We really can't say it better than Joseph Conrad himself. 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. (Source)
No—not comic at all.
Set in the African Interior and based on Conrad's own experiences as the captain of a Belgian steamer, Heart of Darkness isn't much like the rousing adventure story that it sounds like. It's less Indiana Jones and the Ivory Traders than, psychological horror with a dash of the horrors (the horrors!) of colonialism. And in February of 1899, readers of Blackwood's Magazine—a high-falutin' literary rag, kind of like The New Yorker—were treated to the first of its three parts.
Conrad is one of the most important English writers of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. And get this: he wasn't even a native English speaker. Conrad was Polish, and he didn't actually learn English until he was in his twenties—and after he'd already learned French. (Think about that next time you complain about having to write an essay.) His works explore the seedy underbelly of imperialism, the move of European countries to stake out claim to various far-flung parts of the world.
Heart of Darkness is set right after the Scramble for Africa, the period of the late nineteenth century when imperial powers sliced up and doled out Africa like some particularly delicious—and ivory-rich—birthday cake. None of the Western countries really come off looking good in this whole debacle, but Belgium, unfortunately, looks particularly bad. They were after the valuable ivory hidden away in the African Interior, and they weren't afraid to brutalize and oppress the Africans in order to get it. 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 who appears to have (1) become a god-like figure, and (2) gone totally off his rocker.
But Heart of Darkness is much, much more than a story about a trip up the river. It's a searching exploration of difference: of good and evil, black and white, sanity and insanity. In the end, what we're left with is …nothing.
Most contemporary critics agree that the novel is about the essential emptiness at the core of humanity—and language. That's why T. S. Eliot used a quotation from the novel as an epigraph to his poem "The Hollow Men," a super important and famous literary exploration of modern life.
One last and important thing: in 1975, Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe spoke out against the novel. He accused it of making its point by dehumanizing Africans and reducing them to extensions of the hostile and primal jungle environment. Conrad's language was beautiful and seductive, he said—but it was wrong. Hmmm. Beautiful, seductive, and wrong. To us, that sounds a lot like how Marlow would describe Kurtz—and it's a good example of how head-twistingly complex this novel is.
Get comfy. This is going to take a while.
For a simple—or is that complex?—reason: Heart of Darkness continues to generate some seriously heated debate even today.
And we're not talking about the kind of squabbling that English PhD candidates engage in—the kind that includes obscure citations and footnotes. We're not talking about the arguments that arises in undergraduate survey courses. We're not even talking about the raised voices in an English Lit classroom in high school.
We're talking about something way bigger. After all, this single book has influences artists as important as William Golding, T.S. Eliot, Orson Welles, and Francis Ford Coppola. Conrad's work has some staying power—including the power to get people to argue passionately.
And we're going to hand the mic over to the good people at The Guardian so they can explain:
Heart of Darkness is probably the title that has aroused, and continues to arouse, most literary critical debate, not to say polemic. This is partly because the story it tells has the visceral simplicity of great myth, and also because the book takes its narrator (Charles Marlow), and the reader, on a journey into the heart of Africa. (Source)
Let's talk about these seemingly disparate reasons for the kerfuffle that surrounds Heart of Darkness about a hundred and twenty years after it was published: it a) seems like a myth and b) it takes place in Africa. For Chinua Achebe, the fact that "myth" and "Africa" go hand in hand in Conrad's work is a problem. A huge, racist problem.
Let's let him explain:
[Heart of Darkness has] Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. (Source)
Basically, Achebe's arguing that the fact that Heart of Darkness uses Africa as a semi-mythical place is exactly the problem. By mythologizing Africa, Africa is portrayed as this big, bad Other that white Europeans get lost within. By using the structure of a myth or fairy tale (Marlow's journey down the Congo is a little bit like Red Ridinghood going to Grandma's) Conrad is legitimizing the idea of Africa as mythological. And that's racist as all get-out.
Because this is a debate, though, there's another side: the side of people that argue that this Africa-as-myth nonsense isn't Conrad speaking, but Marlow. Marlow isn't getting any gold medals for heroism or even truth-telling—he's a flawed character, with a flawed view of the world. There are tons of other first-person narrators that believe and do terrible things—think of Mersault, or Humbert Humbert. We don't take the character of Mersault as proof that Camus believes that killing is a-okay, or the character of Humbert Humbert as proof that Nabokov thought molesting kids was fine.
And then there's this big question: does Heart of Darkness deserve literary praise....even if it is racist? Achebe has some thoughts on that matter:
And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot. (Source)
But of course—because of the whole Heart-of-Darkness-stirring-the-debate-pot we talked about, other people have competing views:
However, despite Achebe's compelling "evidence", I am still finding it difficult to dismiss this man and his short novel. Are we to throw all racists out of the canon? Are we, as Achebe suggests, to ignore the period in which novels are written and demand that the artist rise above the prejudices of his times? (Source)
The debate rages on. Believe us when we say this: every point in the Heart of Darkness debate has a counter-point, and a point to counter that counterpoint.
We can't give you any easy answers here—you'll have to join the debate yourself and take a stand.
Chinua Achebe on Heart of Darkness
NPR interviews Nigerian author Chinua Achebe on Heart of Darkness, which he considers "inappropriate" because of its depiction of Africans.
Kickin' It Old School
Gather the family around the radio and listen to Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre perform Conrad's story. Awesome!
The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot, a poem inspired by Heart of Darkness.
English is My Third Language
The Conradian talks about Conrad and his roots in Eastern Europe.
Mistah Kurtz—He Dead
T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men" uses an epigraph from Heart of Darkness. Can you figure out why?
Put It On Our Christmas Wishlist!
For only £500, you, too, can be a member of the Joseph Conrad Society. Spend all your allowance? The site still has some good information, including a "Student Resources" section.
The Greatest Generation
Just another reason the '50s were so cool: Playhouse 90 presented 1.5-hour dramas, like this "Heart of Darkness" (episode #7).
It's Dialectics, Man
Apocalypse Now (1979), directed by Francis Ford Coppola, updates Heart of Darkness to the Vietnam War. It's also pretty much the best adaptation in the history of adaptations.
Being Mr. Kurtz
Heart of Darkness (1993) with John Malkovich as Kurtz. Unfortunately, it's not as good as you'd hope.
Mr. Kurtz, I Presume
This 1999 documentary, Search for Kurtz, is the story of Tony Po, the alleged inspiration for Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Confused?
Is That the Empire State Building in Your Pocket?
King Kong, directed by Peter Jackson, has many references to Heart of Darkness. We're also worried it's a little bit racist.
Heart of Apocalypse
Screenwriter John Milius says smart things about Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness.
The Horror! The horror!
It doesn't get any more classic than this, Shmoopers.
This is the End
Trailer from the 1979 film Apocalypse Now. So rad.
John Powell's "Rhapsodie Negre" was inspired by Heart of Darkness. You can also learn more about John Powell here. (What that bio doesn't say, however, is that he was a flat-out racist jerk.)
This is a map of the Congo from the early 1900s, just after Heart of Darkness. See all the different colors?
An Oxford World Classics book cover. Anyone want to try a close reading of the cover?
A photo of Joseph Conrad sporting some seriously hip facial hair.