Heart of Darkness, a short work probably best described as a novella, is mostly set not at sea but on a great unnamed river (in fact the Congo in what was then the Congo Free State, a vast African domain brutally ruled as a private estate by the Belgian king Leopold II). But the setting is certainly exotic, and in a literal sense the journey up river is a journey into the interior, or heart, of what in 1899, when the work was first published in part form, was often called the 'Dark Continent'. It involves encounters with naked black people who are unquestionable presented as primitive and cannibalistic, and an attack by them on the Europeans' steamer is a major incident in the book. But a lot more is involved, and Heart of Darkness has become one of the most discussed and debated books in the 'canon' of twentieth century literature.
Darkness is a pervasive element in the book. The African jungle is dark and sombre, its people lack the civilisation of Europe. But Europe and Europeans are no strangeness to darkness. The book opens with night falling on a ship moored in the Thames, where the narrator Marlow relates the story to four listeners, and a major scene towards the end takes place in a darkening drawing room in Western Europe. We are reminded that the Thames and England probably once seemed as dark and frightening to visitors from Rome as Africa does to people of the narrator's time. The symbolism of light and darkness in the novel is a major element.
More important than physical darkness is the darkness which can overwhelm the human soul. The purpose of the river voyage is to bring out from the interior a man called Kurtz, who is said to be behaving very strangely in his isolation from all other Europeans, and who, it emerges, has used barbaric brutality to make himself into a sort of god for the native people. Kurtz, however, is in many ways an exceptional person, intelligent, multi-talented, and idealistic. He towers above the other Europeans Marlow encounters in Africa, who emerge as petty, stupid, indolent, and greedy. It could be said that Kurtz (despite his intellect, or because of it) has entered into a personal heart of darkness, and gone mad as a consequence. His last words as he dies on the voyage back to the coast -'The horror! The horror!' is a comment on what he has found.
T.S. Eliot used a black servant's announcement 'Mistah Kurtz - he dead' as an epigraph for his major poem 'The Hollow Men' but arguably the novella is more about the journey of the narrator Marlow than about Kurtz. Like many other aspects of the book, the impact of Marlow's physical and spiritual journey is not easy to summarise concisely or with confidence. Certainly the journey profoundly affects him, and makes him more dissatisfied with life in Europe, but it is difficult to know what to make of the climax of a strangely memorable scene near the end of the book, when Marlow falsely tells Kurtz's fiancee that her intended died with her name on his lips. A desire to spare a grieving women further grief? A chivalric wish to help her maintain her illusions? A failure in honesty and courage on the part of Marlow? A reflection of his awareness that only those who have been to the heart of the darkness within themselves and within humanity can really be expected to understand it, and it is pointless to try to explain it?
Some have seen Heart of Darkness as a book condemning colonialism and imperialism. Certainly it gives no nobility to the Europeans in Africa, emphasising their rapacity, and suggests that the Africans who accept European ways become rather ridiculous figures. The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe famously denounced the novella as racist, denying Africans a voice and a humanity, and we must probably conclude that in his attitude to them Conrad was of his time, or only a little ahead of it.
Heart of Darkness is not always easy reading. It is immensely vivid, but the piling up of detail came seem overwrought, as no less a figure than F.R. Leavis suggested. It is an enigmatic work in many ways. But at the end of the few hours required to read it one feels sure one will never forget it.