“When I grow up, I shall go there.”
Those are the words nine-year-old Joseph Conrad uttered “with absolute assurance and an amazing audacity” as he pointed his finger to a map of Africa.
And he kept his word.
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In 1890, Conrad piloted a steamboat up the Congo River for a Belgian trading company, a journey that would later become the basis for one of the most powerful pieces of colonial literature of the 20th century: Heart of Darkness. Today we explore the work of Conrad—who died 92 years ago today—with a Heart of Darkness study guide and infographic, which illustrates and analyzes the major symbols, characters, and themes of his 1902 novella.
Conrad’s attitude toward colonialism in Heart of Darkness
In writing Heart of Darkness, Conrad created a fictional version of himself named Charles Marlow, a seafaring man who bears witness to the horrors of imperialism. Conrad uses vivid language to describe what it was like to watch as natives were slaughtered and villages destroyed at the hands of colonialists seeking to exploit the country’s ivory supply.
Of his travels, Conrad once wrote in his journal, “I had the time to wish myself dead over and over again with perfect sincerity.”
Indeed, the experience left Conrad a changed man both spiritually and physically, and he suffered from episodes of gout, fever, and bouts of depression.
A close friend of the author said, “Conrad’s Congo experiences were the turning point in his mental life and their effects on him determined his transformation from a sailor to a writer.”
Critical response to Heart of Darkness
Upon its publication, most critics viewed Heart of Darkness simply as an “adventure experience” without ever addressing the racial aspect. However, an English critic by the name of Edward Garnett praised Heart of Darkness for what it was: an exposé. He described the story as an “analysis of the deterioration of the white man’s morale, when he is let loose from European restraint, and to make trade profits out of the subject races.” Conrad responded to Garnett, saying his critique “touched [him] profoundly.”
Today, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness continues to shed light on the genocide and mass violence brought on by European colonialism in Africa. Of course, while the book is acclaimed, it’s also come with its fair share of criticism: Conrad’s depiction of the natives as primitive, savage-like creatures has been deemed racist by critics and authors. Indeed, Nigerian author Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart as a sort of response, which describes colonization from the natives’ perspective and better humanizes the native peoples.
The many interpretations and discussions Conrad’s work has sparked is a testament to its enduring fascination for readers. To learn more about Conrad’s journey into darkness, check out Course Hero’s study guide and infographic for Heart of Darkness.