Heart of Darkness is perhaps the most written-about story in English literature, certainly Joseph Conrad’s most written-about work. Dismissed by some early critics (such as F.R. Leavis) for being vague in language, this short novel certainly makes its impact not primarily through direct statement but through imagery, metaphor and an air of accumulation and imprecision – as his narrator, Marlow, attempts slowly to define and to make sense of his remembered experiences in the Congo for the entertainment of his listeners on the Essex marshes. But the tale’s underlying imagery of light and darkness, white and black, light on dark, of darkness made visible, shining, glittering, glinting, gleaming, dark reflections, good and evil, is at first glance simple, straightforward and conventional and thus provides a clear structuring principle for Conrad’s exploration of darkness – political, moral and spiritual – in this disturbing story of the role of European colonialism in Africa.
As the story opens at dusk on the Thames estuary, darkness of is first expressed as an absence of light, light falling away, as the sky, “a benign immensity of unstained brilliance” is gradually extinguished, the sun goes out “stricken to death by the touch of that gloom hanging over a crowd of men” and a contrast between the lights of ships and of the distant city and the shrouded river and its landscape is drawn. London and its dark river – the heart of the Empire – has become “a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars”. Marlow remarks that “this too has been one of the dark places of the earth.” The element of dark water reminds us of the long black snake of the river Congo where we are to be taken. They are linked as are light and darkness and as all the waters of the earth, flowing into and through one another.
Although Heart of Darkness can be taken as an attack on imperialism as a whole, Conrad appears to be more critical of other European imperialisms – he witnessed the horrors of the Belgian Congo firsthand – than of British imperialism, which he sees as more benign, helpful and morally-based rather than simply rapacious and exploitative. This is certainly the view of Marlow, his narrator, most of whose opinions are conventionally patriotic and whose heart still swells with pride at the sight of the red patches on the map which denote the territories of the British Empire. Marlow finds the Eldorado Explorers he encounters at the first station to be “reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage.” English conquest, by contrast, “has an idea back of it, not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish idea – something you can set up and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to”. Marlow also compares the British in Africa to the Romans in Britain, seemingly with more sympathy for the hard-pressed soldiery than the savage Anglo-Saxons. Does Joseph Conrad mean this to be taken as his own view? Or is Marlow’s national blindness part of the theme of his story? This is a central question that has been asked of Heart of Darkness. Whatever the answer, it is also clear that Marlow’s account can’t altogether be relied upon and that many of his opinions are to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Marlow’s contradictions and divided loyalties are probably Conrad’s own. He was born in Poland in 1857, but, like his father, felt himself to be a near stateless person in a country that was partitioned between Germany, Austria and Russia. It was through going to sea and eventually rising in the British navy and settling in England that he found an identity and established himself as a writer. He felt a great loyalty to Britain but at the same time his perspective remained that of a sceptical and somewhat critical outsider. Heart of Darkness must be read as a story whose meanings are to be conveyed through evasions and contradictions, just as