This classic is one bleak journey into the human psyche. Those who have not read it may be familiar with the story from the frankly excellent Apocalypse Now (1979), a modern film adaptation which transports the setting from Belgian Congo and the brutality of the colonial regime to the relentless horror of Vietnam War era South East Asia. The fundamentals of the plot remain intact however, as will become clear to readers of Heart of Darkness; the real story revolves around eternal features of humanity, not the setting.
It follows the retelling of the harrowing adventures of Marlow, an English sailor who takes a job as a riverboat Captain in Belgian ruled Congo in 1899. The title reflects the old, colonial European idea of Africa as ‘The Dark Continent’, dangerous, full of mystery and twisted things far removed from civilisation, a place where adventure could be had, a place that Europeans should ‘civilise’. Heart of Darkness is a product of it’s time, hence the casual racism, which is a constant theme. That said Conrad’s novel is not really about Africa at all in the end. The real heart of darkness in this novel is that which lurks in human beings.
The story partially mirrors Joseph Conrad’s life, like Marlow he travelled to the Congo where he was to have commanded a river boat. In the end he caught a tropical disease and was invalided home, but several of Marlow’s experiences are retellings of Conrad’s, the beleaguered condition of their prospective commands upon arrival in Congo, for example.
The main presence in the story, other than Marlow himself, is Kurtz. This remarkable individual has set himself up as a ruler deep in the Congo, served and almost worshipped by native tribes, beyond the authority of the Belgians. Kurz arrived as a trader for the colonial authorities, gathering huge amounts of ivory and other natural resources, until he grew so powerful as to become a law unto himself. He is a man of deep charisma, described as a “universal genius”, respected and feared by those who know him. Kurtz is a fascinating character: the contrast between his early despatches, full of optimism and belief in education of the locals and the “white man’s burden”, and the horrors that Marlow discovers are marked. The power-mad genius represents the darkness that resides, in one way or another, inside us all.
Marlow takes a native crew from a reputedly cannibal tribe and a handful of white men he despises for their moral corruption on an odyssey up the Congo, to find Kurtz. They find death and desolation along the way and Marlow gains insight into the human condition, which depresses him deeply, leaving him a changed man.
Heart of Darkness is a brilliant book. It is only relatively short, and if you are anywhere near as impressed with it as I was it will not take you long at all! Very much worth a go though, the chilling character of Kurtz is a real classic. I would say don’t read it if you are feeling down though, it will not help! (Incidentally, Marlon Brando’s interpretation of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now is worthy of the character – superb.)
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Penguin Classics (1899/2007)