The book is a story told in narrative. Conrad referred to his own travel journals from his time on the Congo to tell the story of a Congo yawl Captain named Marlow. (A yawl is a two-masted sailboat, and the Congo is never named but it is generally assumed to be the location)
Marlow is employed by an ivory trading company and is tasked with retrieving one of the company’s agents from deep in the African interior. Retrieving the agent is an ordeal, but the plot only serves as a vehicle for the exposition Conrad brings to us.
The book’s title, “Heart of Darkness” sets the tone for the subject matter. There is a lot of figurative darkness in the story Conrad tells here. You could take darkness as hostility or callousness or apathy or evil, and Conrad lays bare for us the inhospitableness of the African wilderness, portrays the toxic mix of hostility and apathy that was European colonialism and its effects on Africans, and the human capability for acts of evil. The exploration of any kind of darkness always makes for a tense narrative and often results in a deeply disturbing revelation. Make no mistake, Heart of Darkness is not a happy story.
The theme that separates this book from most that explore darkness is the rather frank way Conrad portrays the effects of European colonialism. He pulls no punches. Europeans viewed African natives as savages, little more than savages without culture or sophistication. Because of this view, Europeans felt both entitled to be absolutely brutal in their treatment of Africans as they were “doing good” in bringing wealth and civilization and culture to the unexplored “dark continent”. Contrastingly, the average European was largely apathetic to the plight of the Africans as their lands were being razed, their resources exploited, their people brutalized and their culture obliterated. (In America, European colonialism is often paralleled with the concept known as Manifest Destiny.)
That apathy, however, is not shared by our Captain Marlow. He is horrified at what he sees and he is forced to explore his own darkness in order to make his peace with it.
Over a hundred years after it was written, this book is still hotly debated. Nigerian author Chinua Achebe in his 1975 public lecture called “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness“, sharply condemned Darkness as “an offensive and deplorable book”, criticized Conrad as being racist and xenophobic, and posited that the book should not be considered a great work.
Achebe’s critique extended beyond the often-heard objection to the use of “the n-word” to claim that Conrad removed all humanizing characteristics from the Africans he depicted. Although Conrad claimed to have written Darkness from his own experiences on the Congo, Achebe argued that Conrad’s depiction was exaggerated and even denied the Africans a language.
Literary academics disagree. Dr. Rino Zhuwarara of Zimbabwe, for example, maintains it is valuable as an accurate depiction of how Europeans viewed Africans in the Colonial era. In 2003, author Caryl Phillips interviewed Achebe for The Guardian about his criticisms of Darkness and she discussed with him the criticism that his outright dismissal of Darkness loses sight of the fact that Conrad wrote Darkness as a criticism of the apathy with which Europeans approached colonialization. Achebe countered Conrad could have done that without dehumanizing Africans. This was countered that it would be an unfaithful portrayal and lessen the impact of the darkness being examined, and even though Achebe passed away in March of 2013, the debate rages on.
Modern Library positioned it at #67 on their list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century, and controversy followed it even there, as readers argued that the original publication date of the serials of 1899 makes it a 19th century work. The editors ruled that while the 1899 publication was a serialized work, it was novelized when published in 1903.
Heart of Darkness has been adapted into a 1938 radio play starring Orson Welles, and it was to become Welles’ first feature film with RKO Studios, but the outbreak of war prevented the completion of the project.