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Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness

This may be the best known of Conrad’s stories, at least in part because of Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, a very convincing updating of the story. (There is also a very good more literal film version of the story, directed by Nicholas Roeg and starring Tim Roth.) The focus of Conrad’s novel as well as of Coppola’s film is Kurtz, who does not appear till the end of the book. The hero and narrator is Marlow whom we have already seen as the narrator of Lord Jim and whom we will see again in other Conrad works. Like Conrad himself, Marlow is sent out to the Congo, where is he is disgusted by the brutal exploitation of the native population. Here he starts to hear about the remarkable Kurtz, one of the company’s best agents, stationed deep in the heart of ivory country. Marlow has to travel across country to join the boat that he is to command on a journey into the interior but when he gets there, he finds that the boat has been wrecked. He finds out that Kurtz is seriously ill and that there are attempts to stop Marlow from reaching Kurtz. The boat is finally repaired and Kurtz sets off on his journey. The journey is particularly effectively described, as we hear the drumbeats and see the threatening forms in the trees. On arrival, Marlow is met by Kurtz’ assistant, a Russian, who tells Marlow about Kurtz’ control over the natives, though the sight of stakes with severed heads on them shows that, as far as Conrad and Marlow are concerned, Kurtz has”gone native”. Kurtz has created a kingdom which, for Marlow, is well beyond the pale of civilisation. Marlow endeavours to get Kurtz back down river but fails to do so and Kurtz dies with the famous The horror! The horror! on his lips.

The fascinating character of the mysterious Kurtz is what drives this book. All the time, we – and Marlow – know that the climax will involve Kurtz. Marlow knows he has to get to Kurtz but is impeded along the way. Everywhere Marlow goes there is the stench of death – the heart of darkness that, for Conrad, this part of Africa represented. (However, as Conrad makes clear at the end, England has its share in the darkness.) However, even the gloom and death that Marlow sees everywhere – there is no redeeming feature here – cannot prepare us for the horror of Kurtz’ world where civilization has broken down completely.

Publishing history

First published in serial form in Blackwood’s in 1899; first published in book form 1902 in Youth: A Narrative and Two Other Stories by W. Blackwood and Sons