12 Facts About Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

George C. Beresford/Getty Images
George C. Beresford/Getty Images

Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella about venturing into the moral depths of colonial Africa is among the most frequently analyzed literary works in college curricula.

1. ENGLISH WAS THE AUTHOR’S THIRD LANGUAGE.

It’s impressive enough that Conrad wrote a book that has stayed relevant for more than a century. This achievement seems all the more impressive when considering that he wrote it in English, his third language. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, Conrad was a native Polish speaker. French was his second language. He didn’t even know any English—the language of his literary composition—until age 21.

2. HEART OF DARKNESS BEGINS AND ENDS IN THE UK.

Though it recounts Marlow's voyage through Belgian Congo in search of Kurtz and is forever linked to the African continent, Conrad’s novella begins and ends in England. At the story’s conclusion, the “tranquil waterway” that “seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness” is none other than the River Thames.

3. THE PROTAGONIST MARLOW IS CONRAD.

The well-traveled Marlow—who appears in other Conrad works, such as Lord Jim—is based on his equally well-traveled creator. In 1890, 32-year-old Conrad sailed the Congo River while serving as second-in-command on a Belgian trading company steamboat. As a career seaman, Conrad explored not only the African continent but also ventured to places ranging from Australia to India to South America.

4. LIKE KURTZ AND MARLOW, CONRAD GOT SICK ON HIS VOYAGE.

Illness claimed Kurtz, an ivory trader who has gone mysteriously insane. It nearly claimed Marlow. And these two characters almost never existed, owing to their creator’s health troubles. Conrad came down with dysentery and malaria in Belgian Congo, and afterwards had to recuperate in the German Hospital, London, before heading to Geneva, Switzerland, to undergo hydrotherapy. Though he survived, Conrad suffered from poor health for many years afterward.

5. THERE HAVE BEEN MANY ALLEGED KURTZES IN REAL LIFE.

The identity of the person on whom Conrad based the story’s antagonist has aroused many a conjecture. Among those suggested as the real Kurtz include a French agent who died on board Conrad’s steamship, a Belgian colonial officer, and Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

6. COLONIZING WAS ALL THE RAGE WHEN HEART OF DARKNESS APPEARED.

Imperialism—now viewed as misguided, oppressive, and ruthless—was much in vogue when Conrad’s novella hit shelves. The "Scramble for Africa" had seen European powers stake their claims on the majority of the continent. Britain’s Queen Victoria was even portrayed as the colonies' "great white mother." And writing in The New Review in 1897, adventurer Charles de Thierry (who tried and failed to establish his own colony in New Zealand) echoed the imperialistic exuberance of many with his declaration: “Since the wise men saw the star in the East, Christianity has found no nobler expression.”

7. CHINUA ACHEBE WAS NOT A FAN OF THE BOOK.

Even though Conrad was no champion of colonialism, Chinua Achebe—the Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart and other novels—delivered a 1975 lecture called “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” that described Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist” and his ubiquitous short classic as “an offensive and deplorable book.” However, even Achebe credited Conrad for having “condemned the evil of imperial exploitation.” And others have recognized Heart of Darkness as an indictment of the unfairness and barbarity of the colonial system.

8. THE BOOK WASN’T SUCH A BIG DEAL—AT FIRST.

In 1902, three years after its initial serialization in a magazine, Heart of Darkness appeared in a volume with two other Conrad stories. It received the least notice of the three. In fact, not even Conrad himself considered it a major work. And during his lifetime, the story “received no special attention either from readers or from Conrad himself,” writes Gene M. Moore in the introduction to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: A Casebook. But Heart of Darkness managed to ascend to immense prominence in the 1950s, after the planet had witnessed “the horror”—Kurtz's last words in the book—of WWII and the ramifications of influential men who so thoroughly indulged their basest instincts.

9. T.S. ELIOT BORROWED AN IMPORTANT LINE.

Though Heart of Darkness wasn’t an immediate sensation, it evidently was on the radar of some in the literary community. The famous line announcing the antagonist’s demise, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead,” serves as the epigraph to the 1925 T.S. Eliot poem “The Hollow Men.”

10. THE STORY INSPIRED APOCALYPSE NOW.

Eighty years after Conrad’s novella debuted, the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now hit the big screen. Though heavily influenced by Heart of Darkness, the movie’s setting is not Belgian Congo, but the Vietnam War. And though the antagonist (played by Marlon Brando) is named Kurtz, this particular Kurtz is no ivory trader, but a U.S. military officer who has become mentally unhinged.

11. HEART OF DARKNESS HAS BEEN MADE INTO AN OPERA.

Tarik O'Regan’s Heart of Darkness, an opera in one act, opened in 2011. Premiering at London’s Royal Opera House, it was reportedly the first operatic adaptation of Conrad’s story and heavily inspired by Apocalypse Now.

12. THE BOOK ALSO SPARKED A VIDEO GAME.

In a development not even Conrad’s imagination could have produced, his classic inspired a video game, Spec Ops: The Line, which was released in 2012.

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

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Amazon

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Instant Pot/Amazon

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10 Famous Writers’ Houses Worth Visiting

Robert E. Nylund, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Robert E. Nylund, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A writer’s home is a kind of autobiography, and visiting the place where a great work of literature was written gives you a deeper understanding of both the book and the person who wrote it. Here are some notable writers’ houses to check out.

1. Jack London’s Ranch // Glen Ellen, California

Besides being one of the most successful writers of his day, Call of the Wild author Jack London was also a dedicated rancher. London bought 1400 acres near Sonoma, California, and set up an experimental farm. He planted spineless cacti to feed his livestock, put in grain silos, and built a piggery so grand he called it the “pig palace.” You can visit the house where London lived and died, as well as the ruins of the three-story mansion that burned down just before he was set to move in. (The rock walls still stand in a redwood grove, not far from London's grave.)

2. John Steinbeck’s House // Salinas, California

Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men author Steinbeck grew up in this Victorian home and lived here as an adult in 1934 to care for his ailing mother. During that time, his successful novella The Red Pony was published. A restless child, Steinbeck never seemed comfortable with his middle-class upbringing and empathized with the migrant workers he saw in the vegetable fields around Salinas. The town appeared as the setting in many of his works, most notably East of Eden. Today, the home holds a restaurant located in what used to be Steinbeck’s parlor; the walls are decorated with Steinbeck family photos.

3. Mark Twain’s House // Hartford, Connecticut

Twain spent the happiest years of his life in this house with his wife and three daughters. He wrote seven major works here, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The house, which feels reminiscent of a Mississippi steamboat, cost a great deal of money and contributed to Twain’s financial problems late in life. The interior was designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and has more than 10,000 objects from the Victorian era. There’s even a pool table in the study, right by Twain’s writing desk.

4. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s House // Concord, Massachusetts

Emerson lived in this house for 46 years until his death in 1882, and it acted as a transcendentalist headquarters. Visitors like Henry David Thoreau went in and out, sometimes staying in the guest room nicknamed the “Pilgrim’s Chamber.” Emerson wrote his essays Nature and Self-Reliance in a study on the first floor, although his son later said that Emerson’s “real study” was nearby Walden Woods.

5. Emily Dickinson House // Amherst, Massachusetts

Emily Dickinson was known as a recluse whose poetry was largely discovered after her death. But the house where she spent her life is a pleasant and bright one, with big windows and high ceilings. While most of the poet’s activities remain a mystery even today, you can see her bedroom where she wrote many of her nearly 2000 poems.

6. Edith Wharton’s Estate // Lenox, Massachusetts

Edith Wharton was rich. Very rich. The Mount, her palatial home, has 35 rooms, four floors, and acres of lush gardens. Wharton helped design the house according to the principles she laid out in her best-selling book The Decoration of Houses. Her good friend Henry James was a frequent guest. Wharton wrote The House Of Mirth at The Mount, usually working in the morning while lying in bed.

7. Margaret Mitchell’s Apartment // Atlanta, Georgia

The ultimate pilgrimage for Gone With The Wind fans has to be Margaret Mitchell’s house. Mitchell moved into Apartment Number 1 of this building—which she called "The Dump"—as a newlywed in 1925 and lived there for seven years. She worked on her epic novel on a table in the living room alcove that overlooks Crescent Avenue. Few people knew she was writing a book, which she considered a personal project. She worked on it sporadically until it was accepted for publication in 1935, forcing her to finish it up. The novel was a runaway hit.

8. Flannery O'Connor’s Andalusia Farm // Milledgeville, Georgia

Flannery O’Connor wanted to move away from the South, but when she was diagnosed with lupus, she moved to her mother’s dairy farm in 1951 and lived there until her death in 1964 at age 39. Since it was difficult for her to climb stairs, she slept in the downstairs living room, where she also wrote most of her published work. You can still see her manual typewriter and her crutches in the house. The more than 520 acre farm, with its ever-present peacocks, served as the setting for many of her short stories.

9. William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak // Oxford, Mississippi

Few authors are as known for evoking place as Faulkner is for writing about Oxford, Mississippi. Rowan Oak, his home for over 30 years, is where he wrote many of his major works, including Light in August. When Faulkner bought the house, it didn’t have running water or electricity. He spent many afternoons on home improvement projects, wiring the house himself and building the brick terrace outside. In his study, he sometimes wrote his complicated plot structures on the wall, then painted over them when he finished the book. In fact, you can still see the plot for his novel A Fable penciled on the wall right where he left it.

10. Ernest Hemingway’s House // Key West, Florida

Ernest Hemingway lived in this house from the time he married his second wife, Pauline, to when he ran off to Cuba with his third wife, Martha. It was the most productive eight years of his life. He wrote most of his major works in his office, which you could only get to by walking across a bridge that extended from the upstairs bedroom. Almost everything in the house had a story, from the urinal garden fountain to the monastery gate he used as a headboard to the six-toed cats he collected because he thought they were good luck. Today, over 40 cats still live on the estate, all said to be descendants of Hemingway’s original pets.