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