Biography: Joseph Conrad
Joseph Conrad was born in Berdyczow, which, at the time of his birth, on December 3, 1857, was a city in Ukraine. His birth name was Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, anglicized years later when he became a British citizen. Before one of those border realignments that regularly occur in that part of the world, Berdyczow had been a part of the Kingdom of Poland. The distinction is important because Polish nationalism shaped Conrad’s early years. His parents were Polish nobility, and Conrad’s father, in addition to working as a writer and a translator, was a political activist, whose goal was to free Poland from Russian domination. For this, he was arrested and his family exiled to Vologda. Within seven years, both of Conrad’s parents had died of tuberculosis and he was sent to live with his mother’s brother, his Uncle Tadeusz, in Krakow.
Determined to be a sailor, Conrad left home at 16 and moved to Marseilles, France, where he began his apprenticeship, working entry-level positions on several merchant ships. His career floundered, however, when he learned that to continue this line of work he needed the permission from the Russian consul, who was more likely to conscript Conrad into the Russian army than grant permission. Moreover, Conrad had gambling debts he could not pay. In despair, he wounded himself in the chest in a half-hearted suicide attempt, which prompted his uncle to settle Conrad’s debts and to help him relocate to England. For the next 16 years, Conrad worked in the British mercantile marine, rising in rank to master mariner. In 1886, at the age of 29, he became a British citizen.
In 1890, Conrad captained a steamer up the Congo River, an adventure that inspired Heart of Darkness. As a Pole whose father was a political activist fighting to rebuild a nation ruthlessly conquered by other European powers, Conrad was sensitive to the exploitation and disruption that occurs when one culture will use any means, including aggressive military action, to impose its will upon another. The motive is often the theft of natural resources, such as oil, precious metals, or forests. In Heart of Darkness, it is ivory, valuable in Europe at the time for the manufacture of piano keys, elaborate chess pieces, jewelry, billiard balls, toiletry items, and ornaments of various kinds. Lured by the promise of wealth, adventurers and fortune hunters, with the blessing of Belgium’s King Leopold, who took his cut, rushed to the Congo ready and eager to decimate the elephant population and harvest its ivory. Heart of Darkness was first published in three installments in 1899 in Blackwoods Magazine. In 1902, it was one of the stories in Conrad’s book, Youth, a Narrative, and Two Other Stories. It is among Conrad’s best-known works, and one of the great novellas in the English language.
By 1894, with the help of an inheritance from his uncle, Conrad’s transition from sailor to writer was complete. He married, settled on a farm in Kent, and became a prolific writer, the author of some of the great works of the 20th century: Lord Jim (1899), Typhoon (1902), Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907), and Under Western Eyes (1911).
The plots of Conrad’s stories often revolve around the relationship between an opinionated but ethical main character—Marlow in Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim—and another essentially decent man, tempted and corrupted by the promise of wealth and power. Nostromo, for example, the head of the longshoreman’s union in a South American country in the midst of a revolution, is entrusted because of his reputation as the most brave and honourable of men to protect a shipment of silver, which the mine owner, Charles Gould, fears will fall into the hands of the revolutionaries. The boat in which Nostromo has hidden the silver is rammed by a warship belonging to the revolutionary forces. Nostromo saves and hides the silver on a deserted island, but he claims it sank with his boat. Embittered by his sense that the elite politicians and businessmen of his nation patronize him, Nostromo begins to recover the silver for himself until he is shot and killed by the island’s lighthouse keeper who mistakes Nostromo for an intruder. Such plots, conflicts, and moral dilemmas make for complex stories with the characters developed with considerable psychological intensity, anticipating the work of Conrad’s great successors: D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce.
Conrad’s style also makes him one of the great novelists of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. His plots are rich and complex, often forsaking a linear narrative in favour of a recursive one, which adds depth and suspense to the story. He did not learn English until he was in his early twenties, and he always spoke with a heavy accent, yet he mastered the vocabulary and the rhythms of the language so thoroughly that the landscapes and the cityscapes that he renders, often in exquisite detail, come to life. His ear for dialogue is equally true.
After 1911, Conrad continued his impressive pace as a novelist and short story writer. Critics generally agree that his best work was behind him, although opinion on the merits of some of his later novels, Chance (1914), Victory (1915), and The Shadow Line (1917), is divided. Conrad certainly remained a popular novelist, whose works sold well, and who, despite heavy expenses and debts that resulted from a sometimes profligate lifestyle, became a wealthy man. Sales were helped by the stories’ exotic settings and spirit of romantic adventure, which appealed to an ever-growing late-Victorian readership.
Conrad was hard at work, lecturing and writing, until his death in August 1924, with his final novel, Suspense, left unfinished.
Joseph Conrad, Author of Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad (born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski; December 3, 1857 – August 3, 1924) was one of the greatest English-language novelists of all time, despite the fact he was born in the Russian Empire to a Polish-speaking family. After a long career in the merchant marine, he eventually settled in England and became one of the most prominent novelists of the early 20th century, writing classics such as Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1900), and Nostromo (1904).
Joseph Conrad’s family was of Polish descent and lived in Berdychiv, a city now part of Ukraine and then part of the Russian empire. It is located in a region that the Polish sometimes refer to as the «Stolen Lands,» since it was taken from the Kingdom of Poland. Conrad’s father, Apollo Korzeniowski, a writer and political activist, took part in the Polish resistance to Russian rule. He was imprisoned in 1861 when the future author was a young child. The family endured exile to Vologda, three hundred miles north of Moscow, in 1862, and they were later moved to Chernihiv in northeast Ukraine. As a consequence of the family’s struggles, Conrad’s mother, Ewa, died of tuberculosis in 1865.
Apollo raised his son as a single father and introduced him to the works of French novelist Victor Hugo and the plays of William Shakespeare. They moved to the Austrian-held section of Poland in 1867 and enjoyed more freedom. Suffering from tuberculosis like his wife, Apollo died in 1869 leaving his son an orphan at age eleven.
Conrad moved in with his maternal uncle. He was raised to pursue a career as a sailor. At age sixteen, fluent in French, he moved to Marseilles, France, to look for a career in the merchant marine.
Merchant Marine Career
Conrad sailed for four years on French ships before joining the British merchant marine. He served for fifteen more years under the British flag. He eventually rose to the rank of captain. The elevation to that rank came unexpectedly. He sailed on the ship Otago out of Bangkok, Thailand, and the captain died at sea. By the time the Otago arrived at its destination in Singapore, the entire crew except Conrad and the cook were suffering from fever.
The characters in Joseph Conrad’s writing are mostly drawn from his experiences at sea. Three years of association with a Belgian trading company as captain of a ship on the Congo River led directly to the novella Heart of Darkness.
Conrad completed his final long-distance voyage in 1893. One of the passengers on the ship Torrens was 25-year-old future novelist John Galsworthy. He became a good friend of Conrad shortly before the latter began his writing career.
Success as a Novelist
Joseph Conrad was 36 when he left the merchant marine in 1894. He was ready to seek a second career as a writer. He published his first novel Almayer’s Folly in 1895. Conrad was concerned that his English might not be strong enough for publication, but readers soon considered his approach to the language as a non-native writer an asset.
Conrad set the first novel in Borneo, and his second, An Outcast of the Islands, takes place in and around the island of Makassar. The two books helped him develop a reputation as a teller of exotic tales. That depiction of his work frustrated Conrad, who looked to be taken seriously as a top writer of English literature.
During the next fifteen years, Conrad published what most consider the finest works of his career. His novella Heart of Darkness appeared in 1899. He followed it with the novel Lord Jim in 1900 and Nostromo in 1904.
In 1913, Joseph Conrad experienced a commercial breakthrough with the publication of his novel Chance. Today it is not viewed as one of his best works, but it outsold all of his previous novels and left the author with financial security for the rest of his life. It was the first of his novels to focus on a woman as a central character.
Conrad’s next novel, Victory, released in 1915, continued his commercial success. However, critics found the style melodramatic and expressed concern that the author’s artistical skills were fading. Conrad celebrated his financial success by building the house he called Oswalds in Bishopsbourne, Canterbury, England.
Joseph Conrad suffered from a range of physical maladies, most of them due to exposure during his years in the merchant marine. He battled gout and recurrent attacks of malaria. He also struggled occasionally with depression.
In 1896, while in the early years of his writing career, Conrad married Jessie George, an Englishwoman. She gave birth to two sons, Borys and John.
Conrad counted many other prominent writers as friends. Among the closest were future Nobel laureate John Galsworthy, American Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, and collaborator on two novels, Ford Madox Ford.
Joseph Conrad continued to write and publish novels through his final years. Many observers considered the five years after World War I ended in 1919 the most peaceful part of the author’s life. Some of Conrad’s contemporaries pushed for recognition with a Nobel Prize for Literature, but it was not forthcoming.
In April 1924, Joseph Conrad turned down the offer of a British knighthood due to his background in Polish nobility. He also turned down offers of honorary degrees from five prestigious universities. In August 1924, Conrad died at his home of an apparent heart attack. He is buried with his wife, Jessie, in Canterbury, England.
Shortly after Joseph Conrad’s death, many critics focused on his ability to create stories that illuminated exotic locales and to humanize sordid events. Later analysis has focused on deeper elements in his fiction. He often examines the corruption that lies just beneath the surface of otherwise admirable characters. Conrad focuses on fidelity as a crucial theme. It can save the soul and wreak terrible destruction when it is breached.
Conrad’s powerful narrative style and the use of anti-heroes as main characters have influenced a wide range of great writers of the 20th century, from William Faulkner to George Orwell and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He paved the way for the development of modernist fiction.
The path of an exiled writer: Joseph Conrad and Poland
A lot of Polish celebrities and historical figures, known all around the world, share a strange similarity: their names do not sound Polish, at all. Copernicus lacks the traditional -ski or -icz suffixes; Marie Curie or Chopin are designated by an English name – the name of her husband for Maria Skłodowska Curie, his own family name for Chopin, whose father was French. One of the most prominent Polish writers, and probably the one who had the most important literary impact beyond the borders of Poland, is in the same situation: Józef Korzeniowski, better known under his pen name: Joseph Conrad.
Is Joseph Conrad a Polish writer?
However, an English denomination seems more fitting for Joseph Conrad than for Copernicus or Marie Curie. He wrote all his major novels, from Almayer’s Folly or The Secret Agent to Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim in English rather than in his mother tongue. A question then arises: Can Joseph Conrad, an English-speaking writer who left his country in 1874 to become a sailor when he was only sixteen years old can still be considered as a Polish writer?
The question has been lengthily debated by literary specialists throughout the years. The reminiscences of Poland in the life and the literary choices of Joseph Conrad is, nonetheless, undoubted: the Polish references are tenuous, but present. The writer’s pen-name itself can be read as a Polish memorabilia: the name ‘Conrad’ has had a long history in Polish literature.
Conrad’s subtle link to his native country
Adam Mickiewicz, arguably the most important Polish poet, used the name Konrad in two of his major works: the main character of Konrad Wallenrod as well as The Forefathers’ Eve Konrad both bear this name. Konrad Wallenrod tells the story of the eponymous character, a Lithuanian pagan who has been captured by knights of the Teutonic order. In an act of patriotism, he deliberately provokes the military defeat of the knights. In The Forefathers’ Eve, also called Dziady, Gustaw, a desperate lover, transforms himself into Konrad, who wants to rise up and fight for Polish freedom.
By choosing this pseudonym, Conrad references to his own true name (Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski) as well as Polish literature. Even more symbolically, all the main fictional characters linked to this name carry and embody the idea of Polish freedom and independence.
The influence of Poland is also noticeable in Joseph Conrad’s works. In Under Western Eyes, the writer portrays a negative image of Russia that reminds the reader of the revolt against the Russian Empire expressed by a lot of 19th century Polish writers, from Mickiewicz to Wyspiański. This novel tells the story of Kyrilo Razumov, a Russian spy. Falling in love with Natalia, the sister of Haldin, a revolutionary he betrayed, he will admit his treason to Haldin’s fellows.
Jessie Conrad, the writer’s wife, declared that while writing Under Western Eyes, Conrad, in his delirium, had conversations with the characters… in Polish. Under Western Eyes seems to have acted for Conrad as a return to his own childhood, native country and national roots; even if the novel takes place in Russia, the author experienced his writing like a tribute to Poland.
The struggle of exile and estrangement
In the same way, Conrad’s Amy Foster acts like a reminder of Poland for a writer known for a literature centered around the vast seas or Africa. This novella introduces the reader to the character of Yanko Goorall, a Central European emigrant and shipwrecked sailor, who marries Amy Foster. His name is the English transliteration of his real name: he was probably called Janko Góral, and was Polish.
This novella tells the life of a man estranged from the country he lives in, like Conrad himself, he who left Poland when he was sixteen years old to become a sailor, and never came back. Goorall is isolated in his language and his culture. When he and Amy Foster have a child, the narrator declares: “And I discovered [Yanko Goorall] longed for their boy to grow up so that he could have a man to talk with in that language that to our ears sounded so disturbing, so passionate, and so bizarre.”
Given these elements, a lot of literary specialists have wanted to qualify Joseph Conrad as a Polish writer. But Conrad wrote in English, and left Poland when he was a mere teenager: does a writer always need to stand up for his country? Does a writing have to be attached to a territory, a physical place?
Conrad, the ultimate stateless author?
Conrad’s most significant and influential novels do not speak about Poland nor Central Europe. Lord Jim takes place between the ocean and southern Asia, while Heart of Darkness is set in Africa. His first novel, Almayer’s Folly, takes place in Borneo. The list goes on. Joseph Conrad should firstly be seen as a writer in his own right, rather, as many specialists would have it, than as the translator and flag-bearer of a country.
His writing itself is strangely detached from his origins. Although he writes in English, Polish turns of phrases are absent from his style. Even more surprising, his English is keenly influenced by another foreign language: French. He only considers English as a third language, after Polish and French, that he learned when he lived in Marseilles. Joseph Conrad himself wrote that “when I write I translate the words of my thoughts in French. This is an impossible process for one desiring to make a living by writing in the English language”.
Conrad’s writing is filled with Gallicisms and French references. The writer often uses the determiner in a manner more French than English—”How the time passes!”, writes Conrad in Lord Jim. He often gets the false friends mixed up. Conrad’s writing idiom was neither French, Polish nor English, but a mix of all these languages.
Rather than a Polish writer, Joseph Conrad can be seen as the ultimate international author, or a stateless one. His influence is not limited to English-speaking countries, even though writers like Francis Scott Fitzgerald or William Faulkner recognised the debt their writings owe to Conrad.
Joseph Conrad back to his roots
One of the most striking echoes of his work in the last year, however, happened in Poland. Jacek Dukaj, a popular contemporary Polish writer, known for his science fiction works such as Lód or Katedra, decided to rewrite Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, under the title Serce ciemności. As Dukaj himself declared: “I’m not a translator, I am the author of Joseph Conrad writing Heart of Darkness for the 21st century reader”.
For a 21st century reader as well as for a Polish reader: With his endeavor, Jacek Dukaj gave Joseph Conrad back to his native country through Polish language, a restitution that could only be accomplished nearly a hundred years after Conrad’s death.
Looking back on Joseph Conrad: Poland’s most famous errant author
Poland isn’t known for its nautical traditions, so it is perhaps surprising that one of literature’s most famous seafarers was a Pole.
Joseph Conrad was just four years old when his family were exiled from Warsaw on account of his father’s pro-independence and anti-Russian activities and 17 when, an orphan, he first boarded a ship at Marseille. Twenty years of service in the merchant navy, first French, then English, provided the material for most of his literary works which on the other hand seem devoid of any reference to his motherland.
That has not stopped the critics from finding Poland in the books. His apparent obsession with honour, its paradoxes and its loss bear remarkable resemblance to the treatment of similar themes in Polish Romanticism of the first half of the nineteenth century. And his most famous works all resonate with subtle, yet unmistakable Polish echoes.
Lord Jim, the story of a disgraced sailor unable to live down his shame, looks to some critics like an allegory of the author’s own position. As Conrad started work on the novel, a famous (at the time, now little read) Polish novelist made a widely discussed denunciation of him for abandoning his native country in favour of a career abroad. The cosmopolitan Conrad comes out poorly in comparison that she made to his father, sent into exile for patriotic agitation.
Such criticism reached Conrad’s ears just as he was drawing up his story of a sailor literally abandoning ship – much as he was accused of metaphorically doing. While he never made the analogy explicit himself, some readers have seen in Lord Jim an allegorical self-portrait.
The Secret Agent concerns itself with revolutionaries, based in London and of apparently internationalist persuasions but in their conspiratorial lives not unlike, perhaps, his own father. Conrad was a child when he died, yet his father’s willingness to make sacrifice for his politics was a key factor in shaping his life.
Most famous of all his works, the Heart of Darkness may have little obvious connection to a central European country that never had much of a navy, let alone African colonies. Yet the position of Poland as a former empire that at the time of writing had itself been part of Russia’s colonial empire for over a century arguably helped give Poles a unique vantage point from which to view Europe’s overseas ventures. At the same time as Conrad made it clear to the reading public that the “white man’s burden” was in fact carried by the colonised Africans, another Pole, Bronisław Malinowski was busy establishing anthropology as a social science, rigorous, respectful study of “primitive” cultures on their own terms.
Such efforts at interpretation, finding hidden meaning in works of literature is, of course, always fraught with difficulty and perhaps irredeemably subjective. Better then to let Conrad speak for himsef: “English critics […] whenever they discuss my work, always add that there’s something incomprehensible, unfathomable and elusive about it,» he told a Polish interviewer towards the end of his life. «Only you can capture this elusiveness, fathom the unfathomable. It’s Polishness.”
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad [A Review]
From humble beginnings, Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, rose to become a classroom staple for much of the twentieth century. Its themes of racism and colonial exploitation within an evocative and enigmatic story, showcasing techniques that would influence later masters, ensured a prominent place for analysis. Whether it still retains its relevance is an open question. Despite whatever the novel’s shortcomings may be, and however confident we may be in our own moral superiority to the past, it is surely always a mistake to not examine and appreciate the past for what it was.
Four men aboard a yacht on the eastern Thames anchor for the night. The men are pensive, contemplative, in no mood for talk or games. But, somewhat expectedly, one of the men – Marlow – has a tale he wants to share.
Marlow tells them how, as a young man, he had a strong desire for adventure, for seeking out the edges of the known world, and had always felt certain perilous temptation when looking upon the serpentine shape of the Congo as it looks on a map.
Going up that river was like travelling 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.
Marlow manages to get a job as a steamboat captain, replacing a man who was killed in an argument with natives. Arriving on the African coast, meeting with the company accountant, Marlow first hears of Kurtz; a name that will obsess him during his short time in Africa. Kurtz is a notorious agent for the company. He sends downriver as much ivory as all the other agents combined and an aura of mystery and expectation surrounds him. His success has won him great admiration and jealous enemies.
The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words – the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.
But Marlow has plenty to deal with of his own. First there is a 200-mile trek inland to reach the central station. Arriving, he finds that the ship he is meant to captain has sunk and it may take months to fish it out and repair it. They need to work fast; the stations upriver and deeper inland rely heavily on regular supplies from the central station. And Kurtz is said to be ill, his station in jeopardy.
Marlow finds himself rapidly becoming obsessed with this enigmatic figure. He desperately hopes to find Kurtz alive and to listen to what he has to say.
Heart of Darkness has a great opening. The writing is very pretty and the story is immediately evocative and transporting. You instantly feel as if you are one of those aboard the yacht, listening to the old seaman telling his tale.
One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same. In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance; for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself, which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny.
Once Conrad has put you at ease in this relaxed setting he lets Marlow’s story unsettle you with its sense of danger, mystery and ultimately, horror.
Racism, colonialism and imperialism appear to be key themes of the novel. Owen Knowles, who contributed the introduction to this Penguin Classics edition seems to agree. At the time of writing, in the late nineteenth century, European powers were in a scramble to systematically annex and exploit Africa, just as there had been earlier scrambles for the Americas, India and China. As in the previous cases, the argument that the European has a moral duty to ‘civilise’ the non-European served to both disguise and justify the exploitation. Stories about the crimes of exploitation were just beginning to filter through to the public. One interpretation of the novel is that Conrad, via Marlow, is speaking out. Within a few years of the publication of Heart of Darkness (1899) came the Boer War and the Atrocities in the Congo Free State and a noticeable shift in European attitudes.
They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force – nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get and for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, it is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.
That being said, Marlow is not immune to the prejudices that were pervasive to his culture and time.
And between the whiles I had to look after the savage who was fireman. He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind legs.
In addition, not everyone is as generous in bestowing credit to Conrad for raising consciousness on these issues. Notably, Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart, wrote an angry and controversial essay criticising Heart of Darkness, chiefly for its assumption of ‘civilisation’, as defined by the West with Africa and Africans outside of it, and the omission of any African voice speaking to the issues raised in the novel.
While I won’t be defending Conrad on these charges, I do want to say a couple of things that add to the complexity of how to read and interpret Heart of Darkness. The first is that Heart of Darkness is based heavily on Conrad’s own experiences in the Congo. Like Marlow, Conrad was also hired to captain a steamboat whose previous captain had been killed by natives. This edition of Heart of Darkness includes excerpts from Conrad’s Congo Diary. It shows that in Heart of Darkness the line between fact and fiction, between reportage and storytelling is blurred. While we consider the issue of how much the novel speaks out against racism and exploitation and whether it is able to completely escape racism itself, we should also ask to what extent it provides an accurate window into a time, a place and a people and to both the racism and abhorrence of it in that context.
Which leads to the second thing I wanted to say. Fiction has the power to transport the reader and allow them to vicariously experience and empathise with the lives of others. When fiction was written or set in the past it allows the reader to time-travel as well. It is not the characters and the author who travel to our time for us to judge them by our standards, as satisfying as some might find that. Rather it is the reader who is transported to their time to glimpse what that life was like. Understandably, some might not find it a pleasant experience in some cases. Some might also object to any suggestion that we should feel grateful for how far things have come, given how much is left to do and the fate of those born to soon, which is fine. But there is still much to learn from the past. At least, if we don’t wish to feel grateful, we should also avoid its mirror; complacency.
Heart of Darkness is often cited as an early example of the modernist style that would become prevalent in the coming decades. That is clear to see in parts two and three of the novella. While the novel had a beautiful beginning and an engrossing hook of mystery it soon becomes difficult. As Marlow edges closer to the edges of the map, his storytelling begins slipping into stream-of-consciousness, becomes disjointed, unstructured, dreamlike. I admittedly had difficulty following what was really going on and how to interpret it.
In the end, I can’t say I greatly enjoyed Heart of Darkness, but maybe my expectations were too high. Maybe I was expected Apocalypse Now in book form! It is interesting how this novella, largely ignored when it was first published, and even its author considered it to be a minor work, came to be seen as highly influential and a standard text for high-school and university students. Perhaps its effort to speak to racism and colonial exploitation made it more relevant as time went on, both for what it achieved in that regard and for where it failed. Perhaps its modernist technique lends it enough ambiguity to make interpretation futile and subjective, vulnerable to endless analysis and reinterpretation, leaving the reader to see what they expect to see in it. Or perhaps that same technique makes it an important study as an antecedent for those who came in its wake – James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner among them.
How Conrad’s imperial horror story Heart of Darkness resonates with our globalised times
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – or “The Heart of Darkness”, as it was known to its first readers – was first published as a serial in 1899, in the popular monthly Blackwood’s Magazine. Few of that magazine’s subscribers could have foreseen the fame that Conrad’s story would eventually garner, or the fierce debates it would later provoke.
Already, in 1922, the American poet T.S. Eliot thought the book was Zeitgeist-y enough to provide the epigraph for his epoch-defining poem, The Waste Land – although another American poet, Ezra Pound, talked him out of using it.
The same thought occurred to Francis Ford Coppola more than 50 years later, when he used Conrad’s story as the framework for his phantasmagoric Vietnam War movie, Apocalypse Now. Echoes of Heart of Darkness can pop up almost anywhere: the chorus to a Gang of Four song, the title of a Simpsons episode, a scene in Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong remake.
Consider one final Heart of Darkness allusion, from Mohsin Hamid’s 2017 Man Booker-shortlisted novel, Exit West. In the novel’s opening pages, a man with “dark skin and dark, woolly hair” appears in a Sydney bedroom, transported there by one of the mysterious portals that have appeared around the globe, connecting stable, prosperous countries with places that people need to escape from.
The “door”, as these wormholes are called, is “a rectangle of complete darkness — the heart of darkness”. This is a more complicated kind of Conrad reference. Here, “heart of darkness” is a shorthand for European stereotypes of Africa, which Conrad’s novel did its part to reinforce.
Hamid’s line plays on racist anxieties about immigration: the idea that certain places and peoples are primitive, exotic, dangerous. For contemporary readers and writers, these questions have become an unavoidable part of Conrad’s legacy, too.
Up the river
Heart of Darkness is the story of an English seaman, Charles Marlow, who is hired by a Belgian company to captain a river steamer in the recently established Congo Free State. Almost as soon as he arrives in the Congo, Marlow begins to hear rumours about another company employee, Kurtz, who is stationed deep in the interior of the country, hundreds of miles up the Congo River.
The second half of the novel – or novella, as it’s often labelled – relates Marlow’s journey upriver and his meeting with Kurtz. His health destroyed by years in the jungle, Kurtz dies on the journey back down to the coast, though not before Marlow has had a chance to glimpse “the barren darkness of his heart”. The coda to Marlow’s Congo story takes place in Europe: questioned by Kurtz’s “Intended” about his last moments, Marlow decides to tell a comforting lie, rather than reveal the truth about his descent into madness.
Although Conrad never met anyone quite like Kurtz in the Congo, the structure of Marlow’s story is based closely on his experiences as mate and, temporarily, captain of the Roi des Belges, a Congo river steamer, in 1890. By this time, Conrad, born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in the Russian-ruled part of Poland in 1857, had been a seaman for about 15 years, rising to the rank of master in the British merchant service. (The remains of the only sailing ship he ever commanded, the Otago, have ended up in Hobart, a rusted, half-submerged shell on the banks of the Derwent.)
Sick with fever and disenchanted with his colleagues and superiors, he broke his contract after only six months, and returned to London in early 1891. Three years and two ships later, Conrad retired from the sea and embarked on a career as a writer, publishing the novel that he had been working on since before he visited the Congo, Almayer’s Folly, in 1895. A second novel, An Outcast of the Islands, followed, along with several stories. Conrad’s second career was humming along when he finally set about transforming his Congo experience into fiction in 1898.
Darkness at home and abroad
Heart of Darkness opens on a ship, but not one of the commercial vessels that feature in Conrad’s sea stories. Rather, it’s a private yacht, the Nellie, moored at Gravesend, about 20 miles east of the City of London. The five male friends gathered on board were once sailors, but everyone except Marlow has since changed careers, as Conrad himself had done.
Like sail, which was rapidly being displaced by steam-power, Marlow is introduced to us as an anachronism, still devoted to the profession his companions have left behind. When, amidst the gathering “gloom”, he begins to reminisce about his stint as a “fresh-water sailor”, his companions know they are in for one of his “inconclusive experiences”.
Setting the opening of Heart of Darkness on the Thames also allowed Conrad to foreshadow one of the novel’s central conceits: the lack of any absolute, essential difference between so-called civilized societies and so-called primitive ones. “This, too”, Marlow says, “has been one of the dark places of the earth”, imagining the impressions of an ancient Roman soldier, arriving in what was then a remote, desolate corner of the empire.
During the second half of the 19th century, spurious theories of racial superiority were used to legitimate empire-building, justifying European rule over native populations in places where they had no other obvious right to be. Marlow, however, is too cynical to accept this convenient fiction. The “conquest of the earth”, he says, was not the manifest destiny of European peoples; rather, it simply meant “the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves.”
The idea that Africans and Europeans have more in common than the latter might care to admit recurs later, when Marlow describes observing tribal ceremonies on the banks of the river. Confronted with local villagers “stamping” and “swaying”, their “eyes rolling”, he is shaken by a feeling of “remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar”.
Whereas most contemporary readers will be cheered by Marlow’s scepticism about the project of empire, this image of Congo’s indigenous inhabitants is more problematic. “Going up that river”, Marlow says, “was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world”, and he accordingly sees the dancing figures as remnants of “prehistoric man”.
Heart of Darkness suggests that Europeans are not essentially more highly-evolved or enlightened than the people whose territories they invade. To this extent, it punctures one of the myths of imperialist race theory. But, as the critic Patrick Brantlinger has argued, it also portrays Congolese villagers as primitiveness personified, inhabitants of a land that time forgot.
Kurtz is shown as the ultimate proof of this “kinship” between enlightened Europeans and the “savages” they are supposed to be civilising. Kurtz had once written an idealistic “report” for an organisation called the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. When Marlow finds this manuscript among Kurtz’s papers, however, it bears a hastily-scrawled addendum: “Exterminate all the brutes!” The Kurtz that Marlow finally encounters at the end of the novel has been consumed by the same “forgotten and brutal instincts” he once intended to suppress.
Adventure on acid
The European “gone native” on the fringes of empire was a stock trope, which Conrad himself had already explored elsewhere in his writing, but Heart of Darkness takes this cliché of imperial adventure fiction and sends it on an acid trip. The manic, emaciated Kurtz that Marlow finds at the Inner Station is straight out of the pages of late-Victorian neo-Gothic, more Bram Stoker or Sheridan Le Fanu than Henry Rider Haggard. The “wilderness” has possessed Kurtz, “loved him, embraced him, got into his veins” — it is no wonder that Marlow feels “creepy all over” just thinking about it.
Kurtz’s famous last words are “The horror! The horror!” “Horror” is also the feeling that Kurtz and his monstrous jungle compound, with its decorative display of human heads, are supposed to evoke in the reader. Along with its various other generic affiliations — imperial romance, psychological novel, impressionist tour de force — Heart of Darkness is a horror story.
Conrad’s Kurtz also channels turn-of-the-century anxieties about mass media and mass politics. One of Kurtz’s defining qualities in the novel is “eloquence”: Marlow refers to him repeatedly as “A voice!”, and his report on Savage Customs is written in a rhetorical, highfalutin style, short on practical details but long on sonorous abstractions. Marlow never discovers Kurtz’s real “profession”, but he gets the impression that he was somehow connected with the press — either a “journalist who could paint” or a “painter who wrote for the papers”.
This seems to be confirmed when a Belgian journalist turns up in Antwerp after Kurtz’s death, referring to him as his “dear colleague” and sniffing around for anything he can use as copy. Marlow fobs him off with the bombastic report, which the journalist accepts happily enough. For Conrad, implicitly, Kurtz’s mendacious eloquence is just the kind of thing that unscrupulous popular newspapers like to print.
If Kurtz’s “colleague” is to be believed, moreover, his peculiar gifts might also have found an outlet in populist politics: “He would have been a splendid leader of an extreme party.” Had he returned to Europe, that is, the same faculty that enabled Kurtz to impose his mad will on the tribespeople of the upper Congo might have found a wider audience.
Politically, Conrad tended to be on the right, and this image of Kurtz as an extremist demagogue expresses a habitual pessimism about mass democracy — in 1899, still a relatively recent phenomenon. Nonetheless, in the light of the totalitarian regimes that emerged in Italy, Germany and Russia after 1918, Kurtz’s combination of irresistible charisma with megalomaniacal brutality seems prescient.
These concerns about political populism also resonate with recent democratic processes in the US and the UK, among other places. Only Conrad’s emphasis on “eloquence” now seems quaint: as the 2016 US Presidential Election demonstrated, an absence of rhetorical flair is no handicap in the arena of contemporary populist debate.
Race and empire
Heart of Darkness contains a bitter critique of imperialism in the Congo, which Conrad condemns as “rapacious and pitiless folly”. The backlash against the systematic abuse and exploitation of Congo’s indigenous inhabitants did not really get underway until the first decade of the 20th century, so that the anti-imperialist theme was ahead of its time, if only by a few years. Nor does Conrad have any patience with complacent European beliefs about racial superiority.
Nonetheless, the novel also contains representations of Africans that would rightly be described as racist if they were written today. In particular, Conrad shows little interest in the experience of Marlow’s “cannibal” shipmates, who come across as exotic caricatures. It is images like these that led the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe to denounce Conrad as a “bloody racist”, in an influential 1977 essay.
One response to this criticism is to argue, as Paul B. Armstrong does, that the lack of more rounded Congolese characters is the point. By sticking to Marlow’s limited perspective, Heart of Darkness gives an authentic portrayal of how people see other cultures. But this doesn’t necessarily make the images themselves any less offensive.
If Achebe did not succeed in having Heart of Darkness struck from the canon, he did ensure that academics writing about the novel could no longer ignore the question of race. For Urmila Seshagiri, Heart of Darkness shows that race is not the stable, scientific category that many Victorians thought it was. This kind of argument shifts the debate in a different direction, away from the author’s putative “racism”, and onto the novel’s complex portrayal of race itself.
Perhaps because he was himself an alien in Britain, whose first career had taken him to the farthest corners of the globe, Conrad’s novels and stories often seem more in tune with our globalized world than those of some of his contemporaries. An émigré at 16, Conrad experienced to a high degree the kind of dislocation that has become an increasingly typical modern condition. It is entirely appropriate, in more ways than one, for Hamid to allude to Conrad in a novel about global mobility.
The paradox of Heart of Darkness is that it seems at once so improbable and so necessary. It is impossible not to be astonished, when you think of it, that a Polish ex-sailor, writing in his third language, was ever in a position to author such a story, on such a subject. And yet, in another way, Conrad’s life seems more determined than most, in more direct contact with the great forces of history. It is from this point of view that Heart of Darkness seems necessary, even inevitable, the product of dark historical energies, which continue to shape our contemporary world.
The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearly calm, and being bound down the river, the only thing for it was to come to and wait for the turn of the tide.
The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.
The Director of Companies was our captain and our host. We four affectionately watched his back as he stood in the bows looking to seaward. On the whole river there was nothing that looked half so nautical. He resembled a pilot, which to a seaman is trustworthiness personified. It was difficult to realize his work was not out there in the luminous estuary, but behind him, within the brooding gloom.
Between us there was, as I have already said somewhere, the bond of the sea. Besides holding our hearts together through long periods of separation, it had the effect of making us tolerant of each other’s yarns—and even convictions. The Lawyer—the best of old fellows—had, because of his many years and many virtues, the only cushion on deck, and was lying on the only rug. The Accountant had brought out already a box of dominoes, and was toying architecturally with the bones. Marlow sat cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards, resembled an idol. The director, satisfied the anchor had good hold, made his way aft and sat down amongst us. We exchanged a few words lazily. Afterwards there was silence on board the yacht. For some reason or other we did not begin that game of dominoes. We felt meditative, and fit for nothing but placid staring. The day was ending in a serenity of still and exquisite brilliance. The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex marsh was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds. Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more sombre every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun.
And at last, in its curved and imperceptible fall, the sun sank low, and from glowing white changed to a dull red without rays and without heat, as if about to go out suddenly, stricken to death by the touch of that gloom brooding over a crowd of men.
Listening & Reading:
Movie and television adaptations:
Heart of Darkness – Ron Winston (1958)
Apocalypse Now – Francis Ford Coppola (1979)
Heart of Darkness – Nicolas Roeg (1993)
(Tarik O’Regan’s) Heart of Darkness – Opera Parallèle (2015)