Heart of Darkness
Heart of Darkness first was published as a three-part serial story in Blackwood's Magazine
|Published||1899 serial; 1902 book|
|Preceded by||The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (1897)|
|Followed by||Lord Jim (1900)|
Heart of Darkness (1899) is a novella by Polish-British novelist Joseph Conrad, about a voyage up the Congo River into the Congo Free State, in the heart of Africa, by the story's narrator Marlow. Marlow tells his story to friends aboard a boat anchored on the River Thames, London, England. This setting provides the frame for Marlow's story of his obsession with the ivory trader Kurtz, which enables Conrad to create a parallel between London and Africa as places of darkness.
Central to Conrad's work is the idea that there is little difference between so-called civilised people and those described as savages; Heart of Darkness raises important questions about imperialism and racism.
Originally published as a three-part serial story in Blackwood's Magazine, Heart of Darkness has been variously published and translated into many languages. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Heart of Darkness as the sixty-seventh of the hundred best novels in English of the twentieth century.
Composition and publication
In 1890, at the age of 32, Conrad was appointed by a Belgian trading company to serve on one of their steamers. While sailing up the Congo river from one station to another, the captain became ill and Conrad assumed command, guiding the ship to the trading company's innermost station. The story's main narrator, Charles Marlow, is based upon the author.
When Conrad began to write the novella, eight years after returning from Africa, he drew inspiration from his travel journals. He described Heart of Darkness as "a wild story of a journalist who becomes manager of a station in the (African) interior and makes himself worshipped by a tribe of savages. Thus described, the subject seems comic, but it isn't." The tale was first published as a three-part serial, February, March and April 1899, in Blackwood's Magazine (February 1899 was the magazine's 1000th issue: special edition). Then later, in 1902, Heart of Darkness was included in the book Youth: a Narrative, and Two Other Stories (published on 13 November 1902, by William Blackwood).
The volume consisted of Youth: a Narrative, Heart of Darkness and The End of the Tether in that order. For future editions of the book, in 1917 Conrad wrote an "Author's Note" where he, after denying any "unity of artistic purpose" underlying the collection, discusses each of the three stories, and makes light commentary on the character Marlow—the narrator of the tales within the first two stories. He also mentions how Youth marks the first appearance of Marlow.
On 31 May 1902, in a letter to William Blackwood, Conrad remarked;
- "I call your own kind self to witness [...] the last pages of Heart of Darkness where the interview of the man and the girl locks in—as it were—the whole 30000 words of narrative description into one suggestive view of a whole phase of life and makes of that story something quite on another plane than an anecdote of a man who went mad in the Centre of Africa."
There have been many proposed sources for the character of the antagonist, Kurtz. Georges-Antoine Klein, an agent who became ill and later died aboard Conrad's steamer, has been identified by scholars and literary critics as one basis for Kurtz. The principal figures involved in the disastrous "rear column" of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition have also been identified as likely sources, including column leader Edmund Musgrave Barttelot, slave trader Tippu Tip and the expedition's overall leader, Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley. Adam Hochschild, in King Leopold's Ghost, believes that the Belgian soldier Léon Rom is the most important influence on the character.
Aboard the Nellie, anchored in the River Thames near Gravesend, England, Charles Marlow tells his fellow sailors about the events that led to his appointment as captain of a river steamboat for an ivory trading company. As a child, Marlow had been fascinated by "the blank spaces" on maps, particularly by the biggest, which by the time he had grown up was no longer blank but turned into "a place of darkness." Yet there remained a big river, "resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country and its tail lost in the depths of the land." The image of this river on the map fascinated Marlow "as a snake would a bird". Feeling as though "instead of going to the centre of a continent I were about to set off for the centre of the earth", Marlow takes passage on a French steamer bound for the African coast and then into the interior. After more than thirty days the ship anchors off the seat of the government near the mouth of the big river. Marlow, still some two hundred miles to go, now takes passage on a little sea-going steamer captained by a Swede. He departs some thirty miles up the river where his Company's station is. Work on the railway is going on, involving removal of rocks with explosives. Marlow enters a narrow ravine to stroll in the shade under the trees, and finds himself in "the gloomy circle of some Inferno": the place is full of diseased Africans who worked on the railroad and now await their deaths, their sickened bodies already as thin as air. Marlow witnesses the scene "horror-struck".
Marlow has to wait for ten days in the Company's Outer Station, where he sleeps in a hut. At this station, which strikes Marlow as a scene of devastation, he meets the Company's impeccably dressed chief accountant who tells him of a Mr. Kurtz, who is in charge of a very important trading-post, and a widely respected, first-class agent, a "'very remarkable person'" who "'Sends in as much ivory as all the others put together'". The agent predicts that Kurtz will go very far: "'He will be a somebody in the Administration before long. They, above--the Council in Europe, you know--mean him to be.'"
Marlow departs with a caravan of sixty men to travel on foot some two hundred miles into the wilderness to the Central Station, where the steamboat that he is to captain is based. On the fifteenth day of his march, he arrives at the station, which has some twenty employees, and is shocked to learn from a fellow European that his steamboat had been wrecked in a mysterious accident two days earlier. He meets the General Manager, who informs him that he could wait no longer for Marlow to arrive, because the up-river stations had to be relieved, and rumors had one important station in jeopardy because its chief, the exceptional Mr. Kurtz, was ill. "Hang Kurtz", Marlow thinks irritated. He fishes his boat out of the river and is occupied with its repair for some months, during which a sudden fire destroys a grass shed full of materials used to trade with the natives. While one of the natives is tortured for allegedly causing the fire, Marlow is invited in the room of the station's brick-maker, a man who spent a year waiting for material to make bricks. Marlow gets the impression the man wants to pump him, and is curious to know what kind of information he is after. Hanging on the wall is "a small sketch in oils, on a panel, representing a woman draped and blindfolded carrying a lighted torch." Marlow is fascinated with the sinister effect of the torchlight upon the woman's face, and is informed that Mr. Kurtz made the painting in the station a year ago. The brick-maker calls Kurtz "'a prodigy'" and "'an emissary of pity, and science, and progress'", and feels Kurtz represents the "'higher intelligence, wide sympathies, a singleness of purpose'" needed for the cause Europe entrusts the Company with. The man predicts Kurtz will rise in the hierarchy within two years and then makes the connection to Marlow: "'The same people who sent him specially also recommended you.'"
Marlow is frustrated by the months it takes to perform the necessary repairs, made all the slower by the lack of proper tools and replacement parts at the station. During this time, he learns that Kurtz is far from admired, but more or less resented (mostly by the manager).
Once underway, the journey up-river to Kurtz's station takes two months to the day. The steamboat stops briefly near an abandoned hut on the riverbank, where Marlow finds a pile of wood and a note indicating that the wood is for them and that they should proceed quickly but with caution as they near the Inner Station.
The journey pauses for the night about eight miles below the Inner Station. In the morning the crew awakens to find that the boat is enveloped by a thick white fog. From the riverbank they hear a very loud cry, followed by a discordant clamour. A few hours later, as safe navigation becomes increasingly difficult, the steamboat is attacked with a barrage of small arrows from the forest. The helmsman is impaled by a spear and falls at Marlow's feet. Marlow sounds the steam whistle repeatedly, frightening the attackers and causing the shower of arrows to cease. Marlow and a pilgrim watch the helmsman die. In a flash forward, Marlow notes that the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had commissioned Kurtz to write a report, which he did eloquently. A handwritten postscript, apparently added later by Kurtz, reads "Exterminate all the brutes!"
At Kurtz's station Marlow sees a man on the riverbank waving his arm, urging them to land. The pilgrims, heavily armed, escort the manager on to the shore to retrieve Mr. Kurtz. The man from the bank boards the steamboat, and turns out to be a Russian wanderer who had happened to stray into Kurtz's camp. He explains that he had left the wood and the note at the abandoned hut. Through conversation Marlow discovers just how wanton Kurtz can be; how the natives worship him; and how very ill he has been of late. The Russian admires Kurtz for his intellect and his insights into love, life, and justice, and suggests that he is a poet. He tells of how Kurtz opened his mind, and seems to admire him even for his power - and for his willingness to use it. Marlow, on the other hand, suggests that Kurtz has gone mad.
From the steamboat, Marlow observes the station in detail and is surprised to see near the station house a row of posts topped with the severed heads of natives. Around the corner of the house, the manager appears with the pilgrims, bearing a gaunt and ghost-like Kurtz on an improvised stretcher. The area fills with natives, apparently ready for battle, but Kurtz shouts something from the stretcher, and the natives retreat into the forest. The pilgrims carry Kurtz to the steamer and lay him in one of the cabins, where he and the manager have a private conversation. Marlow watches a beautiful native woman walk in measured steps along the shore and stop next to the steamer. When the manager exits the cabin he pulls Marlow aside and tells him that Kurtz has harmed the Company's business in the region, that his methods are "unsound." Later, the Russian reveals that Kurtz believes the Company wants to remove him from the station and kill him, and Marlow confirms that hangings had been discussed.
After midnight, Marlow discovers that Kurtz has left his cabin on the steamer and returned to shore. He goes ashore and finds a very weak Kurtz crawling his way back to the station house, though not too weak to call to the natives for help. Marlow threatens to harm Kurtz if he raises an alarm, but Kurtz only laments that he had not accomplished more in the region. The next day they prepare for their journey back down the river. The natives, including the ornately dressed woman, once again assemble on shore and begin to shout unintelligibly. Noticing the pilgrims readying their rifles, Marlow sounds the steam whistle repeatedly to scatter the crowd of natives. Only the woman remains unmoved, with outstretched arms. The pilgrims open fire as the current carries them swiftly downstream.
Kurtz's health worsens on the return trip, and Marlow himself becomes increasingly ill. The steamboat breaks down and, while it is stopped for repairs, Kurtz gives Marlow a packet of papers, including his commissioned report and a photograph, telling him to keep them away from the manager. When Marlow next speaks with him, Kurtz is near death; as he dies, Marlow hears him weakly whisper: "The horror! The horror!" A short while later, the "manager's boy" announces to the rest of the crew, in a scathing tone, "Mistah Kurtz - he dead." The next day Marlow pays little attention to the pilgrims as they bury "something" in a muddy hole. He falls very ill, himself near death.
Upon his return to Europe, Marlow is embittered and contemptuous of the "civilised" world. Many callers come to retrieve the papers Kurtz had entrusted to him, but Marlow withholds them or offers papers he knows they have no interest in. He then gives Kurtz's report to a journalist, for publication if he sees fit. Finally Marlow is left with some personal letters and a photograph of Kurtz's fiancée, whom Kurtz referred to as "My Intended." When Marlow visits her, she is dressed in black and still deep in mourning, although it has been more than a year since Kurtz's death. She presses Marlow for information, asking him to repeat Kurtz's final words, which in fact are "The horror! The horror!" Uncomfortable, Marlow lies and tells her that Kurtz's final word was her name.
Literary critic Harold Bloom wrote that Heart of Darkness had been analysed more than any other work of literature that is studied in universities and colleges, which he attributed to Conrad's "unique propensity for ambiguity." However, it was not a big success during Conrad's life. When it was published as a single volume in 1902 with two more novellas, "Youth" and "The End of the Tether", it received the least commentary from critics. F. R. Leavis, referred to Heart of Darkness as a "minor work" and criticised its "adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery". Conrad himself did not consider it to be particularly notable. By the 1960s, though, it was a standard assignment in many college and high school English courses.
In King Leopold's Ghost (1998), Adam Hochschild wrote that literary scholars have made too much of the psychological aspects of Heart of Darkness, while paying scant attention to Conrad's accurate recounting of the horror arising from the methods and effects of colonialism in the Congo Free State. "Heart of Darkness is experience ... pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the case." Other critiques include Hugh Curtler's Achebe on Conrad: Racism and Greatness in Heart of Darkness (1997). Moving beyond ideology critique, French philosopher Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe called Heart of Darkness "one of the greatest texts of Western literature" and used Conrad's tale for a reflection on "The Horror of the West."
Heart of Darkness is criticised in postcolonial studies, particularly by Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe. In his 1975 public lecture "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness", Achebe described Conrad's novella as "an offensive and deplorable book" that de-humanised Africans. Achebe argued that Conrad, "blinkered...with xenophobia", incorrectly depicted Africa as the antithesis of Europe and civilisation, ignoring the artistic accomplishments of the Fang people who lived in the Congo River basin at the time of the book’s publication. Since the book promoted and continues to promote a prejudiced image of Africa that "depersonalises a portion of the human race," he concluded that it should not be considered a great work of art.
Zimbabwean Professor Dr. Rino Zhuwarara broadly agreed with Achebe, though considered it important to be "sensitised to how peoples of other nations perceive Africa." In 2003, Botswanan professor Dr. Peter Mwikisa concluded the book was "the great lost opportunity to depict dialogue between Africa and Europe."  In 1983, British Professor Cedric Watts published an essay expressing indignation at his perceived implication of Achebe's criticism: that only black people may accurately analyse and assess the novella. Dr. Stan Galloway writes, in a comparison of Heart of Darkness with Jungle Tales of Tarzan, "The inhabitants [of both works], whether antagonists or compatriots, were clearly imaginary and meant to represent a particular fictive cipher and not a particular African people."
Fellow novelist Caryl Phillips stated after a 2003 interview that "Achebe is right; to the African reader the price of Conrad's eloquent denunciation of colonisation is the recycling of racist notions of the 'dark' continent and her people. Those of us who are not from Africa may be prepared to pay this price, but this price is far too high for Achebe." More recent critics have stressed that the "continuities" between Conrad and Achebe are profound and that a form of "postcolonial mimesis" ties the two authors.
Adaptations and influences
Radio and stage plays
Orson Welles adapted and starred in Heart of Darkness in a CBS Radio broadcast on 6 November 1938 as part of his series, The Mercury Theatre on the Air. In 1939 Welles adapted the story for his first film for RKO Pictures, writing a screenplay with John Houseman. It was intended to be entirely filmed as a POV from Marlow's eyes. Welles even filmed a short presentation film illustrating his intent. It has been reported as lost to history. The project was never realised; one reason given was the loss of European markets after the outbreak of war. Welles hoped to still produce the film when he presented another radio adaptation of the story as his first program as producer-star of the CBS radio series This Is My Best. Welles scholar Bret Wood called the broadcast of 13 March 1945, "the closest representation of the film Welles might have made, crippled, of course, by the absence of the story's visual elements (which were so meticulously designed) and the half-hour length of the broadcast.":95, 153–156,136–137
In 1991, Australian author and playwright Larry Buttrose wrote and staged a theatrical production of Kurtz (based on Heart of Darkness) with the Crossroads Theatre Company, Sydney. The play was announced to be broadcast as a radio play to Australian radio audiences in August 2011 by the Vision Australia Radio Network, and also by the RPH – Radio Print Handicapped Network across Australia.
In 2011, an operatic adaptation by composer Tarik O'Regan and librettist Tom Phillips was premiered at the Linbury Theatre of the Royal Opera House in London. A suite for orchestra and narrator was subsequently extrapolated from it.
Film and television
The CBS television anthology Playhouse 90 aired a 90-minute loose adaptation in 1958. This version, written by Stewart Stern, uses the encounter between Marlow (Roddy McDowall) and Kurtz (Boris Karloff) as its final act, and adds a backstory in which Marlow had been Kurtz's adopted son. The cast includes Inga Swenson and Eartha Kitt.
The most famous adaptation is Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 motion picture Apocalypse Now based on the screenplay by John Milius, which moves the story from the Congo to Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam War. In Apocalypse Now, Martin Sheen plays Captain Benjamin L. Willard, a U.S. Army Captain assigned to "terminate the command" of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz. Marlon Brando played Kurtz, in one of his most famous roles. A production documentary of the film, titled Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, exposed some of the major difficulties which director Coppola faced in seeing the movie through to completion. The difficulties that Coppola and his crew faced mirrored some of the themes of the book.
The video game Far Cry 2, released on 21 October 2008, is a loose modernised adaptation of Heart of Darkness. The player assumes the role of a mercenary operating in Africa whose task it is to kill an arms dealer, the elusive "Jackal". The last area of the game is called 'The Heart of Darkness'.
The video game Spec Ops: The Line, released on 26 June 2012, is a direct modernised adaptation of Heart of Darkness. The character John Konrad, who replaces the character Kurtz, is a reference to the author of the novella.
Victoria II, a grand strategy game produced by Paradox Interactive, launched an expansion pack titled "Heart of Darkness" on 16 April 2013. In it they revamped the colonial system, and naval warfare.
The novel Hearts of Darkness, by Paul Lawrence, moves the events of the novel to England in 1666. Marlow's journey into the jungle is reimagined as the journey of the narrator, Harry Lytle, and his friend Davy Dowling out of London and towards Shyam, a plague-stricken town that has descended into cruelty and barbarism loosely modelled on real-life Eyam. While Marlow must return to civilisation with Kurtz, Lytle and Dowling are searching for the spy James Josselin. Like Kurtz, Josselin's reputation is immense, and the protagonists are well-acquainted with his accomplishments by the time they finally meet him.
Poet Yedda Morrison's 2012 book Darkness erases Conrad's novella, "whiting out" his text so that only images of the natural world remain.
James Reich's Mistah Kurtz! A Prelude to Heart of Darkness presents the early life of Kurtz, his appointment to his station in the Congo, and his messianic disintegration in a novel that dovetails with the conclusion of Conrad's novella. Reich's novel is premised upon the papers Kurtz leaves to Marlow at the end of Heart of Darkness.
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- Animated Serialized Adaptation of Heart of Darkness on Instagram
- Heart of Darkness on In Our Time at the BBC. (listen now)
- Heart of Darkness at Project Gutenberg
- Downloadable audio book of Heart of Darkness by LoudLit.org
- Heart of Darkness public domain audiobook at LibriVox
- Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre on the Air audio books, also of Heart of Darkness
- Orson Welles Mercury Theatre 1938, also of Heart of Darkness
- This Is My Best — Heart of Darkness (13 March 1945) at the Paley Center for Media