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Student Resources
Heart of Darkness Manuscript

These pages are intended for students studying Conrad's fiction or for those seeking general guidance to some sources on a given work.

  • Information on "Heart of Darkness" is found below.
  • Brief guides to Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, and "The Secret Sharer" are available here.


The novella was written between autumn 1898 and February 1899 while Conrad was working on Lord Jim and blocked on The Rescue. In late December, Conrad wrote to his publisher to explain that:

"It is a narrative after the manner of [Y]outh told by the same man dealing with his experiences on a river in Central Africa. The idea in it is not as obvious as in {Y]outh – or at least not so obviously presented. … The title I am thinking of is 'The Heart of Darkness' but the narrative is not gloomy. The criminality of inefficiency and pure selfishness when tackling the civilising work in Africa is a justifiable idea. The subject is of our time distinc[t]ly – though not topically treated." (Collected Letters 2: 139-40).

The tale was finished in February and the serial version appeared in the conservative Blackwood’s Magazine, under the title "The Heart of Darkness" (title changed for book version) between February and April 1899. It was published in volume form as one of the three stories in the collection Youth: A Narrative, and Two Other Stories (1902).

The Critical Response: Introductory Works

Heart of Darkness has become one of the most widely read works by Conrad. It has provoked controversy for its depiction of Africa and Africans and its perspective on women. Its sources in Conrad’s own experiences have been exhaustively studied and its literary antecedents have been relentlessly hunted out.

It has proved a creative stimulus to other artists, inspiring John Powell’s composition for piano and orchestra Rhapsodie nègre (1917), T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and "The Hollow Men" (1925), Graham Greene’s A Burnt Out Case (1961), and V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River (1979). Francis Ford Coppola drew on the novella for his Vietnam film Apocalypse Now (1979).

The bewildering variety of critical approaches that the novel has generated can be confusing for first time readers. Among the best starting points is Ian Watt’s chapter in Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (1979) which offers an overview of the story’s origins, aesthetic, and political concerns.

Norman Sherry’s Conrad’s Western World (1971) provides a wealth of detail on the historical background. Robert Kimbrough’s Norton Critical Edition (1988) of the novella includes a convenient selection of background and source information along with extracts from major critical studies. This Norton volume has been updated and revised, a 4th edition being edited by Paul B. Armstrong (2005). Heart of Darkness: A Casebook, ed. Gene M. Moore (2004) provides material for contextualizing the story and suggests lines of approach.

There are useful surveys of the early critical response to the story in Bruce Harkness, ed., Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness" and the Critics (1960) whilst Robert Burden’s "Heart of Darkness": An Introduction to the Variety of Criticism (1991) provides a concise survey of the novella’s critical fortunes from publication to the late 1980s. This work is complemented by the fuller but less readable study by Nicolas Tredell, Joseph Conrad: "Heart of Darkness" (1998). D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke's Routledge Guide to Literature, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (2007) offers a thoroughgoing discussion of the novella's critical fortunes since its publication as well as five essays on the text.

Harold Bloom, ed., Joseph Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness" (1987) provides extracts from major studies along with a selection of modern responses. Ross Murfin, ed., Joseph Conrad: "Heart of Darkness": A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism (1989) outlines some major theoretical approaches to the text. Keith Carabine, ed., Joseph Conrad: Critical Assessments: Vol. 2 (1992) provides full text reprints of some major essays from the 1970s to 1990s, with a particular focus on post colonial issues.

Africa & Africans in "Heart of Darkness"

In a 1975 lecture the African writer Chinua Achebe famously denounced the novella, arguing that in its depiction of Africa and Africans Conrad was revealed as a "thoroughgoing racist" (revised version of ‘An Image of Africa’, reprinted in Carabine, ed., 2: 393-404) first published in The Massachusetts Review, 18.4 (Winter 1977): 782-94, in which Achebe calls Conrad "a bloody racist." The essay has provoked much debate, including responses by Cedric Watts (available in Carabine, ed., 2: 405-18), Wilson Harris, and Francis B. Singh (reprinted in Kimbrough, ed. 1988: 262-68, 268-85).

For an account of Conrad’s representation of imperialism see, among others, Benita Parry, Conrad and Imperialism (1983) and Andrea White Joseph Conrad and the Adventure Tradition (1993).

Conrad & Modernism

The novella’s place in the development of English Modernism has been another fruitful topic of critical debate. There is a concise survey of work in this field in Burden (op. cit., 35-44) and Kenneth Graham’s essay on ‘Conrad and Modernism' in J. H. Stape, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad (1996), pp. 203-22, and his study of Indirections of the Novel: James, Conrad and Forster (1990) covers the topic in some detail.

Other work on this subject includes:

  • Ian Watt, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (1979)
  • Allon White, The Uses of Obscurity: The Fictions of Early Modernism (1981)
  • J. Hillis-Miller, Poets of Reality (1985)
  • Edward Said, The World, the Text and the Critic (1983)
  • Michael Levenson, Modernism and the Fate of Individuality (1991)
  • Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan, Joseph Conrad and the Modern Temper (1991)
  • Heart of Darkness, edited by D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke (3rd edition 2020)
  • Con Coroneos, Space, Conrad, and Modernity (2002)
  • Allan H. Simmons, Conrad's "Heart of Darkness": A Reader's Guide (2007)
  • Nicholas Tredell, ed., Joseph Conrad: "Heart of Darkness": Essays, Articles, Reviews (2000)

Gender Issues in "Heart of Darkness"

Questions of the novella’s representation of women were forcefully raised by Nina Pelikan Strauss in "The Exclusion of the Intended from Secret Sharing in 'Heart of Darkness,'"Novel, 20.2 (Winter 1987): 123-27. This powerful reading generated a new vein of critical inquiry that includes:

  • Peter Hyland, ‘The Little Woman in “Heart of Darkness,”’ Conradiana, 20 (1988): 1-11.
  • Joanna Smith, ‘“Too beautiful altogether”: Patriarchal Ideology in “Heart of Darkness”’ in Murfin, ed., A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism (1989), pp.179-95.
  • Ruth Nadelhaft, Joseph Conrad (1991).
  • Padmini Mongia, ‘Empire, Narrative and the Feminine in Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness’ in Carabine et al, eds., Contexts for Conrad (1993).

Some Web Links for "Heart of Darkness"

"Heart of Darkness" Manuscript Online

Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library has digitized the surviving manuscript of the novella. Click on the link here and go to the Digital Images Online section of the menu.

"Heart of Darkness" Discussion

The following link is to an mp3 file with a 45- minute discussion of the novella by Lord Bragg with Dr Susan Jones, Professor Robert Hampson, and Dr Laurence Davies.

The discussion was broadcast on the BBC Radio 4 programme "Melyvn Bragg: In our Time" on 15 February 2007. RealPlayerAudio must be installed on your computer in order to access this discussion. Click here for the file: In Our Time

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