Heart of Darkness

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Heart of Darkness Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Joseph Conrad
Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski was an orphan by the age of 12; his mother and father both died as a result of time the family spent in exile in Siberia for plotting against the Russian Tsar. At seventeen, he traveled to Marseilles and began to work as a sailor. Eventually, he began to sail on British ships, and became a British citizen in 1886, at the age of 29. It was about this time he changed his name to the more British-sounding Joseph Conrad and published his first short stories (he wrote in English, his third language after Polish and French). For the next eight years, Conrad continued to work as a sailor (even spending time commanding a steamship in the Belgian Congo), and continued to write. He published his first novel (Almayer's Folly) in 1894. In 1896, Conrad married Jessie George. He quickly won critical praise, though financial success eluded him for many years and both he and his wife suffered serious illnesses. He wrote his best-known works in the years just before and after the turn of the century: Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1900), and Nostromo (1904). Conrad died in 1924.
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Historical Context of Heart of Darkness
During the last two decades of the 19th century, European nations battled each other for wealth and power. This battle caused the "scramble for Africa," in which European countries competed to colonize as much of Africa as possible. While the colonizing Europeans claimed to want to "civilize" the African continent, their actions spoke otherwise: they were interested solely in gaining wealth and did not care how they did it, or who was killed. One of the most brutal of the European colonies in its treatment of the native Africans was the Belgian Congo, the property of the Belgian King Leopold I. In 1890, Joseph Conrad worked as a pilot on a steamship in the Belgian Congo, and Heart of Darkness is at least in part based on his experiences there.
Other Books Related to Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad's novels reside in the transition period between Victorianism, with its strict conventions and focus on polite society, and Modernism, which sought to explode old conventions and invent new literary forms to convey human experience more fully. Conrad's work was instrumental in this effort, particularly his experimentation with the use of time and non-chronological narratives. Heart of Darkness also fits squarely into the genre of colonial literature, in which European writers portrayed the colonialism and imperialism of European nations from Africa to the Far East in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Key Facts about Heart of Darkness
  • Full Title: Heart of Darkness
  • When Published: 1899
  • Literary Period: Victorianism/Modernism
  • Genre: Colonial literature; Quest literature
  • Setting: The Narrator tells the story from a ship at the mouth of the Thames River near London, England around 1899. Marlow's story-within-the-story is set in an unnamed European city (probably Brussels) and in the Belgian Congo in Africa sometime in the early to mid 1890s, during the colonial era.
  • Climax: The confrontation between Marlow and Kurtz in the jungle
  • Antagonist: Kurtz
  • Point of View: First person (both Marlow and the Unnamed Narrator use first person)
Extra Credit for Heart of Darkness

Heart of the Apocalypse. Heart of Darkness is the source for the movie Apocalypse Now. The movie uses the primary plot and themes of Heart of Darkness, and shifts the story from Africa to Vietnam to explore the hypocrisy, inanity, and emptiness of the American war effort there.