Author: Joseph Conrad
Country: UK (Note: Conrad was Polish, but later lived in the UK)
The book is narrated by Marlowe to a group of sailors aboard his boat in the UK.
Marlowe’s story is from when he was a westerner working as an ivory transporter in Africa. He recounts becoming fascinated by the story of Kurtz, another westerner who was running an ivory station further up the river, who has supposedly become ‘ill’. Marlowe begins the journey of heading up the river, into deepest Africa, to try and find Kurtz.
The book is quite short – a novella rather than a novel – and only has 3 chapters. The second chapter is spent purely talking about heading up the river through the forests, and is a great example of creating atmosphere purely through the scenery.
Whilst the story is about Marlowe’s journey, the most-discussed theme is Kurtz’s mental health and what living in a different land and culture has done to him: he has come to think of himself as a god amongst the locals.
The insanity and arrogance of Kurtz is seen as a mirror to the attitudes of the Colonial powers (countries such as the UK, who went into Africa and took what they wanted); yet Kurtz the person is also pitiful, a man far from home who has lost everything he has ever known. His final words are famous in western culture: ‘The horror! The horror!’
Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sand-banks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once—somewhere—far away—in another existence perhaps. There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare for yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect. I got used to it afterwards; I did not see it any more; I had no time. I had to keep guessing at the channel; I had to discern, mostly by inspiration, the signs of hidden banks; I watched for sunken stones; I was learning to clap my teeth smartly before my heart flew out, when I shaved by a fluke some infernal sly old snag that would have ripped the life out of the tin-pot steamboat and drowned all the pilgrims; I had to keep a lookout for the signs of dead wood we could cut up in the night for next day’s steaming. When you have to attend to things of that sort, to the mere incidents of the surface, the reality—the reality, I tell you—fades. The inner truth is hidden—luckily, luckily. But I felt it all the same; I felt often its mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks, just as it watches you fellows performing on your respective tight-ropes for—what is it? half-a-crown a tumble—
Heart of Darkness remains one of the most read books in the west, and a must-read for anyone studying colonialism. The film ‘Apocalypse Now’, set during the Vietnam war but using Heart of Darkness’s story, helped keep it popular.
There is a debate as to whether the book turns the Africans into just scenery, not people. Some say the book stops Africans having a voice, but others say that Heart of Darkness is fairly accurate: the colonialists didn’t really care what the locals did or said.