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8.3 Joseph Conrad (1857–1924)

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.

Learning Objectives

  1. Determine various layers of meaning of the title Heart of Darkness.
  2. Identify and assess elements of modernism in Heart of Darkness.
  3. Judge the effect Heart of Darkness may have had on an audience predisposed to favor British imperialism.


Joseph Conrad was born in Poland. When his father was arrested on political charges and sent into exile in Russia, his wife and their young son Joseph accompanied him. The harsh weather and living conditions resulted in the early deaths of his parents and in health problems that plagued Conrad throughout his life. Conrad lived for a time with an uncle but in his teens began a career on the sea that took him on many adventures that later appeared in his writing. His voyage up the Congo River formed the basis of Heart of Darkness. One voyage took him to England where he joined a crew that included Englishmen from whom he began to learn the language. He eventually became an English citizen, married an English woman, and when his health forced him to retire from his maritime career, lived the rest of his life in England. Conrad had been writing throughout his life, but his retirement allowed him to devote the time and attention to his writing that he had desired.


Heart of Darkness

A story about Conrad’s childhood claims that he once randomly placed a finger on a far-away place on a map and stated that when he was grown up he would go there. The place was Africa. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad attributes this event to his narrator, Charles Marlow. In his novellaA work with the characteristics of a novel but shorter and less complex in plot., a work with the characteristics of a novel but shorter and less complex in plot, Heart of Darkness, Conrad draws on his own experience as a riverboat captain sailing up the Congo River.

Heart of Darkness was originally published serially in Blackwood’s Magazine, 1899. Uppsala University’s Conrad First website provides digital copies of the magazine.

Like Hardy’s work, Conrad’s writing bridges the end of the Victorian Era and the Modern Age of the early 20th century. His work, however, reveals characteristics that distinguish it as a modern work, distinctly different from the mores of Victorian literature.

Plot in Heart of Darkness is more mental than chronological and linear. Although we follow a chronology of events as Marlow experiences his journey to the Congo, that chronology is of less importance than Marlow’s mental journey of realization and awakening to the nature of the world. The reader reaches awareness about events and characters as the narrator does. The story takes the reader along with Marlow’s journey of discernment about life and human nature.

Characters often are not full drawn, realistic characters like those we might encounter in Dickens’s novels. Mental life, the life of the mind, Marlow’s mind, and then Kurtz’s mind, are the focus. Although Heart of Darkness pre-dates the important works of Freud and Jung, Conrad exhibits the interest in human psychology that would lead later modernist writers to study and reflect psychological studies in their works. Even the story’s religious and biblical imagery reinforces its rejection of traditional religious values and asserts the modernist tenet that there is no moral center. The basic depravity of humankind is no better than, often worse than, the instinctive behavior of animals. While humans may, as Darwin’s work suggested, work on instinct like animals, animals do not engage in the wanton, futile destruction depicted in Heart of Darkness.

The structure of Heart of Darkness uses a double narrator.

  • At the beginning of the work, an unnamed narrator sets the scene in the story’s present time: on the ship Nellie on the River Thames in London in Marlow’s old age. This narrator is presumably, like Charles Marlow, a sailor on the Nellie; in the second paragraph he comments that the river Thames “stretched before us” and later notes that the men present have “the bond of the sea.”
  • The main story is Marlow’s re-telling of his experience as a riverboat captain sailing up the Congo River. We don’t experience the events as they happen; we experience them through the filter of Marlow’s memory. As you read, watch for instances of the outer framework, the first unnamed narrator, breaking into Marlow’s story.

The themes of Heart of Darkness become apparent as we consider the title. The story is foremost a journey.

  • In one sense, it is literally a story of a journey into the heart of darkness that is, in the view of many turn-of-the-20th-century Europeans, the African continent. Because they knew little about Africa, Europeans referred to Africa as “the dark continent.”
  • At another level, Marlow’s initial desire for an adventure turns into a quest for Kurtz, the mysterious star of the company. He collects more ivory and therefore more money than any other company agent. Marlow hears about him at every turn. At this level, the story also functions as a criticism of European imperialism. Kurtz embodies the concept of robbing another country of its natural resources and laying waste, not just to its land, but its population. The basis of his fame is that Kurtz excels in making money from a land that does not belong to him.
  • At its most important level, Marlow’s journey becomes a pilgrimage to the heart of humankind’s depravity. As he moves deeper into the literal darkness of the jungle and closer to Kurtz’s presence, he experiences an epiphanyA sudden moment of insight and revelation., a sudden moment of insight and revelation. Marlow’s epiphany is a realization that humankind possesses a core of evil, a heart of darkness. Although the story is not told primarily in religious terms, the presence of original sin, a person’s innate capacity for evil—a heart of darkness—is at the terminus of Marlow’s physical, mental, and spiritual journey.

Key Takeaways

  • Heart of Darkness may be interpreted literally as a journey into an unknown territory, metaphorically as Marlowe’s realization of evil, or symbolically as humankind’s natural propensity for evil.
  • Heart of Darkness evinces modernism in its narrative technique and in its central theme that at the culmination of the search for meaning in human life is only darkness.
  • On one level of meaning, Heart of Darkness is a criticism of imperialism.


  1. In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz is involved with two women, one African and one European. Compare the two women. What similarities do they have? What differences? What is their relationship with Kurtz? Why are they important to the story?
  2. Describe the Africans in Heart of Darkness. What role do they play in the story? What qualities do they represent? What is their relationship with the Europeans?
  3. Describe the Europeans in Heart of Darkness. What role do they play in the story? What qualities do they represent? What is their relationship with the Africans?
  4. Describe Marlow. How does he change from the beginning to the end of the story?
  5. At the beginning of his narration, Marlow states, “And this [England] also…has been one of the dark places of the earth.” He refers to the time of the Roman Empire, when that great civilization sent men to conquer Britain, a country foreign in language, culture, climate, almost every conceivable way. How does this comment prepare readers for the story to follow? In what ways has England been one of the “dark” places on earth? How could this statement be interpreted as a statement on imperialism, on empire-building?
  6. At the beginning and the end of his story, Marlow is in Europe. What descriptive details suggest that Europe is a place of darkness as much as Africa?
  7. Marlow recognizes even before he lands in Africa that the European presence there is futile and destructive to the environment as well as the people. List descriptions and events that picture this destruction.
  8. One of the first people Marlowe meets in Africa is the Company’s chief accountant. Marlowe gives a detailed description of his appearance. What does his appearance say about the European presence in Africa?
  9. Near the end of the story, when Marlow follows Kurtz back into the jungle, he tells readers, “But his [Kurtz’s] soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad.” It was not the outside surroundings that made Kurtz mad; it was looking into his own soul. How does this statement elucidate the theme of Heart of Darkness? Marlow next tells us that, he supposes for his sins, he also has to look into Kurtz’s soul. What change does this revelation effect in Kurtz?
  10. As Kurtz is dying, Marlow hears him say, “I am lying here in the dark waiting for death.” Marlow’s response is that this statement is nonsense because there is a candle within a foot of his eyes. How would you account for Kurtz’s statement? Does Marlowe deliberately misinterpret Kurtz’s comment? Why or why not?
  11. The climactic moment of the story, the moment preceding Kurtz’s death, is expressed with religious and biblical images. Explain the reference to the “veil being rent.” What does Marlow find when the veil is rent and he comes face to face with the center, the heart, of humankind?
  12. Explain Kurtz’s last words, “The horror! The horror!”
  13. Why does Marlow lie to “the Intended” about Kurtz’s last words?


General Information

  • Conrad First. The Joseph Conrad Periodical Archive. The Joseph Conrad Society UK and the Department of English, Uppsala University.
  • Heart of Darkness.” Dr. Pericles Lewis, Yale University. The Modernism Lab at Yale University. information on elements of modernism in Heart of Darkness.
  • Vox Et… . Dr. David Mulry, ed. Schreiner University. podcasts of comments from Conrad scholars.
  • White Lies and Whited Sepulchres in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” The Victorian Web. Philip V. Allingham, Lakehead University.






  • Heart of D—the Horror! Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. digital image of page of Conrad’s original manuscript.