Heart of Darkness

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Heart of Darkness
Blackwood's Magazine - 1899 cover.jpg
Heart of Darkness first was published as a three-part serial story in Blackwood's Magazine
Author Joseph Conrad
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Novella
Published 1899 serial; 1902 book
Publisher Blackwood's Magazine
Media type Print
Preceded by The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (1897)
Followed by Lord Jim (1900)

Heart of Darkness (1899) is a novella[1] 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.[2]

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.[3]

Originally published as a three-part serial story in Blackwood's Magazine, the novella 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.[4]

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.[5]

Joseph Conrad based Heart of Darkness on his own experiences in the Congo.

When Conrad began to write the novella, eight years after returning from Africa, he drew inspiration from his travel journals.[5] In his words, Heart of Darkness is "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."[6] 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 November 13, 1902, by William Blackwood).

The volume consisted of Youth: a Narrative, Heart of Darkness and The End of the Tether in that order, to loosely illustrate the three stages of life. For future editions of the book, in 1917 Conrad wrote an "Author's Note" where he 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 May 31, 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."[7]

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.[8][9] Adam Hochschild, in King Leopold's Ghost, believes that the Belgian soldier Léon Rom is the most important influence on the character.[10]

Plot summary

  1. redirectTemplate:Plot

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. He describes his passage on ships down the African coast and then into the interior to the Company's Outer Station, which strikes Marlow as a scene of devastation: it is immensely disorganised, machinery parts scattered here and there; demolition explosions serving no apparent purpose are carried out periodically; native black men are chained together, wasted, demoralised, and literally being worked to death, and strolling beside them is another native working as a uniformed guard, carrying a rifle. At this station Marlow meets the Company's chief accountant who tells him of a Mr. Kurtz, explaining that Kurtz is a widely respected, first-class agent who brings in more ivory for the Company than all the other agents combined.

Old Belgian river station on the Congo River, 1889

Marlow departs with a caravan to travel on foot some two hundred miles deeper into the wilderness to the Central Station, where the steamboat that he is to captain is based. When he arrives, he is shocked to learn that his steamboat had been wrecked two days earlier. The manager explains that they had tried to take the steamboat up-river because of rumours that an important station was in jeopardy and that its chief, Mr. Kurtz, was ill. Marlow describes the Company men at this station as lazy, back-biting "pilgrims", fraught with envy and greed, all trying to gain a higher status within the Company, which, in turn, would provide more personal profit; however, they seek these goals in a meaningless, ineffective and lazy manner, and Marlow senses that they are all merely waiting, while trying to stay out of harm's way. After fishing his boat out of the river, 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). Not only is Kurtz's position at the Inner Station highly envied, but sentiment seems to be that Kurtz is undeserving of it, as he received the appointment only through his European connections.

The Roi des Belges ("King of the Belgians"—French), the Belgian riverboat Conrad commanded on the upper Congo, 1889

Once underway, the journey up-river to Kurtz's station takes two months to the day. On board are the manager, three or four "pilgrims" and some twenty indigenous "cannibals" enlisted as crew. 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 pilgrims fire blindly into the bush with their Winchester rifles, and the native serving as helmsman gives up steering to pick up a rifle and fire it. Marlow grabs the wheel to avoid snags in the river. 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, and Marlow forces the pilgrim to take the wheel so that he can fling his blood-soaked shoes overboard. Marlow and the rest of the crew assume (wrongly) that Mr. Kurtz is dead. 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, states "Exterminate all the brutes!" Marlow expresses that he does not believe Kurtz was worth the lives that were lost in trying to find him. After putting on a pair of slippers, he returns to the wheel-house and resumes steering. By this time the manager is there, and expresses a strong desire to turn back, but at that moment the Inner Station comes into view.

At Kurtz's station Marlow sees a man on the riverbank waving his arm, urging them to land. Because of his expressions and gestures, and all the colourful patches on his clothing, in between which possessions are shuffled, the man reminds Marlow of a harlequin. The pilgrims, heavily armed, escort the manager on to the shore to retrieve Mr. Kurtz. The harlequin-like man 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, through a telescope, 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. She raises her arms above her head and then walks back into the bushes. Marlow overhears Kurtz arguing with the manager, claiming his work at the Inner Station is not yet finished and that the Company is interfering with his plans. 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. The Russian then informs Marlow that Kurtz had ordered the natives to attack the steamer, hoping the men from the Company would abandon their mission to remove him. The Russian insists that he must leave immediately, referring to a canoe waiting for him, and notes before his departure how delightful it was to hear Kurtz recite poetry.

Léon Rom, photographed c. 1880, who some have argued served as the inspiration for Kurtz

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. Marlow appreciates his serious situation, and when Kurtz begins in a threatening tone, Marlow interjects that his "success in Europe is assured in any case"; at this, Kurtz allows Marlow to carry him back to the steamer. 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!" Marlow blows out the candle and tries to act as though nothing has happened when he joins the other crew members for dinner. A short while later, the "manager's boy" appears and announces 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: Marlow offers the report entitled "Suppression of Savage Customs" (with the postscriptum torn off) to a representative of the Company, knowing that he is really looking for papers that might disclose the whereabouts of ivory rather than a humanistic treatise, but the man refuses the document. To another man, who claims to be Kurtz's cousin, Marlow gives family letters and memoranda of no importance. He then gives the 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.[11][12] 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.[12] F. R. Leavis, referred to Heart of Darkness as a "minor work" and criticised its "adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery".[13] Conrad himself did not consider it to be particularly notable.[12] 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."[14] Other critiques include Hugh Curtler's Achebe on Conrad: Racism and Greatness in Heart of Darkness (1997).[15]

Postcolonial studies

Chinua Achebe's 1975 lecture on the book sparked decades of debate.

Heart of Darkness is criticised in postcolonial studies, particularly by Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, who is considered to be "patriarch of the African Novel".[16] 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.[17] 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.[18]

Zimbabwean Professor Dr. Rino Zhuwarara broadly agreed with Achebe, though considered it important to be "sensitised to how peoples of other nations perceive Africa."[19] In 2003, Botswanan professor Dr. Peter Mwikisa concluded the book was "the great lost opportunity to depict dialogue between Africa and Europe." [20] 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. 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."[21]

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."[22]

Adaptations and influences

Radio and stage plays

Orson Welles adapted and starred in Heart of Darkness in a CBS Radio broadcast November 6, 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 March 13, 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."[23]: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.[24] The play was announced to be broadcast as a radio play to Australian radio audiences in August 2011 by the Vision Australia Radio Network,[25] 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.[26] A suite for orchestra and narrator was subsequently extrapolated from it.[27]

In 2015, an adaption of Orson Welles' screenplay by Jamie Lloyd and Laurence Bowen was aired on BBC Radio 4.[28] The production starred James McAvoy as Marlow.

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.[29]

The most famous adaptation is Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 motion picture Apocalypse Now, which moves the story from the Congo to Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam War.[30] 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.

On March 13, 1993, TNT aired a new version of the story directed by Nicolas Roeg, starring Tim Roth as Marlow and John Malkovich as Kurtz.[31]

Video games

The video game Far Cry 2, released on October 21, 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'.[32][33][34]

The video game Spec Ops: The Line, released on June 26, 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.[35]

Victoria II, a grand strategy game produced by Paradox Interactive, launched an expansion pack titled "Heart of Darkness" on April 16, 2013. In it they revamped the colonial system, and naval warfare.[36]


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.[37]

Poet Yedda Morrison's 2012 book Darkness erases Conrad's novella, "whiting out" his text so that only images of the natural world remain.[38]


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  3. The Norton Anthology, 7th edition, (2000), p. 1957.
  4. 100 Best, Modern Library's website. Retrieved January 12, 2010.
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  7. Karl & Davies 1986, p. 417
  8. Bloom 2009, p. 16
  9. Hochschild, Adam: King Leopold's Ghost. New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998, pp. 98; 145,
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  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Moore 2004, p. 4
  13. Moore 2004, p. 5
  14. Hochschild 1999, p. 143
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  19. Moore 2004, p. 6
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  21. Galloway, Stan. The Teenage Tarzan: A Literary Analysis of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jungle Tales of Tarzan. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. p. 112.
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  • Bloom, Harold, ed. (2009). Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 1438117108.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Hochschild, Adam (October 1999). "Chapter 9: Meeting Mr. Kurtz". King Leopold's Ghost. Mariner Books. pp. 140–149. ISBN 0-618-00190-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Karl, Frederick R.; Davies, Laurence, eds. (1986). The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad – Volume 2: 1898 – 1902. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-25748-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Moore, Gene M. (2004). Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: A Casebook. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195159969.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Murfin, Ross C. (ed.) (1989). Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness. A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-00761-2.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Sherry, Norman (June 30, 1980). Conrad's Western World. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-29808-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Farn, Regelind Colonial and Postcolonial Rewritings of "Heart of Darkness" – A Century of Dialogue with Joseph Conrad (2004). A dissertation.
  • Firchow, P. Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000).
  • Parry, Benita Conrad and Imperialism (London: Macmillan, 1983).
  • Said, Edward W. Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1966) [no ISBN].
  • Watts, Cedric Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness': A Critical and Contextual Discussion (Milan: Mursia International, 1977).

External links