In his early life, Polish author Joseph Conrad spent nineteen years sailing as a merchant mariner, with both the French and the British, until he chose to give up his career for his writing. His experiences gave him the inspiration for most of his works, and one trip captaining a steamer up the Congo River led to his most famous work, Heart of Darkness. This novel took on serious issues such as colonialism, imperialism, “civilization” and the? human nature, and is a major influence for many other works. The trip to the Congo changed him, helping to create one of the most influential authors of the early 20th century, and as such is instrumental in understanding both how it affected Conrad and create Heart of Darkness.
In order to know the importance of this trip in his work, a basic understanding of the events themselves is necessary. In 1890, Conrad was sent by his employer to replace the master of the steamship Florida, as the previous master was killed by local tribesmen. At the time, Congo was privately “owned” by Belgian King Leopold II. While he was traveling up the Congo, Conrad got a firsthand view of what colonialism had done to the land and the people, both natives and Europeans. His director, Camille Delcommune, was a particular source of disgust to Conrad, who despised the director’s methods and his lust for ivory and rubber. He remained there until he got seriously ill, and returned to Europe early in 1891. This trip, while not his last, had the greatest influence on Heart of Darkness. Many elements of protaganist Marlow’s journey in the novel echo Conrad’s personal experiences, and this is abundantly clear in the novel. What shines through most are Conrad’s negative opinions on what Europeans were doing in Africa, actions that still have ramifications to this very day.
“The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By Jove! I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life.” Ivory had become almost worshiped by Company men in the novel, and this was also true in real life. While it was very valuable in trade, it meant so much more to these men. It was a way up to them, a means of advancement, and as such fed on their greed. They’d do anything for it, and as such destroyed the land, turning it into “some corpse”. It consumed the land, the elephants, and the natives, all because of European lust. Conrad saw this firsthand in Delcommune, how he enslaved, starved, and killed natives, all for wealth. Delcommune shares more than a few traits with Mr Kurtz, although not going so far as to be worshipped by native tribesmen. They both exploited others for personal gain, and simply didn’t care about the cost.
“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” This quote by Friedrich Nietzsche could be used as a summary for the entire novel. What Conrad saw “civilized” men doing deeply disturbed him, as it is disturbing to readers of Darkness. When they left civilization, men were prone to doing horrible things and justify it to themselves because they were “civilized” and the natives were “barbarians” who weren’t properly using the land. If they did these same things in Europe, they’d be considered monsters, but doing it in Africa makes it acceptable, partly because the average person didn’t know nor care about it. When people are dehumanized as native Africans were, it becomes easier to treat them as such, and Conrad was made all too aware of this. In the mind of Mr. Kurtz, a white man could and should rule over “brutes”, but this imperialist mindset only justified so much, and eventually Kurtz “went native”, so to speak. In his attempts to fight the savage nature of the natives, he himself became a savage, and in the end, his only advice was to “exterminate all the brutes.” He was removed from civilization, in a “heart of darkness”, and it fed on his greed and lust for power, a basic yet powerful force.
Conrad was no believer in human nature being a good thing, and it shows in his writing. His experiences growing up in Poland under the Russian Empire and his time as a merchant marine showed him the worst mankind had to offer, making many of his novels very dark. Self-interest and greed drove men to do horrible things to his their fellow man, and many characters in Darkness have this same drive. Africa was a place of opportunity, a place where a driven man could become rich, and that was all that mattered. They considered their far more advanced technology one of a many signs they were above the natives, and exploited that at every turn. Guns and steel were far above anything the native Africans had, making most fights very one sided. Colonialist thinking was that it was necessary to try and civilize the natives, that it was the “white man’s burden”, but in reality this meant killing anybody who resisted them, while those that didn’t were still considered inferiors. Conrad saw men in chains worked to death and whole tribes were starved by forced deliveries of food. As a result his already shaky views on man were soured further.
Africans at the time were considered primitive by most, and as stated before, an outsider there can be corrupted. This is where the title Heart of Darkness comes from, how the deeper you went, the darker it got. But, at the end of the day, the natives were still people. “It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. [...] They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend. And why not?” This quote from the novel highlights the fact that they were men who weren’t entirely different from the rest of us, that this savageness was lying deep in everyone. Society and civilization keep us from being this way, but when stripped of that, we aren’t so different. Conrad believed in this, and that treating natives so terribly was horrific. Growing up in Poland under Russian control made Conrad understanding of the situation they were in. Heart of Darkness is rather sympathetic to the natives, and through Marlow’s eyes the reader gets to see the atrocities committed against native Africans. While Marlow may not be disgusted by what he saw, readers were and still are. To its core, Colonialism is a racist practice, and Conrad takes what he saw and lays it out for the average person to see just how awful it is.
Conrad was a deeply cynical man, which is important to keep in mind as it shows in his other works too. Many of his characters are selfish, unsympathetic towards others, and sometimes outright violent. These characters are very realistic, however, and Conrad drew from his experiences in creating them. Under Western Eyes comes from his early life in Poland, dealing with revolutionaries and their failures, and The Nigger of the Narcissus comes from his time at sea and is about human self-interest. One of his other famous works, The Secret Agent, tackles terrorism, particularly the 1894 Greenwich bombing, and has main character Verloc accidentally killing his brother-in-law with a bomb when he used him to execute the Greenwich attack. None of these other works are particularly positive, and along with Heart of Darkness are all examples of Conrad’s cynicism. This cynicism also is prevalent in other works based on or otherwise influenced by Heart of Darkness, such as the film Apocalypse Now or the video game Spec Ops: The Line.
To understand Heart of Darkness, one must first understand Conrad and his life. His upbringing in an occupied nation followed by nearly two decades of "traveling the world" left him a cynic who mistrusted human nature, and this led to the creation of numerous great writings. He’s a man who attacked imperialism and colonialism in their prime, with works such as Darkness showing readers the atrocities occurring throughout the world in the name of wealth, country and civilization. Heart of Darkness is one of the most analysed works of literature and has gone on to influence numerous other works in every medium. Joseph Conrad’s dark stories help shed light on so many issues, both at the time and today, making Conrad one of the most influential authors of his time.