Written in 1899, Joseph Conrad’s dark and exhilarating novel Heart of Darkness set an entirely new precedent for the genre of historical fiction. The story begins on the Thames River in London where we are introduced to Marlow through the perspective of an unnamed narrator. In the midst of a heavy storm, Marlow recalls his life changing journey across the African Congo in search of the enigmatic ivory trader Mr. Kurtz. The company had asked Marlow to retrieve Kurtz who is said to be ill and demoralized in his current state. Upon entering the “heart of darkness”, Marlow learns more of Kurtz. The men at the various stations praise Kurtz, hailing him as a genius, a prodigy, a legendary figure. Kurtz was the best agent the company had and was being groomed for a high-level position. The further Marlow travels down the ominous river, the tenser the journey becomes as the atrocities he witnesses becomes increasingly more vile and horrid. He encounters death and suffering at every corner. He sees the white man’s cruel treatment of the natives, depriving and killing them by the numbers in pursuit of a steady profit. He sees the savagery of the cannibalistic natives, killing and consuming foreigners to survive in the harsh wilderness. He questions his and others’ morality and beliefs. He begins to see evil as an entity, manifesting itself deep within the jungles of Africa. When Marlow eventually reaches Kurtz’s camp, he discovers a dying Kurtz who may or may not have gone mad, and is worshiped as a God by the natives. Marlow finds Kurtz on his deathbed in a state of despondency and woe. Kurtz utters his final words to Marlow, “The horror! The horror!”
Conrad’s novel is able to effectively turn a journey down the African Congo into a descent into hell through various uses of symbolism and metaphor. For example, the use of flies in the novel pervades a sense of death and adds to the grotesque nature of the land as shown in the text, “In the steady buzz of flies the homeward-bound agent was lying finished and insensible”. Even Conrad’s vivid descriptions of heads impaled on sticks can chill the bones of any reader, “These round knobs were not ornamental but symbolic; they were expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing…and there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids—a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling, too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber”. Conrad’s long metaphorical descriptions are what primarily drive the story forward. His emphasis on description over plot points is effective in trying to enhance the philosophical nature of the story, rather than the actual plot itself. The imagery Conrad uses to describe simple things in the story enriches the text and provides a deeper meaning to everything. In addition, his diction in these long descriptions is what creates the overarching sense of dread and cynicism
Conrad’s style of extending his paragraphs with long metaphoric descriptions not only contribute in achieving a cynical tone, but also add to the themes he is trying to convey. The theme of Heart of Darkness can be interpreted in many different ways. The simplest and most explicit theme of all being the conflict between good and evil. This struggle between good and evil stretches across multiple characters, objects, and ideas. Within himself, Marlow is in a moral struggle throughout the novel as he is torn apart by whether he should conform and surrender himself to the great evil surrounding him or if he should uphold his morality and good will in a place where it is non-existent. Likewise, Kurtz can be interpreted as an evil entity in the novel as well as the African continent itself.
Heart of Darkness is ominous at its core. It eloquently captures the grim and abhorrent nature of imperialism and the darker side of human nature because it stems from Conrad’s own experiences sailing down the African Congo. The rapacious violence and eminent savagery depicted in the novel was Conrad’s reality at a point in his life. Every day he was consumed by the sight and stench of rotting corpses and starving natives. The things he witnessed, cannibalism, torture, deprivation, suffering, greed, and death all rendered the setting and mood he strives to create in Heart of Darkness. Just to put in perspective the profound impact Africa had on him, Conrad said: “The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness”.
Reviewed by Vikram Sundar