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Heart of Darkness | Study Guide

Joseph Conrad

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Heart of Darkness | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness tells the story of Charlie Marlow's voyage along what is presumably the Congo River during the Belgian colonization of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. At the time of the novella's publication in 1899, the so-called Congo Free State was an example of European imperialism in Africa at its most brutal and exploitative. Though the Congo Free State was Belgium's only claim in Africa, it was the location of some of the most violent, oppressive policies crafted under colonialism.

In the decades since its publication, Heart of Darkness has become an influential, yet polarizing, work of literature. It is praised for portraying the harsh realities of colonialism but also criticized for the overt racism that runs throughout the novella.

1. Conrad spent four shocking months piloting a ship along the Congo River in 1889.

It is widely believed that Conrad based the events in Heart of Darkness on his own, real-life experiences piloting a Belgian ship along the Congo River in 1889. At age nine, he pointed to central Africa on a map and stated his desire to go there. However, the actual experience so shocked Conrad's psyche and physical health that he never fully recovered, suffering from fever for the rest of his life.

2. The film Apocalypse Now was heavily influenced by Heart of Darkness.

Francis Ford Coppola's famous 1979 film Apocalypse Now derives its plot and themes from Heart of Darkness, using wartime Vietnam as a more contemporary backdrop for the issues of colonialism and occupation. This borrowing is especially clear based on the name of the film's chief antagonist, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz.

3. Kurtz was likely based on a real person.

Literary historians have argued about whom Conrad may have encountered during his journeys that served as inspiration for the crazed and depraved Mr. Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. Many believe his character was based on Georges Antoine Klein, a company agent who was present on Conrad's voyage to Africa and who died of dysentery along the way. It is suggestive that the German words klein means "small" and kurz means "short."

4. Kurtz's fence may have been inspired by a real structure.

A man named Leon Rom, leader of the Force Publique army of King Leopold in the Congo, exhibited cruel and torturous methods for controlling the local population. He is said to have regularly killed, beaten, and mutilated natives of the Congo area, and he was notorious for keeping a flowerbed lined with human heads, which Conrad turns into Kurtz's fence of wooden stakes topped by human heads.

5. Orson Welles wanted his first film to be Heart of Darkness.

Welles was fascinated by the book and, after first adapting it as a radio production, wrote a screenplay. Unable to convince Hollywood producers of the project's merit, Welles instead began work on plan B, Citizen Kane (1941), which became an Academy Award winning screenplay and one of the most celebrated of all films.

6. Conrad's portrayal of colonialism sanitizes its brutality.

While Conrad describes a dark, oppressive atmosphere and has flashes of violence, he does not provide details of some of the atrocities the imperialists regularly inflicted. One of the most infamous practices of imperialists in the Congo Free State was the severing of hands. Overseers would not only cut off the hands of workers who did not meet their quotas for rubber collection, but they would also chop off the hands of the wives and children of those workers to create an atmosphere of fear.

7. Narrator Marlow is considered Conrad's alter ego.

In addition to Heart of Darkness, Marlow narrates three other Conrad works: the story "Youth" (1898) and the novels Lord Jim (1900) and Chance (1913). Several works have been written devoted to the questions of Marlow's dual role as narrator and character and to his relationship as narrator to Conrad.

8. Conrad tried to commit suicide and later said the resulting wound came from a duel.

In 1878 the youthful Conrad, just four years into his career at sea, tried to commit suicide by shooting himself in the chest. A friend found him and summoned his uncle, also his guardian, who cared for the young man and settled his affairs. Years later, Conrad wrote The Arrow of Gold (1919), which included a character who used the name Conrad has used back in 1878 but is wounded—in the chest—in a duel.

9. Conrad measured his reviews with a ruler.

Instead of reading his reviews, Conrad measured them with a ruler to determine their length. The longer the review, the better he felt. Nonetheless, negative reviews still bothered him. This may partially have been due to the fact that Conrad did not achieve much financial success at first as a writer.

10. Heart of Darkness lives on in a video game.

The video game Far Cry 2, first released in 2008, has the player take the role of someone sent to hunt down a crazed, demented arms dealer named The Jackal, who is modeled after Kurtz. While containing more guns and violence than Conrad ever describes, the game reflects the dark tone of the novella and features a level near the end named after the book.

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