Joseph Conrad (his real name was Jozef Korzeniowski) is a classic of English literature of the twentieth century. He was born in the Russian Empire into a family of Polish patriots, who took part in anti-government protests. In 1874 he fled to Marseilles to become a cabin boy on a French merchant ship and three years later, while sailing in the Pacific Ocean, began to learn English. Over time, he became captain in the British passenger fleet. The marine experience gave Conrad the material for his literary works. After retiring, he devoted himself wholly to literature and in the mid-nineties began to publish novels, novellas and short stories that immediately found their readers (Meyers 28). Conrad was able to take place among the best writers of old literature created in a language other than the author’s mother tongue, which in itself happens quite rarely (Meyers 33). Throughout the twentieth century, his reputation grew with each passing decade, because it was increasingly clear that he was one of the founders of modernism. The highest achievement of Conrad is a relatively short story "Heart of Darkness".
In 1890, Conrad was a captain in the Belgian trading company operating in the Congo, then a Belgian colony. He went in his boat 230 miles up the Congo River, and a diary of this trip (June-August of 1890) was used as the basis for the novel "Heart of Darkness".
On the surface we see the story of the narrator Charlie Marlow about his journey into the heart of equatorial Africa, to the commercial station of a European company, to pick up the goods accumulated there – mostly ivory - and take out a sick agent of the company, Mr. Kurtz. Tale can be read as a story about the adventures of Marlowe in the heart of Africa, but it is distinguished by such complexity of the organization that that narrative is perceived additionally as a philosophical novel, allowing for directly opposite and mutually exclusive readings.
Here is a brand new feature of the literature of the coming twentieth century - an unprecedented degree of concentration of problems and pluralistic, ambiguous nature of their ideological and artistic decisions (Bradbury 12). After centuries of domination of positivist self-confidence, when it seemed that science and literature have already been or are about to find definitive answers to all the questions, there comes a century of epistemological doubt, that is the doubt in the knowability of the world and the human soul. The world of modernism in literature appears to a man as an eternally hostile chaos, knowledge of the world is difficult and, in its fullness, not possible, and only art (and in literature – the word) is a means of organizing the world. Only art, according to the modernists, offers a holistic model of reality, and this model should be as complex and as self-contradictory as life itself, as the secrets of the human soul (Bradbury 13). New ways of artistic expression are required for this new concept of the world and man; new ways of interacting with the reader are needed. One of the founders of modernism - Conrad - combines a penchant for spectacular adventure plot, which is typical for a conventional adventure novel, with an astounding wealth of content and a drastic complication of the narrative structure.
On the first page of the novel, Charlie Marlow and his friends from the yacht, which stands at the mouth of the Thames, are watching the sunset, thickening to the west of London: " the sun sank low as if about to go out suddenly, stricken to death by the touch of that gloom brooding over a crowd of men (Conrad).” Thus, the central metaphor of the story, the metaphor of darkness is quietly introduced with the sight of the majestic sunset. This sunset makes Marlow to get to his story, waiting for low tide, when the friends would be able to proceed into the river. His fantasy about a young Roman who landed on the lowest banks of the river on the outskirts of the Roman Empire many centuries ago at the first reading may seem unrelated to the further development of the plot, but this nameless character is the first sketch of the modern imperialist Kurtz, engulfed by similar passions on the shores of another nameless river. Marlow tells about how he was hired as a river captain in the colonial company. In the company building located in a boring European capital two women knitted frantically at the reception “guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall (Conrad).”
The reader immediately gets an association that is not directly offered in the text, the one of the ancient goddesses of fate with yarns of human lives. There is a sense of fatal predetermination of what is happening. On board of the ship sailing to Africa, Marlow is stricken with indifference to human life: somebody is drowning in the surf in process of unloading; a French gunboat is bombarding an empty shore, which is said to pacify the natives-rebels. Six chained blacks, “criminals” who do not know what they are guilty of because they do not know the concept of law, made his first impression on arrival.
A variety of scenes of death, violence, disease, treachery of the white, savagery of the black are the prelude to a journey to the inner station, where he is drawn by, in addition to curiosity of the new lands, the things he heard about the most outstanding person of the colony. Marlow’s imagination is captured by the figure of the most successful agent of the company, Kurtz, who delivers by himself as much ivory as all other agents combined. He created a mental image of Kurtz as the torch of progress that crumbles when Marlow finally gets to the inner station where Kurtz dies of dengue fever. It is not only that he only sees a lengthy body, almost a skeleton, a dying person in delirium. Marlow realizes that all his representation of Kurtz compiled on the basis of hearsay proved to be false. On the picket fence around Kurtz’s hut there are severed heads of aborigines put there to frighten their own countrymen, he robs Africans of the fossil ivory by force of arms, declares himself a god for them. In fact, the messenger of mercy, science and progress turns out to be the embodiment of evil:
Kurtz, the author of articles in defense of progress in European journals and the most promising employee of the company, in Africa quickly throws off the thin veneer of civilization and culture, his essence is exposed as a lie, demagoguery, extremism. The author uses the etymology of his name to measure the truthfulness of the character (“Kurtz” is German for "short", while the owner of it is seven feet tall). Kurtz is dying with horrible revelations, and although Marlow hates lies and death, in the honest Marlow there is something, that makes him feel so inextricably connected with Kurtz.
The literature of the turn of the century takes particular interest in the problem of evil, its nature and origins. While in the literature of the XIX century evil was treated as an integral part of life, of which the author must be aware, reveal it in their work and thereby expose, Conrad’s evil are darkness and gloominess, leitmotifs of the story, incomprehensible and unavoidable evil. Conrad’s evil is concentrated in the "heart of darkness". The meaning of the title story is gradually revealed as the comprehension of the heart of black Africa, as the comprehension of evil in human nature. The author gives no unequivocal answer to the question of what evil is and where its origins are to be searched. There are social motives in the story, denunciation of predatory exploitation of the colonies. There are anti-racist motives as well; evil is spilled in nature - African nature is hostile and pernicious for the Europeans, but the main evil, perhaps, lies in the human soul. Conrad’s evil disguises itself in the clothes of good. Marlow realizes that his loyalty to humanity goes against all his experience, suggesting that there is no truth in the world, no justice, there's only stupid idealism, more often – treachery of cold selfishness, greed, bigotry. Such a conception of the world and men gives rise to the kind of pessimism that is characteristic of modernism.
Adventure, as the story progresses, acquires a philosophical tinge; the same complication is seen in the narration mode. Charlie Marlow becomes the narrator in several works by Conrad. This is not just a functional narrator figure, but also a vividly outlined character. The author gives him some autobiographical traits: a sailor with a lot of life experience, like his creator. Marlow is not a conditional narrator common to the earlier literature. He is both an actor telling his story, not inferior in value Kurtz, undergoing moral evolution. Getting interested in Marlow, the reader starts to better understand the peculiarities of his vision of Kurtz. Between the two protagonists of the story there is the field of tension, mutual attraction, and although they communicate directly for a very short time, these characters are related by thousands of internal threads, both on the principle of contrast, and according to the principle of similarity. Conrad gives Charlie Marlow true literary sensitivity to the problems of storytelling, and in his address to the audience the author formulates new artistic tasks: As it can be seen, the word is conceptualized not as a means of influencing the world, but only as a means of understanding the world. Moreover, Marlow knows that his story about Kurtz can be very far from the real Kurtz, and he is likely to put into words only his dream about Kurtz, his imaginary version of his personality. This raises the question of the limits of cognitive and visual capabilities of words as Marlow compares it with trying to tell about dreams.
Ambiguity, which is implicit in the author's position, allows different interpretations of the story. Chinua Achebe vividly expressed this ambiguity in the author’s nature: “Irrational love and irrational hate jostling together in the heart of that talented, tormented man (Image of Africa)”. A number of critics see it as one of the best exposures of imperialism, its hypocrisy and cruelty. The novel was created in the last years of the reign of Queen Victoria, who was proud to be at the head of the most extensive and morally advanced empires ever to exist. The British interpreted the concept of “imperialism” as a civilizing mission of the white man in countries that are not able to cope with their problems, needing help (MacQueen 108); the concept of "colonialism" was not so sublime, it dealt primarily with a commercial profit, exploitation of foreign resources. Marlow bears direct witness to the crimes of colonialism and criminal offenses that are not punishable by law, those against morality, inspired by imperial ideology. Mr. Kurtz during his stay in Europe was known as a democrat, and the service in the company turns him not just into the imperialist, but someone much worse – a barbarian. Conrad always conveys the idea that civilization is evil, whereas innocence and primitiveness of the natives is graceful; his Africans are full of life, adapted to existence on their land, while the Europeans are mercilessly mowed down by tropical diseases, and these "hollow men" (later this expression was borrowed by the largest English speaking poet of the twentieth century, T.S. Eliot for the title of his poem "The Hollow Men", 1925) are trying to instill in their blindness a civilization at a place far away from its origins.
Directly opposite point of view holds that in the "Heart of Darkness" Conrad championed imperialism, which can also be confirmed by the text of the story. The author portrays Africa as the "heart of darkness", the negative connotation of the metaphor cannot be ignored. Unnamed river, along which Marlow goes in the steamer, winding, dangerous, sinister, is a symbol of darkness. Some racial prejudice entered the text as well, but any purely ideological approach to the text does not provide an answer to the question: what is the strength of the story?
Conrad proceeds from the recognition of the insoluble contradictions of the world, therefore his art world encompasses everything. The action takes place against the backdrop of nature, making a human being ridiculously small by contrast, and rendering the human history ridiculously arrogant and presumptuous. Conrad’s world is truly tragic. It is full of terrible secrets, which have no names in the human language and which are better to remain anonymous. Hence the method so important to Conrad and the poetics of modernism – default, skipping of the most important. The plot, content, and style of the novel are inseparably fused to achieve a single, overall effect, which is multilayered, ambiguous, delightful complexity of the work, which reveals to the reader a new side with every reading.
Estheticism with its campy affectations, reminiscent of late romanticism and modernism, with its stark, unflinching look at the world and man, having fully absorbed the lessons of realism and naturalism, is equally obliged to the literature of the XIX century. Both directions at the turn of the century were equally perceived like new and rebellious. However, the focus on different problems and different ways to solve them define different proportion of these genres in the history of literature from a historical perspective: aestheticism was a monument to a certain age, whereas modernism in the next phase of literary development has become the leading trend of the world literature.
Achebe, Chinua. An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness). 1977
Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890-1930. Ed. Malcolm Bradbury. Penguin
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. PDF. Accessed at
Edgerton, Robert. The Troubled Heart of Africa: A History of the Congo. St. Martin's Press:
MacQueen, Norrie. Colonialism. Routledge: 2007
Meyers, Jeffrey. Joseph Conrad: A Biography, acclaimed writer. Cooper Square Press: 2001