Heart of Darkness Author/Context
Born Joseph Korzeniowski in Poland in 1859, Joseph Conrad came late to writing but soon became one of the most-read writers in his adopted English language. Among his works are Lord Jim, Nostromo, Youth, The Secret Sharer, and The Secret Agent. A sailor by trade, Conrad began writing in Almayer's Folly, his first novel, in 1899, based on his experiences at sea. Heart of Darkness stands out from his other works in its cerebral and theme-heavy, rather than plot-heavy, nature; it is the telling of the tale, the internal feelings about the events, and not the events themselves that are emphasized.
As critic Marvin Mudrick noted, "it is one of the great originals of literature. After Heart of Darkness the craftsman of fiction could never again be unaware of the moral resources inherent in every recorded situation, or insensitive to the need of making the most precise record possible of every sensation: what now appears as an immemorial cliché of the craft of fiction has a date as recent as the turn of the century." In many ways, Heart of Darkness is the first "modern" novel, an essential precursor to the more complicated theme and character-driven, rather than plot-driven, fiction of the twentieth century.
In 1898, Conrad began the process of writing Heart of Darkness, basing it on his own trip to the Congo in 1890. While some critics have found structural relationships between Heart of Darkness and Dante's Inferno, such interpretation perhaps expands too far beyond the simpler explanation that Marlow reports Conrad's journey up the Congo River--the journey detailed in its real particulars in "The Congo Diary", which in a less ornate and deliberate fashion describes many similar situations, characters, and episodes as those presented by Marlow. Like Marlow, Conrad reported that as a child he declared an intention to grow up and go to the unexplored heart of Africa; like Marlow, he was recommended by a relative to a continental trading concern, the Societe Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce de Haut-Congo. The detailed descriptions of the Company Office, the various stations, and the trek upriver through the jungle are "extraordinarily vivid...nothing but the memory of actuality," according to biographer Gerard Jean-Aubry. The goal of Conrad's expedition was to recover an ill agent in the interior, a Georges-Antoine Klein, who died on the return voyage.
Conrad himself noted in his preface to Youth and Two Other Stories, the volume in which Heart of Darkness first appeared, that "Heart of Darkness is experience...but it is experience pushed a little (and only a very little) beyond the actual facts of the case for the perfectly legitimate, I believe, purpose of bringing it home to the minds and bosoms of the readers."
In a larger sense, Conrad's journey is a commentary not only on one trip, a few people, or one company; it remarks on the very essence of colonization and the nature of relationships between groups of people. Conrad referred to the colonization of Africa in an essay as "the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration," and Marlow's cynical pessimism about the Company is Conrad's about imperialism--it brings out the worst in humans. When Conrad/Marlow says that "all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz," he is expanding the irony between Kurtz's noble motives and savage results to the policies of Europe in Africa throughout the nineteenth century.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Dover Publications, 1991.
Guerard, Albert. Conrad the Novelist. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1949.
Jean-Aubry, Gerard. The Sea-Dreamer: a Definitive Biography of Joseph Conrad. London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1957.
Mudrick, Marvin. "Conrad and the Terms of Modern Criticism." Princeton: The Univ. Press, 1952.