From A. Michael Matin's Introduction to Heart of Darkness and Selected Short Fiction
Heart of Darkness (1899) is one of the most broadly influential works in the history of British literature. The novella’s diverse attributes—its rich symbolism, intricate plotting, evocative prose, penetrating psychological insights, broad allusiveness, moral significance, metaphysical suggestiveness—have earned for it the admiration of literary scholars and critics, high school and college teachers, and general readers alike. Further, its impact can be gauged not only by the frequency with which it is read, taught, and written about, but also by its cultural fertility. It has heavily influenced works ranging from T. S. Eliot’s landmark poem The Waste Land (1922), the manuscript of which has as its original epigraph a passage from the book that concludes with the last words of Conrad’s antihero Kurtz, to Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible (1998), which updates the tale to the years shortly before and after independence, when the Belgian Congo became the nation that is known today as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nor has its artistic influence been limited to literature; to cite only the most famous instance, it served as the basis for Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now (1979), which transposes the story, in both place and time, to Vietnam and Cambodia during the American-Vietnamese War and recasts Kurtz as a renegade American colonel. Its various homages aside, in its original form Heart of Darkness has for several generations influenced the literary and moral outlook of innumerable readers. Yet while the text is widely recognized as an indictment of the greed and ruthlessness that generally drove European imperialism in Africa, most readers are unfamiliar with the fact that the setting is the event in imperial history so uniquely horrific in its sheer scale of suffering and death that it has been termed the African Holocaust. As Conrad himself would characterize the situation in the Congo nearly a quarter of a century after his novella was published, it was “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience” (“Geography and Some Explorers,” p. 17).
Set during the era of heightened competition for imperial territories that historians have termed the New Imperialism, Heart of Darkness is loosely based on Conrad’s experiences and observations during a six-month stint, in 1890, in the Congo as an employee of a Belgian company, the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo. This was five years after the 1884–1885 Berlin Conference, a meeting of representatives of the European powers to establish the terms according to which much of the continent of Africa would be divided among them. During this meeting, King Leopold II of Belgium, skillfully playing the jealousies and fears of rival powers off one another, astonishingly managed to secure as his own personal property over 900,000 square miles of central Africa—that is, a territory roughly seventy-five times the size of the diminutive country he ruled. Under humanitarian pretenses, Leopold’s agents, who had begun the process of conquest several years earlier, effectively turned the so-called Congo Free State into an enormous forced labor camp for the extraction of ivory and, later, after the worldwide rubber boom in the early 1890s following the popularization of the pneumatic tire, rubber. In addition to outright murders, the slave labor conditions led to many deaths from starvation and disease as well as a steeply declining birth rate. Even during an era in which most Europeans viewed imperialism as legitimate, the appalling circumstances of Leopold’s Congo (it would officially become a Belgian colony in 1908, and Leopold would die the following year never having so much as visited the territory) led to international outrage. Conservative demographic estimates place the region’s depopulation toll between 1880 and 1920 at 10 million people—that is, half of the total population—with the worst of the carnage occurring between 1890 and 1910. Not much was known outside Africa about the conditions of Leopold’s rule when Conrad was there, but in the several years before he began writing Heart of Darkness, in 1898, it became an international scandal, and regular reports appeared in the British and European press denouncing the abuses. Even before the publicity and protests, however (which would peak several years after the novella’s publication), Conrad had seen enough on his own to be thoroughly disgusted.