasa the Central Station. Between those two places, one is forced to proceed by land, which is exactly what Marlow does on his ‘‘two hundred-mile tramp’’ between the two Stations, described in the book.

In 1878, King Leopold II (reigned 1865-1909) of Belgium asked Stanley to found a Belgian colony in the Congo. The King charged Stanley with setting up outposts along the Congo River, particularly at Matadi. Leopold II described his motives to the rest of Europe as springing from a desire to end slavery in the Congo and civilize the natives, but his actual desires were for material gain. In 1885, at the Congress of Berlin, an international committee agreed to the formation of a new country to be known as the Congo Free State. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad refers to this committee as the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. Leopold II, who was to be sole ruler of this land, never set foot in the Congo Free State. Instead, he formed a company, called simply the Company in Heart of Darkness, that ran the country for him.

The Ivory Trade

A prevalent feeling among Europeans of the 1890s was that the African peoples required introduction to European culture and technology in order to become more evolved. The responsibility for that introduction, known as the ‘‘white man's burden,’’ gave rise to a fervor to bring Christianity and commerce to Africa. What the Europeans took out of Africa in return were huge quantities of ivory. During the 1890s, at the time Heart of Darkness takes place, ivory was in enormous demand in Europe, where it was used to make jewelry, piano keys, and billiard balls, among other items. From 1888 to 1892, the amount of ivory exported from the Congo Free State rose from just under 13,000 pounds to over a quarter of a million pounds. Conrad tells us that Kurtz was the best agent of his time, collecting as much ivory as all the other agents combined.

In 1892, Leopold II declared all natural resources in the Congo Free State to be his property. This meant the Belgians could stop dealing with African traders and simply take what they wanted themselves. As a consequence, Belgian traders pushed deeper into Africa in search of new sources of ivory, setting up stations all along the Congo River. One of the furthermost stations, located at Stanley Falls, was the likely inspiration for Kurtz's Inner Station.

Belgian Atrocities in the Congo

The Belgian traders committed many well-documented acts of atrocity against the African natives, including the severing of hands and heads. Reports of these atrocities reached the European public, leading to an international movement protesting the Belgian presence in Africa. These acts, reflected in Heart of Darkness, continued, despite an order by Leopold II that they cease. In 1908, after the Belgian parliament finally sent its own review board into the Congo to investigate, the king was forced to give up his personal stake in the area, and control of the Congo reverted to the Belgian government. The country was granted its independence from Belgium in 1960, and changed its name from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Zaire in 1971. A relatively bloodless revolution in 1997 returned the country's name to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Social Concerns

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The combined exploitative forces of capitalism and imperialism are the objects of Conrad's social criticism in Heart of Darkness, objects that, in varied contexts and settings, he would fix upon in much of his work. In this tale, quarried from his own Congo adventure (1890), Conrad focuses his moral irony on the universe at large and the hollow conventions by which men seek to deal with it. Among the forces at work in the novella are the International Association for the Civilization of Central Africa, founded by the Belgian King Leopold II in 1875 and having as one of its tenets the spread of European and Christian civilization in Africa. This, indeed, is a major dimension of what was known as "the White Man's Burden" and has its parallel in the novella's International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs to which Kurtz writes a seventeen page report that concludes with an exhortation to exterminate all the brutes. One of Conrad's narrators, Charlie Marlow, undercuts the ostensibly noble motive of civilizing the Congo by remarking that the Thames River and its environs, the seat of the British Empire, had been also one of the dark places of the earth, an outpost of the Roman Empire, every bit as primitive as the Congo, and the object of unabashed exploitation in the name of conquest and empire. Whatever the motive, the effects upon the conquerors and the conquered are similar. One example among many of the futility of the civilizing venture takes place on the voyage out as the French ship taking Marlow to his post passes a French man-of-war anchored off the coast and shelling an unseen native encampment somewhere in the bush. Nothing happened or could happen; and this takes on, for Marlow, a touch of insanity.

The capitalist mercantile ventures, the handmaidens of imperialism, are the proximate cause of Marlow's freshwater voyage into the vast heart of a continent and into an actual and a symbolic heart of darkness. These ventures have as their object the enhancement of wealth and power in Europe and as their by-products the exploitation both of the native population and also of the traders who are condemned to exploit the natives. From Marlow's first visit to what he calls a dead house in a sepulchral city to his voyage to Africa with fellow travelers who are predominantly soldiers, customs agents or traders, to his encounters with the lost souls at the outposts of progress and his meeting with the much heralded and insane Kurtz, his experience of capitalism at work is expressed in terms of death and decay, and in terms of its dehumanizing power.

Additional Commentary

The combined exploitative forces of capitalism and imperialism are the objects of Conrad's social criticism in Heart of Darkness. Conrad focuses his moral irony on the hollow conventions through which people seek to mold the universe to their own specifications. The imperialists' self-appointed duty to govern and "civilize" nonwhite societies prompted King Leopold II of Belgium to found the International Association for the Civilization of Central Africa in 1875. Dedicated to the propagation of European civilization and Christian tenets throughout Africa, this organization has its parallel in the novella's International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. Kurtz writes a seventeen-page report to the society that concludes with the exhortation: "Exterminate all the brutes!" Marlow opens his narrative by remarking that the Thames River and its environs, the seat of the British Empire, had also been "one of the dark places of the earth." Once an outpost of the Roman Empire, every bit as primitive as the Congo and the object of unabashed exploitation, England has been both conquered and conqueror, and, as such, demonstrates the blurred line between the two conditions. The civilizing venture proves fickle for both the society whose customs are overthrown and the one whose morals are sacrificed in the name of conquest.

Kurtz's capitalist mercantile ventures, the handmaidens of imperialism, draw Marlow into the vast heart of a continent and into an actual and a symbolic heart of darkness. These ventures are intended to enhance European wealth and power, but their byproducts are the exploitation of the native population and the moral deterioration of the traders. From Marlow's first visit to what he calls "a dead house in a sepulchral city" to his encounters with the lost souls at the outposts of progress and his meeting with the insane Kurtz, his experience is expressed in terms of death, decay, and the dehumanizing power of capitalism at its worst.

Compare and Contrast

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1890s: The iron steamship has supplanted the sailing ship. The British, French, and Dutch Merchant Marines are associated with colonization and the development of manufacturing. With the introduction of the steel steamship in the mid-nineteenth century, Great Britain takes first place in ship building and shipping.

Today: The turbine and diesel engine bring new power and speed to shipping, and a new age of nuclear-powered shipping is launched. Ocean-going vessels are still the dominant means for world transport of commercial goods.

1890s: The African slave trade has begun to die out in the Belgian Congo. The Brussels Act of 1890 is signed by eighteen nations and greatly limits the slave trade. But forced labor continues in the Congo with appalling brutality as the lucrative trade in rubber and ivory takes up where trade in human beings left off.

Today: Slavery is all but abolished throughout the world, although it is reported to still exist in parts of Africa and Asia.

1890s: Because of the ivory trade, the collection of ivory (present only in the tusks of elephants) thrives in Africa, where elephant tusks are larger than they are in Asia. Antwerp (Belgium) and London are major centers of ivory commerce, with Europe and the U.S. being major importers.

Today: The diminishing number of elephants, due largely to their wholesale slaughter for tusks, leads to a complete ban on ivory trading. A new method of determining the origin of a tusk through DNA testing enables zoologists to fight poaching and determine where the elephant population is large enough to safely permit a limited trade.

1890s: The Congo Free State is established by King Leopold II of Belgium and is to be headed by the King himself. Leopold II never visits the Congo in person, and when reports of atrocities committed there by his agents reach him, he orders that all abuses cease at once. His orders are ignored. Belgium annexes the Congo in 1908.

Today: The Belgian Congo is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Congo River is the Zaire. The Congolese army mutinied in 1960 and the Congo was declared independent. In 1989, the country defaults on a loan from Belgium, resulting in the cancellation of development programs. Since 1990, a trend of political turmoil and economic collapse continues, even after a relatively bloodless revolution in 1997.

1890s: Christian Missionaries are very active in the Belgian Congo They are mostly Roman Catholic and pursue what is known as the "white man's burden" to bring western religion, culture, and technology to the nations of Africa.

Today: More than three-fourths of the inhabitants of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are Christian. Many also follow traditional religious beliefs and a substantial number belong to African Protestant groups. The population of the Congo comprises about two hundred ethnic groups, the majority of whom speak one of the Bantu languages, although the country's official language is French.

Literary Precedents

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Heart of Darkness has precedents in the tales of Chaucer and Boccaccio, the epic poetry of Virgil and Dante, in the literature of the Romantic Rebellion and, in its vision of the universe, in the novels of Thomas Hardy. One must also recall Conrad's earlier fiction as setting precedents for this and his other work. With the traditions of the Victorian novel and the history of Empire behind them, Conrad and several of his contemporaries began to develop tales of adventure and travel set in exotic places. Writers of the Romantic Revival in the late Victorian era such as Robert Louis Stevenson, H. Rider Haggard, and Rudyard Kipling had already set their works in the South Seas, Africa, and India; and Conrad is surely part of the Romantic Revival, especially in the quest for experience in remote parts of the world. In his use of a protagonist who can remain apart and alone but who can still recognize "one of us," he both shares the Romantic spirit and anticipates the literature of alienation of the twentieth century. In his tales and love of the sea he is the literary heir of Homer, Victor Hugo, and Herman Melville.

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