There are certain books that even if you’ve never read you’ll have heard about. They’ll be brought up as some of the ‘greatest books ever written’, studied in schools and higher education, they’ll inspire adaptations, and they often go on to last forever. Heart of Darkness is one of these books. It’s a book that I’d heard of many times in my life, but it wasn’t until just a year ago that I ever actually picked up a copy.
This short novella, barely more than a hundred pages in many editions, was first released in three parts in Blackwood’s Magazine across 1899, and it wasn’t util three years later that it would finally be published in novel form. To celebrate the 120th anniversary of this hugely influential and well known novel, I decided to take a look at it.
Partly inspired by the life of author Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness tells the story of Charles Marlow, who narrates a story about how as a younger man he travelled to Africa to discover some of the ‘blank spaces’ on the map. In his flashbacks, Marlow travels to Africa and gets work as part of a Belgian trading company who are colonising the area. After several incidents, Marlow is eventually put in charge of a steamer ship and tasked with sailing it up river to find one of the company’s camps, run by a man named Kurtz.
There have been rumours of terrible things happening in the area, of people becoming ill, and Marlow is tasked with finding Kurtz and bringing him back. During the journey the steam ship is attacked, shot with arrows out of the early morning fog, and members of the crew are injured and killed. When Marlow comes across a wandering Russian man he learns some troubling news: that Kurtz has apparently gone mad, and is being worshipped by the native people. Arriving at the camp these suspicions seem to be proven when they find severed heads on stakes, and Kurtz seems to command the natives like a small army.
Eventually Marlow is able to get Kurtz onto his ship and begins the journey back, bringing the sick Kurtz with him. Along the way Kurtz’ health worsens. Kurtz provided Marlow with secret documents that he begs to be kept out of the hands of the trading company managers, before dying of his sickness. Upon returning, Marlow sends the papers to the press.
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Despite how popular a story Heart of Darkness is today, the book wasn’t a success within Conrad’s life, and when it was first published in 1902 it received little attention from critics at the time. According to some literary historians, even Conrad himself thought little of the book. However, despite this, the book began to find more and more of an audience as the years went by, with people gravitating towards its heavy use of metaphor and symbolism in order to leave a sense of mystery; as well as its commentary on colonialism in Africa.
By the 1970s, Heart of Darkness became a popular text for study in senior schools and universities, and has sparked a number of debates over the years. One of the areas in which the book has been discussed a lot, and is even often criticised is in postcolonial studies. Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe gave a lecture at the University of Massachusetts in 1975 titled ‘An Image of Africa’, in which he condemned the racism of the novel and stated that whilst Conrad wasn’t responsible for the xenophobic image of Africa in the novel, it does continue to perpetuate the damaging stereotypes. The essay sparked a great deal of debate around the book, and is still a huge touchstone to this day when discussing the merits of the text, and the racist elements within it.
Heart of Darkness isn’t just a popular feature in the classroom and lecture halls though, and has been adapted a number of times over the decades since it was published. One of the first adaptations was a radio drama written by and starring Orson Welles, who changed the story to focus on the rise of a fascist dictator. The story also appeared on film, with its first adaptation for the screen being the television play Heart of Darkness (Playhouse 90), produced by CBS as part of an anthology television series of filmed plays. This version saw screen legend Boris Karloff in the role of Kurtz.
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The story would also inspire a number of loose adaptations too, stories that didn’t directly recreate the source material, but instead used it as an influence. It was used in video games a number of times, with it being a heavy inspiration for Far Cry 2, which was set in Africa and saw the player trying to stop an arms dealer, and featured a final area called ‘The Heart of Darkness’. The much acclaimed game Spec Ops: The Line also borrowed heavily from the book, and featured the character John Konrad in a role much like Kurtz. Perhaps the most well known story inspired by Heart of Darkness however, is Apocalypse Now. The 1979 film shifted the setting from Africa to the Vietnam War, but still kept much of the central plot ideas, and themes, and had Marlon Brando in the role of a Colonel Kurtz.
Heart of Darkness is not an easy book, despite its short length. It can be a hard read at times, and it’s easy to see why some people have come to dislike it over the years. Whatever you think of it though, it has clearly become one of the best received, more important works of fiction in many, many years. The story has lasted for a hundred and twenty years so far, and it’s anyone’s guess how many more decades it will remain relevant and popular.