original name Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski
born Dec. 3, 1857, Berdichev, Ukraine, Russian Empire [now Berdychiv,
died Aug. 3, 1924, Canterbury, Kent, Eng.
English novelist and short-story writer of Polish descent, whose works
include the novels Lord Jim (1900), Nostromo (1904), and The Secret
Agent (1907) and the short story “Heart of Darkness” (1902). During his
lifetime Conrad was admired for the richness of his prose and his
renderings of dangerous life at sea and in exotic places. But his
initial reputation as a masterful teller of colourful adventures of the
sea masked his fascination with the individual when faced with nature’s
invariable unconcern, man’s frequent malevolence, and his inner battles
with good and evil. To Conrad, the sea meant above all the tragedy of
loneliness. A writer of complex skill and striking insight, but above
all of an intensely personal vision, he has been increasingly regarded
as one of the greatest English novelists.
Conrad’s father, Apollo Nalęcz Korzeniowski, a poet and an ardent
Polish patriot, was one of the organizers of the committee that went on
in 1863 to direct the Polish insurrection against Russian rule. He was
arrested in late 1861 and was sent into exile at Vologda in northern
Russia. His wife and four-year-old son followed him there, and the harsh
climate hastened his wife’s death from tuberculosis in 1865. In A
Personal Record Conrad relates that his first introduction to the
English language was at the age of eight, when his father was
translating the works of Shakespeare and Victor Hugo in order to support
the household. In those solitary years with his father he read the works
of Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Dickens, and William
Makepeace Thackeray in Polish and French. Apollo was ill with
tuberculosis and died in Cracow in 1869. Responsibility for the boy was
assumed by his maternal uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski, a lawyer, who provided
his nephew with advice, admonition, financial help, and love. He sent
Conrad to school at Cracow and then to Switzerland, but the boy was
bored by school and yearned to go to sea. In 1874 Conrad left for
Marseille with the intention of going to sea.
Bobrowski made him an allowance of 2,000 francs a year and put him in
touch with a merchant named Delestang, in whose ships Conrad sailed in
the French merchant service. His first voyage, on the Mont-Blanc to
Martinique, was as a passenger; on her next voyage he sailed as an
apprentice. In July 1876 he again sailed to the West Indies, as a
steward on the Saint-Antoine. On this voyage Conrad seems to have taken
part in some unlawful enterprise, probably gunrunning, and to have
sailed along the coast of Venezuela, memories of which were to find a
place in Nostromo. The first mate of the vessel, a Corsican named
Dominic Cervoni, was the model for the hero of that novel and was to
play a picturesque role in Conrad’s life and work.
Conrad became heavily enmeshed in debt upon returning to Marseille
and apparently unsuccessfully attempted to commit suicide. As a sailor
in the French merchant navy he was liable to conscription when he came
of age, so after his recovery he signed on in April 1878 as a deckhand
on a British freighter bound for Constantinople with a cargo of coal.
After the return journey his ship landed him at Lowestoft, Eng., in June
1878. It was Conrad’s first English landfall, and he spoke only a few
words of the language of which he was to become a recognized master.
Conrad remained in England, and in the following October he shipped as
an ordinary seaman aboard a wool clipper on the London–Sydney run.
Conrad was to serve 16 years in the British merchant navy. In June
1880 he passed his examination as second mate, and in April 1881 he
joined the Palestine, a bark of 425 tons. This move proved to be an
important event in his life; it took him to the Far East for the first
time, and it was also a continuously troubled voyage, which provided him
with literary material that he would use later. Beset by gales,
accidentally rammed by a steamer, and deserted by a sizable portion of
her crew, the Palestine nevertheless had made it as far as the East
Indies when her cargo of coal caught fire and the crew had to take to
the lifeboats; Conrad’s initial landing in the East, on an island off
Sumatra, took place only after a 13 1/2-hour voyage in an open boat. In
1898 Conrad published his account of his experiences on the Palestine,
with only slight alterations, as the short story “Youth,” a remarkable
tale of a young officer’s first command.
He returned to London by passenger steamer, and in September 1883 he
shipped as mate on the Riversdale, leaving her at Madras to join the
Narcissus at Bombay. This voyage gave him material for his novel The
Nigger of the “Narcissus,” the story of an egocentric black sailor’s
deterioration and death aboard ship. At about this time Conrad began
writing his earliest known letters in the English language. In between
subsequent voyages Conrad studied for his first mate’s certificate, and
in 1886 two notable events occurred: he became a British subject in
August, and three months later he obtained his master mariner’s
In February 1887 he sailed as first mate on the Highland Forest,
bound for Semarang, Java. Her captain was John McWhirr, whom he later
immortalized under the same name as the heroic, unimaginative captain of
the steamer Nan Shan in Typhoon. He then joined the Vidar, a locally
owned steamship trading among the islands of the southeast Asian
archipelago. During the five or six voyages he made in four and a half
months, Conrad was discovering and exploring the world he was to
re-create in his first novels, Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the
Islands, and Lord Jim, as well as several short stories.
After leaving the Vidar Conrad unexpectedly obtained his first
command, on the Otago, sailing from Bangkok, an experience out of which
he was to make his stories “The Shadow-Line” and “Falk.” He took over
the Otago in unpropitious circumstances. The captain Conrad replaced had
died at sea, and by the time the ship reached Singapore, a voyage of 800
miles (1,300 km) that took three weeks because of lack of wind, the
whole ship’s company, except Conrad and the cook, was down with fever.
Conrad then discovered to his dismay that his predecessor had sold
almost all the ship’s supply of quinine.
Back in London in the summer of 1889, Conrad took rooms near the
Thames and, while waiting for a command, began to write Almayer’s Folly.
The task was interrupted by the strangest and probably the most
important of his adventures. As a child in Poland, he had stuck his
finger on the centre of the map of Africa and said, “When I grow up I
shall go there.” In 1889 the Congo Free State was four years old as a
political entity and already notorious as a sphere of imperialistic
exploitation. Conrad’s childhood dream took positive shape in the
ambition to command a Congo River steamboat. Using what influence he
could, he went to Brussels and secured an appointment. What he saw, did,
and felt in the Congo are largely recorded in “Heart of Darkness,” his
most famous, finest, and most enigmatic story, the title of which
signifies not only the heart of Africa, the dark continent, but also the
heart of evil—everything that is corrupt, nihilistic, malign—and perhaps
the heart of man. The story is central to Conrad’s work and vision, and
it is difficult not to think of his Congo experiences as traumatic. He
may have exaggerated when he said, “Before the Congo I was a mere
animal,” but in a real sense the dying Kurtz’s cry, “The horror! The
horror!” was Conrad’s. He suffered psychological, spiritual, even
metaphysical shock in the Congo, and his physical health was also
damaged; for the rest of his life, he was racked by recurrent fever and
Conrad was in the Congo for four months, returning to England in
January 1891. He made several more voyages as a first mate, but by 1894,
when his guardian Tadeusz Bobrowski died, his sea life was over. In the
spring of 1894 Conrad sent Almayer’s Folly to the London publisher
Fisher Unwin, and the book was published in April 1895. It was as the
author of this novel that Conrad adopted the name by which he is known:
he had learned from long experience that the name Korzeniowski was
impossible on British lips.
Unwin’s manuscript reader, the critic Edward Garnett, urged Conrad to
begin a second novel, and so Almayer’s Folly was followed in 1896 by An
Outcast of the Islands, which repeats the theme of a foolish and blindly
superficial character meeting the tragic consequences of his own
failings in a tropical region far from the company of his fellow
Europeans. These two novels provoked a misunderstanding of Conrad’s
talents and purpose which dogged him the rest of his life. Set in the
Malayan archipelago, they caused him to be labeled a writer of exotic
tales, a reputation which a series of novels and short stories about the
sea—The Nigger of the “Narcissus” (1897), Lord Jim (1900), Youth (1902),
Typhoon (1902), and others—seemed only to confirm. But words of his own
about the “Narcissus” give the real reason for his choice of settings:
“the problem . . . is not a problem of the sea, it is merely a problem
that has risen on board a ship where the conditions of complete
isolation from all land entanglements make it stand out with a
particular force and colouring.” This is equally true of his other
works; the latter part of Lord Jim takes place in a jungle village not
because the emotional and moral problems that interest Conrad are those
peculiar to jungle villages, but because there Jim’s feelings of guilt,
responsibility, and insecurity—feelings common to mankind—work
themselves out with a logic and inevitability that are enforced by his
isolation. It is this purpose, rather than a taste for the outlandish,
that distinguishes Conrad’s work from that of many novelists of the 19th
and early 20th centuries. They, for the most part, were concerned to
widen the scope of the novel, to act, in Balzac’s phrase, as the natural
historians of society; Conrad instead aimed at the isolation and
concentration of tragedy.
In 1895 Conrad married the 22-year-old Jessie George, by whom he had
two sons. He thereafter resided mainly in the southeast corner of
England, where his life as an author was plagued by poor health, near
poverty, and difficulties of temperament. It was not until 1910, after
he had written what are now considered his finest novels—Lord Jim
(1900), Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907), and Under Western Eyes
(1911), the last being three novels of political intrigue and
romance—that his financial situation became relatively secure. He was
awarded a Civil List pension of £100, and the American collector John
Quinn began to buy his manuscripts—for what now seem ludicrously low
prices. His novel Chance was successfully serialized in the New York
Herald in 1912, and his novel Victory, published in 1915, was no less
successful. Though hampered by rheumatism, Conrad continued to write for
the remaining years of his life. In April 1924 he refused an offer of
knighthood from Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, and he died shortly
In his own time Conrad was praised for his power to depict life at
sea and in the tropics and for his works’ qualities of “romance”—a word
used basically to denote his power of using an elaborate prose style to
cast a film of illusory splendour over somewhat sordid events. His
reputation diminished after his death, and a revival of interest in his
work later directed attention to different qualities and to different
books than his contemporaries had emphasized.
An account of the themes of some of these books should indicate where
modern critics lay emphasis. Nostromo (1904), a story of revolution,
politics, and financial manipulation in a South American republic,
centres, for all its close-packed incidents, upon one idea—the
corruption of the characters by the ambitions that they set before
themselves, ambitions concerned with silver, which forms the republic’s
wealth and which is the central symbol around which the novel is
organized. The ambitions range from simple greed to idealistic desires
for reform and justice. All lead to moral disaster, and the nobler the
ambition the greater its possessor’s self-disgust as he realizes his
“Heart of Darkness,” which follows closely the actual events of
Conrad’s Congo journey, tells of the narrator’s fascination by a
mysterious white man, Kurtz, who, by his eloquence and hypnotic
personality, dominates the brutal tribesmen around him. Full of contempt
for the greedy traders who exploit the natives, the narrator cannot deny
the power of this figure of evil who calls forth from him something
approaching reluctant loyalty. The Secret Agent (1907), a sustained
essay in the ironic and one of Conrad’s finest works, deals with the
equivocal world of anarchists, police, politicians, and agents
provocateurs in London. Victory describes the unsuccessful attempts of a
detached, nihilistic observer of life to protect himself and his hapless
female companion from the murderous machinations of a trio of rogues on
an isolated island.
Conrad’s view of life is indeed deeply pessimistic. In every idealism
are the seeds of corruption, and the most honourable men find their
unquestioned standards totally inadequate to defend themselves against
the assaults of evil. It is significant that Conrad repeats again and
again situations in which such men are obliged to admit emotional
kinship with those whom they have expected only to despise. This
well-nigh despairing vision gains much of its force from the feeling
that Conrad accepted it reluctantly, rather than with morbid enjoyment.
Conrad’s influence on later novelists has been profound both because
of his masterly technical innovations and because of the vision of
humanity expressed through them. He is the novelist of man in extreme
situations. “Those who read me,” he wrote in his preface to A Personal
Record, “know my conviction that the world, the temporal world, rests on
a few very simple ideas; so simple that they must be as old as the
hills. It rests, notably, among others, on the idea of Fidelity.” For
Conrad fidelity is the barrier man erects against nothingness, against
corruption, against the evil that is all about him, insidious, waiting
to engulf him, and that in some sense is within him unacknowledged. But
what happens when fidelity is submerged, the barrier broken down, and
the evil without is acknowledged by the evil within? At his greatest,
that is Conrad’s theme. Feminist and postcolonialist readings of
Modernist works have focused on Conrad and have confirmed his centrality
to Modernism and to the general understanding of it.
Based on an actual maritime scandal, Lord Jim tells how Jim
himself, a handsome young mate in a steamship carrying pilgrims,
is disgraced by deserting the vessel when he thinks that it is
about to sink. Later, he endeavors to start a new life among a
remote Malay community in Sumatra, and for a while enjoys
well-earned glory as "Lord" Jim. Eventually, however, disaster
ambushes both Jim and hiscommunity.
This novel resembles a boys' adventure story: a dashing British
hero, perils at sea, exotic travels, leadership of a community
in the tropics, a beautiful female companion, warfare, and (for
a time) victory. Charles Marlow is the sophisticated
intermediate narrator who offers philosophical and psychological
reflections on Jim's nature as well as his general
significance.Combining a sophisticated philosophical awareness
with vivid descriptions, the novel is a probing assessment of
the significance of human life. With the adventurous subject
matter, Conrad recalled nineteenth-century master Stevenson,
while his kaleidoscopic analytical techniques anticipated
modernism and even postmodernism. Variously affirmative and
skeptical, he was "ahead of his time" in his love of ambiguity
and paradox. Lord Jim influenced Scott Fitzgerald, Orson Welles,
and Albert Cam us; it remains cogent today.
Heart of Darkness
Based on Joseph Conrad's own venture into Africa in 1890, Heart
of Darkness is the best of his shorter novels and is the most
brilliant of all his works. Eloquent, audacious, experimental,
recessive, satiric, yet deeply humane, since its serialization
in 1899 it has continued to provoke controversy and reward
analysis. Charles Marlow, one of Conrad's "transtextual"
characters (for he appears also in Youth, Lord Jim, and Chance),
tells a group of British friends about his journey into a part
of central Africa identifiable as the "Congo Free State," which
was then the private property of Leopold II, King of the
Belgians. Marlow recalls the absurdities and atrocities which he
witnessed: a French warship shelling the continent, the cruel
treatment of enslaved black laborers, and the remorseless
rapacity of the white colonialists who are impelled by the
desire for profits from ivory. He looks forward to meeting Mr.
Kurtz, the greatly talented and idealistic European trader; but,
when he reaches the dying adventurer, he finds that the idealist
has become deranged and depraved. Virtually a savage god, Kurtz
sums up his view of Africans in the phrase "Exterminate all the
brutes!" The "heart of darkness," we learn, is not simply the
jungle at the center of the "Dark Continent"; it is also the
corrupt heart of Kurtz, and it may even be European imperialism
itself." All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz," and
London is depicted as the center of brooding gloom. Written when
imperialism was "politically correct" this brilliantly
anti-imperialist and largely anti-racist work shows Conrad at
the peak of his powers as a challenging innovator in ideas and
techniques. Heart of Darkness has proved immensely influential,
and numerous adaptations include the movie Apocalypse Now.
HEART OF DARKNESS
Type of work: Novella
Author: Joseph Conrad (Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski,
Type of plot: Symbolic romance
Time of plot: Late nineteenth century
Locale: The Belgian Congo
First published: 1902
Both an adventure story and the account of a philosophical and
moral quest, this tale takes the reader on a symbolic journey into the
blackness central to the heart and soul of man. A vagueness at its core
has detracted little from the story's power and continued popularity.
Marlow, the narrator and impartial observer of the action, who becomes
the central figure when the story is interpreted psychologically. He
makes a trip into the center of Africa which becomes, symbolically, a
journey toward the essential meaning of life. After talking with Kurtz,
with whom he identifies himself, he is able to see deeply into his own
Mr. Kurtz, manager of an inland trading station in the Belgian Congo.
After having arrived in the Congo with high ideals and a self-imposed
mission to civilize the natives, he is instead converted by them to
savagery. His awareness of his downfall and his conviction that evil is
at the heart of everything is revealed in a long talk which he has with
The District Manager, an avowed enemy of Mr. Kurtz. His only interest is
in collecting as much ivory as possible, and he is totally unaware of
the central darkness.
A Russian Traveler, an admirer and disciple of Mr. Kurtz, but one who
thought Kurtz lived before his time.
Kurtz's Fiancee, whom Marlow allows to retain her belief in Kurtz's
goodness and power.
A group of men were sitting on the deck of the cruising yawl, The
Nellie, anchored one calm evening in the Thames estuary. One of the
seamen, Marlow, began reflecting that the Thames area had been, at the
time of the invading Romans, one of the dark and barbarous areas of the
earth. Dwelling on this theme, he then began to tell a story of the
blackest, most barbarous area of the earth that he had experienced.
Through his aunt's connections, Marlow had once secured a billet as
commander of a river steamer for one of the trading companies with
interests in the Belgian Congo. When he went to Belgium to learn more
about the job, he found that few of the officials of the company
expected him to return alive. In Brussels, he also heard of the
distinguished Mr. Kurtz, the powerful and intelligent man who was
educating the natives and at the same time sending back record shipments
The mysterious figure of Mr. Kurtz fascinated Marlow. In spite of the
ominous hints that he gathered from various company officials, he became
more and more curious about what awaited him in the Congo. During his
journey, as he passed along the African coast, he reflected that the
wilderness and the unknown seemed to seep right out to the sea. Many of
the trading posts and stations the ship passed were dilapidated and
looked barbaric. Finally, Marlow arrived at the seat of the government
at the mouth of the river. Again, he heard of the great distinction and
power of Mr. Kurtz who had an enormous reputation because of his plans
to enlighten the natives and his success in gaining their confidence.
Marlow also saw natives working in the hot sun until they collapsed and
died. Marlow had to wait impatiently for ten days at the government site
because his work would not begin until he reached the district manager's
station, two hundred miles up the river. At last, the expedition left
for the district station.
Marlow arrived at the district station to find that the river steamer
had sunk a few days earlier. He met the district manager, a man whose
only ability seemed to be the ability to survive. The district manager,
unconcerned with the fate of the natives, was interested only in getting
out of the country; he felt that Mr. Kurtz's new methods were ruining
the whole district. The district manager also reported that he had not
heard from Kurtz for quite some time but had received disquieting rumors
about his failing health.
Although he was handicapped by a lack of rivets, Marlow spent months
supervising repairs to the antiquated river steamer. He also overheard a
conversation which revealed that the district manager was Kurtz's
implacable enemy, who hoped that the climate would do away with his
The steamer was finally ready for use, and Mariow, along with the
district manager, sailed to visit Kurtz at the inner station far up the
river. The journey was difficult and perilous; the water was shallow;
there were frequent fogs. Just as they arrived within a few miles of
Kurtz's station, natives attacked the vessel with spears and arrows.
Marlow's helmsman, a faithful native, was killed by a long spear when he
learned from his window to fire at the savages. Marlow finally blew the
steamboat whistle, and the sound frightened the natives away. The
district manager was sure that Kurtz had lost control over the blacks.
When they docked, they met an enthusiastic Russian traveler who told
them that Kurtz was gravely ill.
While the district manager visited Kurtz, the Russian told Marlow that
the sick man had become corrupted by the very natives he had hoped to
enlighten. He still had power over the natives, but instead of his
changing them, they had debased him into an atavistic savage. Kurtz
attended native rituals, had killed frequently in order to get ivory,
and had hung heads as decorations outside his hut. Later Marlow met
Kurtz and found that the man had, indeed, been corrupted by the evil at
the center of experience. Marlow learned from the Russian that Kurtz had
ordered the natives to attack the steamer, thinking that, if they did
so, the white men would run away and leave Kurtz to die among his fellow
savages in the wilderness. Talking to Marlow, Kurtz showed his awareness
of how uncivilized he had become and how his plans to educate the
natives had been reversed. He gave Marlow a packet of letters for his
fiancee in Belgium and the manuscript of an article, written sometime
earlier, in which he urged efforts to educate the natives.
The district manager and Marlow took Kurtz, now on a stretcher, to the
river steamer to take him back home. The district manager contended that
the area was now ruined for collecting ivory. Full of despair and the
realization that devouring evil was at the heart of everything, Kurtz
died while the steamer was temporarily stopped for repairs.
Marlow returned to civilization. About a year later, he went to Belgium
to see Kurtz's fiancee. She still thought of Kurtz as the splendid and
powerful man who had gone to Africa with a mission, and she still
believed in his goodness and power. When she asked Marlow what Kurtz's
last words had been, Marlow lied and told her that Kurtz had asked for
her at the end. In reality, Kurtz, who had seen all experience, had in
his final words testified to the horror of it all. This horror was not
something, Marlow felt, that civilized ladies could, or should,
In one sense, Heart of Darkness is a compelling adventure tale of a
journey into the blackest heart of the Belgian Congo. The story presents
attacks by the natives, descriptions of the jungle and the river, and
characterizations of white men who, sometimes with ideals and sometimes
simply for profit, invade the jungles to bring out ivory. The journey
into the heart of the Congo, however, is also a symbolic journey into
the blackness central to the heart and soul of man, a journey deep into
primeval passion, superstition, and lust. Those who, like the district
manager, undertake this journey simply to rob the natives of ivory,
without any awareness of the importance of the central darkness, can
survive. Similarly, Marlow, who is only an observer, never centrally
involved, can survive to tell the tale; but those who, like Kurtz, are
aware of the darkness, who hope with conscious intelligence and a humane
concern for all mankind to bring light into the darkness, are doomed,
are themselves swallowed up by the darkness and evil they had hoped to
penetrate. Conrad manages to make his point, a realization of the evil
at the center of human experience, without ever breaking the closely
knit pattern of his narrative or losing the compelling atmospheric and
psychological force of the tale. The wealth of natural symbols, the
clear development of character, and the sheer fascination of the story
make this a novella that has been frequently praised and frequently read
ever since its publication in 1902. Heart of Darkness is, in both style
and insight, a masterful work.
Christened Josef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski by his Polish
parents, Joseph Conrad was able to write of the sea and sailing from
firsthand knowledge. He left the cold climate of Poland early in his
life to travel to the warmer regions of the Mediterranean, where he
became a sailor. He traveled a great deal: to the West Indies, Latin
America, Africa. Eventually, he settled in England and perfected a
remarkably subtle yet powerful literary style in his adopted language.
Criticism of Conrad's work in general and Heart of Darkness in
particular has been both extensive and varied. Many critics concern
themselves with Conrad's style; others focus on the biographical aspects
of his fiction; some see the works as social commentaries; some are
students of Conrad's explorations into human psychology; many are
interested in the brooding, shadowy symbolism that hovers over all the
works. E. M. Forster censured him as a vague and elusive writer who
never quite clearly discloses the philosophy that lies behind his tales.
Such a judgment, however, ignores Conrad's intentions as a writer of
fiction. Partiv as Conrad's mouthpiece, the narrator ofHeart of Darkness
states in the first few pages of the novel:
The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of
which lies within the shell of the cracked nut. But Marlow was not
typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the
meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside,
enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a
haze, in the likeness of one of those misty halos that sometimes are
made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.
The mention of the narrator brings up one of the most complex and
intriguing features of Heart of Darkness: its carefully executed and
elaborately conceived handling of point of view. Readers can detect that
the novella is in truth two narratives, inexorably woven together by
Conrad's masterful craftsmanship. The outer frame of the story—the
immediate setting—involves the unnamed narrator, who is apparently the
only one on the Nellie profoundly affected by Marlow's tale, but it is
the inner story that constitutes the bulk of the novella. Marlow
narrates, and the others listen passively. The narrator's closing words
show his feeling at the conclusion of Mar-low's recounting of the events
in the Congo:
Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a
meditating Buddha. Nobody moved for a time. "We have lost the first of
the ebb," said the Director suddenly. I raised my head. The offing was
barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to
the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast
sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.
Since Marlow's narrative is a tale devoted primarily to a journey to the
mysterious dark continent (the literal heart of darkness, Africa), a
superficial view of the tale is simply that it is essentially an
elaborate story involving confrontation with exotic natives, treacherous
dangers of the jungle, brutal savagery, and even cannibalism. Such a
view, however, ignores larger meanings with which the work is implicitly
concerned: namely, social and cultural implications; psychological
workings of the cultivated European left to the uncivilized wilderness;
and the richly colored fabric of symbolism that emerges slowly but
inevitably from beneath the surface.
Heart of Darkness can also be examined for its social and cultural
implications. It is fairly obvious that a perverted version of the
"White Man's Burden" was the philosophy adopted by the ivory hunters at
the Inner Station. Kurtz's "Exterminate the brutes!" shows the way a
white man can exploit the helpless savage. The futile shelling from the
gunboat into the jungle is also vividly portrayed as a useless, brutal,
and absurd act perpetrated against a weaker, more uncivilized culture
than the one that nurtured Kurtz.
Here the psychological phenomena of Marlow's tale emerge. Kurtz, a man
relieved of all social and civilized restraints, goes mad after
committing himself to the total pursuit of evil and depravity. His
observation "The horror! the horror!" suggests her final realization of
the consequences of his life. Marlow also realizes this and is allowed
(because he forces restraint upon himself) to draw back his foot from
the precipice of madness. The experience leaves Marlow sober, disturbed,
meditative, and obsessed with relating his story in much the same way
Coleridge's Ancient Mariner must also relate his story.
On a symbolic level, the story is rich; a book could easily be written
on this facet of the novel. A mention of some of the major symbols must
suffice here: the Congo River that reminded Marlow early in his youth of
a snake as it uncoiled its length into the darkness of Africa and
furnished him with an uncontrollable "fascination of the abomination";
the symbolic journey into man's own heart of darkness reveals the blind
evil of man's own nature, the irony of the quest when the truth is
revealed not in terms of light but in terms of darkness (the truth
brings not light but rather total darkness). The entire symbolic
character of the work is capsuled at the end of Marlow's tale when he is
forced to lie to Kurtz's intended spouse in order to preserve her
illusion; the truth appears to Marlow as an inescapable darkness, and
the novel ends with the narrator's own observation of darkness.
Heart of Darkness is one of literature's most somber fictions. It
explores fundamental questions about man's nature: his capacity for
evil; the necessity for restraint; the effect of physical darkness and
isolation on a civilized soul; and the necessity of relinquishing pride
for one's own spiritual salvation. Forster's censure of Conrad may be
correct in many ways, but it refuses to admit that through such
philosophical ruminations Conrad has allowed generations of readers to
ponder humanity's own heart of darkness.
NOSTROMO: A Tale of the Seaboard
Type of work: Novel
Author: Joseph Conrad (Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski,
Type of plot: Psychological romance
Time of plot: Early twentieth century
Locale: Costaguana, on the north coast of South America
First published: 1904
Using the San Tome mine as his focal point, Conrad presents a
group of fascinating characters, representing a cross section of
attitudes, character types, and economic levels, who contend with one
another and with themselves for the silver and all it implies
economically, politically, and morally. The result is a powerful,
panoramic vision of man, both as a solitary individual and as a social
animal, caught up in forces, both external and internal, that he can
neither understand nor contain.
Nostromo (nos-tro'mo), the nickname of Gian' Bat-
tista, the "incorruptible" hero of the people after saving a valuable
cargo of silver from revolutionists by hiding it on a barren island at
the harbor entrance. Later he realizes that it can be his because the
lighter on which he transported the silver is reported sunk in a
collision with a troopship at night. He grows rich slowly by returning
to the island occasionally for some of the silver. When a lighthouse is
established on the island, he is still able to visit his hoard of silver
because his friends, the Violas, are made keepers of the light. He
chooses to love Giselle, the younger Viola daughter, rather than the
more stable and idealistic Linda. Mistaken for a despised suitor of
Giselle, he is shot by old Viola while on a night visit to see Giselle.
Nostromo dies feeling that he has been betrayed and wishing to confess
to Mrs. Gould. Because she refuses to listen, his secret is kept and his
famed uncorruptibility remains intact.
Charles Gould, The manager of the San Tome silver mine, which he
idealizes as a civilizing force that will bring progress to contented
but backward Sulaco, a city in the Occidental Province of the Republic
of Costaguana, as well as atonement for the death of his father. But
silver, the incorruptible metal, is a corrupting influence politically
and morally. It separates Gould from his wife Emilia, attracts
politicians from the interior, and provokes a revolution.
Dona Emilia, Charles Gould's wife, supplanted in his affections by his
"redemption idea" of the mine. Childless, she is a victim of a "subtle
unfaithfulness" created by the mine. In turn, she is gracious, kind,
unselfish, and lives for others.
Martin Decoud (mar-tan' ds-ko'), a young Creole intellectual, skeptic,
and amateur journalist recently returned from Paris. He falls in love
with patriotic Antonia Avellanos and fathers the idea of a separate
Occidental Republic. He escapes from the revolutionists on the lighter
bearing the silver but commits suicide when left alone on the island to
face all the silence and indifference of nature.
Dr. Monygham, a doctor of introspective temperament. Under torture
during the former dictatorship of Guzman Bento, he had betrayed friends,
a deed that weighs on his conscience. He risks his life during this
revolution for the safety of others in order to earn restoration to the
Captain Mitchell, the superintendent of the Oceanic Steam Navigation
Company, a "thick, elderly man, wearing high pointed collars and short
sidewhiskers, partial to white waistcoats, and really very communicative
under his air of pompous reserve." He narrates part of the story.
Giorgio Viola (jor'jo ve-o'la), a veteran of Garibaldi's army and keeper
of the Casa Viola, a restaurant and hotel in Sulaco. Believing
wholeheartedly in the human bond of liberty, he had risked his life in
Italy in the hope of bringing freedom to men. He wishes to make Nostromo
Teresa, the portly, ill wife of Viola, anxious for the future of her
husband and daughters.
Giselle, the sensuous, blonde younger daughter of Viola, in love with
Linda, the idealistic, dark older daughter of Viola, also in love with
President Ribiera (re-be'a'ra), the beneficent dictator of Costaguana,
defeated by revolutionary forces.
Don Jose Avellanos (don ho-sa' a-va-ya'-nos), an idealistic, cultured,
dignified, patriotic statesman who has survived many changes in his
country and the author of "Fifty Years of Misrule," a history of the
republic. He dies of disappointment.
Antonia Avellanos (anto'nya), his beautiful, free-minded, patriotic
daughter, in love with Decoud.
Father Corbelan (kor-ba-lan'), the fanatical uncle of Antonia Avellanos.
His appearance suggests something unlawful behind his priesthood, the
idea of a chaplain of bandits. He is Costaguana's first Cardinal
General Montero (mon-ta'ro), a rural hero and a former Minister of War,
the leader of the revolution.
Pedro Montero (pa'dro), his brother, a savage with a genius for
treachery. He is the leader of the rebel army from the interior.
Don Ð¸ð¸ (don pa'pa), the faithful overseer of the San Tome mine, under
orders to blow up the mine if the revolutionaries try to seize it.
Father Roman (ro-man'), the faithful padre of the workers of the mine.
Colonel Sotillo (so-te'yo), one of the leaders of the revolution.
Cowardly and traitorous, he hurries his army into Sulaco in the hope of
gaining personal advantage.
Senor Hirsch, a craven and fearful hide merchant who tries to escape
from Sulaco by secreting himself on the lighter with Nostromo and Decoud
while they are transporting the silver. When the lighter and Sotillo's
ship collide in the darkness, he leaps aboard the rebels' vessel.
There he is tortured for confession and finally killed by Sotillo.
Hernandez (ernan'des), a man mistreated in an earlier revolution and now
the leader of a robber band. During the revolt he becomes a general,
pledged to Father Corbelan.
General Barrios (bar'ryos), a brave, trustworthy, unpretentious soldier
who has lived heroically and loves to talk of the adventurous life of
his past. He is the commander of the Occidental military district.
Don Juste Lopez (don hus'ta lo'pez), the president of the provincial
assembly. He thinks that resistance to Pedro Montero will be useless but
that formalities may still save the republic.
Fuentes (fwen'tas), a nominee for the post of political chief of Sulaco.
Eager to take office, he sides with Pedro Montero.
Gamacho (ga-ma'cho), the commander of the Sulaco national guard. He
throws his lot with the revolutionists.
Basilio (ba-se'lyo), Mrs, Gould's head servant.
Luis (loo'es), a mulatto servant at the Casa Viola.
The Republic of Costaguana was in a state of revolt. Under the
leadership of Pedrito Montero, rebel troops had taken control of the
eastern part of the country. When news of the revolt reached Sulaco, the
principal town of the western section that was separated from the rest
of the country by a mountain range, the leaders began to lay defense
The chief interest of the town was the San Tome silver mine in the
nearby mountains, a mine managed by Charles Gould, an Englishman who,
although educated in England, had been born in Sulaco, his father having
been manager before him. Gould had made a great success of the mine. The
semiannual shipment of silver had just come down from the mine to the
customhouse when the telegraph operator from Esmeralda, on the eastern
side of the mountains, sent word that troops had embarked on a transport
under command of General Sotillo and that the rebels planned to capture
the silver ingots as well as Sulaco.
Gould decided to load the ingots on a lighter and set it afloat in the
gulf pending the arrival of a ship that would take the cargo to the
United States. The man to guide the boat would be Gian' Battista, known
in Sulaco as Nostromo (our man) for he was considered incorruptible. His
companion would be Martin Decoud, editor of the local newspaper, who had
been drawn from Paris and kept in Sulaco by the European-educated
Antonia Avellanos, to whom he had just become engaged. Decoud had
incurred the anger of Montero by denouncing the revolutionists in his
paper. Decoud also had conceived a plan for making the country around
Sulaco an independent state, the Occidental Republic.
When Nostromo and Decoud set out in the black of the night, Sotillo's
ship, approaching the port without lights, bumped into their lighter.
Nostromo made for a nearby uninhabited island, the Great Isabel, where
he cached the treasure. Then, he left Decoud behind and rowed the
lighter to the middle of the harbor, pulled a plug, and sank her. He
swam the remaining mile to the mainland.
Upon discovering that the silver had been spirited away, Sotillo took
possession of the customhouse, where he conducted an inquisition. The
next day, Sulaco was seized by Montero, who considered Sotillo of little
When the Europeans and highborn natives who had not fled the town
discovered that Nostromo was back, they took it for granted that the
silver had been lost in the harbor. They asked Nostromo to take a
message to Barrios, who commanded the Loyalist troops on the eastern
side of the mountains. In a spectacular engine ride up the side of the
mountain and a subsequent six-day horseback journey through the mountain
passes, Nostromo succeeded in delivering his message, and Barrios set
out with his troops by boat to relieve the town of Sulaco.
Coming into the harbor, Nostromo sighted a boat that he recognized as
the small craft attached to the lighter that had carried him and Decoud
to Great Isabel. He dived overboard and swam to the boat. Barrios went
on to Sulaco and drove the traitors out. Meanwhile, Gould had planted
dynamite around the silver mine to destroy it in case of defeat, for he
was determined to keep the mine from the revolutionists at any cost.
Nostromo rowed the little boat over to Great Isabel, where he discovered
that Decoud was gone and that he had taken four of the ingots with him.
He correctly guessed that Decoud had killed himself, for there was a
bloodstain on the edge of the boat. Decoud had been left to himself when
Nostromo returned to the mainland, and each day he had grown more and
more lonely until finally he dug up four of the ingots, tied them to
himself, went out into the boat, shot himself, and fell overboard, the
weight of the ingots carrying him to the bottom of the harbor. Now
Nostromo could not tell Gould where the silver was, for he would himself
have been suspected of stealing the four missing ingots. Since everyone
thought the treasure was in the bottom of the sea, he decided to let the
rumor stand and sell the ingots one by one and so become rich slowly.
In gratitude for his many services to the country, the people provided
Nostromo with a boat in which he hauled cargo as far north as
California. Sometimes he would be gone for months while he carried out
his schemes for disposing of the hidden silver. One day on his return,
he saw that a lighthouse was being built on Great Isabel. He was panic
stricken. Then he suggested that the keeper should be old Giorgio Viola,
in whose daughter Linda he was interested. He thought that with the
Violas on the island no one would suspect his frequent visits. Linda had
a younger sister, Giselle, for whom the vagabond Ramirez was desperate.
Viola would not allow her to receive his attentions and kept her under
close guard. He would not permit Ramirez to come to the island.
To make his comings and goings more secure, one day Nostromo asked Linda
to be his wife. Almost at once he realized that he was really in love
with Giselle. In secret meetings, he and Giselle confessed their mutual
Linda grew suspicious. Giselle begged Nostromo to carry her away, but he
said he could not do so for a while. He finally told her about the
silver and how he had to convert it into money before he could take her
Obsessed by hate of Ramirez, Viola began patrolling the island at night
with his gun loaded. One night as Nostromo was approaching Giselle's
window, old Viola saw him and shot him. Hearing her father say that he
had shot Ramirez, Linda rushed out, but Giselle ran past her and reached
Nostromo first. It was she who accompanied him to the mainland. In the
hospital, Nostromo asked for the kind Mrs. Gould, to whom he protested
that Giselle was innocent and that he alone knew about the hidden
treasure. Mrs. Gould, however, would not let him tell her where he had
hidden it. It had caused so much sorrow that she did not want it to be
brought to light again. Nostromo refused any aid from Dr. Monygham and
died without revealing the location of the ingots.
Dr. Monygham went in the police galley out to Great Isabel, where he
informed Linda of Nostromo's death. She was thoroughly moved by the news
and whispered that she—and she alone—had loved the man and that she
would never forget Nostromo. Al Linda in despair cried out Nostromo's
name, Dr. Monygham observed that as triumphant as Nostromo had been in
life, this love of Linda's was the greatest victory of all.
The region about Sulaco finally did become the Occidental Republic. The
San Tome mine prospered under Gould's management, the population
increased enormously, and the new country flourished with great vigor.
Although Decoud, the country's first planner, and Nostromo, the hero of
its inception, were dead, life in the new country went on richly and
Joseph Conrad has always been known among the mass of readers as a great
teller of sea stories. He is also a pertinent, even prophetic,
commentator on what he called "land entanglements"—particularly on the
subject of political revolution. Conrad's father was an active
revolutionary in the cause of Polish independence; he died as a result
of prolonged imprisonment for revolutionary "crimes." Three of Conrad's
best novels are studies in political behavior: Nostromo, The Secret
Agent, and Under Western Eyes. Nostromo is by far the most ambitious and
complex of these works. It has a very large international cast of
characters of all shapes and sizes, and it employs the typical Conradian
device of an intentionally jumbled (and sometimes confusing) chronology.
As typical of Conrad, the physical setting is handled superbly; the
reader is drawn into the book through the wonderfully tactile
descriptions of the land and sea. The setting in South America is also
particularly appropriate to Conrad's skeptical consideration of progress
achieved either by Capitalism or revolution.
Nostromo is a study in the politics of wealth in an underdeveloped
country. The central force in the novel is the silver of the San Tome
mine—a potential of wealth so immense that a humane and cultured
civilization can be built upon it. At least this is the view of the
idealistic Charles Gould, the owner and developer of the mine. There are
other views. From the start, Gould is ready to maintain his power by
force if necessary. He remembers how the mine destroyed his father. The
mine attracts politicians and armed revolutionaries from the interior,
but Gould is willing to blow up his treasure and half of Sulaco, the
central city, in order to defeat the revolution. He succeeds, but Conrad
intends for the reader to regard his success as partial at best. His
obsession with the mine separates him from his wife. As with Conrad's
other heroes, the demands of public action distort and cancel out his
capacity for private affection.
One of the magnificences of the first half of Nostromo is that Gould and
his silver are seen from so many angles. For old Giorgio Viola, who was
once a member of Garibaldi's red shirts, Gould's idealization of
material interests is wrong because it has the potential of violating a
pure and disinterested love of liberty for all humanity. Viola, however,
is as ineffectual as the austere and cultured leader of Sulaco's
aristocracy, Don Jose Avellanos, whose unpublished manuscript "Thirty
Years of Misrule" is used as gun wadding at the height of the
revolution. Ranged against Avellanos and Viola, at the other end of the
spectrum, are those sanguinary petty tyrants, Bento, Montero, and
Sotillo, who want to run the country entirely for their own personal
advantage. Sotillo represents their capacity and blind lust for Gould's
treasure. The most interesting characters, however, are those who occupy
the middle of the spectrum. Of these, two— Martin Decoud, the dilettante
Parisian boulevardier, and Dr. Monygham—are central to any understanding
of the novel. Between them they represent Conrad's own point of view
Decoud may be the object of some of Conrad's most scourging irony, but
his skeptical pronouncements accord well with the facts of Sulaco's
politics as Conrad presents them in the early stages of the novel.
Decoud saves the mine by arranging for a new rifle to be used in defense
of Gould's material interests, but he does not share Gould's enthusiasm
that the mine can act as the chief force in the process of civilizing
the new republic. He views the whole business of revolution and
counterrevolution as an elaborate charade, a comic opera.
The most trenchant charge against Gould is made by the other deeply
skeptical character, Dr. Monygham. His judgment upon material interests
is one of the most famous passages in the book:
There is no peace and rest in the development of material interests.
They have their law and their justice. But it is founded on expediency,
and is inhuman; it is without the continuity and the force that can be
found only in a moral principle. . . . The time approaches when all that
the Gould Concession stands for shall weigh as heavily upon the people
as the barbarism, cruelty, and misrule of a few years back.
It is clear that Conrad intends for his readers to take Monygham's
judgment at face value. The trouble is that the facts of Costaguana's
post-revolutionary state do not agree with it. The land is temporarily
at peace and is being developed in an orderly fashion by the mine as
well as other material interests, and the workers seem better off as a
result. Monygham is of course hinting at the workers' revolt against the
suppression of material interests, but this revolt seems so far in the
future that his judgment is robbed of much of its power. This surely
accounts for part of the "hollowness" that some critics have found in
The last section of the novel is concerned with Gould's successful
resistance to the attempts of both church and military to take over the
mine and the moral degradation of the "incorruptible" man of the people,
Nostromo. In this latter case, Conrad abandons the richness and density
of his panoramic view of South American society and gives us a
semiallegorical dramatization of the taint of the silver within the soul
of a single character.
Nostromo's fate is clearly related to the legend of the two gringos
which begins the book, for the silver that he has hidden has this same
power to curse his soul as the "fatal spell" cast by the treasure on the
gringos. ("Their souls cannot tear themselves away from their bodies
mounting guard over the discovered treasure. They are now rich and
hungry and thirsty. . . .") The result of Conrad's absorption with
Nostromo at the end of the novel is twofold. First, readers are denied a
dramatization of the changing social conditions that would support
Monygham's judgment. Second, and more important, the novel loses its
superb richness and variety and comes dangerously close to insisting on
the thesis that wealth is a universal corruptor, even that "money is the
root of all evil."
For roughly two-thirds of its length, Nostromo gives readers one of the
finest social panoramas in all fiction. The ending, however, suggests
that underneath the complex texture of the novel lies a rather
simplistic idea: that both "material interests" and revolution are
doomed to failure. Although set in South America, Nostromo suggests a
world in which systems and conditions change very little because men do