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
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.
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