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Literature / Heart of Darkness

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It had become so pitch dark that we listeners could hardly see one another. For a long time already he, sitting apart, had been no more to us than a voice. There was not a word from anybody. The others might have been asleep, but I was awake. I listened, I listened on the watch for the sentence, for the word, that would give me the clew to the faint uneasiness inspired by this narrative that seemed to shape itself without human lips in the heavy night-air of the river.

Heart of Darkness is a novella by Joseph Conrad, originally published as a three-part series in Blackwood's Magazine in 1899.

The book starts in the 19th century with five close friends on a boat in the Thames river just outside London, waiting for the tide to go out. As they fill the time with pleasant conversation, one of them suddenly speaks of how the very river they are on was once "one of the dark places of the earth," i.e. how the island of Great Britain was once savage, untamed, and incredibly inhospitable to outsiders. He goes on to explain how he got to know this darkness and its effect on people so incredibly well. It all started when he was just starting out as a seaman...

Charles Marlow is a seaman just hired as a ferry captain for a Belgian trading company in the Congo, after the last one was killed by the natives over a petty dispute. The objective, as laid out by his employer, is to pick up and return with the ivory harvests collected by each trading outpost along the way. As he visits the various trading posts and their leaders, he is forced to witness and try not to succumb to the savage environment, the brutal enslavement of the Africans at the hands of the settlers, and the human heart at its absolute darkest. In the center of all of this is Mr. Kurtz, a man shrouded in mystery but known by all for both being the manager of the top-earning post and for his controversial business practices.

Joseph Conrad drew on his own experience commanding a Belgian steamer on the Congo River in the early 1890s. The novella went on to inspire or serve as the base of countless other works and has long been held as the archetypal anti-colonialist novel for its harsh depictions of the exploitative "Scramble for Africa" of the late 19th century.

In 1979, the novel finally got a film adaptation in the form of the legendary Apocalypse Now. It's a loose adaptation with the story taking place in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, Kurtz as an American Colonel gone rogue, and Marlow (renamed "Willard") as the soldier in charge of taking him down, but it otherwise stays true to the novel's focus on the seemingly inherent evil present in humanity. Eleanor Coppola, the wife of Francis Ford Coppola, later made a behind-the-scenes documentary chronicling the film's infamously Troubled Production. The documentary is named, appropriately enough, Hearts of Darkness.

There have also been two Made-for-TV Movie adaptations, in 1958 (that one has its own trope page) and 1993. The latter film had Tim Roth as Marlow and John Malkovich as Kurtz. Additionally, Orson Welles began but never completed the filming of an adaptation of the novel in 1940 due to a lack of funding.

If you were looking for the totally unrelated video game, you can find it here. If you were looking for the actual videogame adaptation of this work, you're looking for Spec Ops: The Line.

The Tropes! The Tropes!:

  • Apathetic Citizens: Overlaps with Ignored Epiphany. After Marlow finishes talking about his journey to Africa, one of the listeners responds with, "We have lost the first of the ebb." One of the most common interpretations of this line is that it shows just how callous most people are to the brutality going on in Africa.
  • A-Team Firing:
    • One character describes a French attempt to quash rebellious locals. They used a warship to bombard open brush despite having no idea if anyone was hiding in it. Marlow describes them as aimlessly "firing into a continent."
    • When the crew is fighting off the natives attacking the boat, Marlow notes that they didn't hit anything, because they were aiming too high due to their firing from the hip.
  • Bald of Evil: Kurtz, the deranged colonialist with a bald head. His skull, symbolically enough, is described as ivory-like.
  • Character Filibuster: A seventy-page novella with sixty-four pages being pure, uninterrupted dialogue from Marlow. Justified though, since none of the others felt like talking at all during the gloomy evening, not even to interrupt Marlow, and might as well have been asleep. The format of the book is essentially him telling the story anyway.
  • Circles of Hell: The further up the river, and deeper into the heart of Africa that Marlow is, the darker it gets, culminating in the arrival at Kurtz's house.
  • Clothing Reflects Personality: The major people Marlow encounters as he goes upriver have worse and worse clothing to reflect the increasing divisions in European society and civility. While the Chief Accountant at the outer station wears fancy and rich clothing, Kurtz is nearly naked.
  • Composite Character: Kurtz is inspired by several Europeans who "made their mark" on the Congo. The name is a take-off of one in particular, George Antoine Klein ("kurz" is German for short; "klein" is German for small).
  • Darkest Africa: Heart of Darkness codifies and partly names it. Marlow subverts the trope by telling his audience that "this also...has been one of the dark places of the earth," referring to Britain. The ancient Romans, he says, must have regarded Britain as a "savage" land where colonists had to be "men enough to face the darkness". It was seen then (and is seen now) as an anti-colonialist book.
  • Dead Guy on Display: Kurtz has his compound fenced with the heads of African natives mounted on pikes.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The novella only has three characters that have names (Marlow, Kurtz, and a minor character called Fresleven). Others include the Narrator, the Accountant, the Manager, the Director, the Director's Uncle (the Bricklayer), the Pilot, Kurtz's Mistress, Kurtz's Intended, Marlow's Aunt, the Russian, etc.
  • Evil Colonialist: All the Belgians committing unspeakable atrocities in the Congo. Kurtz isn't that much worse than the rest.
  • Evil Cripple: Kurtz is this during his final days, he's feeble and nearly bedridden as he slowly wastes away and dies of malaria.
  • Evil Counterpart: Kurtz to Marlow.
  • Foil: Kurtz is in the story for only a short time and there's little to suggest his motivations or internal conflicts. However, his presence easily adds much more insight to Marlow's character.
  • For Science!: The attitude of the doctor who checks up on Marlow before his journey. He is a phrenologist, measuring Marlow's skull to determine his character, and to see how his skull (and thus, according to the theory, his personality) have changed.
  • Going Native: According to one reading, Kurtz possibly goes native in horrifying ways, inverting the European life he came from. In an alternate reading, while he has shed his civilized persona, he still hasn't gone native in a meaningful way. Instead, an unnatural and immoral codependent relationship has formed, where the natives worship him as a god, while he in return treats them with utter ruthlessness, much like an unloving god would.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Kurtz's reaction to the jungle and to the darkness it has revealed within himself.
  • Historical Villain Downgrade: Believe it or not, yes. What the overseers do is pretty horrific (to the point that they get compared to demons), but the atrocities of the real Congo Free State were even worse.
  • Hollywood Natives: The novel is remembered for and justly praised for its portrait of the savagery and horrors of colonialism, but for all that, it still presents a very stereotypical portrait of Africans. They are depicted throughout as savage and animalistic, in fact as part of the "heart of darkness" that destroys men like Kurtz.
  • Human Sacrifice: The "unspeakable rites" that Kurtz takes part in are implied to involve this, although Marlow isn't explicit about it.
  • Hungry Jungle: Into which the protagonist travels. The jungle is a heavy, oppressive presence that hangs over the novel like a miasma, with the sense that it is slowly eroding the sanity of the Europeans.
  • I Will Wait for You: Kurtz's fiancée. Presented as pathetic because she has deluded herself about Kurtz to the point that she's barely functional as an independent person.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: The cannibals who aid the voyage. Despite this habit, they are portrayed as sensible and reserved compared to the European crew as well as incredibly tolerant when the Company doesn't pay or even feed them. Marlow himself cannot fathom why they don't revolt and eat the crew, given they are slowly starving the entire time.
  • Infallible Narrator: Marlow remembers every single detail of his voyage, and the events before and after it, despite his story taking place over at least a few months. Of course, we have only his word for the whole story.
  • Informed Ability: Everyone who meets Kurtz can speak of him only in the most hyperbolic praise. He's a genius without equal and has a mesmerizing presence that causes people to worship and adore him (see below). However, none of this is actually demonstrated to the reader, so you just have to take their word for it. Marlow doesn't even bother trying to quote most of Kurtz's delirious ramblings in the last days of his life; he settles for summarizing them, here and there.
  • Lean and Mean: Kurtz is described as being severely emaciated, as he's slowly dying of jungle fever, and by the time we meet him, he's become a cruel "god" to the natives beneath him.
  • Meaningful Name: Subverted. Kurtz (kurz is German for "short"), is described as nearly seven feet tall. His name also makes a pun on the English word "Cursed", and on the word "curt", meaning to be terse or brief (while Kurtz himself is renowned as a great speaker who can enthrall listeners for hours).
  • The Mistress/Dark Mistress: Kurtz is seen with a native consort when Marlow arrives at the camp. While the native woman might be with him because she desires to, it is more likely that she is with him because of his position of power over the natives. She doesn't appear to be afraid or hostile towards Kurtz, however.
  • Noodle Incident: What exactly Kurtz did among the natives is only half hinted at.
    But this must have been before his — let us say — nerves, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites, which — as far as I reluctantly gathered from what I heard at various times — were offered up to him — do you understand? — to Mr. Kurtz himself.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Marlow describes both Britain and Africa as places of darkness, where the former was once seen as untamed and savage by the Romans.
  • Nothing but Skin and Bones: Kurtz, who is described as unnaturally, skeletally thin when he's finally retrieved.
  • Persecution Flip: Marlow ruminates on the colonial relationship by invoking the Roman invasion of Britain and wondering aloud how the Ancient Britons saw the colonial system from the other side. Later, he suggests a counterfactual scenario:
    The population had cleared out a long time ago. Well, if a lot of mysterious [blacks] armed with all kinds of fearful weapons suddenly took to traveling on the road between Deal and Gravesend, catching the yokels right and left to carry heavy loads for them, I fancy every farm and cottage thereabouts would get empty very soon.
  • The Power of Legacy: Marlow lies to Kurtz's fiancée when asked to recount Kurtz's last words.
  • Renaissance Man: Kurtz was a man of many talents and was very charismatic — and used these assets in a very dark way.
  • River of Insanity: Trope Codifier. Marlow goes on a steamer up the Congo River, seeing increasingly nightmarish, horrifying scenes of human depravity. The journey ends at Kurtz's station where a quite mad Kurtz is putting heads on pikes and conducting only vaguely described but apparently monstrous rites.
  • Send in the Search Team: Marlow's party is tasked with finding and checking up on Kurtz.
  • Slavery Is a Special Kind of Evil: The treatment of the African natives by the Company, which, while not actually called slavery, basically is, and it is portrayed as such. In one scene, Marlow witnesses a grove where quite a few African laborers who have gotten sick are dumped and left to die.
  • Sympathy for the Devil: Marlow can't help respecting Kurtz, even after seeing his misdeeds.
  • Title Drop: "The brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness." is one example. The "Heart of Darkness" comes up frequently, especially near the end of the book.
  • Truth in Television: As revealed by Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, King Leopold's Congo Free State really was every bit as brutal as Conrad depicted it. If anything, Conrad's vision of it might be a bit of an understatement, considering anywhere from five to ten million natives are estimated to have died in the Congo during the time period. See also Composite Character above.
  • Unable to Support a Wife: Marlow speculates that part of the reason Kurtz went to Africa was to make enough money to marry.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Although it's never stated explicitly in the novel, the framed narrative device suggests that Marlow could be lying.
  • What You Are in the Dark: A core point of the book, which examines how humans react to separation from all the controls of society.
    But the wilderness had found him out early and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude — and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core [...] his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad.
  • White Man's Burden: One of the earliest deconstructions of this.
    To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.
  • With Great Power Comes Great Insanity: Kurtz is seemingly corrupted by the power he has over locals. The people at his station appear to worship him as a god, and he's responded to this by going insane.
  • Working on the Chain Gang: At the first station he comes to, Marlow sees a group of African prisoners working as carriers, chained together at the neck.

The horror! The horror!