The Hidden Man: Heart of Darkness, its context and aftermath

  • Peter Knox-Shaw


Placed between Youth and The End of the Tether in a volume which Conrad once described as a rendering of the ‘three ages of man’, Heart of Darkness resolves, when scanned, into a composite image of lost innocence.1 A central evil looms against a range of human hopes and draws depth from the relief. There is the dimming of Kurtz’s original idealism, guyed at the central station and reflected at the end in the pale purity of the Intended. There is the clouded naïveté of the ‘Harlequin’ whose round eyes have grown used to horror; and there are, though of differing sincerity, the pious pretences of the Aunt and of the Company which the narrative bluntly punctures. For Marlow the trip up the Congo marks no less than life’s ‘culminating point’ (p. 51), and what brings his crisis to a head is the recognition of a truth which passes relatively undisguised in the remote setting until it emerges plainly in Kurtz. The grim disclosures that await Marlow at the continent’s centre acquire a universal status, and the journey into the interior takes on, in consequence, the character of a psychological progress. That the journey carries the further implication of a return to a primordial past shows that Conrad is intent, once again, on impressing the view, current among many writers in the thrall of evolutionary theory, that man is irrecoverably shaped by his origins, flawed by a darkness welling from his heart.


Human Sacrifice Terra Incognita Collective Mind Travel Writing Firework Display 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Joseph Conrad: Life and Letters, edited by G. Jean-Aubry (London, 1927) II, 338. In a letter to F. N. Doubleday Conrad stresses the aesthetic unity of the volume. All references to Conrad are to Dent’s Uniform Edition (London, 1923–8) which has the same pagination as later Dent editions.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea (1819, first English translation 1883) translated by R. B. Haldane and J. Kemp, fourth edition (London, 1896). Of particular relevance here is the Fourth Book, ‘The Assertion and Denial of the Will’. In a short memoir on Conrad written in 1924 John Galsworthy recalls: ‘Of philosophy he had read a good deal … Schopenhauer used to give him satisfaction twenty years and more ago’. Castles in Spain (London, 1927) p. 91. See also C. T. Watt’s introduction to Joseph Conrad’s Letters to R. B. Cunninghame Graham, p. 25.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Joseph Conrad’s Letters to R. B. Cunninghame Graham, edited by C. T. Watts (Cambridge, 1969) p. 70. For a comparable passage in The World as Will and Idea see I, 400–1.Google Scholar
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    Edward Garnett, Letters from Conrad, 1895–1924 (London, 1928) xii.Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    Youth, p. 33. In ‘Geography and Some Explorers’ (1924) Conrad recalls that Sir Leopold McClintock’s account of the recovery expedition, The Voyage of the Fox (1859), was among the favourite books of his childhood. The expedition was funded by Franklin’s widow and Sir Leopold breathes no word of cannibalism, referring only to the depredations of ‘large and powerful animals’, (London, 1908) p. 223. Conrad refers in his essay, however, to the gradual revelations of the crew’s fate in this ‘darkest’ of dramas, Last Essays, pp. 10–11. The revelations actually predate McClintock, see John Rae, The Melancholy Fate of Sir John Franklin and his Party (London, 1854).Google Scholar
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    H. M. Stanley, Through the Dark Continent (1878; London, 1907) p. 449.Google Scholar
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  8. 16.
    Schweinfurth, The Heart of Africa, translated by Ellen Frewer (London, 1873) I, 13–15. Appalled by his first view of colonial exploitation on a gypsum mine at Gimsah, the explorer compares the workers to ‘beasts … caged in hopeless imprisonment’ and equates fumes of sulphur rising from the site with the fires of hell. The passage is comparable in many respects to Marlow’s description of the company station with its grove of death.Google Scholar
  9. 17.
    H. M. Stanley, In Darkest Africa (London, 1890). Barttelot, a possible model for Kurtz (see Ian Watt, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, pp. 142–3) seems not to have heeded the lecture on forbearance (I, 124–6), if it was ever given, for his death was caused by a fit of pique (I, 490), and rumours of his excesses were rife at the rear camp (I, 483). Some of Stanley’s descriptive passages are remarkably close to Conrad’s: see, for example, In Darkest Africa, II, 80–1, 75–6; I, 195, 268. For sea and beast similes in Heart of Darkness see pp. 86, 92, 156; 96, 105. Compare also the passages from Almayer’s Folly (1895) and In Darkest Africa (1890) already quoted on pp. 122, 14.Google Scholar
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    See Christopher Hibbert, Africa Explored: Europeans in the Dark Continent 1769–1889 (London, 1982) pp. 279, 203; and Burton’s First Footsteps, I, 28.Google Scholar
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    Mungo Park, Travels in the Interior of Africa (1799) edited by Ronald Miller (London, 1954) pp. 249, 18, 265.Google Scholar
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    The Last Journals of David Livingstone, edited by Horace Waller (London, 1874) II, 92. The passage concerned is pieced together from the testimony of Chuma and Susi.Google Scholar
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    Quoted by S. J. S. Cookey in Britain and the Congo Question 1885–1913 (London, 1968) p. 76. Casement made this comment in 1903.Google Scholar
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    The climactic scene in which Alan McKenzie makes his honourable lie reverberates with Conradian echoes. See Somerset Maugham, The Explorer, Collected Edition (London, 1967) pp. 152–6.Google Scholar
  34. 73.
    E. M. Forster, A Passage to India (Harmondsworth, 1957) pp. 123, 125; but see the whole of Chapter 12. In Moby Dick Melville describes the sea as ‘an everlasting terra incognita’ (p. 362).Google Scholar
  35. 74.
    D. H. Lawrence, Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (1921), Adelphi Library (London, 1931) pp. 13–16, 14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    For the reference to Jung see Fritz Wittels, Sigmund Freud: his Personality, his Teaching and his School, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul (New York, 1924) p. 182. For Freud’s theory see, for example, Totem and Taboo, translated by James Strachey (London, 1950) pp. 88–90.Google Scholar
  37. 76.
    For the quotation from Marx and a discussion of his relation to Darwin see Gillian Beer, Darwin’s Plots (London, 1983) pp. 57–8.Google Scholar
  38. 77.
    To Edward Garnett, 5 June 1914. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, II, edited by G.J. Zytaruk and J. T. Boulton (Cambridge, 1981) pp. 182–4.Google Scholar
  39. In the preface to Miss Julia Strindberg relates a very similar notion of fluid identity to evolutionary theory. See August Strindberg, Eight Famous Plays, translated by Edwin B̈jorkman (London, 1968) pp. 106–7.Google Scholar
  40. 79.
    Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (London, 1977) pp. 99, 84.Google Scholar
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    James Joyce, Ulysses (London, 1960) pp. 272–4.Google Scholar
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    D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (London, 1926) pp. 445–50, and p. 190. I am indebted to Sue McClintock for pointing out this last quotation.Google Scholar

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© Peter Knox-Shaw 1986

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  • Peter Knox-Shaw

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