Joseph Conrad did not begin to learn English until he was twenty-one years old. He was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski on December 3, 1857, in the Polish Ukraine. When Conrad was quite young, his father was exiled to Siberia on suspicion of plotting against the Russian government. After the death of the boy’s mother, Conrad’s father sent him to his mother’s brother in Kraków to be educated, and Conrad never again saw his father. He traveled to Marseilles when he was seventeen and spent the next twenty years as a sailor. He signed on to an English ship in 1878, and eight years later he became a British subject. In 1889, he began his first novel, Almayer’s Folly, and began actively searching for a way to fulfill his boyhood dream of traveling to the Congo. He took command of a steamship in the Belgian Congo in 1890, and his experiences in the Congo came to provide the outline for Heart of Darkness. Conrad’s time in Africa wreaked havoc on his health, however, and he returned to England to recover. He returned to sea twice before finishing Almayer’s Folly in 1894 and wrote several other books, including one about Marlow called Youth: A Narrative before beginning Heart of Darkness in 1898. He wrote most of his other major works—including Lord Jim, which also features Marlow; Nostromo; and The Secret Agent, as well as several collaborations with Ford Madox Ford—during the following two decades. Conrad died in 1924.
Conrad’s works, Heart of Darkness in particular, provide a bridge between Victorian values and the ideals of modernism. Like their Victorian predecessors, these novels rely on traditional ideas of heroism, which are nevertheless under constant attack in a changing world and in places far from England. Women occupy traditional roles as arbiters of domesticity and morality, yet they are almost never present in the narrative; instead, the concepts of “home” and “civilization” exist merely as hypocritical ideals, meaningless to men for whom survival is in constant doubt. While the threats that Conrad’s characters face are concrete ones—illness, violence, conspiracy—they nevertheless acquire a philosophical character. Like much of the best modernist literature produced in the early decades of the twentieth century, Heart of Darkness is as much about alienation, confusion, and profound doubt as it is about imperialism.
Imperialism is nevertheless at the center of Heart of Darkness. By the 1890s, most of the world’s “dark places” had been placed at least nominally under European control, and the major European powers were stretched thin, trying to administer and protect massive, far-flung empires. Cracks were beginning to appear in the system: riots, wars, and the wholesale abandonment of commercial enterprises all threatened the white men living in the distant corners of empires. Things were clearly falling apart. Heart of Darkness suggests that this is the natural result when men are allowed to operate outside a social system of checks and balances: power, especially power over other human beings, inevitably corrupts. At the same time, this begs the question of whether it is possible to call an individual insane or wrong when he is part of a system that is so thoroughly corrupted and corrupting. Heart of Darkness, thus, at its most abstract level, is a narrative about the difficulty of understanding the world beyond the self, about the ability of one man to judge another.
Although Heart of Darkness was one of the first literary texts to provide a critical view of European imperial activities, it was initially read by critics as anything but controversial. While the book was generally admired, it was typically read either as a condemnation of a certain type of adventurer who could easily take advantage of imperialism’s opportunities, or else as a sentimental novel reinforcing domestic values: Kurtz’s Intended, who appears at the novella’s conclusion, was roundly praised by turn-of-the-century reviewers for her maturity and sentimental appeal. Conrad’s decision to set the book in a Belgian colony and to have Marlow work for a Belgian trading concern made it even easier for British readers to avoid seeing themselves reflected in Heart of Darkness. Although these early reactions seem ludicrous to a modern reader, they reinforce the novella’s central themes of hypocrisy and absurdity.