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About the Author

Joseph Conrad was born Teodor Jozef Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski near Berdyczew, Poland, on December 3, 1857. His father was an idealist-a poet, translator of Shakespeare, and Polish patriot whose political activities prompted the family’s exile to northern Russia in 1862. His mother, who came from an influential family of landowners, died of the Siberian cold when Joseph was eight years old. His father died four years later and Conrad’s well-to-do uncle Tadeusz Bobrowski took charge of the twelve-year-old boy, returning him to Poland. Conrad attended St. Anne school in Krakow for five years, and as a graduation present his uncle gave him a European tour. In Venice he saw the sea for the first time and vowed to become part of it. His formal education completed, Conrad nonetheless remained an avid reader, culling his impressive knowledge of literature from works written in Russian, French, and English.

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Overview and Setting

Overview

In 1890 Conrad sailed to the Belgian Congo. More than a decade later, he reworked his memories of this trip into his novella Heart of Darkness, a highly symbolic work that explores social and psychological disorder through the central metaphor of a journey to the heart of the African continent. At the end of the journey and center of the mystery lies Mr. Kurtz, who has allegedly “civilized” the natives and brought them education. But Marlow-who is charged with finding Kurtz and learning the secret of his success in exporting ivory-recognizes the decay and corruption of colonial imperialists. When Marlow finally reaches the central station, he finds that the district manager has escaped from the Congo. The boat that Marlow intends to sail in search of Kurtz has sunk in the Congo River. Marlow repairs the steamer and continues his journey, only to find Kurtz ill and nearly consumed by evil. His ideals irrevocably corrupted, Kurtz’s soul-not Africa-is the true heart of darkness.

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Themes and Characters

Heart of Darkness is a tale of many voyages. Charlie Marlow’s voyage into the depths of the “Dark Continent” parallels his voyage into the heart of an immense darkness, into the collective unconsciousness of the human race. At the end of his quest Marlow hopes to find Mr. Kurtz and through him learn the meaning of intelligent life in an alien and brutal universe; instead the voyage becomes a descent into an underworld in which Kurtz is both captive and creator, and from which Marlow barely escapes. Many years later, as Marlow tells his story to listeners on the yawl Nellie, one of his listeners, whose narrative frames Marlow’s, takes on the burden of attempting to make sense of Marlow’s discoveries.

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Literary Qualities

Conrad uses a variety of techniques to advance his narrative and to imbue it, like a parable, with a quality of universality derived from specific experience. The technique of the narrative frame, while pervasive in the medieval tale-telling of such poets as Geoffrey Chaucer and Giovanni Boccaccio, became in Conrad’s hands a newly fashioned instrument that allowed the narrator to be a distant observer of events he had witnessed. As is the case in many of Conrad’s works of fiction, Heart of Darkness is related by an anonymous narrator who identifies so strongly with Marlow that the two Characters’ identities merge. The anonymous narrator describes events of Marlow’s recent past, but Marlow must speak for himself as he relates his distant past-a complex psychological matrix of which the anonymous narrator has no knowledge. The interplay between the narrator’s perception of Marlow’s journey and Marlow’s own account establishes irony in both point of view and narrative voice. Conrad’s highly charged and sometimes poetic language, combined with his use of light and darkness, highlights the author’s powers of observation and evokes a range of emotion transferred from narrator to reader. Conrad’s language, moreover, not only gives a clear sense of physical place but also hints at the effect of exterior Setting upon the interior landscape of the soul.

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Social Sensitivity

The combined exploitative forces of capitalism and imperialism are the objects of Conrad’s social criticism in Heart of Darkness. Conrad focuses his moral irony on the hollow conventions through which people seek to mold the universe to their own specifications. The imperialists’ self-appointed duty to govern and “civilize” nonwhite societies prompted King Leopold II of Belgium to found the International Association for the Civilization of Central Africa in 1875. Dedicated to the propagation of European civilization and Christian tenets throughout Africa, this organization has its parallel in the novella’s International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. Kurtz writes a seventeen-page report to the society that concludes with the exhortation: “Exterminate all the brutes!” Marlow opens his narrative by remarking that the Thames River and its environs, the seat of the British Empire, had also been “one of the dark places of the earth.” Once an outpost of the Roman Empire, every bit as primitive as the Congo and the object of unabashed exploitation, England has been both conquered and conqueror, and, as such, demonstrates the blurred line between the two conditions. The civilizing venture proves fickle for both the society whose customs are overthrown and the one whose morals are sacrificed in the name of conquest.

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Topics for Discussion

1. Because of his experiences in Poland, Conrad hated totalitarianism. What evidence do you see of this hatred in Heart of Darkness?

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Ideas for Reports and Papers

1. Critics have pointed out that Marlow’s journey is a descent to the underworld, similar to Dante’s in The Divine Comedy. Explain the critics’ position.

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Related Titles and Adaptations

His first novels, Almayer’s Folly (1895) and An Outcast of the Islands (1896), established Conrad as an observer of persons under stress, self-destructive aliens in a luxurious but decaying environment. The Nigger of the Narcissus, the first of Conrad’s novels of shipboard life, depicts a crew facing moral problems of conduct and struggling to survive during a storm at sea. Lord Jim, the foremost artistic work of his early phase, introduced Marlow, Conrad’s famous narrator and alter-ego, and also introduced the author’s experimentation with chronology, narrative, and symmetrical plotting.

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