Different perspectives on Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad who was born on December 3, 1857 joined the French
Merchant Marine at 15. He had a long period of adventure at sea and
during his seafaring career. Conrad encountered numerous hardships and
shipwrecks when he sailed down the Congo river. He gave up his seafaring
career due to ill health.
A decade after returning to England Conrad embarked on writing his
Novella known as Heart of Darkness which placed him in the front rank of
The "Nellie" a cruising ship was anchored at the mouth of the river
Thames awaiting the turn of the tide to go out.
The director of companies, who was also the Captain and the host, the
lawyer, the accountant and Marlow who was a seaman and a wanderer and
the unnamed narrator who was also another guest were relaxing on the
deck. All of them appeared to be restless but meditative.
Except Marlow, the rest of the men continued to glorify the
historical and triumphant voyages originated from the Thames.
The unnamed narrator and the rest were talking proudly about the era
of British explorers and the trading ships that set sail from the
According to the narrator, the explorations facilitated the founding
of the British Empire which benefited the whole humanity.
Suddenly, Marlow contradicting what the unknown narrator and the rest
were talking about the Thames and early British explorers and their
achievements, said this very spot referring to river Thames in the past
was One of the Dark Places of the Earth.
Marlow said when the Romans first arrived in England it was 'a great
savage wilderness to them.'
Marlo kept on narrating his experiences as a Captain of a steamship
on the Congo River but the others were not listening to him.
The unnamed narrator on the ship describing the pose of Marlow when
he started to narrate on the gloomy days of the river Thames tells the
reader "Mind," he (Marlow) began again, lifting one arm from the elbow,
the palm of the hand outwards, so that with his legs folded before him,
he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a
Marlow's experiences during his voyage along the Congo River and his
personal observations of the inhumane manner how the natives were
treated, effects of imperialism and how he reached his 'grail quest'
Kurtz and his famous last words 'the horror, the horror' implying his
redemption before his death are some of the vital revelations in
Throughout the novel, from the symbolic description of the voyage of
Marlow along the Congo river through the massive jungle Conrad made
Marlow to reveal his 'spiritual voyage of self-discovery.
On his return to England Marlow who had undergone a vast
transformation visited Kurtz's fiancee and handed over her the old
letters as instructed by Kurtz saying a big lie that the last word of
Kurtz was her name.
Literary Critics widely differ in their interpretations of the
meaning of Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
Some critics judged Heart of Darkness as an attack on Belgian
Colonial Methods of Administration in Congo.
Some considered it as a study in race relationships.
It was a symbolic picture of the inborn antagonism of two races- the
Whites and the Blacks.
William Follet in his book on Joseph Conrad analysing his work
generally said Conrad was for ever fascinated by the 'immense
indifference of things 'the tragic vanity of the blind groping that we
call aspiration, the profound meaningless of life was symbolically
portrayed in the whole canon of Conrad's work.
His stories including Heart of Darkness are not chronicles of men who
conquer fate but of men who are conquered.
Referring to the character of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness he said,
"Kurtz is a personal embodiment of all that Conrad felt of futility,
degradation and horror in what the Europeans in the Congo called
'progress.' meant exploitation of the natives.
Albert J. Guerard in Conrad the Novelist said Conrad like many other
novelists was drawn to idealism and repelled by its hypocritical abuse.
Marlow used the term 'pilgrims' sarcastically refers to the rest on
board even though they were nor redeemed and totally blind to the real
impact of imperialism on the lives of the natives in Africa.
According to Marlow, both the 'pilgrims' and Kurtz are hollow men.
Marlow in his narration identified the wilderness in Kurtz was
'echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.'
F.R.Leavis, in The Great Tradition regarded Marlow the central
character of the Heart of Darkness only as a narrator providing
'specific and concretely realised point of view of Conrad'.
Marlow returned to Europe as a changed and a knowing man.
It was evident from Marlow's own words, 'now ordinary people are
intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretence
because I felt so sure they could not possibly know the things I know."
Marlow in several instances had referred to his dream sensation.
"It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream.'
The expressions used by Marlow how his steamer toils such as " along
slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy seemed
unnatural like a state of trance " and again on encountering a thick fog
" The approach to this Kurtz grubbing for ivory in the wretched bush was
beset by as many dangers as though he had been an enchanted princess
sleeping in a fabulous castle " are clear indications of dream like
quality of Marlow's narration.
After Kurtz was brought back to the ship Marlow said, "His was an
I looked at him as you peer down at a man who is lying at the bottom
of a precipice where the sun never shines."
Kurtz was found dead on board the ship and his body was taken off and
buried in a muddy hole.
Alan M. Hollingsworth in his book Literature and Psychology says both
Joseph Conrad and Sigmund Freud were intensely interested in discovering
'ills of our society'.
In the Heart of Darkness Conrad made references to white facade and
inner dark corruption of the 'Whited Sepulchre" of Christian
In the Gospels, Christ specifically warns his lower apostles not to
carry staves (Luke) in the same manner Marlow was accompanied by many
'pilgrims' with staves in his journey into the heart of Africa to seek
the truth of Kurtz.
Marlow discovered in Kurtz a kind of cannibal. He proved to be a real
devil to the natives.
Kurtz had resorted to 'infernal rites' , 'mutilation', 'torture', and
Image of death
Conrad uses images of death when Marlow gives a description of the
house of Kurtz's intended wife and its surroundings.
'She lived in a mausoleum in which the piano is like a sarcophagus on
a street resembling an alley in a cemetery.
The city which houses this tomb is a 'city of the dead.'Jerome Thale
in his compilation of Narrator as a Hero referring to Marlow's Quest
says Conrad's Heart of Darkness has all the qualities of a conventional
adventure tale, such as mystery, exotic setting,escape, suspense and
They are literary devices to convey something more fundamental.
Heart of Darkness is identified by Jerome as a 'grail quest.'
Grail Quest is the search for some object and who finds it can see
the grail, an illumination.And Marlow the central figure in Heart of
Darkness played the role of a knight seeking the grail which he found at
last - Kurtz.
When Kurtz died Marlow was spiritually reborn.