Heart of Darkness is a short, yet influential book, used as the basis for Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, but at the time was one of the publications which drew attention to the appalling and inhumane treatment of native people in the inaptly named Congo Free State.
The book begins on a ship moored in the River Thames. The unnamed narrator is accompanied by the Director, the Accountant, the Lawyer, and – the only one of the five with a name – Charles Marlow. As the sun sets and the five wait for the ebb tide, Marlow begins a tale of events which happened to him several years before. Being out of work, he says, he asked his family for recommendations, and his aunt got him a job as a river-steamboat captain in Africa with an unnamed company (but which was obviously the Association internationale africaine, solely owned by Leopold II, king of Belgium, and operated for his profit). As Marlow journeyed closer to his destination he became gradually aware of the mystery and menace of the African continent, and how little distance the white man had penetrated and infiltrated. Once at the station, he discovered that his steamship was very badly damaged, and three months passed before all the parts were available to fix it.
Upon his arrival at the station, he sees in close and brutal detail the harsh treatment meted out to the local people, labouring for the Company, and the callous disregard for their well-being that the white men overseeing the works have. He is also personally frustrated by the lackadaisical attitudes of these men in charge, and their general incompetence, as well as their desire to be spoken well of back home at the headquarters of the Company. During this time of waiting, Marlow hears rumours about a man named Kurtz, station manager further upstream, who sends more ivory downstream to the station than anyone else, and who is thought to have an extraordinary hold on the local native people there. Everything that Marlow hears about Kurtz makes him curious to meet the man, and eventually, once the steamer is fixed, they make a trip to collect the ivory and to return Kurtz to ‘civilisation’.
This journey takes on a somewhat nightmarish quality, and now Marlow sees that the charismatic Kurtz has been driven insane, and is being worshipped by the local people. Marlow is both fascinated and repelled by Kurtz, recognising his talents and charisma, but recoiling from his insanity of soul, as Marlow phrases it, which has led to Kurtz indulging the “basest of passions” and sanctioning murder. When the company finally reaches the man, he is dying, and the locals are loath to let him go, but are frightened away by Kurtz’s own command and their fear of the steamboat.
The book is written in a dense, wordy style with frequent conversational phrases, which convincingly show Marlow’s re-telling of the story to his listeners, and conveys a sort of phantasmagorical atmosphere of horror and expectation. While Marlow (and evidently Conrad himself, who undertook a similar job himself whilst working as a seaman) has sympathy for the African people being so appallingly mistreated, he does, nevertheless, think of them as an uncivilised, lower class people – primitive and unknowable – and not one of them is dignified with a name (though very few of the European characters are named, either, probably because Marlow is trying to “name no names” and to be discreet about the people he has encountered). In a way, their treatment is only incidental to the plot, though it highlights the character of Kurtz to the reader.
One of the most telling parts of the book comes just after Marlow has seen the horrible decorations surrounding Kurtz’s hut, but his instinctive revulsion is not from this but from the revelation that local people would approach Kurtz, crawling, as though to a deity. The heart of darkness is that in every human being, and which circumstances, in Kurtz’s case, have brought him to that selfish state where nothing matters except as it pertains to him.
This is a thought-provoking and rather dream-like book; it’s short, but I don’t think it’s possible to rush through it, due to the ideas presented, and the way Conrad writes.