Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a short, intense novella defined by its serpentine style of writing and sinister atmosphere. It was to inspire one of the most extraordinary films of the 20th century, Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola. Released in 1979, the film resets Conrad’s book during the Vietnam War. 


Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski was born in 1857 in Berdychiv, Ukraine, a city that was once part of Poland but then belonged to the Russian Empire. Orphaned at the age of eleven, at sixteen he joined the French and then the British merchant marine, spending more than a decade of his life at sea. He learned English, his third language, fluently in his twenties, and then settled in Britain. Conrad wrote in English, he said, because he believed it to be more flexible than French. However, while fluent, a slight foreignness makes his writing unique.


In Heart of Darkness, originally published as a three-part series in a magazine, Conrad drew on his experience as a seaman, in this case working for a Belgian company as captain of a steamboat on West Africa’s Congo River in the 1890s. The book is set during the so-called ‘scramble for Africa’, when the colonial powers invaded the continent and used native slaves to help them steal its treasures. It is both an adventure story and a criticism of the cruelty and criminality of colonialism.


The book begins in London. A story within a story, a sailor called Charles Marlow tells the tale to another man, who narrates it to us. Marlow is an adventurous yet sceptical man, an idealist who became hardened by life at sea. As he explains, he became fascinated by the unexplored regions of the Congo in his youth.

“[...] a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.” 

“[...] un fiume grande e possente, simile a un immenso rettile, con la testa nel mare, il corpo a riposo che si curva lontano in una campagna sterminata e la coda sperduta nelle profondità del paese”.


Marlow joins a Belgian trading company to replace a man who was killed under mysterious circumstances. He travels along the west coast of Africa to the mouth of the Congo. His first stop is a place called Central Station, where he is horrified by what he finds. Europeans, so intent on retrieving precious ivory, have been blinded by greed. Enslaved Africans are so abused to this end that many are close to death.

“I’ve seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! [...] in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly.” 

“Ho visto il demone della violenza e il demone dell’avidità e il demone del desiderio ardente; ma, per tutte le stelle! […] Ma sul pendio di quella collina intuii che nel sole accecante di questo paese avrei conosciuto il demone flaccido, pretenzioso e miope di una follia rapace e spietata”.


It is at Central Station that Marlow first hears of a European man called Kurtz, a champion trader with a hugely profitable trading station, who has become ill. Marlow resolves to bring him home. Travelling along the river into the African interior, Marlow ruminates on the jungle landscape, describing it as something sentient yet vengeful, which takes a psychological toll on the foreigners who venture into it. 

“We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. It was very quiet there. At night sometimes the roll of drums behind the curtain of trees would run up the river and remain sustained faintly, as if hovering in the air high over our heads, till the first break of day. Whether it meant war, peace, or prayer we could not tell.”

“C’immergevamo sempre più a fondo nel cuore delle tenebre. C’era un gran silenzio lì. Di notte, a volte, il rullio dei tamburi dietro la cortina di alberi risaliva il fiume e rimaneva, costante anche se flebile, come sospeso nell’aria, in alto, sopra le nostre teste, sino allo spuntar del giorno. Se annunciasse guerra, pace o preghiera non potevamo saperlo”.


On reaching Kurtz’s station, he discovers just how insidious its effect can be. On the riverbank, Marlow observes ornamental balls on tall poles that, on closer inspection, are decapitated human heads. When Kurtz finally appears, so sick that he can barely stand, Marlow sees, or rather hears, his tyrannical command over the natives.

“It was as though an animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been shaking its hand with menaces at a motionless crowd of men made of dark and glittering bronze. I saw him open his mouth wide—it gave him a weirdly voracious aspect, as though he had wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him.”

“Era come se un’animata immagine di morte scolpita in un antico avorio stesse agitando una mano minacciosa a una folla immobile di uomini fatti di un bronzo scuro e luccicante. Lo vidi spalancare la bocca – e ciò gli diede un aspetto stranamente vorace, quasi volesse inghiottire tutta l’aria, tutta la terra, tutti gli uomini che aveva davanti”.


It also becomes clear that Kurtz’s malaise is more than physical: alone in the wilderness, decides Marlow, he had gone mad. He forces Kurtz onto his boat, but the trader quickly succumbs to his illness. Marlow is with him in his last terrible moments of life. 

“I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror—of an intense and hopeless despair […] he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: ‘The horror! The horror!’”

“Come se fosse stato strappato un velo, scorgeva su quel viso d’avorio l’espressione di un orgoglio tenebroso, di un potere spietato, di un terrore vile […] gridò due volte, un grido che non era più di un respiro: ‘L’orrore! L’orrore!’”.


Heart of Darkness has inspired many books, plays and even video games, not all of them uncritical of Conrad’s novella. In his 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart, the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe challenges Conrad’s perception of Africans as ‘savages’ and ‘primitive’.