Originally published in 1899, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness follows the experiences of Charles Marlow, a sailor transporting ivory in central Africa who has been ordered to bring back Mr Kurtz, a rogue ivory trader. Conrad describes the protagonist’s arduous journey based upon his own real life experiences throughout the novel, recounting Marlow’s perilous journey up the Congo River in search of the renowned yet mysterious Mr. Kurtz. What Marlow witnesses on his voyage as the novel progresses horrifies him and his encounter with Kurtz makes him question his beliefs about civilization and human nature.
Conrad explores the nature of imperialism through Marlow’s first-hand account of the brutal treatment of the natives. The protagonist realises the sinister reality of European colonialism, through the poor status and destitute living conditions of the Congolese people and the evil objectives of those who call themselves “civilised.” Conrad contrasts these ‘civilised’ individuals, the white men with the ‘barbaric’ natives while the civilised are the ones displaying barbaric behaviour with their cruel treatment of the citizens pursuing them for their personal gain.
The title of the novel has significant meaning as the journey into the heart of the Congo represents a symbolic journey into the darkness of the heart of humanity. The mission to find Mr Kurtz is based on the evil intentions of the ivory company to steal ivory from the Congolese depicting the often greedy motives of companies to deplete the natural resources of areas for their own profits, a theme that is still relevant today. The character of Kurtz is also overcome by darkness as his greed for power transforms him into a savage conqueror. In this sense, the expression “heart of darkness” relates to the degrees human beings can go to as well as the vivid imagery of the jungle and river within the novel.
The novel has been the basis for many adaptations, specifically the Oscar-winning film Apocalypse Now (1979) which substitutes the Belgian Congo for the jungles of Vietnam. Apart from being an effective commentary on human nature and the horrors of imperialism, the novel draws readers in on a visual level. The scenery of Central Africa is breath-taking and Conrad exploits the landscape to convey a sense of horror and anxiety paralleling the physical environment with the character’s emotions.
Heart of Darkness is a fundamental tale of the dangers of nature and the darkness of the human soul, a compelling exploration of the human psyche and a worthwhile read. The imagery, character development and gripping plot all serve to make this a narrative that deserves the praise and acclaim it has received since its publication in the late nineteenth century. If you wish to read an enjoyable yet brief masterpiece I would recommend picking up a copy of this novel.