Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, 1902

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by Joseph Conrad, 1902

Joseph Conrad's intention in "Heart of Darkness" is not to provide an accurate description of Africa. The Africa in the tale is the continent as seen through European eyes. Certainly "Heart of Darkness" possesses some elements of realism. Marlow relates the story as if it were firsthand experience. The most powerful influence on Conrad's choice of narrative convention would have been the mode of the sahib recounting his colonial experiences. Conrad uses it ironically to subvert the sahib views of imperialism.

On one level, "Heart of Darkness" is a serious commentary on imperialism, what Conrad called "the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration." Marlow's portrayal is, from one aspect, a part of this theme, and his suitability as a narrative vehicle is crucial to its presentation. In four instances Marlow is compelled to compromise with truth, but for a worthy purpose; we feel that he is as honest as possible in an imperfect world.

That Marlow is a certain type of Englishman is also important. His honesty and exceptional humanity set him up as a fitting narrator. But is his usefulness limited by his British imperial-mindedness? Conrad is able to treat this side of Marlow critically just as he does the other aspects. The character of Marlow provides one way by which the author can bring Britain into his concerns. He can plausibly employ Marlow to convey his themes as fully as he understands them partly because Marlow's national sentiment would not be on the defensive. He can remain clear-sighted and frank in confronting the imperial entanglements of a foreign country, Belgium.

Conrad's presentation of the imperial theme begins when Marlow is on board a yawl in the Thames at dusk with four cronies. Suggestions of darkness in Great Britain's (Roman) past and present history converge. Marlow's cronies comprise a director of companies, a lawyer, and an accountant, all pillars of capitalism and thereby implicated in his tale.

The action gathers momentum as the scene shifts to Brussels, the headquarters of the Belgian empire. The whole city seems to Marlow "a whited sepulchre." Its deathlike attributes link with the inhumanity in the empire, and Conrad suggests how the attributes of the metropolitan country are founded on imperialism. When Marlow leaves Brussels for the Congo, the realities en route are an integral part of the portrayal of imperialism: "the merry dance of death and trade goes on."

When the action moves on to the Congo, Conrad presents the imperial entanglements of Western civilization and primitive culture in the colony itself. The structure of the tale is provided by Marlow's journey to and from the heart of Africa, a linear structure with a unifying center, a pivotal concern, in Marlow himself and his growth.

In "Heart of Darkness" Marlow is extraordinary in his powers of observation but not in his attempts at analysis. What distinguishes him is his openness to impressions. Marlow, however, is a narrator who only partially understands his experiences. The most fundamental irony of the tale is that he narrates experiences but is unaware of their full import, which emerges through prose rich in implication and through the fine selection and juxtaposition of scenes. It is commonly argued that Marlow is the hero of the tale, but his role as a character in his own right is of secondary importance. He is mainly a vehicle through which Conrad conveys the entanglements of Western civilization and primitive culture.

At the story's climax, when Kurtz tells his story of the heart of Africa, the imperial theme expands to include an account of moral isolation. At the same time the symbolic level of the journey into the Congo becomes more pronounced—a journey into the depths of the unconscious. Indeed, "Heart of Darkness" is more symbolic than realistic.

Kurtz has lofty ideals, but the tragedy is that he deteriorates to the lowest possible levels. Marlow thinks that Kurtz's problems are solitude and silence, but his chief problem is one of freedom. Deprived of the protective power of society, of civilized restraints, he is faced with the terrible challenge of his own self, the knowledge that he is free, with all the dangers that attend this awareness. The strong drives in human nature then emerge in all their force. Kurtz is unable to control his lust for women, his lust for power, and the lure of the alien.

Kurtz's role in the story suggests meanings on political, economic, social, religious, moral, and psychological levels. It also intimates archetypal and philosophic levels. Behind Kurtz stands the Christian legend of Lucifer. Kurtz is guilty of pride and the pride of self. He rebels against the limitations and imperfections of the human condition and sets himself up as a demigod, coming to grief partly as a consequence. His final cry, "The horror! The horror!" is rich in meaning. It is interpreted by Marlow as "complete knowledge" and "a moral victory." On one level, it is a rejection of "going native." It also can be understood as a recoil from the whole mess of European rapacity and brutality into which he is being returned. Perhaps Kurtz also sees a vision of hell and the damnation awaiting him.

Kurtz becomes more than a representative of imperialism and European civilization; he acquires significance both as a human being and ultimately as a symbol of evil. The heart of darkness is the center of Africa, the unknown, the hidden self, and, above all, the evil in humankind.

"Heart of Darkness" was first published in Blackwood's Magazine in 1899 and revised for publication in Youth three years later.

—D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke

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Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, 1902

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