Autopsy: Heart of Darknessby Shohsei Oda


About the Author
Joseph Conrad (born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski), a world-renowned English author, was born on the third day of the December of 1857 to a poverty-stricken Polish couple in Ukraine. As a child Conrad had to live with his parents in exile, and by the time he was eleven, both his father and mother had died. He was then looked after by his uncle until he turned 16, when he travelled to Marseilles, France to become a seaman.

In 1878, Conrad got his first job on an English ship. Soon after the ship returned to England, he signed up for a voyage on a coaster from Lowestoft to Newcastle: a trip that would act as a platform for him to learn English, the language in which he would write his novels later in life. The fact that Conrad is considered one of the “greatest novelists in the English language” is incredible considering that he only started learning English even after his teenage years.

Receiving his Master Mariner’s certificate and British citizenship in 1886, Conrad anglicized his name to Joseph Conrad, the name under which he would become such a well-known and respected author. However, it was another eight years (in 1894) until he retired from the sea and started his literary career. Indeed, Conrad’s experiences from his life at sea were often reflected in his novels: The Nigger of the Narcissus was inspired by his voyage on the Narcissus in Bombay and Heart of Darkness was greatly influenced by his experience on a Congo steamboat.

Although at first some of Conrad’s writing showed hints of romanticism, the author is remembered for being a significant influence in the genre of modernism: the man had developed a pessimistic world view after witnessing certain weaknesses of the human condition during his life at sea. Evident in several of his works is a moral voice, pleading with the reader to sea the wicked truths of the world. Conrad was known to suffer from depression and self-doubt, the result of losing belief in the strength of mankind. Isolation and corruption were what Conrad had the most to say about, as they were what he felt and saw on his trips as a sailor.

Conrad wrote almost twenty novels, and countless more novellas and essays. Today, the novels Lord Jim and Nostromo continue to be popular reads. The Secret Agentand Under Western Eyes are regarded as his some of his best work, but without a doubt it is Heart of Darkness that remains Conrad’s most influential piece. So without further ado, let me introduce to you Joseph Conrad's chilling tale..


A Brief Summary
Heart of Darkness is the story of Christopher Marlow, a young sailor who ambitiously joins a Belgian trading company so that he can satisfy a desire to travel to the Congo. From the time he signs up to work for the Company, however, Marlow feels as if something is amiss. Throughout his trip to and in Africa, Marlow witnesses the endless mistreatment of natives by the agents of the Company, which he realizes is consumed by greed. Indeed, those working for the Company in Africa, far away from the familiar comforts of their homeland, have become somewhat deranged and are obsessed with finding ivory.

While staying at the Central Station, a headquarters for the Company in the Congo, Marlow hears talk about a mysterious character named Kurtz. Marlow’s peers describe Kurtz as a very successful agent with great potential - a man who had come to the continent equipped with his morals and a backbone. The general manager of the Central Station fears for his position because Kurtz is regarded as the most effective worker for the Company. After hearing the rumors about Kurtz’s greatness (and that he was sick), Marlow becomes slightly obsessed with meeting him in person before it’s too late. Marlow sets off on a steamer, along with the general manager, a small group of other Company agents, and a crew of cannibals to help with the labor onboard, up the river to the Inner Station where Kurtz is in charge.
The long and dark trip to the Inner Station sets a tense mood, accompanied by the massive and ominous jungle on both riverbanks. The steamer stops at an old, abandoned hut that contains both firewood and a note warning the ship to approach with caution. Soon after the firewood is taken onboard, the steamer is surrounded by a dense and frightening fog which leaves Marlow with no choice but to wait to finish the journey to the Inner Station in better conditions. When the fog finally clears, however, the steamer is ambushed: arrows fall down on the deck, shot by unseen natives in the jungle. The natives are only finally scared away when Marlow sounds the ship’s loud steam whistle.
Finally, the steamer reaches the Inner Station and Marlow is greeted by a Russian trader who glorifies Kurtz as a godly man, and indeed, Kurtz has the status of a God among the natives of the inner jungle. The rumor about Kurtz being ill appears to be true, and the manager decides to take the man back to the Central Station. Before they leave, however, Kurtz escapes back into the forest, where Marlow finds him and convinces him to board the steamer. Is is revealed before the steamer leaves the Inner Station that Kurtz ordered the attack on the steamer so that they would head back and leave him alone to his plans.
On the trip back, Kurtz finally meets his end, but not before he hands Marlow his personal documents. Marlow finally travels back to Europe to meet Kurtz’s fiancee to give her the documents. However, when Marlow discovers that Kurt’z fiancee adamantly continues to believe in Kurt’z good nature, he realizes he cannot expose the true horror of the story behind her deceased husband-to-be.
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My Personal Review
Although traveling to the Congo in the heart of the African continent sounds like it could be the plot for an action & adventure story, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is more a gripping tale about imperialism and its countless effects. The story actually reads nothing like an Indiana Jones thriller: after the first portion of the book, it became obvious to me that Heart of Darkness is an attempt by Conrad to make his views on imperialism somewhat more accessible by means of intertwining them with a story instead of expressing them in a dull essay.


The story, which follows young sailor Christopher Marlow on his travels in the Congo, is brimming with anti-imperialist symbolism. When the protagonist, who works for a European trading business simply called the Company (Conrad’s encapsulation of the innumerable imperialist companies of his time) first arrives on the river, he sees an “undersized railway-truck lying...on its back with its wheels in the air...as dead as the carcass of some animal.” Conrad compares the imperialist efforts of the West to an ugly derailed man-made train which starkly contrasts with the beauty of the surrounding African nature. His point is that imperialism is an unnatural phenomenon of this world, and that it will fail in the end.

Only sentences later Marlow witnesses the futile attempts of men trying to blow up a cliff to make way for a railway. The character states that, “The cliff was not in the way or anything; but this objectless blasting was all the work going on,” symbolizing the Western misbelief of the time: that the imperialism of the uncivilized natives of other countries was necessary to advance the railway of mankind.

Conrad strengthens his point of the worthlessness of imperialism with more symbolism; at one point Marlow, who has arrived at a Company Station, watches a fellow Company agent trying to put out a shed that has spontaneously burst into flames. However, unbeknownst to the agent, there is a hole in the bottom of the pail - perhaps the most direct symbol of ineffectual means.

The message I received from the novel, however, is not just that imperialism is pointless for the advancement of humankind, but that it also has numerous consequences. During his travels, Marlow encounters a young, starving native with a “bit of white worsted round his neck.” Marlow wonders, “Why? Where did he get it? Was it a badge - an ornament - a charm - a propitiatory act? Was there any idea at all connected with it?” Conrad, through Marlow, is blatantly asking the reader to open his eyes to the symbolic meaning of the “bit of white thread from beyond the seas”: a noose of white men strangling the black people of Africa.
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Although Conrad’s sympathies for the imperialized may seem obvious, I think that the symbolism, although artistically elaborate, is too subtle for the common book-reader. The only way you can pick up on the symbols is if you are looking for them, as I was while reading. Fortunately, for the less alert reader, Conrad does also simply illustrate the devastating state of the imperialized: “They were dying slowly - it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, - nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom.” Indeed it was Conrad’s belief that the true intentions of imperialism were not good ones, but green ones, the colour of money.


What makes Heart of Darkness more than just sympathy for the imperialized is Conrad including a portrayal of the imperialists as well. The author describes “bewitched” Company agents: wherever they go, the “word ‘ivory’ [rings] in the air, [is] whispered, [is] sighed. You would think they were praying to it.” By painting the agents as zombie-like beings driven by greed, Conrad makes imperialism seem unattractive, and I believe that is what makes this book relevant even today. Instead of only describing the terrible effects, it also acts as a warning.

The biggest warning is the character of Kurtz, who Marlow spends one third of the novel traveling to meet. Marlow hears rumors that Kurtz, a fellow Company man, is almost unbelievably productive, and Marlow wants to know the secret behind his success. When Marlow does finally meet Kurtz, he realizes that the success was only made possible by means of extreme violence. Conrad’s description of Kurtz as a man corrupted by greed who will even murder if necessary is actually Conrad’s reflection of the imperialistic West.

Although Heart of Darkness is not an adventure story in the traditional sense, Conrad’s grim descriptions of the repercussions of imperialism do scare you as much as a thriller would. It is understandable why this book is considered a classic: its exploration of a universal theme, displayed with excellent writing, nonetheless, is deep and intricate. If you are looking for a book to cheer you up or make you laugh, this book is not for you. However, I believe it would be healthy for everyone in our Western culture to read this book at least once, just to be reminded that exploitation does not benefit anybody in the end.


Signs of Times
Heart of Darkness easily reflects the time-period in which it was written because a large portion is autobiographical: Conrad wrote the novel based on his own six-month voyage on the Congo River. In 1890, only nine years before Heart of Darkness was first published, Conrad had to take command of a steamboat on the Congo because its captain had died. This experience provided the author with plenty of real life experience to draw inspiration from.

The Congo Free State was at that time run by the Anglo-Belgian India-Rubber Company, which had been empowered by the Belgian King Leopold II. This real life company is represented in Heart of Darkness simply as the Company, a greed-infested “trade” organization. Much of the Company’s mistreatment of natives is based on reality. Leopold II declared the Congo Free State his private property in 1892, allowing the Belgian traders to take all of the rubber they wanted without having to trade with the native Africans. This freedom led to terrible acts of violence committed by the Belgian traders, but when the rest of the West realized what was happening (thanks partly to Heart of Darkness raising awareness), the Congo Free State was taken out of the king’s private property. So, not only did Heart of Darkness reflect its times, it also helped shape them.


Connection Corner
Star Wars: A New Hope
What does the Congo have to do with outer space? Well, the first installment of the famous Star Wars movie series deals with an evil Empire that is imperializing a faraway galaxy, much like the Company in Heart of Darkness but on a larger scale. Star Wars, however, has a more hopeful aspect in the shape of a rebel group which fights back. Its protagonist, an ambitious youth named Luke Skywalker, joins this rebel force after his uncle and aunt are killed by the Empire. The story follows Luke on his journey to save a princess held captive by an influential leader of the Empire, a dark lord named Darth Vader. Once freed, the princess helps Luke and the rebel forces fight back against and defeat the Empire. The idea that imperialism is linked with greed and a hunger for power is apparent in Star Wars, just like in Heart of Darkness.Check it out here.

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Cast Away
A FedEx employee named Chuck Noland crash lands on a deserted island with nothing but the clothes on his back and a couple of unopened deliveries. He realizes he must learn how to survive by adapting to his surroundings and using the limited resources of the island. His dealing with loneliness and having to grasp onto his memories of society is much like that of Christopher Marlow in Heart of Darkness when he is traveling on the Congo. Both characters toy with losing their minds. After four years on the island, Noland decides to build a raft. After days of sailing on the open sea on his handmade raft, Noland is rescued by a ship. He returns to society to find that life has moved on without him. Check it out here.
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Lord of the Flies
This 1954 novel by William Golding explores the evil potential of human nature when disconnected from society for too long. A group of young boys find themselves on a deserted island after their plane crashes. Soon, the group is divided into boys who would rather gather food and organize shelter and boys who would rather hunt and have fun. A rivalry builds between the two groups that leads to an inevitably bloody finish. The concept of the savagery of humans is explored in Lord of the Flies, just like in Heart of Darkness. Check it out here.


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