Heart of Darkness (1899) 
by Josef Conrad
Heart of Darkness is a poetic allegory like The Odyssey or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It is, at once, 
  • an adventure tale about a voyage up-river into uncharted regions of the African jungle, 
  • an expose of the brutal consequences of the European scramble for African colonial possessions, 
  • and a philosophical journey into the heart of the human psyche. 

Influenced by the intellectual currents emerging during the late nineteenth century, Conrad’s story reveals the zeitgeist of Europe as it entered the modern age. Intellectuals had lost faith with the great Enlightenment ideals at the core of their society. They were skeptical about the possibility of reason to achieve progress, and they were disillusioned about the ability of liberal government to resolve the huge conflicts emerging 

  • between the workers and the bourgeoisie, 
  • between the rich and poor nations on earth, 
  • and between the great industrial powers themselves as they struggled to dominate world markets. 

Conrad's story predicts with uncanny accuracy the horrible character of the total wars that would ravage the world during the first half of the twentieth century. 

Josef Conrad’s Life

Conrad was born Teodor Josef Korzeniowski in Poland on December 3, 1857. He was the son of a Polish nobleman, writer, and militant nationalist, who was arrested in 1861 and sent into exile in northern Russia. Conrad’s mother moved her four-year-old son to the same town as the prison camp in 1869, but a short time later both parents died of tuberculosis. As a boy Conrad read widely in Polish and French literature, and when he turned seventeen, he signed on as a sailor on a French ship bound for the West Indies. He spent the next twenty years at sea. He taught himself English while working on British merchant ships and eventually rose to the rank of captain. He sailed to the Far East for the first time in 1884 and nearly died off the island of Sumatra when his ship caught fire and had to be abandoned. He recounted his fourteen-hour experience in an open lifeboat in the short story “Youth”.

After his voyages to the Far East, Conrad shipped off to India, the voyage later to be given fictional treatment in The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897), the story of a black sailor’s deterioration and death aboard a British ship. In the late 1880’s Conrad sailed to Java, where he found the prototype for the hero of the novel Typhoon, published in 1902. Conrad received his first command aboard the Ontago, sailing form London to Bankok and back. Two of his most important stories, “The Shadow-Line,” and “Falk”, arise from this voyage.

Heart of Darkness
In 1890 Conrad sought and received the command of a small steamer serving the upper reaches of the Congo River. What he experienced on this extraordinary trip formed the basis of Heart of Darkness. He remained for several months, contracting serious fevers and a case of dysentery that nearly killed him. When he returned to England, he wrote to a friend, “Before the Congo, I was just a mere animal.” 

Like Marlow, Conrad’s fictional alter ego and the narrator of his story, Conrad’s Congo experience had begun in a foreboding office in Brussels, that ‘white sepulchre of a city.’ Conrad, much like Marlow, walked 200 miles from the shore to the town of Kinshasha before securing the command of his tiny ship. Conrad traveled up river to the Inner Station, as did Marlow, and at Stanley Falls he picked up the company agent who died during the return voyage home. This man became the model for Mr. Kurtz, the enigmatic leader whose civilizing mission into the jungle ended in savagery and disaster. Conrad could not write about what happened on this trip for several years, but it can be argued that it ended his career as a sailor and began his new career as a writer. Conrad entered what Marlow calls ‘the heart of darkness’ and returned with a new understanding of human nature. 
Reading Heart of Darkness

Reading the story will exercise your skills of literary analysis because the truth Marlow discovers cannot be communicated in a rational form. It can only be understood imaginatively and emotionally. As Marlow journeys up-river, he follows the trail of an extraordinary man. Kurtz is conceived as a  visionary who went into the jungle on a mission, not simply to establish trade contacts and reap profits, but also to bring progress, reason and civilization to men in the primitive state of nature. In the process something went horribly wrong.
Like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Marlow feels compelled to re-tell this story again and again. As he recounts the experience of his voyage up-river, Marlow tries to uncover for the reader the secret of what happened to Kurtz and to himself in the jungle. So he re-lives the experience and describes what happened by using symbols. He reaches with his imagination into places where reason cannot go. These symbols create a trail for the reader to follow into the heart of darkness. To follow this trail, you must not only exercise your literary instincts but you must also muster the courage to explore the recesses of the human capacity for evil.