Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

Heart of darkness

Heart of Darkness is a novel by Joseph Conrad and it is set in the Victorian period, at the term of the 19th century. We have to take into account this characteristic in order to understand many of the issues such as imperialism, woman, and different cultures.

The story (inspired on Conrad’s journey to the Congo) is told by Marlow, but in fact there is another narrator who is a supporter of the Empire, which means that there are different points of view.

Marlow tells us a story he once had in Africa. There, he could compare his own culture with the natives’ one, and he was witness of slavery and cruelty.

Another important character is Kurtz, the chief, who, in the end, has become part of that culture although he was a Victorian man.

The author presents to us two different women whose descriptions are really interesting if we compare one to the other.

Features of Heart of Darkness

When reading Heart of Darkness, you should take into account some features of modernist novel:

  • The focus on a subjective process of a complex character, displaying (but nor resolving) contradictions
  • The fact that Marlow is an unreliable narrator. We can’t trust him because he represents a subjective perspective.
  • The story within-story structure of the novel, which establishes the context for Marlow’s narration..
  • The display of Victorian values in a context of crisis
  • The fact that Marlow’s experience reproduces Conrad’s own experience in Africa.
  • The unstable meaning of some significant signs such as “darkness” and “horror”.
  • Marlow psychological and ideological conflict between “kinship” and “alienation” in relation to Africa.
  • Relativism: there is dark in both places.

I took an extract from the novel that may help you to understand some issues.

…”yes; I looked at them as you would on any human being, with a curiosity of their impulses, motives, capacities, weaknesses, when brought to the test of an inexorable physical necessity. Restraint! What possible restraint? Was it superstition, disgust, patience, fear- or some kind of primitive honour? No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is; and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze. Don’t you know the devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its sombre and brooding ferocity? Well, I do. It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly. It’s really easier to face bereavement, dishonour, and the perdition of one´s soul – than this kind of prolonged hunger. Sad, but true. And these chaps too had no earthly reason for any kind of scruple. Restraint! I would just as soon have expected restraint from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battlefield. But there was the fact facing me-the fact dazzling, to be seen, like the foam on the depths of the sea, like the ripple on an unfathomable enigma, a mystery greater- when I thought of it – than the curious, inexplicable note of desperate grief in this savage clamour that had swept by us on the river-bank, behind the blind whiteness of the fog…”

In this extract, restraint is a key word; it means to control. We relate Victorian society to restraint since it is full of restrictions, and to the control of impulses.

Marlow sees this people from a Victorian viewpoint, and because of this he does not think that their behaviour is the common one.  Marlow has the typical prejudices of the Victorian society. Chinua Achebe claims that the full novel is a racist text, since, from his perspective, Africans are not seen as human beings; and they are compared to a hyena.

Marlow fail to understand that the primitive man has his own culture. How can they show restraint if this term is associated to the civilised people? How is it possible for them to eat according to some patterns?

Here you can clearly see the inability to see and understand another human being different from us.

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One Response to Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

  1. This film is awesome: Apocalypse Now(1979), directed by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Marlon Brando 🙂 The script is based on Heart of Darkness, though the action of the movie takes place in Vietnam, when USA invaded it.
    The most well-known words of the book? The Horror! The Horror!

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