Considered one of the greatest novelists in English, Joseph Conrad (born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski), Conrad was actually of Polish descent. Although he did not fluently speak English until his twenties, Conrad nonetheless excelled at prose and the written English language, with many of his works having been adapted into film. English was in fact his third language, Polish and French being the first two languages he learned. Conrad led a harsh life as a child (Conover), and when he was only three, his father was imprisoned Warsaw for his supposed revolutionary political affiliations (Conover) until the family was exile to northern Russia in 1861 (Liukkonen).
In 1869, both of Conrad’s parents passed away due to tuberculosis, and he was sent to live with his uncle Tadeusz in Switzerland. While living with his uncle, Conrad persuaded his uncle to let him go to sea (Liukkonen), where his many adventures and journeys laid the foundation for most of his works, which are mostly sea-faring stories.
In 1890 he sailed up the Congo River, a journey that provided much of the material for his most notable and highly regarded work Heart of Darkness.
During his time in the Congo, Conrad experienced extreme physical and mental stresses, which eventually affected his health for the rest of his life. Resettling in London, Conrad went into exile for various reasons including political (Conover). Ending his mariner career that spanned more than twenty years of sea-faring experiences, Conrad was able to draw from there intricate characters and stories which spoke of the human condition, and the complexities of the inner psyche. One such important literary work titled Lord Jim, in which Jim, a young British seaman accompanies his captain and other crew members in abandoning the passengers of their ship. Later hounded by his misdeed, Jim settles at a remote island where the natives title him “Tuan” or “Lord”. While there he protects the villagers from bandits and a local corrupt chief. Lord Jim speaks of the rise and fall of the human spirit, and the honor and redemption inherent in noble deeds.
These themes are present throughout Conrad’s stories, and in the Heart of Darkness he also makes heavy use of colors, primarily white and black, and references to light and dark, often intermingling the socially accepted view of each one respectively. Conrad also deals with the issues surrounding imperialism in the Heart of Darkness (Sparknotes), yet there is also a larger underlying issue of race and equality, or lack thereof, within the overall story.
The story revolves mainly around Marlow, and his journey through the Congo River to meet Kurtz, purported to be a man of great abilities. In his job as a riverboat captain with a Belgian Company organized for trade within Africa, Marlow encounters much brutality against the natives within in the Company’s settlements. The inhabitants of the region have been pushed into forced labor, and they suffer terribly from overwork and ill treatment in the hands of the Company’s agents. The cruelty of the imperial enterprise contrasts sharply with majestic and massive Congo jungle that surrounds the white men’s stations, causing them to appear like small islands amongst the vast darkness of Africa. Amidst problems with the oppressed natives, Marlow manages to survive his time in the Congo, but because of the extreme conditions and harsh living in the area at the time, he returns home with ill health.
The events depicted in Heart of Darkness truly could have occurred anywhere, but Conrad chose the Congo for the feeling and impact of the climate, the individuals involved, and the very way of life there. The title itself reflects the “heart of darkness” within men, who can sometimes use others for their own benefit and profit, casting away human life as if it had no value. The title may also refer to the Congo itself, due to the darkness and uncharted territory and mysteries that lurked within at that time. Conrad creates a build-up of tension and mysteriousness to the plot, which causes one to wonder what may happen next, and even though nothing overly climactic occurs, each individual event adds to the foreboding of the story. Deaths and other “dark” happenings are spoken of, and Conrad’s technique in describing these events conveys the darkness and hopelessness of the entire situation.
The story portrays darkness as emanating from the depths of the jungle; it fills men with evil and allows them to act upon it. The main example of this darkness is within the station manager Kurtz, who performs such debauchery in the jungles that he eventually becomes ill and dies. The character of Kurtz could be considered a catalyst for change, and the symbol for the Europeans’ failure in the Congo. Unaware of his own evil, Kurtz is unable to fight the darkness within. There is a question of good and evil that is addressed within Heart of Darkness; the motifs of “light” and “dark” in which the darkness in Africa is separate from its “blackness”, and the “whiteness” in Europe being far removed from the goodness of light.
In a sense, light and dark are polarized; Light represents the falsehoods and corruption in the world symbolized by the white man, whereas dark is a symbol for truth, while the dark natives show the pureness and innocence of humanity. Though there is some ambiguity of whether the title “Heart of Darkness” refers directly to Kurtz’ dark heart, or to the darkness of the jungle’s interior, the latter is more likely, due to the extent of abusive and evil actions portrayed by all the white men, which only grows in intensity with their close proximity to the center of the jungle. These settings and symbols help to portray the theme of universal darkness that Conrad alludes to. Conrad’s descriptive passages about the “interminable waterways” of the Congo and the Thames River show the connection between humanity and darkness. Each river flows into each other, and “lead into a heart of immense darkness”. This shows that all of humanity is connected through the heart of darkness and the truth.
Ultimately Heart of Darkness is a story of the pitfalls and perils of greed, lust, and the corruption of ideals and values by the darkness that dwells within all of mankind. It tells of the madness that the greed for riches or power can create within the heart and mind, and that even the best of intentions can become twisted into something evil and oppressive.
Conover, Matt. HEART OF DARKNESS: The Hypertext Annotation. The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, 23 Nov. 2003. Web. 19 Nov. 2010.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Planet EBook. Web. 19 Nov. 2010.
Crowther, John, ed. “No Fear Heart of Darkness.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2010. Web. 1 Dec. 2010.
“Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Search EText, Read Online, Study, Discuss.” The Literature Network: Online Classic Literature, Poems, and Quotes. Essays & Summaries. The Literature Network. Web. 15 Dec. 2010.
Liukkonen, Petri. “Joseph Conrad.” www.kirjasto.sci.fi. Web. 15 Dec. 2010.
Roberts, Andrew Michael. Joseph Conrad. London: Longman, 1998. Print.
SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Heart of Darkness.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2002. Web. 1 Dec. 2010.