Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a widely taught work of literature. Its use of imagery, symbols and metaphor, as well as its complex language and adventurous subject matter have allowed it to stand the test of time, having been first published in 1899. Note that this is amidst the years of the Scramble for Africa, and many regard the novella as an insight into the colonial period, perhaps even a critique. As a class, we will work with an overview of the history of the book. We will not read through the entirety; this will not be a novel study. The reason for incorporating this book is to both immerse ourselves in a story that is widely considered a classic view into the colonial period from the perspective of the colonizer, as well as thoroughly critique the work and the colonial enterprise itself (explored further in the Chinua Achebe section below).
Through Conrad’s novel, we journey with Marlow, an ivory merchant sailing into the Congo on behalf of Belgium in search of a lost colonial administrator named Kurtz, presumed insane at best, dead at worst. The two are the only characters worthy to be named. The power of listening is constantly referenced, as is the theme of darkness, harkening to both the unknown, the depth of the jungle, and the depth of human nature. We are confronted, through Marlow’s narration and Kurtz’s descent into mental and physical ruin, with the many horrors to be faced when colonizing and suppressing entire populations.
However, these horrors could simply be chalked up to being in the jungle and encountering what Conrad referred to as savages. As a class, we will have to ask many questions of the text which include: Does Conrad condemn colonization, sensationalize it, or somewhere in between?