Heart of Darkness is set in the late 19th century, primarily on the massive Congo River in the Congo Free State (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). However, the novella’s frame story takes place on the Thames River in London, and its protagonist Marlow also briefly visits a “sepulchral city” in Europe (Brussels, Belgium). Even though Conrad’s readers would have easily identified Marlow’s destination as the Congo, Conrad never uses the word “Congo” anywhere in the text. Refusing to name the Congo allows Conrad to present his work as a critique of colonialism in general, and not just Belgium’s particularly brutal form of it. It also adds to the Congo’s sense of incomprehensible mystery, which is one of its defining traits in the novella.
Conrad’s rich descriptions of all these settings are based on personal experience—namely, his own treacherous journey to the Congo in 1890. From 1885 to 1908, the Congo Free State was ruled by Belgium’s King Leopold II. Unlike other European colonies, the Congo Free State wasn’t a colony in a broader empire. Instead, it was the king’s own private property, and he could rule it however he wished (even though he never even visited it). Leopold imposed lawlessness and brutality on the Congo, giving corporations free rein to enslave native people at will in order to collect ivory and rubber. Ivory was predominant around 1890, the period when Conrad visited the Congo and that he depicts in Heart of Darkness. But many of the Free State’s worst atrocities began in the subsequent years, when colonizers turned primarily to rubber. For instance, the Belgian authorities famously cut off the hands of workers who didn’t meet rubber quotas.
In Heart of Darkness, Conrad emphasizes similar atrocities, which he saw firsthand during his own time in the Congo and believed to represent humanity’s worst corruption. In fact, when Conrad published Heart of Darkness, activists were widely pushing for Leopold to give up personal dominion over the Congo. Conrad’s book played a significant role in promoting that effort, which ultimately succeeded in 1908. Still, Congo remained a Belgian colony for more than 50 years, and as many as 10 million people—half of its population—died just in the 23 years of King Leopold’s rule.
This political context is central to the novella’s overall argument about colonialism, but 21st-century readers may struggle to notice it, because Conrad intentionally lets it fade into the background. Instead, he mainly focuses on the Congo Basin’s lush, impenetrable rainforest and the mighty Congo River, which is the world’s second-longest and second-most-powerful river. In the novella, the jungle comes to represent the primitive, irrational elements of human nature, while the treacherous river serves as a path to investigate the depths of the human soul.
Conrad contrasts the vast, dark Congo with the more quaint, docile Thames, where the novella begins and ends. At the turn of the 20th century, England was the world’s dominant colonial and naval power, and London was the world’s largest and wealthiest city. This explains why Conrad presents the Thames as the epitome of European colonialism (just like, for him, the Congo stood for the epitome of uncivilized Africa). Thus, by setting the novella’s frame story in “the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth,” Conrad attacked European colonialism at its heart. Yet he conveys his frustration with European society less through his description of London than through his tale about a brief trip to the “sepulchral city,” Brussels, which he portrays as inhabited yet empty, grandiose yet uninspiring.