Heart of darkness
The Congo river is the setting for Heart of Darkness. In 1877 Belgium set up the first trading station at Kinshasa, and in 1882 the “association international du Congo” was founded. Its aim was to civilize the natives, to abolish slavery, and give them liberty of religion and trade.
Marlow, the narrator, is on the Thames, on board the Nellie, a cruising yawl. During the night he tells four friends of his adventure in the heart of Africa, in the latter part of the 19th century. He obtained a job as captain of a steamboat which would transport raw ivory from the heart of the Belgian Congo. There for the first time he heard the name of Kurtz, a company agent presented as a man of culture, who had been sent some years before to an inner station in the heart of the Congo, to get ivory for the company. Him there has been no news. It then prepares to go up the Congo to bring supplies to the internal stations and for news of Kurtz. After two months at sea, which are envisaged as a real descent into hell, Marlowe arrives in the village of Kurtz. Meet a sick man, made almost mad by years of solitude, a bloody head, feared and revered as a deity and surrounded by a scene of death. Kurtz dies on the boat shouting the horror of the experience.
The main themes of heart of darkness are:
- The hypocrisy of the aims of “a civilization” which hides only a need to justify crude imperialism. Kurtz is only the extreme expression of a general dehumanization caused by colonial exploitation.
- The condemnation of excessive power, which leads to self-aggrandisement, particularly when a man becomes the only arbiter of his actions.
- Ambiguity: Marlow see Kurtz and his actions but does not really judge him.
Kurtz is the mad product of a mad world. In this moral confusion Marlow enters into his inner self; how would he have behaved under the same conditions, in this dark country where physical and moral disintegration are the general destiny, both of exploiters and the exploited? Conrad uses many symbols in his work: darkness, both in the country and in the heart of man; fog, which distorts and obscures places and man’s capacity to see clearly; the Congo river gloomy and impervious, similar to the contorted mind of human beings.