World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Heart of Darkness

Article Id: WHEBN0000013535
Reproduction Date:

Title: Heart of Darkness  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Apocalypse Now, Saleh Hosseini, Joseph Conrad, The Mercury Theatre on the Air, Novella
Collection: 1902 Novels, British Novels Adapted Into Films, British Philosophical Novels, Congo Free State, Existentialist Novels, Fiction with Unreliable Narrators, Frame Stories, Human Trophy Collecting, Novellas, Novels About Colonialism, Novels About Imperialism, Novels Adapted Into Films, Novels by Joseph Conrad, Novels First Published in Serial Form, Novels Set in Belgian Congo, Novels Set in Colonial Africa, Philosophical Novels, Roman À Clef Novels, Travel Novels, Victorian Novels, Works Originally Published in Blackwood's Magazine
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness
Heart of Darkness first was published as a three-part serial story in Blackwood's Magazine
Author Joseph Conrad
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Frame story, Novella
Publisher Blackwood's Magazine
Publication date
February 1899
Media type Print (serial)
Followed by Lord Jim (1900)

Heart of Darkness (1899) is a short novel by Polish novelist Joseph Conrad, written as a frame narrative, about Charles Marlow's experience as an ivory transporter down the Congo River in Central Africa. The river is "a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land". In the course of his travel in central Africa, Marlow becomes obsessed with Mr. Kurtz.

The story is a complex exploration of the beliefs people hold on what constitutes a barbarian versus a civilized society and the stance on colonialism and racism that was part and parcel of European imperialism. Originally published as a three-part serial story, in Blackwood's Magazine, the novella Heart of Darkness has been variously published and translated into many languages. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Heart of Darkness as the sixty-seventh of the hundred best novels in English of the twentieth century.[1]


  • Composition and publication 1
  • Plot summary 2
  • Reception 3
    • Postcolonial Studies 3.1
  • Adaptations and influences 4
    • Radio and stage plays 4.1
    • Film and Television 4.2
    • Video Games 4.3
    • Other 4.4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8

Composition and publication

Joseph Conrad based Heart of Darkness on his own experiences in the Congo.

Joseph Conrad acknowledged that Heart of Darkness was in part based on his own experiences during his travels in Africa. In 1890, at the age of 31, he was appointed by a Belgian trading company to serve as the captain of a steamer on the Congo River. Conrad, who was born in Poland and later settled in England, had eagerly anticipated the voyage, having decided to become a sailor at an early age. While sailing up the Congo river from one station to another, the captain became ill, Conrad assumed command of the boat and guided the ship to the trading company's innermost station. He reportedly became disillusioned with Imperialism, after witnessing the cruelty and corruption perpetrated by the European companies in the area. The novella's main narrator, Charles Marlow, is believed to have been based upon the author.[2]

There have been many proposed sources for the character of the antagonist, Kurtz. Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, have also been identified as likely sources, including column leader Edmund Musgrave Barttelot, slave trader Tippu Tip and the expedition's overall leader, Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley.[3][4] Adam Hochschild, in King Leopold's Ghost, believes that the Belgian soldier Leon Rom is the most important influence on the character.[5]

When Conrad began to write the novella, eight years after returning from Africa, he drew inspiration from his travel journals.[2] In his words, Heart of Darkness is "a wild story of a journalist who becomes manager of a station in the (African) interior and makes himself worshipped by a tribe of savages. Thus described, the subject seems comic, but it isn't."[6] The tale was first published as a three-part serial, February, March and April 1899, in Blackwood's Magazine (February 1899 was the magazine's 1000th issue: special edition). Then later, in 1902, Heart of Darkness was included in the book Youth: a Narrative, and Two Other Stories (published November 13, 1902, by William Blackwood).

The volume consisted of Youth: a Narrative, Heart of Darkness and The End of the Tether in that order, to loosely illustrate the three stages of life. For future editions of the book, in 1917 Conrad wrote an "Author's Note" where he discusses each of the three stories, and makes light commentary on the character Marlow—the narrator of the tales within the first two stories. He also mentions how Youth marks the first appearance of Marlow.

On May 31, 1902, in a letter to William Blackwood, Conrad remarked;

"I call your own kind self to witness [...] the last pages of Heart of Darkness where the interview of the man and the girl locks in—as it were—the whole 30000 words of narrative description into one suggestive view of a whole phase of life and makes of that story something quite on another plane than an anecdote of a man who went mad in the Centre of Africa."[7]

Plot summary

Aboard the Nellie, anchored in the Mr. Kurtz, and explains that Kurtz is a first-class agent.

Old Belgian river station on the Congo River, 1889

Marlow leaves with a caravan to travel on foot some two hundred miles deeper into the wilderness to the Central Station, where the steamboat that he is to captain is based. Marlow is shocked to learn that his steamboat had been wrecked two days before his arrival. The manager explains that they needed to take the steamboat up-river because of rumours that an important station was in jeopardy and that its chief, Mr. Kurtz, was ill. Marlow describes the Company men at this station as lazy back-biting "pilgrims", fraught with envy and jealousy, all trying to gain a higher status within the Company, which, in turn, would provide more personal profit; however, they sought these goals in a meaningless, ineffective and lazy manner, mixed with a sense that they were all merely waiting, while trying to stay out of harm's way. After fishing his boat out of the river, Marlow is frustrated by the months spent on repairs. During this time, he learns that Kurtz is far from admired, but is more or less resented (mostly by the manager). Not only is Kurtz's position at the Inner Station a highly envied position, but sentiment seems to be that Kurtz is undeserving of it, as he received the appointment only by his European connections.

The Roi des Belges ("King of the Belgians"—French), the Belgian riverboat Conrad commanded on the upper Congo, 1889

Once underway, the journey up-river to the Inner Station, Kurtz's station, takes two months to the day. On board are the manager, three or four "pilgrims" and some twenty "cannibals" enlisted as crew.

They come to rest for the night about eight miles below the Inner Station. In the morning they awake to find that they are enveloped by a thick, white fog. From the riverbank they hear a very loud cry, followed by a discordant clamour. A few hours later, as safe navigation becomes increasingly difficult, the steamboat is hit with a barrage of sticks—small arrows—from the wilderness. The pilgrims open fire into the bush with their Winchester rifles. The native serving as helmsman gives up steering to pick up a rifle and fire it. Marlow grabs the wheel to avoid snags in the river. The helmsman is impaled by a spear and falls at Marlow's feet. Marlow sounds the steam whistle repeatedly, causing the shower of arrows to cease. Marlow and a pilgrim watch the helmsman die, and Marlow forces the pilgrim to take the wheel so that he can fling his blood-soaked shoes overboard. Marlow presumes (wrongly) that Kurtz is dead. In a flash forward, Marlow notes that the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs commissioned Kurtz to write a report, which he did eloquently. A handwritten note, which was written later by Kurtz, states "Exterminate all the brutes!" (Later, Kurtz entreats Marlow to take good care of the pamphlet.) Marlow does not believe Kurtz was worth the lives that were lost in trying to find him. After putting on a pair of slippers, Marlow returns to the wheel-house and resumes steering. By this time the manager is there, and expresses a strong desire to turn back. At that moment the Inner Station comes into view.

At Kurtz's station Marlow sees a man on the riverbank waving his arm, urging them to land. Because of his expressions and gestures, and all the colourful patches on his clothing, in between which possessions are shuffled, the man reminds Marlow of a harlequin. The pilgrims, heavily armed, escort the manager to retrieve Mr. Kurtz. The harlequin-like man, who turns out to be a Russian, boards the steamboat. The Russian is a wanderer who happened to stray into Kurtz's camp. Through conversation Marlow discovers just how wanton Kurtz could be, how the natives worshipped him, and how very ill he had been of late. The Russian admires Kurtz for his intellect and his insights into love, life, and justice, and suggests that he is a poet. The Russian seems to admire Kurtz even for his power—and for his willingness to use it. Marlow suggests that Kurtz has gone mad.

From the steamboat, through a telescope, Marlow can observe the station in detail and is surprised to see near the station house a row of posts topped with severed heads of natives. Around the corner of the house, the manager appears with the pilgrims, bearing Kurtz on an improvised stretcher. The area fills with natives, apparently ready for battle. Marlow can see Kurtz shouting on the stretcher. The pilgrims carry Kurtz to the steamer and lay him in one of the cabins. A beautiful native woman walks in measured steps along the shore and stops next to the steamer. She raises her arms above her head and then walks back into the bushes. The Russian informs Marlow that Kurtz had ordered the attack on the steamer. The Russian refers to a canoe waiting for him and notes how delightful it was to hear Kurtz recite poetry. Marlow and the Russian then part ways.

After midnight, Marlow discovers that Kurtz has left his cabin on the steamer and returned to shore. Marlow goes ashore and finds a very weak Kurtz making his way back to his station—although not too weak to call to the natives. Marlow appreciates his serious situation, and when Kurtz begins in a threatening tone, Marlow interjects that his "success in Europe is assured in any case"; at this, Kurtz allows Marlow to help him back to the steamer. The next day they prepare for their departure. The natives, including the native woman, once again assemble on shore and begin to shout. Marlow, seeing the pilgrims readying their rifles, sounds the steam whistle repeatedly to scatter the crowd on shore. Only the woman remains unmoved, with outstretched arms. The pilgrims open fire. The current carries them swiftly downstream.

Kurtz's health worsens, and Marlow himself becomes increasingly ill. The steamboat having broken down and being under repair, Kurtz gives Marlow a packet of papers with a photograph. As Kurtz dies, Marlow hears him weakly whisper: "The horror! The horror!”

Marlow blows out the candle and tries to act as though nothing has happened when he joins the other pilgrims, who are eating in the mess-room with the manager. In a short while, the "manager's boy" appears and announces in a scathing tone: "Mistah Kurtz—he dead." Next day Marlow pays little attention to the pilgrims as they bury "something" in a muddy hole. Marlow falls very sick, himself near death.

Upon his return to Europe, Marlow is embittered. He distributes the bundle of papers Kurtz had entrusted to him: Marlow gives the paper entitled "Suppression of Savage Customs" (with the postscriptum torn off) to a representative of the company that employed both him and Kurtz, knowing that the man was really looking for papers that might disclose the whereabouts of ivory, and not a humanistic treatise. The company representative refuses the document. To another man, who claims to be Kurtz's cousin, Marlow gives family letters and memoranda of no importance. To a journalist he gives the report on the suppression of savage customs for publication, if the journalist sees fit. Finally Marlow is left with some personal letters and the photograph of a girl's portrait—Kurtz's fiancée, whom Kurtz referred to as "My Intended". When Marlow visits her, she is dressed in black and still deep in mourning, although it is more than a year since Kurtz's death. She presses Marlow for information, asking him to repeat Kurtz's final words. Uncomfortable, Marlow lies and tells her that Kurtz's final word was her name.


Literary critic Harold Bloom wrote that Heart of Darkness had been analyzed more than any other work of literature that is studied in universities and colleges, which he attributed to Conrad's "unique propensity for ambiguity." However, it was not a big success during Conrad's life.[8][9] When it was published as a single volume in 1902 with two more novellas, "Youth" and "The End of the Tether", it received the least commentary from critics.[9] F. R. Leavis, referred to Heart of Darkness as a "minor work" and criticized its "adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery".[10] Conrad himself did not consider it to be particularly notable.[9] By the 1960s, though, it was a standard assignment in many college and high school English courses.

In King Leopold's Ghost (1998), Adam Hochschild wrote that literary scholars have made too much of the psychological aspects of Heart of Darkness, while paying scant attention to Conrad's accurate recounting of the horror arising from the methods and effects of colonialism in the Congo Free State. "Heart of Darkness is experience ... pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the case."[11] Other critiques include Hugh Curtler's Achebe on Conrad: Racism and Greatness in Heart of Darkness (1997).[12]

Postcolonial Studies

Chinua Achebe's 1975 lecture on the book sparked decades of debate.

Heart of Darkness is criticized in postcolonial studies, particularly by Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, who is considered to be "patriarch of the African Novel".[13] In his 1975 public lecture "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness", Achebe described Conrad's novella as "an offensive and deplorable book" that de-humanized Africans.[14] Achebe argued that Conrad, "blinkered...with xenophobia", incorrectly depicted Africa as the antithesis of Europe and civilization, ignoring the artistic accomplishments of the Fang people who lived in the Congo River basin at the time of the book’s publication. Since the book promoted and continues to promote a prejudiced image of Africa that "depersonalizes a portion of the human race," he concluded that it should not be considered a great work of art.[15]

Zimbabwean Professor Dr. Rino Zhuwarara broadly agreed with Achebe, though considered it important to be "sensitized to how peoples of other nations perceive Africa."[16] In 2003, Botswanan professor Dr. Peter Mwikisa concluded the book was "the great lost opportunity to depict dialogue between Africa and Europe." [17] In 1983, British Professor Cedric Watts published an essay expressing indignation at his perceived implication of Achebe's criticism: that only black people may accurately analyze and assess the novella. Stan Galloway writes, in a comparison of Heart of Darkness with Jungle Tales of Tarzan, "The inhabitants [of both works], whether antagonists or compatriots, were clearly imaginary and meant to represent a particular fictive cipher and not a particular African people."[18]

Fellow novelist Caryl Phillips concluded after a 2003 interview that "Achebe is right; to the African reader the price of Conrad's eloquent denunciation of colonisation is the recycling of racist notions of the 'dark' continent and her people. Those of us who are not from Africa may be prepared to pay this price, but this price is far too high for Achebe."[19]

Adaptations and influences

Radio and stage plays

Orson Welles adapted and starred in Heart of Darkness in a CBS Radio broadcast November 6, 1938, as part of his series, The Mercury Theatre on the Air. In 1939 Welles adapted the story for his first film for RKO Pictures, writing a screenplay with John Houseman. The project was never realized. Welles hoped to still produce the film when he presented another radio adaptation of the story as his first program as producer-star of the CBS radio series This Is My Best. Welles scholar Bret Wood called the broadcast of March 13, 1945, "the closest representation of the film Welles might have made, crippled, of course, by the absence of the story's visual elements (which were so meticulously designed) and the half-hour length of the broadcast."[20]:95, 153–156,136–137

In 1991, Australian author and playwright Larry Buttrose wrote and staged a theatrical production of Kurtz (based on Heart of Darkness) with the Crossroads Theatre Company, Sydney.[21] The play was announced to be broadcast as a radio play to Australian radio audiences in August 2011 by the Vision Australia Radio Network,[22] and also by the RPH – Radio Print Handicapped Network across Australia.

In 2011, an operatic adaptation by composer Tarik O'Regan and librettist Tom Phillips was premiered at the Linbury Theatre of the Royal Opera House in London.[23] A suite for orchestra and narrator was subsequently extrapolated from it.[24]

Film and Television

The CBS television anthology Playhouse 90 aired a 90-minute loose adaptation in 1958. This version, written by Stewart Stern, uses the encounter between Marlow (Roddy McDowall) and Kurtz (Boris Karloff) as its final act, and adds a backstory in which Marlow had been Kurtz's adopted son. The cast includes Inga Swenson and Eartha Kitt.[25]

The most famous adaptation is Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 motion picture Apocalypse Now, which moves the story from the Congo to Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam War.[26] In Apocalypse Now, Martin Sheen plays Captain Benjamin L. Willard, a U.S. Army Captain assigned to "terminate" the command of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz. Marlon Brando played Kurtz, in one of his most famous roles. A production documentary of the film, titled Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, exposed some of the major difficulties which director Coppola faced in seeing the movie through to completion. The difficulties that Coppola and his crew faced mirrored some of the themes of the book.

On March 13, 1993, TNT aired a new version of the story directed by Nicolas Roeg, starring Tim Roth as Marlow and John Malkovich as Kurtz.[27]

Video Games

The video game Far Cry 2, released on October 21, 2008, is a loose, modernized adaptation of Heart of Darkness. The player assumes the role of a mercenary operating in Africa whose task it is to kill an arms dealer, the elusive "Jackal". The last area of the game is called 'The Heart of Darkness'.[28][29][30]

The video game Spec Ops: The Line, released on June 26, 2012, is a direct, modernized adaptation of Heart of Darkness. The character John Konrad, who replaces the character Kurtz, is a reference to the author of the novella.[31]


The novel Hearts of Darkness, by Paul Lawrence, moves the events of the novel to England in 1666. Marlow's journey into the jungle is reimagined as the journey of the narrator, Harry Lytle, and his friend Davy Dowling out of London and towards Shyam, a plague-stricken town that has descended into cruelty and barbarism loosely modelled on real-life Eyam. While Marlow must return to civilisation with Kurtz, Lytle and Dowling are searching for the spy James Josselin. Like Kurtz, Josselin's reputation is immense, and the protagonists are well-acquainted with his accomplishments by the time they finally meet him.[32]

Poet Yedda Morrison's 2012 book "Darkness" erases Conrad's novella, "whiting out" his text so that only images of the natural world remain.[33]


  1. ^ 100 Best, Modern Library's website. Retrieved January 12, 2010.
  2. ^ a b Bloom 2009, p. 15
  3. ^ Bloom 2009, p. 16
  4. ^ Hochschild, Adam: King Leopold's Ghost. New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998, pp. 98; 145,
  5. ^ Ankomah, Baffour (October 1999). "The Butcher of Congo". New African.
  6. ^ Karl & Davies 1986, p. 407
  7. ^ Karl & Davies 1986, p. 417
  8. ^ Bloom 2009, p. 17
  9. ^ a b c Moore 2004, p. 4
  10. ^ Moore 2004, p. 5
  11. ^ Hochschild 1999, p. 143
  12. ^ Curtler, Hugh (March 1997). "Achebe on Conrad: Racism and Greatness in Heart of Darkness". Conradiana 29 (1): 30–40. 
  13. ^ "Chinua Achebe Biography". Retrieved 30 November 2014. 
  14. ^ Watts, Cedric (1983). A Bloody Racist': About Achebe's View of Conrad"'". The Yearbook of English Studies. Retrieved November 18, 2013. 
  15. ^ Achebe, Chinua (1978). "An Image of Africa". Research in African Literatures. Retrieved December 13, 2013. 
  16. ^ Moore 2004, p. 6
  17. ^ Mwikisa, Peter. "Conrad's Image of Africa: Recovering African Voices in Heart of Darkness. Mots Pluriels 13 (April 2000): 20-28.
  18. ^ Galloway, Stan. The Teenage Tarzan: A Literary Analysis of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Jungle Tales of Tarzan. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. p. 112.
  19. ^ Phillips, Caryl. "Out of Africa". The Guardian. The Guardian. Retrieved 30 November 2014. 
  20. ^ Wood, Bret, Orson Welles: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1990 ISBN 0-313-26538-0
  21. ^ The Playwrights Database: Larry Buttrose
  22. ^ Vision Australia Radio – Services – Vision Australia Website
  23. ^ Heart of DarknessRoyal Opera House Page for by Tarik O'Regan and Tom Phillips
  24. ^ first London performanceSuite from Heart of Darkness , Cadogan Hall 
  25. ^ Cast and credits are available at "The Internet Movie Database". Retrieved December 2, 2010. A full recording of the show can be viewed onsite by members of the public upon request at The Paley Center for Media (formerly the Museum of Television & Radio) in New York City and Los Angeles.
  26. ^ Scott, A. O. (August 3, 2001). "Aching Heart Of Darkness".  
  27. ^ Tucker, Ken. "Heart of Darkness"., March 11, 1994. Accessed April 4, 2010.
  28. ^ [1]
  29. ^ [2]
  30. ^ [3]
  31. ^ [4]
  32. ^ [5]
  33. ^


  • Bloom, Harold, ed. (2009). Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.  
  • Hochschild, Adam (October 1999). "Chapter 9: Meeting Mr. Kurtz". King Leopold's Ghost. Mariner Books. pp. 140–149.  
  • Karl, Frederick R.; Davies, Laurence, eds. (1986). The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad – Volume 2: 1898 – 1902. Cambridge University Press.  
  • Moore, Gene M. (2004). Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: A Casebook.  
  • Murfin, Ross C. (ed.) (1989). Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness. A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism. St. Martin's Press.  
  • Sherry, Norman (June 30, 1980). Conrad's Western World. Cambridge University Press.  

Further reading

  • Conrad, Joseph (1998). Heart of Darkness & Other Stories. Wordsworth Editions Ltd.  
  • Conrad, Joseph (1990). Heart of Darkness Unabridged. Dover Publications, Inc. New York.  
  • Farn, Regelind (2004, Dissertation). Colonial and Postcolonial Rewritings of "Heart of Darkness" – A Century of Dialogue with Joseph Conrad

External links

  • Heart of Darkness on In Our Time at the BBC. (listen now)
  • Heart of Darkness at Project Gutenberg
  • by LoudLit.orgHeart of DarknessDownloadable audio book of
  • Heart of DarknessOrson Welles' Mercury Theatre on the Air audio books, also of
  • Heart of DarknessOrson Welles Mercury Theatre 1938, also of
  • — "Heart of Darkness"This Is My Best (March 13, 1945) at the Paley Center for Media
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Project Gutenberg are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.