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Autobiographical Elements in Joseph Conrad's "heart of Darkness"

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"Heart of Darkness" is Conrad's journey to the Self/Autobiographical elements in the "Heart of Darkness"

(by: Purwarno, Faculty of English Literature, UISU, Medan, Indonesia. E-mail:

"Heart of Darkness" is the most famous of Joseph Conrad's personal novels: a pilgrim's progress for a pessimistic and psychological age. After having finished the main draft of the novel, Conrad had remarked, "Before the Congo, I was just a mere animal." The living nightmare of 1890 seems to have affected Conrad quite as importantly as the Andre Gide's Congo experience 36 years later. The autobiographical basis of the narrative is well known and its introspective bias obvious. This is Conrad's longest journey into self. But it would do well to remember that Heart of Darkness is also a sensitive vivid travelogue and a comment on "the vilest scramble for lost that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration." (Albert Gerard).

The novel thus has its important public side as an angry document on absurd and brutal exploitation. In the characters of Marlowe and Kurtz, we see one of the greatest of Conrad's many moments of compassionate rendering. Significantly, all that narrated has been gathered from the hinterland of Conrad's own experiences during his Congo exploration.

`Heart of Darkness' is a record of things seen and done. But also Conrad was reacting to the humanitarian pretences of some of the looters precisely as the novelist today reacts to the moralism of cold propaganda. Then it was ivory poured down from the heart of darkness, now it is uranium. Conrad shrewdly recognized an institution amply developed in Nostromo - that deception is most sinister when it becomes self-decept...

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...finds Kurtz's cabin empty, his secret sharer gone a part of himself, had vanished, "what made this emotion so overpowering was - how shall I define it..."

He follows the crawling Kurtz through the grass, comes upon him - "long, pale, indistinct like a vapour exhaled by the earth." When Marlow finds it hard to define the moral shock he received on seeing the empty cabin or when he says he does not know why he was jealous of sharing his experience we can take him literally, and in a sense be thankful for his uncertainty. `Heart of Darkness' takes us into a deeper region of the mind, quite similar to the psychic union between Legatt and his secret sharer in Conrad's short story, "The Secret Sharer." We ought to share F.R. Leavis, who emphasizes the fact that Conrad was probably staring at the devil when he transmuted his experiences into fictionalized form.

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