Heart of Darkness is a short but compelling novel which follows the journey of the narrator, Marlow, into the heart of Africa at the height of the British empire. Marlow is shocked by what he sees when he first arrives in Africa — the inhumane manner in which the British officers treat the natives who are forced to work in chain gangs, malnourished and whipped for any mistakes they might make. After this initial shock, he takes up his post and, while waiting for his steamer to be repaired, takes stock of the men he's going to work with, learning about their petty rivalries.
The station manager, in particular, has something against a man named Kurtz who works further inland and the more Marlow hears about Kurtz, the more curious he becomes. He finally boards the steamer with a crew consisting of a few white men whom he calls "pilgrims" because they always carry long wooden staves, and a number of black men or "cannibals." The steamer is attacked when it reaches Kurtz' territory but Marlow finally manages to get the natives to back off.
This is when Marlow finally meets Kurtz, although his curiosity about the man has been further whetted by a meeting with a Russian who brings news of him. Marlow doesn't understand why there is such an aura of mystery around Kurtz but when he meets him, he realizes that Kurtz has gone a little crazy in this foreign land. On the one hand, he seems to rule over the natives like a king but on the other hand, he also hates them and, in a famous line, says "exterminate all the brutes." Kurtz is also fatally ill and dies on board the steamer, before reaching England.
In a sense, Conrad sets Kurtz up as a symbol of the British Empire ruling over Africa and other colonies all around the world. Conrad's implication is that although Britain lorded it over the colonies and benefitted greatly from the trade, it lost the moral high ground by treating human beings as less than they really were.
Joseph Conrad was of Polish Ukrainian descent but he traveled a great deal throughout his life, living in France and finally becoming a British subject. Heart of Darkness is based on his journey to Africa and what he encountered there. When the novel was written, many people didn't even realize that this was meant to be a commentary on British imperialism; they merely thought of it as a description of an alien, exotic place. Now, of course, we recognize Conrad's commentary in the book and also his struggle to accept that he belonged with a set of people who were denuding Africa of all its riches. Incidentally, Conrad didn't learn English until his twenties but his grasp of the language was so strong that he went on to write Heart of Darkness and several other novels, including Lord Jim, which have become literary classics.
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Horror awaits Charlie Marlow, a seaman assigned by an ivory company to retrieve a cargo boat along with one of its employees, Mr. Kurtz, who is stranded deep in the heart of the Belgian Congo. Marlow’s journey up the brooding dark river soon becomes a struggle to maintain his own sanity as he witnesses the brutalization of the natives by white traders and then discovers the enigmatic Mr. Kurtz. Kurtz, once a genius and the company’s most successful representative, has become a savage; his compound is decorated by a row of human heads mounted on spears. It soon becomes clear that the demonic mastermind, liberated from the conventions of European culture, has traded his soul to become ruler of his own horrific dominion.
Acclaimed to be one of the great, albeit disturbing, visionary works of western civilization, Joseph Conrad’s haunting tale dramatizes the stark realities of Africa in the colonial period. Heart of Darkness reflects the physical and psychological tragedies that Conrad had experienced while working in the Belgian Congo in 1890. It is also the basis of Francis Ford Coppola’s Academy Award–winning film Apocalypse Now. Download and start listening now!