“Heart of Darkness” begins and ends in London; on the Nellie on the Thames. The most part, however, takes place in the Congo (now known as the Republic of the Congo). The Kongo, as it was originally known, was inhabited first by pygmy tribes and migratory ‘Bantus’ and was ‘discovered’ by the Portuguese in the 14th Century. The Portuguese brought with them Catholocism; European missionaries. The Congo was ruled by King Alfonso I from 1506 – 1540 and Shamba Bolongongo from 1600 – 1620. The slave trade was rife in the Congo, from about 1500 until 1830. King Leopold of Belgium ruled, between 1878 and 1908, and would have been King at the time “Heart of Darkness” was set. Conrad himself actually arrived in the Congo on 12 June 1890, and it would be safe to say that he would have used his experience in the Congo when writing “Heart of Darkness”.
At its time of writing for Blackwood’s Magazine (December 1898), Britain was in its last years of Victorian rule. Queen Victoria was actually the niece of King Leopold of Belgium. Britain was the most powerful and influential nation on Earth; its Empire spread throughout Europe, Asia and Africa. Joseph Conrad, born in the Ukraine in 1857, as Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, as the author, was an outsider looking out. Neither British nor African, he seemed to be the perfect candidate for writing about two countries he had knowledge of – England and the Congo.
African exploration was quite popular; in Conrad’s day, Livingstone died in 1873, in Ilala, Africa, and Stanley returned from his final African expedition in 1890. As exploration was popular, so was the adventure story – tales of African exploration were available in abundance. Imperialism was also a popular theme at this point in the late nineteenth Century. Conrad’s novella, whilst to contemporary critics (Achebe, for example) may appear racist; at the time was accepted as another piece of work from a very much published genre. The novella is literally filled with literal and metaphoric opposites; the Congo and the Thames, black and white, Europe and Africa, good and evil, purity and corruption, civilisation and ‘triumphant bestiality’, light and the very ‘heart of darkness’.
Conrad portrays British imperialism in the perhaps naive character of Marlow, who is glad to see the “vast amount of red” on the Company’s map; signifying the British territory. He is glad that “real work is done there”; meaning salvation, religion, culture and commerce. The reality of the colonialism is portrayed by Conrad in the form of the District Manager; a real imperialist, taking full advantage of his position and that of the colony. Marlow sees the Manager’s only positive quality as the fact that he was never ill. From what Marlow knows of Kurtz, it is apparent that Marlow sets Kurtz on a mental pedestal; as the man who is bringing civilisation, through Imperialism, to the savages, and yet still managed to reap more reward, in the shape of ivory.
Marlow’s opinion of Imperialism is dented time and again by his witnessing the lengths the Imperialists would go for profit. This opinion is destroyed, totally; when Marlow actually meets Kurtz, and realises that; far from conquering the darkness, Kurtz himself has been conquered by the darkness. The roles of Kurtz’s ‘Intended’ and the African woman who appeared to be his mistress are often noted to be of great importance. The European’s pure faith in Kurtz’s good nature contrasts with Marlow’s knowledge of his corruption.
Conrad sets the Intended up to symbolise the removedness of the British from the events in Africa. She is grief-stricken and full of the dreams of what might have been, had Kurtz not died. Kurtz’s ‘mistress’ shows not grief at Kurtz’s departure, but a definite defiance; she being the only native still standing after Marlow sounded the steamer’s whistle. The Intended’s knowledge of Kurtz, whilst she claimed to have known ‘him best’ was incomplete, even illusory. The memory she is left with is itself a lie; provided by Marlow.
The women have two sets of characteristics; seemingly the accepted Victorian values and the post-colonial values. The Victorian reading would show the Intended as feminine, beautiful and saintly, rightly in a state of mourning, even a year after Kurtz’s death. Her innocence would suggest her purity. The Intended would have symbolised civilisation. The mistress would show as masculine, savage, careless of the fact that her loved one was leaving. The African woman would have symbolised the savage unknown that was Africa. The post-colonial reading would show the Intended as foolish, mourning a man she barely knew. Her innocence would suggest her naivety; her faith based upon a lie. The mistress would show as erotic, living on in independence without Kurtz. The African woman here would have symbolised the fact that Africa did not need Britain’s ‘salvation’, contrary to the British belief, based upon a lie, propaganda symbolised by the Intended’s faith.