The essay “Geography and Some Explorers” (1924) describes Joseph Conrad as a schoolboy amusing classmates by pointing to Africa on a map and declaring, “When I grow up I shall go there.” Eighteen years later, in 1890, Conrad obtained a post as steamboat captain with a trading company in the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of the Congo). He undertook the 1,000-mile journey up the Congo River to Stanley Falls, where a great depression fell on him. His encounter with the grim reality of European exploitation undermined his faith in commerce with developing countries. He returned to England in 1891 and checked into a hospital for malaria and dysentery. Conrad went to sea just once more after returning from Africa, choosing to devote his time instead to writing literature. In 1897, he wrote about the disillusioning experience in Africa for Blackwood’s Magazine, which serialized Heart of Darkness in three parts (February, March, and April) and afterward published a revised version of the story in a separate volume, Youth: A Narrative; and Two Other Stories (1902).
Conrad’s most famous novella, Heart of Darkness (adapted into Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now in 1979) is a fictional treatment of his experiences in Africa. Charlie Marlow recounts the traumatic Congo expedition to four companions aboard the Nellie, a cruising yawl anchored in the Thames estuary. London has also been “one of the dark places of the earth,” Marlow begins, thus evoking European imperialistic history at the beginning of his tale about a journey through Africa in search of a white explorer, reminiscent of Henry Stanley’s famous discovery of Doctor David Livingstone. At the first company station along the Congo, Marlow finds malnourished native workers dying before the eyes of an immaculately dressed chief accountant. The company agents, ironically described as “pilgrims,” turn out to be little more than European colonists intent on exploiting the natives for profit. The corruption Marlow encounters at each stage of the journey—a French ship firing blindly into the continent, the rapacious Eldorado Exploring Expedition—starkly contrasts with the lofty rhetoric about bringing civilization to Africa.
At each stop Marlow hears of a legendary ivory trader named Kurtz, whose “moral ideas” might redeem the colonial enterprise. After long delays at the Central Station, Marlow pilots the steamer upriver amid perilous snags, shallows, and fogs. Just a few miles from Kurtz’s outpost, natives attack the steamer with arrows and kill Marlow’s helmsman with a long spear before being frightened away by the steamboat whistle. A Russian traveler reveals that the ambush has been ordered by Kurtz, who wishes to remain among the natives. Far from civilizing them, Kurtz has himself “gone native” by attending mysterious rituals, obtaining ivory through tribal warfare, involving himself with a native woman, and surrounding his hut with human heads. Kurtz’s eloquent report about educating the natives for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs ends with the contradictory postscript: “Exterminate all the brutes!” Marlow finds devoted native attendants carrying on a stretcher the dying, emaciated Kurtz, whose final words resonantly express a sense of horror. When Kurtz’s fiancée in Belgium asks about Kurtz’s last words, Marlow lies to protect her innocence and says that her name had been spoken last. The narrative ends with Marlow’s audience aboard the Nellie reflecting on what they have just heard.
The frame narrative, or what is essentially a storywithin- a-story as an unnamed narrator listens to Marlow’s tale, distances the audience from the traumatic experience and enables Marlow to describe events only partially understood at the time. Marlow’s confusion is registered through a process Ian Watt calls “delayed decoding,” or the deferred explanation of sense impressions, as when “sticks” flying through the air turn out to be arrows. Like the figurative journeys in many of Conrad’s plots, Marlow’s journey is both a literal journey into Africa and a metaphorical journey into the depths of consciousness. Marlow faces a “choice of nightmares” between the inhumane commerce of the company manager and the tortured idealism of Kurtz, who at least struggles with moral convictions. Kurtz is the conflicted representative of European imperialism (“All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz”) in whom Marlow finds a double or alter ego with whose moral struggle he can identify. According to Marlow, Kurtz at least judges himself in the end with the famously ambiguous last words “The horror! The horror!” Conrad’s ambivalent attitude toward colonialism—the African novelist Chinua Achebe called Conrad “a thoroughgoing racist” while other critics have considered the novella progressive in its critique of imperialism—has been a major reason for enduring interest in the story.
Achebe, Chinua. Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965–1987. London: Heinemann, 1988.
Apocalypse Now (1979). Directed by Francis Coppola. Written by John Milius and Francis Coppola. Paramount Pictures, 1992.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
———.Last Essays. New York: Doubleday & Page, 1926.
Kimbrough, Robert, ed. Heart of Darkness: Norton Critical Edition. 3rd ed. New York and London: Norton, 1988.
Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. London: Chatto and Windus, 1993.
Watt, Ian. Conrad in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.