Joseph Conrad penned Heart of Darkness in late 1890s after his journey to Congo in the earlier part of the decade. After making its debut in Blackwood’s magazine in 1899, his book was published as a novella in 1902. Conrad’s story takes place some time during late 1800s in London, Brussels, but mostly in Congo (which, at the time, was under the control of Belgium).
The main social issue in Heart of Darkness deals with abandoning European morals when faced with the power of colonialism. The two main characters, Kurtz and Marlow – once noble men – both face this challenge. Thus, the main theme in the novella can be defined as absurdly hypocritical practices of imperialism, with motifs such as ironic understatements, inability to accurately word things due to their horribleness, and, of course, darkness.
No word described Conrad’s tone in Heart of Darkness better than contradictory; while Marlow is terrified by the imperialistic harshness of life in Congo, he says that any man who gave the idea of working for the Company some thought would succumb to similar behavior. At the same time, Marlow’s reaction to Kurtz’s degeneration is horror. What once seemed like a legit job opportunity turned out to be an ironic understatement – perhaps, even, a completely inaccurate viewpoint on behalf of his aunt who signed him up for the job with the Company. As such, no words could describe what Marlow has gotten himself into.
Conrad’s style is indicative of Marlow’s discovery of darkness. He conveys the issue of corruption in colonial lands through symbols, such as: fog, darkness, rivers, severed heads pierced through fence posts, and abuse of women. The former three are used to foreshadow an unpleasant ending, and are used all throughout the novel. The latter two more particularly highlight the unpleasant events that unwrap on Marlow’s journey – his noticing of the brutal treatment of deceased slaves, and of Kurtz’s relationship with his mistress.
Using varied diction, Conrad distinguishes characters. The Europeans spoke with meaning, the way regular people would (ex, “It was unearthly, and the men were – No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it – the suspicion of their not being inhuman”). The Africans spoke in simple phrases, and sounded uneducated (ex, “Mistah Kurtz, he dead – a penny for the old guy”). This added an element of realism to Heart of Darkness, thus supporting the social issue addressed in the novella. Great use of vivid imagery on Conrad’s behalf allowed Marlow’s narration to accurately foreshadow the dark, threatening events that are soon to unroll.