An air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose: Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness


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 . . .


Two years before the publication of Heart of Darkness, Conrad laid out his literary mission: ‘My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see’ [1]. It is one of those ironies typifying the man and his work that Conrad’s best known novel repeatedly stresses the impossibility of seeing, or of expressing meaning clearly. A katabasis into a shadowy world populated by shades and phantoms, Heart of Darkness has the quality of a half-remembered dream or nightmare, the meaning of which, we are told, emerges ‘only as a glow brings out a haze’. Even as its dense interweaving of literary, historical and mythological allusions invite literary analysis, the very hazy quality of the narration – expressed through an almost obsessive use of negative modifiers like ‘implacable’ or ‘inscrutable’ or ‘unspeakable’ – denies the possibility of a more precise meaning, and frustrates the reader’s attempts to identify a specific moral at the heart of the tale. It was this vaporous aspect which led F. R. Leavis to complain of an ‘adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery’ [2], even as the critic was elevating Conrad to the rank of his ‘great tradition’ of English novelists. Since then critical opinion has come around to accepting that indeterminacy as an integral component of Conrad’s themes and technique. Nevertheless, the novel’s status as an enduring classic rests partly on the fact that no-one has quite been able to explain what it is actually about.

For all the obliqueness of Conrad’s narrative technique, however, the world of Heart of Darkness was based on an all too solid reality. In 1890 Conrad spent six months in the Congo Free State, the private colony of King Leopold II of Belgium that was to gain international notoriety for the crimes committed against indigenous Africans. What Conrad saw in that period not only inspired his most famous novel, it also fundamentally altered his perception of human nature and civilization. Perhaps the most frightening aspect of this is that in some respects Heart of Darkness can be read as a sanitised version of what actually occurred in Leopold’s Congo. The Congo Free State was only five years old when Conrad arrived there, and many of its horrors were still to come to light, including hands cut off as punishment for unfulfilled rubber quotas, Congolese men forced at gunpoint to rape their own mothers and sisters, and European agents decorating flower beds with severed heads. Many of the atrocities committed by Leopold’s regime were so appalling that they make the excesses of the fictional Kurtz pale in comparison.

And yet the novel itself remains controversial, perhaps more than any other work so firmly established within the literary canon. It has been accused of sexism – of reasserting patriarchal attitudes and deliberately excluding the female reader. Some critics have read it as the work of an imperialist apologist, arguing that Conrad isn’t really attacking colonialism or imperialism per se, but merely the ‘inefficiency’ of the Belgian enterprise. And no discussion of Heart of Darkness would be complete without mention of that (in)famous critique by Chinua Achebe in which the Nigerian writer denounced the novel as the work of ‘a thoroughgoing bloody racist’ [3].

Perhaps this is to be expected from the very nature of what Conrad was attempting to do in his novel. ‘The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity,’ we are told by the unnamed narrator whose words frame Marlow’s central tale; but Marlow, as that narrator acknowledges, is not typical. He is a man who is given to sarcastic and pithy outbursts, often employing the lofty language of imperialism only to contrast it with the reality; who cannot ‘bear a lie’ but is often evasive with the truth; who tells ‘inconclusive tales’ while adopting the posture of a preaching Buddha: in short, the very definition of an unreliable narrator. Accordingly, his account is neither explicit nor obvious, and readers should be wary of taking it at face value. It is a tale built on irony and ambiguity, on double and hidden meanings, where apparent contrasts often turn out to be parallels. That ambiguity is built into the very structure of the novel: a frame narrative which opens with the unnamed narrator’s evocation of the ‘great spirit of the past’ (‘What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of the unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.’), before veering off in a very different direction when Marlow introduces his own story with the brilliantly gnomic remark that England was once also ‘one of the dark places of this earth.’ Marlow’s central tale will not only portray the colonisation of Africa as a particularly unsavoury episode in the history of Western imperialism, it will also throw a different light upon the apparently unambiguous celebration of the primary narrator’s ‘bearers of a spark from the sacred fire.’

Like Kafka who attempts to find truth via paradox, Conrad in Heart of Darkness partly seeks it in the space between the falsehoods, ideologies and assumptions of his day. But at the same time, the novel’s proto-Modernist focus on the subjectivity of individual experience repeatedly calls into question whether we can ever arrive at any ultimate or universal truth. Complicating matters further is the novel’s thematic concern with complicity (made doubly problematic when we learn that Conrad was an investor in a goldmine near Johannesburg while he was writing his ostensibly anti-imperialist tract).

All of this gives only a partial insight into both the difficulty and the enduring appeal of a novel which can appear every bit as contrary as its author at times. For Conrad did not intend his work to be read solely as a treatise on imperialism, nor simply as a record of what he witnessed in the Congo: its meaning was to have a greater universal import. Like the whiteness of Ahab’s whale in Moby Dick, that other great novel of madness and death, Conrad’s darkness was a metaphysical one. That Conrad never fully explains just what that darkness entails accounts in part for the novel’s reputation as a difficult, often frustrating read, but also for much of its singularly haunting power. The experience of Kurtz and his famous summation (‘The horror! The horror!’) suggests whatever lies behind or within that darkness may best remain unseen. Having been given a brief glimpse into the heart of it himself, Marlow concludes that the truth may be too dark altogether: that the ‘inner truth is hidden – luckily, luckily.’

Perhaps this is why each return to Heart of Darkness encounters more obscurity and obfuscation; as though the novel’s inner meaning is constantly retreating from the light. If the mark of a great novel is that upon each reading some new aspect or meaning is revealed, then paradoxically the greatness of Heart of Darkness resides in the opposite phenomenon: it is not so much that something new is illuminated on returning to the story; rather, some previously hidden aspect emerges, often complicating our earlier interpretations. In a novel built on paradoxes, the narrative technique employed by Conrad in Heart of Darkness to make his readers ‘see’ may be the biggest paradox of all. Marlow’s story plays out like an inverted Buddhist jataka, a parable in reverse: a tale which leads not to enlightenment but into darkness, while throwing into question our very understanding of truth.

Fitting, then, that Heart of Darkness is often described as the 20th century’s first novel, a harbinger of that age of anxiety which brought us Modernism, Post-Modernism, epistemological uncertainty, and moral and spiritual doubt. When Marlow describes his unnamed African river as ‘an immense snake uncoiled’ (fascinating him ‘as a snake would a bird’) the image can be extended to Conrad’s novel. Like that metaphorical serpent, this brilliant and troubling work continues to beguile and repel in equal measure, well over a century after it was written.


[1] Joseph Conrad, Preface to The Nigger of Narcissus (1897)

[2] F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition (1948)

[3] Chinua Achebe, An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness’ (1977)