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Free Study Guide for Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad-BookNotes/Summary
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Although Polish-born, Joseph Conrad wrote in English and became famous for his novels and short stories about the sea. He was born in 1857 into the landowning class and was named Jozef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski.

At the time of Conrad's birth, Poland suffered the fierce repression by Tsarist Russia after an unsuccessful rebellion. Conrad's father, who was a writer and translator, was imprisoned and exiled; his mother joined his father in exile. Joseph left Poland at the age of 16 and arrived in England at the age of twenty, unable to speak a word of English. Conrad traveled to Marseilles, Spain, where he became a gunrunner for the Carlist party.

He then joined the British Merchant Navy and worked his way up to captain. He continued with English ships until 1894, with the exception of his trip up the Congo in 1890, when he worked for a Belgium company. By the age of 29, Conrad had become a master mariner and had sailed on many long voyages, to Australia, to Malaya, to the Mediterranean, and in English waters.

When he retired from seamanship in 1894, he had mastered the English language and was able to write his novels in his adopted tongue. He used his experiences in the navy as the basis of many of his works. In 1895, Conrad completed Almayer's Folly, his first novel, and in 1896 he wrote An Outcast of the Islands, both set in Borneo. Later, masterpieces such as Lord Jim (1900) and Typhoon (1903), are also set in the eastern seas. Heart of Darkness is based on Conrad's voyage up the Congo River.

Although most of his works are set on the sea, his stories deal with universal problems that faced mankind, such as man's inhumanity, weakness, and egotism. There are also tales of revolutionaries and capitalists. Although many of his protagonists yield to the power of weakness or evil in them, Conrad is not a pessimist in his writing. He repeatedly affirms the values of courage, faithfulness, and discipline. He simply realized, before its time, how difficult it is for man to retain these virtues under stress and hardship.

During his time, Conrad gained some critical success as a writer, but he did not gain immediate popular success for he was viewed as an author of sea stories. As a result, he spent twenty years struggling in poverty until he achieved broader acceptance and prosperity from his writing. He died at the age of sixty-six in 1924. Since his death, several of his works have been hailed as literary masterpieces.


The setting of the bulk of the novel, the Congo, Africa, was the personal property of King Leopold II of Belgium, who decreed in 1889 that the mission of his state was to extend civilization into Africa and to reduce what he called the barbarism of the African people. For Leopold and others, Africa was the 'dark' continent in the sense that it was uncivilized, uneducated, without government, and without culture, and it needed to be enlightened and civilized by the nations of Europe. For most Europeans, this sort of ethnocentric thinking morally justified the less noble goals of imperialism--the seizure of African lands and African people for forced labor.

Joseph Conrad spent a year in the Congo in 1890, recording the events in a diary, whose first entry is dated June 13, 1890. The early part of this diary corresponds very closely to the language and events described in Heart of Darkness, begun in 1898, and first published in 1899. For instance, Conrad obtained his position in the Belgium Company, with the help and the people he describes in the Brussels office (the knitting women, the doctor, and the secretary) are people Conrad describes in his diary. Scholars have even found historical people who correspond with Conrad's characters in the novel: Conrad's aunt, Madame Marguerite Poradowska, serves as a prototype for the aunt in the novel who helped Marlow get a position in the company. The Accountant seems to be based on a Mr. Gosse, a Belgian. The Manager seems to be based on another Belgian, Camille Delcommune. Kurtz's prototype seems to have been Georges- Antoine Klein, who was appointed chief of the Inner Station in 1890, the same year Conrad began his journey, and who had a character similar to Kurtz.

Conrad's own steamboat, the "Roi des Belges," traveled up the Congo one thousand miles for one month (in comparison to the two months of traveling by Marlow). He too encountered two main stations after leaving the Outer Station. The Central Station was located at Kinshasa, and the Inner Station, Kurtz's station, was located at Stanley Falls. While at the Central Station, he met the people of an exploration company much like the Eldorado Exploration Company, called the Katanga Expedition. During his stay, he suffered several serious illnesses, including fever and dysentery. Thus, it seems that much of Heart of Darkness is based on Conrad's actual travels in the Congo.

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