Published in 1902, Heart of Darkness has become one of the most celebrated and effective novels to combine a psychological journey with a horrifyingly stark account of imperialism, or specifically of European colonies in Africa. Based on Joseph Conrad’s own experience traveling up the Congo River into the African interior, Heart of Darkness follows the disturbing journey of English ivory-trading agent Marlow who, working for a Belgian company, travels into the jungles of Africa in search of a mysterious man named Kurtz. The novel sparked controversy in 1975 when famed Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe condemned it, accusing it of dehumanizing Africans and reducing them to extensions of the hostile and primal jungle environment. Since then, writers have heatedly debated this topic. Scholars can’t quite seem to conclude whether the novel is racist or anti-racist.
Let’s just get it out here. We didn’t want to be the first ones to say it, but it’s kind of the elephant in the room at this point: Heart of Darkness is the original Star Wars. No, seriously – you’ve got the light side and the dark side, the delicate balance between the two, and best of all, the commingling of those who are good with those who are evil. Friendly, upstanding Marlow realizing that he’s not so unlike heads-on-sticks Kurtz is the "Luke, I am your Father" moment of the novel.
To any of you who have ever rooted for the bad guy, picked on someone smaller than you in elementary school, or wanted that annoying kid behind you in home economics to get destroyed in dodge ball, you know what it’s like to encounter your own heart of darkness – it’s scary. People can be pretty horrible. The human race has been guilty of murder, brutality, torture, rape, and mass exterminations of its own kind.
Now that we’ve lured you into a Marlow-esque feeling of safety, everyone take a look at that finger you’re pointing and turn it 180 degrees. Yes, you. Heart of Darkness makes the point that we may all be a shrunken head away from becoming our own worst enemies.
But before giving up on humanity, consider the ending to Heart of Darkness. What do you think about its message? Is it hopeful in the end?