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Heart of Darkness (1902) - Joseph Conrad

Related: conflict between good and evil - 1902 - war fiction - darkness

Heart of Darkness is a first-person within a first-person account about a man named Marlowe who travels down the Congo river in search of an enigmatic Belgian trader named Kurtz. Layer by layer, the atrocities of the human soul and man's inhumanity to man are peeled away. Marlowe finds increasingly difficult to tell where civilization ends and where barbarism begins. [May 2006]

The early 20th century saw the first cracks in a progressive world view within Western Civilization: Joseph Conrad's 1902 novel "Heart of Darkness" told a story set in the Congo Free State, in which the most savage and uncivilized behavior was initiated by a white European. This hierarchical world view was dealt further serious blows by the atrocities of World War I and World War II and so on. [May 2006]

Heart of Darkness (1902) - Joseph Conrad [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Description

Heart of Darkness is a novella (published 1902) by Joseph Conrad. This highly symbolic story is actually a story within a story, or frame tale, narrated by a man named Marlow to colleagues at an evening gathering. It details an incident earlier in Marlow's life, a visit up the Congo River to investigate the work of Kurtz, a Belgian trader in ivory in the Congo Free State.

The story within a story device actually descends four levels: Conrad writes the story we read, which is the account of an unnamed narrator relating Marlow's yarn of his journey down the Congo river to meet and examine the central character Kurtz. (Emily BrontŰ's Wuthering Heights and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein used a similar device.)

To write the book, Conrad drew heavily from his own experience in the Congo. Eight years before he wrote the book, he served as a sea captain for a Congo steamer. On a single trip up the river, he had witnessed so many atrocities that he quit on the spot.

The theme of "darkness" from the title recurs throughout the book. It is used to reflect the unknown (as Africa at the time was often called the "Dark Continent" by Europeans), the concept of the "darkness of barbarism" contrasted with the "light of civilization" (see white man's burden), and the "spiritual darkness" of several characters. This sense of darkness also lends itself to a related theme of obscurity - again, in various senses, reflecting the ambiguities in the work. Moral issues are not clear-cut; that which ought to be (in various senses) on the side of "light" is in fact mired in darkness, and so forth.

To emphasize the theme of darkness within ourselves, Marlow's narration takes place on a yacht in the Thames tidal estuary. Early in the novella, the narrator recounts how London, the here-and-now where Conrad wrote and where a large part of his audience lived, was itself in Roman times a dark part of the world much like the Congo then was. Like Marlow himself, the astute reader emerges from the tale with an expanded comprehension of the darkness within his own mind.

Themes developed in the novella's more superficial levels include the na´vetÚ of Europeans - particularly women - regarding the various forms of darkness in the Congo; the Belgian colonialists' abuse of the natives; and man's potential for two-facedness. The symbolic levels of the book expand on all of these in terms of a struggle between good and evil, not so much between people as within every major character's soul.

Conrad's experiences in the Congo and the historical background to the story, including possible models for Kurtz, are recounted in the historical work, King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild.

Films

--http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heart_of_Darkness [May 2005]

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