Editorial Introduction to Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was first published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in three installments in 1899, then in book form in 1902 as one of the “other stories” in Youth: A Narrative and Two Other Stories. Early notices called attention to those features of the novella that have made it an object of intense interest for over a century. Several are singled out in an unsigned review that appeared in the Manchester Guardian on 10 December 1902. Heart of Darkness, the reviewer writes, is “a great expression of adventure and romance,” thus placing it in the context of the Romance Revival: a late-nineteenth-century turn away from domestic realism in fiction and toward exoticism and action more familiarly associated with writers like Robert Louis Stevenson and H. Rider Haggard. The implied stance toward European annexation of non-European territory, an essential question about the novella then and now, is addressed directly: “It must not be supposed that Mr. Conrad makes attack upon colonisation, expansion, even upon Imperialism.” Many later critics have concluded otherwise, but nearly all have agreed with the additional observation that, subjected to the novella’s scorching skepticism, “cheap ideals, platitudes of civilisation are shrivelled up.” Finally, the early anonymous reviewer lauds Conrad’s “concentrated, tenacious, thoughtful” style, a “high-water mark of English fiction” in which “[p]hrases strike the mind like lines of verse.” (For the complete review, see Joseph Conrad: The Critical Heritage, ed. Norman Sherry [London: Routledge, 1973], 195-98.)

Romance, imperialism, skepticism, style: to this inventory, so perspicaciously discerned and clearly laid out in the year the novella first appeared in book form, should be added those aspects of Heart of Darkness of interest to more recent readers and critics, including, at the least, the place of technical language, especially the technical language of seafaring; representations of gender and their implications; Conrad’s engagement with key scientific developments of his time, both in biology and physics; and his relation to other fiction writers, including the realist novelists and romancers who came before him and the modernists who came after. The list could go on at some length, which indicates the degree to which this relatively short book, so fully of its own time and place, has proved compelling in quite other times and places. Another, perhaps still stronger indication: the many rewritings of the novella, from Max Beerbohm’s short parody, “The Feast” (1912), to full-scale re-conceptualizations such as V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River (1979), Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (1998), and, no doubt most widely known, Francis Ford Coppola’s film version, set during the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now (1979). At once touchstone and Rorschach test, Heart of Darkness has inspired imitation, denunciation, explication, and interpretation to an extent matched by few other literary works.

Annotation for the COVE Heart of Darkness

Envisioned as useful to any and all readers of Heart of Darkness, this annotated edition is designed specifically for undergraduate and graduate students encountering the novella for the first (or second or third) time. Annotations fall into five principal categories: historical, cultural, textual, interpretative, and linguistic. The different categories do different kinds of work. Linguistic and historical annotations obviate the need to interrupt reading to track down the meaning of potentially unfamiliar words (e.g., “yawl,” “trireme”) or the particulars of historical references (e.g., to the ships Erebus and Terror). Textual annotations highlight significant variation across one or more versions of the novella. Cultural annotations aim to illuminate elements of the text that pertain specifically to late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain. Interpretative annotations, by far the most numerous, call attention to words or passages of most consequence for identifying, adjudicating among, and evaluating the novella’s concerns, including but not limited to those spelled out in the first two paragraphs of this introduction. A map has been added for those who wish to follow the journey the novella details. Where possible and useful, annotations in all categories draw on and direct readers to the extensive body of extant critical work on Heart of Darkness. There has been no attempt at comprehensiveness on this front—which, even if possible (doubtful), would have whelmed the novella itself in the sea of ink that has been spilled about it. Nor have the annotators confined themselves to only the most recent critical and scholarly contributions. The effort has been, instead, to sketch out the major contours of the study of Heart of Darkness, putting into evidence what have been the most influential positions in order to enable readers of and writers on Heart of Darkness to envisage their own contributions.

A Note on the Text

The source-text used for the COVE Edition is that of the first book publication of Heart of Darkness in the volume Youth: A Narrative and Two Other Stories (1902). In-line page numbers in the COVE edition correspond to page numbers in that volume. A number of variations occur across the manuscript, typescript, Blackwood’s Magazine, and first book versions of the novella; the most significant have been tracked in the Norton Critical Edition: Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness, ed. Paul Armstrong (New York: Norton, 2016), 79-104.