Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness Study Guide

A novella, Heart of Darkness is Joseph Conrad’s most famous work and a foundational text on the subject of colonialism. Heart of Darkness is based in part on a trip that Conrad took through modern-day Congo during his years as a sailor. He captained a ship that sailed down the Congo River. Conrad gave up this mission because an illness forced him to return to England, where he worked on his novella almost a decade later.

The presence of ill characters in the novella illustrates the fact that Heart of Darkness is, at least in part, autobiographical. Many speculations have been made about the identity of various characters, such as the Manager, or Kurtz, most recently and perhaps most accurately in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost. But the geographical, as well as biographical, vagueness of the novel--which is one of its most artistic, haunting characteristics--make it almost impossible to pin down these details for sure.

Heart of Darkness first appeared in a three-part series in Blackwood Magazine in 1899. It was published as a complete novella in 1904. It has since been referred to by many authors and poets. Its most famous lines are both from Kurtz: “exterminate the brutes,” and Kurtz's deathbed utterance, “the horror! The horror!”

Francis Ford Coppola directed the film version, Apocalypse Now, in which the action occurs in Vietnam in 1979.