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Heart of Darkness

Blackwood's Magazine, Nellie, Congo Diary, Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now

a novel by Joseph Conrad, published in 1902 together with ‘Youth’ and ‘The End of the Tether’ (serialized in Blackwood's Magazine, 1899). The framing narrative is set on board the Nellie, on the lower reaches of the Thames, where Charlie Marlow is relating an episode from his earlier life to professional companions, a Director of Companies, an Accountant, a Lawyer, and the anonymous narrator who opens and concludes the narrative. Marlow recalls his experience captaining a tin-pot steamboat up an unnamed central African river in search and rescue of Mr Kurtz, a renowned ivory collector employed by the Belgian company for which Marlow is temporarily working. Marlow's journey down the African coast to the Company's Outer Station head-quarters and trek inland to the Central Station to take charge of his boat has already exposed him to the brutal realities of colonial military and economic exploitation. Marlow becomes increasingly disillusioned by his complicity with the ‘pilgrims of progress’ who represent European civilization, while his simultaneous fascination with and dread of the ‘monstrous and unearthy, inscrutable’ jungle and its native inhabitants grow as he struggles upriver towards Kurtz. Kurtz himself has achieved almost god-like authority over the native tribesmen, who seek to fight off the approaching steamboat. The row of severed heads on stakes surrounding Kurtz's encampment intimate something of the ‘unspeakable rites’ which Kurtz has embraced with Nietzschean audacity. Back in Europe, Marlow's final lie to Kurtz's Intended—that on his deathbed Kurtz uttered her name and not his appalling ambiguous cry, ‘The horror! The horror!’—consolidates one of Conrad's major thematic preoccupations: that consciousness of deeper truths is painful and that ‘the surface truths’ of things (‘luckily! luckily!’) hides their reality. Much of Conrad's powerful insight was gained on his own trip up the Congo river some ten years earlier (cf. Congo Diary) and through his friendship with R. B. Cunninghame Graham. A vast body of critical commentary has mined the dense richness and consciously paradoxical quality of this seminal modernist work, with its modern version of a Dantean journey into the Inferno, its Faustian figure of Kurtz provoking ambivalently fascinated horror, and Marlow's characteristically modernist self-conscious story-telling. Remarkably varied analyses exploit mythical, Freudian, formalist-narratological, feminist, deconstructionist, and Marxist approaches; insights generated by notions of the cultural/racial Other (cf. Chinua Achebe and Edward Said) have provided eloquent critiques. The influence of Heart of Darkness can be traced in writers as diverse as T. S. Eliot, André Gide, H. G. Wells, Achebe, William Golding, Graham Greene, V. S. Naipaul, and George Steiner, while Francis Coppola's film Apocalypse Now taps some of its rich imaginative possibilities by transposing it to the Vietnam War.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: William Hart-Smith Biography to Sir John [Frederick William] Herschel Biography