Heart of Darkness
A Brief Look at Conrad’s Life and
Works, Themes and Motifs in
Heart of Darkness, and Apocalypse Now
Joseph Conrad’s Life
Born Josef Teodore Konrad Nalecz
Korzeniowski, in Podolia, Ukraine, in 1857.
Conrad's father had studied law and
languages at St. Petersburg University and
wrote radical poems and plays.
His father and mother, Apollo and Ewa, were
political activists. They were imprisoned 7
months and eventually deported to Vologda
Conrad’s mother died of pneumonia in 1865.
Joseph Conrad’s Life
Apollo tried to educate his son himself; he introduced
him to the work of Dickens, Fenimore Cooper and
Captain Marryat in either Polish or French translations.
His father died of tuberculosis and his funeral was
attended by a thousand admirers.
Conrad was raised by his uncle; attended school (he was
In 1874, Conrad went to Marseilles France and joined
the Merchant Navy.
Gun running for the Spanish and a love affair led to a
suicide attempt.
Joseph Conrad’s Life
Conrad eventually became a British
merchant sailor, a master mariner
and citizen in 1886.
He traveled widely in the East.
He worked as a steamer captain
(1890) in the Congo, but became ill
within 3 months and had to leave.
In 1896, he married Jessie George,
a typist from Peckham.
Conrad retired from sailing and
took up writing full time.
Writing took a physical and
emotional toll on Conrad.
Joseph Conrad’s Other Works
Amayer’s Folly (1895)
Lord Jim (1900)
Heart of Darkness (1902)
Nostromo (1904)
Under Western Eyes (1910)
Chance (1914)
Heart of Darkness Background
After a long stint in the East had come to an
end, he struggled to find a new position.
With the help of a relative in Brussels, he got the
position as captain of a steamer for a Belgian
trading company.
Conrad had always dreamed of sailing the
He had to leave early for the job - the previous
captain was killed in a trivial quarrel.
Heart of Darkness Background
While traveling from Boma (at the mouth) to the company
station at Matadi, he met Roger Casement who told Conrad
stories of the harsh treatment of Africans.
Conrad saw some of the most shocking and depraved
examples of human corruption he’d ever witnessed. He was
disgusted by the ill treatment of the natives, the scrabble for
loot, the terrible heat, and the lack of water.
He saw human skeletons of bodies left to rot - many were
bodies of men from the chain gangs building the railroads.
He found his ship was damaged.
Dysentery and malaria were rampant; Conrad had to terminate
his contract due to illness and never fully recovered.
Heart of Darkness
Narrative Structure
Frame Narrative
Narrator begins
Marlow takes over
Narrator breaks in occasionally
Marlow is Conrad’s alter-ego; he shows up in some
of Conrad’s other works including “Youth: A
Narrative” and Lord Jim
Marlow recounts his tale while he is on a small vessel
on the Thames with some drinking buddies who are exmerchant seamen. As he recounts his story, the group
sits in an all-encompassing darkness and pass around
the bottle.
Modernist Literature Style
"Narrative frame" - narrator tells story of another
character telling a story (story-within-a-story)
Marlow’s 1st-person narration = “limited”
omniscient: introspective, fragmented, suggestive/
evocative, arational connections (having no rational
characteristics; no capacity to reason)
Interior monologue, “stream of consciousness,”
Associative (vs. Linear) “logic” intertwines present
awareness & memory
Varied Interpretations
Many different interpretations have been put on this book.
Some see it as an attack on colonialism and a criticism of racial
Some see Kurtz as the embodiment of all the evil and horror of
the capitalist society.
Others view it as a portrayal of one man’s journey into the
primitive unconscious where the only means of escaping the
blandness of everyday life is by self-degradation.
Heart of Darkness Themes & Motifs
Primitive Impulses (Kurtz, previous captain, etc.)
 Cruelty of Man (Kurtz and Company)
 Immorality/Amorality (Kurtz)
Lies/Hypocrisy (Marlow chooses Kurtz evil versus
Company’s hypocritical evil)
Imperialization/Colonization (Belgian Company)
 Cruelty of Man
 Greed
 Exploitation of People
Heart of Darkness Themes & Motifs
Role of Women
Civilization exploitive of women
Civilization as a binding and selfperpetuating force
Physical connected to Psychological
Barriers (fog, thick forest, etc.)
Rivers (connection to past,
parallels time and journey)
Review of Criticism
Paul O’Prey: "It is an irony that the 'failures' of Marlow
and Kurtz are paralleled by a corresponding failure of
Conrad's technique--brilliant though it is--as the vast
abstract darkness he imagines exceeds his capacity to
analyze and dramatize it, and the very inability to
portray the story's central subject, the 'unimaginable',
the 'impenetrable' (evil, emptiness, mystery or
whatever) becomes a central theme."
James Guetti complains that Marlow "never gets below
the surface," and is "denied the final self-knowledge
that Kurtz had."
Review of Criticism
Conrad, writing in 1922, responds to similar criticism: "Explicitness,
my dear fellow, is fatal to the glamour of all artistic work, robbing it of
all suggestiveness, destroying all illusion. You seem to believe in
literalness and explicitness, in facts and in expression. Yet nothing is
more clear than the utter insignificance of explicit statement and also
its power to call attention away from things that matter in the region of
Marlowe, the narrator, describes how difficult conveying a story is:
"Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am
trying to tell you a dream--making a vain attempt, because no relation
of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of
absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt,
that notion of being captured by the incredible, which is the very
essence of dream . . .No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the
life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence--that which makes
its truth, its meaning-- its subtle and penetrating essence. It is
impossible. We live, as we dream--alone . . ."
Review of Criticism
Marxist: You can see Heart of Darkness as a depiction
of, and an attack upon, colonialism in general, and,
more specifically, the particularly brutal form
colonialism took in the Belgian Congo.
the mistreatment of the Africans
the greed of the so-called "pilgrims"
the broken idealism of Kurtz
the French man-of-war lobbing shells into the jungle
the grove of death which Marlow stumbles upon
the little note that Kurtz appends to his noble-minded essay
on The Suppression of Savage Customs
the importance of ivory to the economics of the system.
Review of Criticism
Sociological/Cultural: Conrad was also apparently
interested in a more general sociological investigation of
those who conquer and those who are conquered, and
the complicated interplay between them.
Marlow's invocation of the Roman conquest of Britain
Cultural ambiguity of those Africans who have taken on
some of the ways of the Europeans
The ways in which the wilderness tends to strip away the
civility of the Europeans and brutalize them
Conrad is not impartial and scientifically detached from these
things, and he even has a bit of fun with such impartiality in
his depiction of the doctor who tells Marlow that people who
go out to Africa become "scientifically interesting."
Review of Criticism
Psychological/Psychoanalytical: Conrad goes out of his
way to suggest that in some sense Marlow's journey is like a dream
or a return to our primitive past--an exploration of the dark
recesses of the human mind.
 Apparent similarities to the psychological theories of Sigmund
Freud in its suggestion that dreams are a clue to hidden areas of
the mind
 We are all primitive brutes and savages, capable of the most
appalling wishes and the most horrifying impulses (the Id)
 We can make sense of the urge Marlow feels to leave his boat
and join the natives for a savage whoop and holler
 Notice that Marlow keeps insisting that Kurtz is a voice--a voice
who seems to speak to him out of the heart of the immense
Review of Criticism
Religious: Heart of Darkness as an examination of
various aspects of religion and religious
examine the way Conrad plays with the concept of
pilgrims and pilgrimages
 the role of Christian missionary concepts in the
justifications of the colonialists
 the dark way in which Kurtz fulfills his own
messianic ambitions by setting himself up as one of
the local gods
Review of Criticism
Moral-Philosophical: Heart of
Darkness is preoccupied with general
questions about the nature of good
and evil, or civilization and savagery
 What saves Marlow from becoming
 Is Kurtz more or less evil than the
 Why does Marlow associate lies
with mortality?
Review of Criticism
Threes: There are three parts to the story, three
breaks in the story (1 in pt. 1 and 2 in pt. 2), and
three central characters: the outside narrator, Marlow
and Kurtz
 Contrasting images (dark and light, open and closed)
 Center to periphery: Kurtz → Marlow → Outside
Narrator → the reader
 Are the answers to be found in the center or on the
Heart of Darkness was published in the late
Victorian-Early Modern Era but exhibits mostly
Modern traits:
a distrust of abstractions as a way of delineating truth
an interest in an exploration of the psychological
a belief in art as a separate and somewhat privileged
kind of human experience
a desire for transcendence mingled with a feeling that
transcendence cannot be achieved
Modernism cont’d.
an awareness of primitiveness and savagery as the
condition upon which civilization is built, and therefore
an interest in the experience and expressions of nonEuropean peoples
a skepticism that emerges from the notion that human
ideas about the world seldom fit the complexity of the
world itself
a sense that multiplicity, ambiguity, and irony--in
life and in art--are the necessary responses of the
intelligent mind to the human condition.
Apocalypse Now
Apocalypse Now - a film directed
by Francis Ford Coppola starring
Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall and
Marlon Brando.
Film was based on Conrad’s
Heart of Darkness.
Coppola takes the story to
Vietnam. Capt. Willard (Marlow
– Martin Sheen) is sent on a
mission to kill Colonel Kurtz
(Brando) who has gone

Heart of Darkness - Seneca Valley School District