On Joseph Conrad and the Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad Essay
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Joseph Conrad on the cover of TIME Magazine (1923). TIME Magazine, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Literature enthusiasts have no doubt heard the name, Joseph Conrad, and if not, they probably have heard of a little work of fiction titled Heart of Darkness (written by Conrad), which is often regarded as one of the greatest works of fiction ever.

This essay is dedicated to Conrad and his masterpiece Heart of Darkness. Let us begin!

So who was Joseph Conrad?

Well, Joseph Conrad was a Polish-British writer, born on 3rd December 1857 in the city of Berdychiv in Ukraine, which was then part of the Russian Empire and previously had been a part of the Polish Crown.

Conrad is widely regarded as one of the greatest novelists in the English language. This praise may seem quite impressive to anyone for it is surely not easy to be considered one of the greatest writers in the most popular and common language across the world. However, what makes it even more impressive on Conrad is that he did not speak fluent English until his twenties, and when he did begin speaking it fluently, he spoke it with a thick strong foreign accent.

The fact that English was not his first language compelled him to be precise and intentional about the words he used and allowed him to bring a non-English sensibility into English literature. The writing style he developed to write in English led him to be regarded as a master prose stylist, who is considered by some an early modernist and by others a literary impressionist and realist.

Conrad was the only child of Ewa Bobrowska and Apollo Korzeniowski, who was a poet, playwright, translator, and political activist.

Needless to say, the name Joseph Conrad is the anglicized version of his actual Polish name Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski.

Conrad’s family had a history of playing an important role in the struggles to gain independence for Poland from Russian rule. His father, being a clandestine political activist, belonged to the Red faction and sought to re-establish the pre-partition boundaries of Poland and advocated land reforms and the abolition of serfdom.

In 1861, when Conrad was 3 years old, his father was arrested and imprisoned in Pavilion X after joining the Polish resistance against the Russian Empire in Warsaw. In 1863, the family was sent to Chernihiv in northeast Ukraine after his father’s sentence was commuted. Two years later, when Conrad was only 7 years old, his mother died of tuberculosis.

After the death of his mother, Conrad’s father took up the responsibility of teaching his son at home by introducing him to Polish romantic poets such as Adam Mickiewicz and Slowacki by reading out to him their works such as Pan Tadeusz, Grażyna, and Konrad Wallenrod.

Through Shakespeare, the young Conrad was introduced to English literature, and through Victor Hugo, he was introduced to French literature. Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea helped him find the sphere of activity to which he would devote his youth.

Conrad frequently traveled and moved about with his father to different regions such as Lwów, Kraków, and several other localities. Sadly, in May 1869, when Conrad was only 11 years old, his father died from tuberculosis.

Conrad was placed in the care of his maternal uncle Tadeusz Bobrowski, who became his mentor and benefactor.

Joseph Conrad was a sickly child, always suffering from poor health, the origin of which was diagnosed to be nervousness and anxiety. He was also not a good student and was mostly tutored privately as he did not attend any school regularly.

Thinking that some kind of work or trade might instill in the young Conrad some discipline, his uncle wanted him to work as a sailor-cum-businessman. By then, Conrad had read several books by explorers, navy officers, and writers such as Leopold McClintock, Frederick Marryat, and James Fenimore Cooper, and had become so obsessed with nautical stories and adventures that he declared at the mere age of 13 that he wished to become a sailor.

And by the time he was 15, his extensive reading had also inspired him to become a great writer.

In October 1874, when Conrad was 16 years old, his uncle sent him to Marseilles, France for his merchant-marine career on French merchant ships. This was the beginning of his maritime career that would go on to influence his greatest literary works.

Now let us skip directly to the year 1890 when Conrad was 32 years old. It is important to skip the period in between because the essay will otherwise become too lengthy and off-topic for its own good. Conrad’s maritime career was so diverse and interesting that it deserves an essay of its own, but certainly not by me.

In the year 1890, Joseph Conrad was appointed by a Belgian trading company to serve on one of its steamers on a journey up the Congo River (previously known as the Zaire River). While sailing up the Congo River from one station to another, the captain of the steamer fell ill and Conrad assumed command in his place, guiding the ship up the tributary Lualaba River to the trading company’s innermost station in Kindu, a city in the Eastern Congo Free State (present-day province of Maniema).

This trip on the Congo River would be the inspiration for his 1899 novella, his masterpiece, Heart of Darkness, in which a sailor named Charles Marlow narrates to his listeners the story of his assignment as a steamer captain for a Belgian ivory trading company in the African interior. The object of Marlow’s expedition on the unnamed river is to find an ivory trader named Kurtz, who is working on a trading station far up the river and has gone native. Kurtz is said to have hurt the company’s business in the region due to his unsound methods.

The journey to Kurtz’s station takes Marlow and his group of sixty men two months. On their way to the river station, the steamboat is attacked by a barrage of arrows, and the helmsman is killed. Marlow sounds the steam whistle multiple times to frighten the attackers away.

After arriving at Kurtz’s camp, Marlow learns that Kurtz is seriously ill and that the natives worship him. Marlow begins to suspect that Kurtz has gone mad.

While observing Kurtz’s station, Marlow sees a row of posts with the severed heads of natives on them. Then he notices Kurtz being carried on a stretcher by his supporters toward the steamer while the area fills up with natives ready for battle to prevent Kurtz from being taken away. Kurtz shouts something at them and they retreat.

After Kurtz is laid out in the cabin of the steamer, Marlow learns that Kurtz has harmed the company’s business in the area due to his unsound methods and that Kurtz suspects the company wants to kill him. On hearing this Marlow confirms that hangings were discussed.

The next day as they head back down the river, Kurtz’s health becomes worse, and the steamboat suffers a breakdown. While the steamboat is being repaired, Kurtz hands over to Marlow a packet of papers, including his commissioned report and a photograph, and tells him to keep them from the manager. By this time Kurtz is already near death. A short while later, the manager’s boy announces to the crew that Kurtz has died.

Upon returning to Europe, many callers come to Marlow to retrieve the papers Kurtz gave him, but Marlow withholds them or offers papers he knows they have no interest in. Then he hands over Kurtz’s report to a journalist for publication if required. Marlow is only left with some personal letters and a photograph of Kurtz’s fiancée, and when he visits her more than a year after Kurtz’s death, he sees that she is still in deep mourning. She asks Marlow to repeat Kurtz’s final words and he tells her that Kurtz’s final word was her name.

Joseph Conrad only began writing the novella eight years after returning from his trip up the Congo River. The story was first published as a three-part serial in 1899 in Blackwood’s Magazine. Later in 1902, all three parts were included together in the book Youth: a Narrative, and Two Other Stories, published by William Blackwood.

Interestingly, the novella was never a big success during Conrad’s lifetime. In fact, it received the least commentary from critics when the book was published in 1902, and many criticized it for its insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery. Conrad himself did not think much of it and like critics regarded it as a relatively minor work.

Over the years, the work has come to be regarded as an important critique of European colonial rule in Africa, especially the exploitation of the Congo by the Belgian Empire, and for its poignant comments on racism and imperialism.

Dealing with the themes of morality and power dynamics central, Conrad tries to show that there is little difference between the so-called savages and the so-called civilized people of Europe. He does this by drawing parallels between both Africa and London as being places of darkness.

Although Heart of Darkness was not a success upon its publication, by the 1960s it had become required reading in English courses in schools and universities across the world. It has now become one of the most studied, examined, and analyzed works of literature and is regarded by many critics as one of the greatest texts of Western literature.

Many scholars have also praised Conrad’s accurate description of the horror resulting from the methods and effects of colonialism in the Congo Free State and the novella’s psychological aspects.

Critics have interpreted that the story demonstrates Conrad’s own skepticism about the moral superiority of Europeans by the way in which he condemns the ‘noble aims’ of European colonists.

This interpretation has led scholars to regard Conrad as one of the first men to question the Western idea of progress and development and attack the hypocritical justification of colonialism by revealing the savage degradation of the white man in Africa.

However, for all the praise and admiration the novella and its writer have received over the years, they have also been severely criticized in postcolonial studies by writers of great stature such as Chinua Achebe and Caryl Phillips.

Achebe’s 1975 public lecture on the novella would go on to spark decades of debate, dividing the opinions of subsequent writers and scholars. In his lecture, An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Achebe describes the book as offensive and deplorable and accuses it of dehumanizing Africans. He argued that Conrad incorrectly depicted Africa as the antithesis of Europe and civilization, and completely ignored the artistic accomplishments of the Fang people (also known as Pahouin), a Bantu ethnic group living in the Congo River basin at the time of the novella’s publication. Achebe then goes on to conclude that the book should not be considered a great work of art as it promoted a prejudiced image of Africa that depersonalized a portion of the human race.

However, many critics have countered Achebe’s arguments by saying that Achebe failed to distinguish Conrad’s view from that of Marlow’s.

Heart of Darkness would go on to inspire several stage, film, radio, television, and video game adaptations. It has also inspired several works of literature with references made to it in poems and novels, as well as retellings of it in contemporary settings.

Most famously, it is said that Achebe wrote his famous 1958 novel Things Fall Apart in response to what he considered to be Conrad’s portrayal of Africa and Africans as symbols of the antithesis of Europe and therefore civilization. Hence, Achebe was compelled to write a novel about Africa and Africans from an African perspective, with the help of African protagonists.

Now whether one agrees or disagrees with the portrayal of Africans in the book depends on one’s outlook. Although one cannot deny the fact that Conrad obviously wrote about Africa and Africans from a European perspective, it is nevertheless true and valid that Marlow’s view may not have necessarily been Conrad’s view. After all, being a fictional story with fictional characters, I believe Conrad must be given the benefit of the doubt regarding the matter. Maybe all he intended to do with the story was to portray the flawed prevailing attitude of the colonists toward Africa and Africans.

Regardless of one’s opinion on it, one cannot ignore the massive impact and influence the novella has had on English and Western literature. Often regarded as one of the best works of fiction in English of the 20th century, it has made Joseph Conrad a revered and highly respected literary figure in world literature.

Conrad’s works and writing style would go on to influence several writers of subsequent generations such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, T. S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, George Orwell, Graham Greene, William Golding, William S. Burroughs, Saul Bellow, Gabriel García Márquez, John le Carré, V. S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, Joan Didion, Thomas Pynchon, J. M. Coetzee, and Salman Rushdie, thereby making him one of the greatest and most influential writers of all time.

Arthinkal Magazine