With such an ominous title, Heart of Darkness delivers what it promises: ruminations on the nature of evil. (You know, just like Wicked, but without the song-and-dance.) The "heart of darkness" refers not only to a physical location (inside Africa), but also to a state of mind and the grim consequences of imperialism (the European world takeover during the 15th through 20th centuries).
So yeah, Conrad was into metaphors. The text considers the deep jungle of Africa as the heart of darkness both for its untamed and hostile wilderness and for its supposed "savages" who hang out there practicing certain non-European customs such as cannibalism.
But why is the African jungle called "dark"?
The no-duh answer is that there's not much light in there, what with the heavy foliage and the mists. The more complicated answer is that, according to the novel, the wilderness makes men metaphorically blind to their situation and surroundings. In the heart of darkness, you can't do good: you can only choose to be less evil.
Brief Biography of Joseph Conrad
Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski was an orphan by the age of 12; his mother and father both died as a result of time the family spent in exile in Siberia for plotting against the Russian Tsar. At seventeen, he traveled to Marseilles and began to work as a sailor. Eventually, he began to sail on British ships, and became a British citizen in 1886, at the age of 29. It was about this time he changed his name to the more British-sounding Joseph Conrad and published his first short stories (he wrote in English, his third language after Polish and French). For the next eight years, Conrad continued to work as a sailor (even spending time commanding a steamship in the Belgian Congo), and continued to write. He published his first novel (Almayer's Folly) in 1894. In 1896, Conrad married Jessie George. He quickly won critical praise, though financial success eluded him for many years and both he and his wife suffered serious illnesses. He wrote his best-known works in the years just before and after the turn of the century: Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1900), and Nostromo (1904). Conrad died in 1924.
Historical Context of Heart of Darkness
During the last two decades of the 19th century, European nations battled each other for wealth and power. This battle caused the "scramble for Africa," in which European countries competed to colonize as much of Africa as possible. While the colonizing Europeans claimed to want to "civilize" the African continent, their actions spoke otherwise: they were interested solely in gaining wealth and did not care how they did it, or who was killed. One of the most brutal of the European colonies in its treatment of the native Africans was the Belgian Congo, the property of the Belgian King Leopold I. In 1890, Joseph Conrad worked as a pilot on a steamship in the Belgian Congo, and Heart of Darkness is at least in part based on his experiences there.
Other Books Related to Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad's novels reside in the transition period between Victorianism, with its strict conventions and focus on polite society, and Modernism, which sought to explode old conventions and invent new literary forms to convey human experience more fully. Conrad's work was instrumental in this effort, particularly his experimentation with the use of time and non-chronological narratives. Heart of Darkness also fits squarely into the genre of colonial literature, in which European writers portrayed the colonialism and imperialism of European nations from Africa to the Far East in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Key Facts about Heart of Darkness
- Full Title:Heart of Darkness
- When Published: 1899
- Literary Period: Victorianism/Modernism
- Genre: Colonial literature; Quest literature
- Setting: The Narrator tells the story from a ship at the mouth of the Thames River near London, England around 1899. Marlow's story-within-the-story is set in an unnamed European city (probably Brussels) and in the Belgian Congo in Africa sometime in the early to mid 1890s, during the colonial era.
- Climax: The confrontation between Marlow and Kurtz in the jungle
- Antagonist: Kurtz
- Point of View: First person (both Marlow and the Unnamed Narrator use first person)