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Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)[1], born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, was a Polish-British writer regarded as one of the greatest novelists to write in the English language. Conrad is considered an early modernist, though his works still contain elements of 19th century realism. This article aims to analyze Conrad’s life story and his most famous work Heart of Darkness.

joseph conrad

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad

It is hard to believe that a gifted writer like Joseph Conrad was not even able to speak English until the beginning of his twenties. Conrad was originally Polish, but he later migrated to England and became a citizen of the powerful British Empire in which the “sun was never setting down” at those years. Conrad’s father was a Polish revolutionary fighting for the independence of Poland against Tsarist Russia. Conrad was grown up by reading works of romantic-heroic tradition of Polish literature. We can find traces of Conrad’s sympathy for heroes in some of his works like Prince Roman and Nostromo. However, Conrad loves revolutionaries only if they are frank in their ideals. Conrad always exalted traditional values like honor and fidelity in his works. Conrad was also disturbed of people’s tendency to call his father a revolutionary. In his idea, his father was a patriot and a nationalist rather than a revolutionary. Conrad had a problematic youth and even tried to commit suicide but he finally found happiness and success in working for British Merchant Service.

Contrary to many intellectuals of his period, Conrad was against the ideas and ideals of French Revolution. As a conservative, Conrad once said about French Revolution that “The glorified French Revolution itself, except for its destructive force, was in essentials a mediocre phenomenon” (Bhagawati, 1991: 18). Conrad did not like the idea of revolution and saw the reason of French Revolution as the inefficiency of European monarchies to increase their legitimacy. He believed in order and discipline. Conrad’s political views are considered to be close to Edmund Burke’s ideas. Both writers were defending conservatism, monarchical systems and exalted traditional values. However, contrary to Burke, Conrad was not a religious man. Burke saw the state as a sacred institution like famous philosopher Hegel. Although Conrad had sympathy towards revolutionist heroes like his father, he did not like Marxists because he never believed in class struggles and was disturbed of Marxists who were engaging in violent acts, anarchy and thus, making the state dysfunctional. According to Conrad, the only class struggle in societies was between honest, moral citizens and immoral, troublemaker ones. In his novel The Nigger Of The Narcissus, Conrad makes a resemblance between English society and the crew of the ship Narcissus. The captain of the ship is an honest, moral man whereas one sailor of the crew, Donkin, is a dishonest, immoral man that aims to provoke other sailors and create chaos. Similar to the conditions on the deck of the ship Narcissus, Conrad thought that there are dishonest, agitator members of English society who want to create chaos in the country. Joseph Conrad thought that democracy prevents the arise of feelings like nationalism and patriotism. Conrad also did not believe in the myth of progress and this constituted the base of his world view. As a conservative, Joseph Conrad did not support the fetish of science. In some ways, Conrad differs from other representatives of British imperialist fiction. Conrad, unlike Rudyard Kipling, did not clearly express his ideas about the superiority of Anglo-Saxon race over other races, but he still had the orientalist view like all of his contemporaries. Although Conrad was showing fearless, adventurous British explorers as heroes, he was aware and disturbed of the fact that there were some economic benefits hidden behind bringing civilization pretext in British policies. As a defender of monarchy, Conrad for sure did not want bourgeois class dealing with trade to become very powerful. This is why, many conservatives like Conrad did not support imperialism. Conrad loved courageous British explorers not degenerate, violent imperialists.

Conrad’s imperial works can be divided into three groups; early works about East, works about Africa and late works about Latin America. In most of these works, we can clearly distinguish that Conrad admires the spirit of exploration, a group of bold man sailing to unknown with their British flags by singing, telling sea stories to each other away from their families. While creating this kind of positive image of British explorers, Conrad was motivated by his admiration of Captain James Cook. Conrad also loved colonists; because he thought that these people were really trying to bring civilization and new ideas to primitive people. However, Conrad was doubtful about their chances to realize this ideal. Conrad has also pessimistic ideas about human nature and in this way he is considered as an Hobbesian writer. Similar to Thomas Hobbes, Conrad thought that human beings are selfish creatures who should live in a powerful sovereign state that would be responsible of regulating everything and punishing guilty people harshly in order to keep order and peace in the society. Conrad believed that away from a sovereign power, the evil nature of humans could come into light. Kurtz character in the Heart Of Darkness is a clear example of Conrad’s Hobbesian perception of human nature.

heart of darkness

Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad’s works contain many different themes related to imperialism. Relationship between white man and native woman is one of these themes. One of the most important themes he dealt with is the alienation of white man living with native people. Kurtz character in his most famous novel Heart Of Darkness can be a good example for this. The miserable condition of native people, who are forced to work like slaves, is another important theme in his works. Heart Of Darkness was published in 1902, in a period where the imperial enthusiasm was at the peak. England was disturbed of other European powers such as Holland, Germany and Belgium that try to get their share from imperialist robbery. Belgium King Leopold II was interested in dominating Congo and some other places in Africa because of rich ivory and rubber sources in these virgin lands. Due to his mission in British Merchant Service, Conrad visited many parts of the world and observed consequences of imperialism personally. He also lived in Congo for a while (6 months) and Heart Of Darkness is a product of his life in Congo. Conrad began to work on a Congo River steamer in 1890, 5 years after Belgium King Leopold II had found Congo Free State. Of course, Britain was disturbed of Belgium’s efforts to become a colonial power and also methods used by Belgians. At those years, before Conrad had published Heart Of Darkness, conditions in Congo had already become a political issue in England. Aborigines Protection Society was protesting systematic abuses of Belgians in Congo and the issue was even debated in British House of Commons. Conrad started to write Heart Of Darkness in 1898, in these conditions and the book which created a huge sensation was published in 1902. Edmund Dene Morel, who founded the Congo Reform Association in 1904, described Conrad’s story as “the most powerful thing ever written on the subject”. Probably, all characters and events are based on Conrad’s observations, realities in Congo. Conrad never believed that European presence in Africa would be beneficial for Africans or Europeans. Heart Of Darkness soon became a cult work of art and many artists, works were inspired of it. The great director Francis Ford Coppola adapted Heart Of Darkness into Vietnam settings and made the film “Apocalypse Now”[2] as a critic of America’s Vietnam invasion in the 1960s.


In the Heart Of Darkness, Conrad shows conflicts arising in imperialism in parallel with the main character’s internal conflicts. The main character is a young ship captain called Marlow who decides to join in a travel to Congo during Belgium imperialism for excitement and money as a steamboat captain of a big European company that has been showing a great deal of interest in the ivory sources in Congo. The company immediately offers a contract to Marlow, because the previous captain Fresleven was death after a fight with natives. Marlow’s mission is to find a man called Kurtz and bring him back to England. During the whole voyage, Marlow listens his crew and other people talking about Kurtz, the German administrator of the company who has collected more ivories than all other people, the man he has to find. After having listened all different kinds of stories about him, Marlow is impatient to see Kurtz. However, their voyage is not that easy. During the whole voyage, Marlow sees cruelties of white men in using natives like slaves and even killing them. He begins to question whether they bring civilization to these native people or just exploit them. Marlow feels darkness and senses evil as he approaches to Kurtz. When they get close to the inner station, the place where Kurtz lives, they are attacked by a group of natives shooting arrows. Marlow’s crew responds and fires their arms. After a while, Marlow blows a whistle and all natives escape. No one dies in this skirmish except Marlow’s native helmsman. Marlow finally arrives at inner station and finds a Russian man looking like a harlequin. The man who has great respect towards Kurtz tells Marlow more about Kurtz and says that Kurtz is very sick and worshipped by native people. Marlow understands that it was Kurtz who ordered natives to attack on their steamboat in order to prevent them to return to Europe. Marlow finds Kurtz in desperate situation, very sick, alienated and mentally abnormal. They have little conversation but Kurtz soon dies and before dying he says “The horror, the horror”. Marlow soon finds out that Kurtz has become a godlike figure in the area by killing thousands of natives and forcing them to collect ivories like slaves. He realizes Kurtz’s metamorphosis by looking at his report. He distinguishes a note saying “Exterminate all the brutes” at the end of Kurtz’s really well-written, academic report on the situation of Congo. He returns to England and visits Kurtz’s fiancée, but he does not mention about Kurtz’s cruelties and massacres in Congo. He only gives her Kurtz’s letters and the story ends.

Apocalypse Now intro (Song: “The End” by the Doors)


When we analyze the Marlow character in the Heart Of Darkness, we can think that Marlow represents Conrad’s own views. He is enthusiastic about exploration, he is well-educated, stylish and also has the courage of a seaman. Marlow, like Conrad, admires sea and seamanship. “…for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself, which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny” (Conrad, 1983: 30). “They were men enough to face the darkness” (Conrad, 1983: 31). Conrad also shows his knowledge about sea by using Marlow character in the novel. “Deal table in the middle, plain chairs all round the walls, on one end a large shining map, marked with all the colours of a rainbow. There was a vast amount of red, good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there…” (Conrad, 1983: 36). He wants to believe in the idea that they will bring civilization to Congo; but soon after, he realizes that the aim of the company is just to collect ivories as much as they can and he gets disappointed of the situation. “I had no difficulty in finding the Company’s offices. It was the biggest thing in the town, and everybody I met was full of it. They were going to run an over-sea empire, and make no end of coin by trade” (Conrad, 1983: 35). “She talked about weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways, till upon my word, she made me quite uncomfortable. I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit” (Conrad, 1983: 39).

Conrad always admits the economic priority of imperialism and thus, does not like it very much. So, we can say that Marlow represents Conrad, whereas Kurtz is an example of the imperial failure of European bourgeois class. For Kurtz, it is all about collecting ivories and making profit. In order to provide this, he creates a native God of himself, but later loses his psychological and emotional balance. He becomes alienated from civilization; he makes many cruelties to native people. This is an example of Conrad’s belief that it is nearly impossible for white men to live with natives who are totally different from them. Kurtz represents the whole Europe in the novel as we can understand from Conrad’s lines; “The original Kurtz had been educated partly in England, and – as he was good enough to say himself – his sympathies were in the right place. His mother was half-English, his father was half-French. All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz…” (Conrad, 1983: 86). Conrad also uses the term “pilgrim” for European explorers who come to Congo with the sole aim of collecting ivory. By doing this, he probably wants to show us the belief of many people in the holiness of imperialism. The portrayal of Marlow’s native assistant is also a sign of Conrad’s ideas about native people and constitutes an important part of the book. “And between whiles I had to look after the savage who was fireman. He was an improved specimen, he could fire a vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs” (Conrad, 1983: 70). As we see from this passage, Conrad never believed in progress, modernization and thought that people should live according to their own cultures. The native fireman trying to act like a modern, white man was a source of laugh for Marlow. Similar to the fireman, the native helmsman of the steamboat was a grotesque picture; he was able to learn navigation but he was still a total stranger, a little child. Marlow was always getting annoyed due to the acts of the native helmsman. It was impossible for them to live together “He was the most unstable kind of fool I had ever seen. He steered with no end of a swagger while you were by; but if he lost sight of you, he became instantly the prey of an abject funk, and would let that cripple of a steamboat get the upper hand of him in a minute” (Conrad, 1983: 79). Conrad is aware that cultures have meanings only for people who belong to them and they should not be imposed to people since it would create distortion and alienation. Although Kurtz was a well-educated, good speaking European, he could not get used to the life in Congo and he got mad. He went far away from his ideals to bring civilization to native people and he established a kingdom of ivory in Congo. He even tried to kill his Russian assistant because of a single ivory. “Save me! – save the ivory, you mean. Don’t tell me. Save me! Why, I’ve had to save you. You are interrupting my plans now” (Conrad, 1983: 102). As we can understand from this passage, Kurtz was obsessed with the idea of collecting ivories. Portrait of a white man going mad while living with native people and native people obeying him like a God, shows us Conrad’s disbelief in the idea of progress. Conrad thinks that cultures are totally different from each other and trying to impose your culture in order to develop other people will not be beneficial for both sides. For Conrad, the idea of “progress” is just a myth that is abused by European bourgeois class which wants to increase its profit and power.

Another important aspect of Kurtz’s situation in the novel is that it gives us opportunity to analyze Joseph Conrad’s tendency towards Hobbesian thought. While living with natives, away from any sovereign power than himself, the true “evil” nature of human beings comes out in Kurtz. He gets mad and makes massacres and tortures. He wants to acquire more and more ivories and this is a sign of human being’s extreme selfishness. Kurtz’s situation is very close to the situation described by Thomas Hobbes as the “state of war”. However, Hobbes claims that the state of war would be “all against all”. When we look at Kurtz’s situation, we see that natives do not try to fight with him but rather they worship Kurtz. The meeting of Marlow and Kurtz is also an unforgettable scene. When they come face to face, each man sees a reflection of what they might become. Marlow who represents civilization and light, feels his potential for darkness, wildness when he sees Kurtz. Kurtz also thinks of his civilized past, ex-behaviors when he sees Marlow. When we look at the novel from a (Hobbesian) philosophical perspective, we can say that Marlow and Kurtz are both parts of the human nature. Marlow as a citizen of powerful, well-organized British state suppressed his dark side. However, Kurtz, although he was a fair citizen before coming to Congo, discovered his dark side in the state of nature in the lack of a central power.

Joseph Conrad is a very talented writer as we can understand from his poetic descriptions in the novel. His Thames River description is one the most delicious parts in the novel for a sophisticated reader. “The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offling the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness” (Conrad, 1983: 27). He also talks about the connection between Thames and Congo rivers in the opening plot for showing the imperial connection between two sides: Europe and Congo. In addition, he uses irony in some parts of the novel for showing contradictions in imperialism. “We pounded along, stopped, landed soldiers; went on, landed custom-house clerksto levy toll in what looked like a God-forsaken wilderness, with a tin shed and a flag-pole lost in it; landed more soldier – to take care of the custom-house clerks, presumably” (Conrad, 1983: 40). While showing conflicts in imperialist thought, Conrad also benefits from Marlow’s internal conflicts and clarity or darkness of the settings. Although Conrad was not a complete racist writer due to the conditions and habits of his period, in many parts of the book he uses racist vocabulary. “It was paddled by black fellows” (Conrad, 1983: 40). “He was an improved specimen, he could fire a vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs” (Conrad, 1983: 70). The dog analogy here is very disturbing for our modern minds. He also portrays London as the brightest place in the world whereas Congo is one of the darkest places of the world in the novel. Despite of his usage of racist vocabulary in some parts of the book, Conrad several times makes descriptions to reflect terrible situation of native people. “Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair”, “They were dying slowly – it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, – nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom” (Conrad, 1983: 44). It is really difficult to understand Conrad’s ideas about racism because although he accepts cruelties done by Europeans to native people of Congo, he uses racist and humiliating language for describing them. Conrad’s attitude towards races should not be reduced only to his sentences in the Heart Of Darkness. When we analyze other novels of Conrad, for example in The Nigger Of The Narcissus, Conrad causes suspicions about his attitude towards other races.


There is no denying that Joseph Conrad is an important, talented writer that can be read with pleasure. However, due to the conditions of his period, Conrad is an orientalist and his ideas can be very disturbing for us in some parts of the novel. Conrad was right to show us internal contradictions of Marlow after observing cruelties done to native people by imperialist Europeans. Although Conrad also had orientalist views, he was at least objective and bold enough to acknowledge cruelties done to native people. When we look at Kipling’s works for example, we feel two times more disturbed because he believes in the racial superiority of Anglo-Saxon race and clearly expresses it. What surprises us most that the intelligentsia of Europe was not even suspicious about imperial acts of their states while all massacres and tortures were taking place.

Assist. Prof. Dr. Ozan ÖRMECİ


– Ashok, Bhagawati, “Politics And The Modern Novel: Conrad’s Conservatism”, 1991, New Delhi: BR Publishing Corporation. Available at:

– Conrad, Joseph, “Heart Of Darkness”, 1983, Middlesex, England: Penguin English Library. Avalaible at:

– Conrad, Joseph, “Karanlığın Yüreği”, 1982, Ankara: Dost Yayınevi.



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