Heart of Darkness originally appeared serially in Blackwood's Magazine in 1899. It was eventually published as a whole in 1902, as the third work in a volume Conrad titled Youth. Since its publication in Youth, the novel has fascinated numerous readers and critics, almost all of whom regarded the novel as an important one because of the ways it uses ambiguity and (in Conrad's own words), "foggishness" to dramatize Marlow's perceptions of the horrors he encounters. Critics have regarded Heart of Darkness as a work that in several important ways broke many narrative conventions and brought the English novel into the twentieth century.
Notable exceptions who didn't receive the novel well were the British novelist E. M. Forster, who disparaged the very ambiguities that other critics found so interesting, and the African novelist Chinua Achebe, who derided the novel and Conrad as examples of European racism.
Conrad voyaged to the Congo in 1890, when he sailed a steamboat up the Congo River just as Marlow does in the novel. As Conrad writes of the novel in his 1917 Introduction, "Heart of Darkness . . . is experience pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the case." Numerous biographical facts find their way into the novel. For example, like Marlow, Conrad had always longed to "follow the sea," the wife of a distant relative (like Marlow's aunt) helped him secure a job with a trading company, the captain who preceded him had been killed by natives in a quarrel (like Fresleven in the novel), and Conrad encountered several men who showed barbaric tendencies similar to the ones exhibited by Kurtz.
What makes Heart of Darkness more than an interesting travelogue and shocking account of horrors is the way that it details — in subtle ways — Marlow's gradual understanding of what is happening in this far-off region of the world. Like many Europeans — including his creator — Marlow longed for adventure and devoured accounts such as those offered by Stanley. But once he arrives in the Congo and sees the terrible "work" (as he ironically calls it) taking place, he can no longer hide under the cover of his comfortable civilization. Instead, all the horrors perpetrated by European traders and agents — typified by Kurtz — force him to look into his own soul and find what darkness lies there. In the first half of the novel, Marlow states, "The essentials of this affair lay deep under the surface, beyond my reach" — but by the end of his journey, he will have peeked beneath "the surface" and discovered the inhumanity of which even men such as the once-upstanding Kurtz are capable.
The end of the nineteenth-century brought about one of the most notable examples of imperialism and genocide in modern memory. King Leopold II of Belgium (ruled 1865-1909) possessed an insatiable greed for money, land, and power — and looked to Africa to find them. Like many other Europeans, he was intrigued by reports of Africa made by the famed explorer Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904), whose books How I Found Livingstone: Adventures and Discoveries in Central Africa (1872) and Through the Dark Continent (1878) were best-selling accounts of his travels. Through a series of machinations and a deluge of propaganda proclaiming his munificence, Leopold eventually secured the Congo region of Africa as a Belgian colony. On May 20, 1885, Leopold named his new nation the État Independent du Congo, or The Congo Free State. This huge area of Africa remained under Belgium control until 1960.
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