Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad, England.1902

Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski was born in 1857 in Warsaw in modern day Poland. He was born into an impoverished noble family where is father was a playwright and political activist. His father, Apollo Korzeniowski, fell afoul of the ruling Russian Tsarist authorities in 1861 when Josef was just four, and was arrested and exiled for his part in the organizing a popular uprising. The family was initially exiled to Russia then to Ukraine. The harsh climate eventually claimed the lives of Josef’s mother and father. By the age of 11 he was an orphan.

But he had developed a taste for writing and reading from his father and was already fluent in Polish and French. Returned to an uncle in Krakow, the young Korzeniowski continued his education until he turned 16.

The young Konrad, as a citizen of Imperial Russia, was about to be conscripted for 25 years into the Tsar’s army when he escaped to Marseille in France in order to enlist as a merchant seaman.

For the next five years Korzeniowski sailed the world getting involved in gun running and other nefarious adventures, stories that would later appear in his novels. After a tumultuous love affair, which ended badly and saw Korzeniowksi attempt suicide, the now 21 year old sailor arrived in England. He joined the British merchant navy, learned English and after 11 years of service he obtained his Master’s Certificate and British Citizenship. He also changed his name to the more Anglo-friendly Joseph Conrad.

By 1886 he was master of his own ship. He sailed to many parts of the world, including Australia, the Indian Ocean, Borneo, the Malay states, South America, and the South Pacific islands. During this period, he began to write.

In 1890 he fulfilled a life long dream to visit Africa. He managed to obtain a position as master of steamboat owned by the Belgian colonial service and sailed up the Congo River. His dream turned into a nightmare. The atrocities he witnessed on his voyage, would become the basis for his most famous work Heart of Darkness, and would colour his view of human nature and of his own attitudes. He was also stricken with fever and dysentery and was lucky to return to England alive. These illnesses stayed with Conrad until 1894 when, at just 36 he was forced to retire from his maritime career.

With no source of income but with a sea chest full of stories, Conrad decided on a career as a novelist and began work on his first novel, Almayer’s Folly, set on the coast of Borneo. Published almost immediately after completion, it was a minor success and together with its successor, An Outcast of the Islands published the following year, it gained Conrad a growing reputation as a teller of adventurous tales from the far flung exotic reaches of the British Empire.

In 1896 he married and would go on to have two sons.

The following 15 years saw Conrad publish a dozen novels, many of which are still widely read.  Following the publication of The Nigger of the Narcissus in 1897, Conrad’s most famous, ambiguous and controversial work, Heart of Darkness was published in 1902. Conrad’s other novels include The Secret Agent, The Secret Sharer, Lord Jim, Typhoon, Under Western Eyes and Nostromo. Real financial success eluded Conrad until the publication of Chance in 1913, but his work was widely admired and garnered considerable critical acclaim.

Conrad would go onto publish 20 novels and a number of short stories. He died of a heart attack in Canterbury, England in 1924.

Conrad is recognized as an important forerunner of modernist literature. His romantic locations often as odds with his anti-heroic characters have influenced writers such as Hemingway, Graham Greene, and VS Naipaul. His work has also been the subject of a number of films including the Peter O’Toole film Lord Jim, Ridley Scott’s The Duelists and the most famous version of Heart of Darkness, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness still resonates with readers because of its bleak journey into evil and the darkness of the human psyche. A new generation of readers was introduced to the book following the release of the Coppola film in 1979 and it remains on the reading curricula of many schools around the world.

It is not without its critics. Noted African writer Chinua Achebe published a famous essay deriding the apparent racism within the novel claiming that Heart of Darkness cannot be considered a great work of art because it is “a novel which celebrates… dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race.” This criticism however has been largely refuted by scholars who point to the historical context in which the novel was written and the language that was used at the time; language that today is considered highly offensive but at the time was in common usage.

The novella was originally published as a three part series in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899 and finally as a novella in 1902.

The story follows the journey of an English ferry boat captain, named Marlowe. Marlowe relates the story to his crew who are anchored on the river Thames and he tells of his assignment to a steamship in Africa. While it is not mentioned by name it is assumed it is the Congo. Marlowe is to transport ivory downriver, but the real reason for his journey is to find and return a man named Kurtz. Kurtz has perhaps gone mad and even in the violent and brutal world of colonial rule in Africa he has developed a particularly savage reputation. Rumour is Kurtz believes he is a king and is leading an army of followers on a rampage of violence and brutality.

The journey is both a literal voyage into the “dark continent” but also a metaphorical journey into the darkness of all men’s hearts.

Throughout the novel Marlow contrasts the restraint of civilization with the savagery of barbarism, but then pulls aside the conceit of “civilization” to reveal its true barbarism. While Kurtz exemplifies amorality and evil and Marlowe, when he finally confronts him, is suddenly torn by the decision to enter Kurtz’s world of naked savagery or proceed to maintain the veneer of civilization.  Morality is not so clear cut and obvious and Marlowe sees the depravity and darkness in his own heart and must overcome this realization.

Conrad drew inspiration from his own journey up the Congo in 1890 and Marlowe is clearly based on Conrad. There has been much speculation about the character of Kurtz. Some have speculated the character was based on the African explorer Henry Morton Stanley, who had a well-known reputation for violence. More likely, the character is based on a shady Belgian agent named Klein, who Conrad met on his journey and would die on his steamer.

The novel was also highlighted the plight of the people of Africa. The Congo Free State became the personal property of Belgium’s King Leopold II in 1892 and he gave carte blanche to Belgian traders to do whatever they thought necessary to trade in Ivory. This led to brutal atrocities perpetrated by the whites against the native people of the area. Conrad’s novel helped uncover the extent of the atrocities and in 1908 the king was forced to relinquish the colony and it became a colony of Belgium until 1960.

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