Modern day hearts of darkness



First published in serial form in 1899, Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness later caused controversy as presenting a racist view of Africa and Africans. Such arguments notwithstanding, it is also very much a work that is opposed to capitalism and colonialism.

Joseph Conrad's Heart of DarknessI have read this book numerous times, but have never felt I really understand it. But then that's one of the things about great literature: there's always another layer to be lifted and sifted, always more food for thought.

The title alone is far from simple, for heart refers to the centre of Africa, to what was then the Congo Free State, as well as to our vital organ, with all its connotations, while darkness is applicable both to the jungle and human nature.

The novel is a framed narrative, a recital of past events told by seaman Charles Marlow while the crew of a yawl waits on the Thames for the tide to turn. The first words that Marlow utters condemn London as being 'one of the dark places of the earth'.

He later mentions Brussels, and says it always reminds him of 'a whited sepulchre', a reference to Chapter 23, verse 27 of St Matthew's Gospel, in which Christ berates the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy, comparing them to whited sepulchres, which are outwardly beautiful, 'but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness'.

As with the great cities, so with certain men such as the much-praised agent Kurtz, whom Marlow finally meets after a protracted journey through the jungle. He is reportedly 'an emissary of pity and science and progress', but turns out to be a man 'hollow at the core'.  In his desire for ivory he has become corrupted to the point of savagery, and a ruthless exploiter of the indigenous peoples; he ends a report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs with the postscript: 'Exterminate all the brutes!'

Kurtz spoke of love, but his hut was surrounded by shrunken heads on sticks. Witnessing Kurtz's death, however, Marlow suspects that he experiences despair at the end, along with a moment of self-knowledge. For Kurtz's last whispered words are: 'The horror! The horror!'


"As I think every lawyer should read Bleak House and To Kill a Mockingbird, I now consider every politician should read Heart of Darkness."


One hundred and twenty years after being written, Heart of Darkness is still alarmingly relevant to the world and to the human condition. We are now reaping the dire harvests of unbridled capitalism and industrialisation, for example, while it is hard to see how the damage done to colonised peoples can ever be wholly undone.

Attitudes in these areas may have changed, but the hypocrisy and lack of self-knowledge that so concerned Conrad are still with us. A morally mature individual, Conrad believed, is able to admit that humans are capable of anything, that there is darkness at the heart of every person, and that every person has a secret self. This concept is ancient, but comparatively few people seem to grasp it.

As I think every lawyer should read Bleak House and To Kill a Mockingbird, I now consider every politician should read Heart of Darkness. A commentator recently described most politicians as being professional liars, and it can be argued that they tend to deceive themselves as well. Many can be compared with Kurtz, who hid 'in the magnificent folds of his eloquence the barren darkness of his heart'. (Not that there's too much magnificent eloquence around in any legislature these days.)

The late President H. W. Bush is remembered by many as the 'last gentleman President', but great numbers also believe that the invasion of Panama he ordered in 1989 set the scene for American wars to come.

One could argue that Donald Trump's secret self is no secret at all, while the firm belief in the rightness of the refugee and immigration policies expressed by Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison, professed Christians both, is horrifying. They appear to experience little self-doubt, and certainly self-knowledge is sadly lacking: the exercise of power is all.

What about the brotherhood of man? Compassion? Regret?

Will there be any deathbed whispers?



Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, racism, Donald Trump, refugees, Peter Dutton



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Existing comments

In "Heart of Darkness" Kurtz crossed every boundary. It is an unsettling read just for that fact alone. Conrad's ability in this novella to use language to recreate the menace and denseness of the jungle as well as building tension is unrivalled. And speaking of menace, denseness and tension: what apt words for our parliament!
Pam | 12 December 2018

Thanks Gillian! I agree that, "One could argue that Donald Trump's secret self is no secret at all, while the firm belief in the rightness of the refugee and immigration policies expressed by Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison, professed Christians both, is horrifying. They appear to experience little self-doubt, and certainly self-knowledge is sadly lacking: the exercise of power is all." One of the greatest character traits of Jesus of Nazareth was his compassion, but I don't see any of these leaders having much compassion for refugees, or for the numerous victims of impending catastrophic climate change.
Grant Allen | 12 December 2018

Joseph Conrad was, besides being cosmopolitan, extremely intelligent and widely travelled also Polish by birth and a cradle Catholic. He was a man of rare gifts and awareness as to the state of things as they are, rather than the way we would often like to see them. 'Heart of Darkness' is, as far as I understand it, about the meeting of two Hells, one the way Europeans imagined the Africa of his day, the other the Hell the Belgians, particularly King Leopold, had brought to the Congo at that time. It requires a saint to rise above that sort of Hell. Kurtz is not a saint: there is no Maximilian Kolbe here. Marlow is a sort of then contemporary Everyman. A great novel such as this, and, in my opinion this is a very great novel indeed, like a Shakespearean tragedy, transcends its subject matter and has many apt applications. Politicians? Very apt indeed.
Edward Fido | 12 December 2018

Perhaps Conrad’s ‘heart of darkness’ was Brussels and London?
Ginger Meggs | 12 December 2018

I suspect, Ginger Meggs, that what Conrad is on about in 'Heart of Darkness' is that supposedly 'good' men, like Kurtz have taken the internal darkness and Hell of contemporary Brussels (the capital of Belgium and home of the notorious King Leopold II) and London to the Congo. This is a damning critique of the supposed 'civilizing' mission of Europe in Africa. It rings down the ages to us. It is not just a piece of escapist 'literature' of the sort we often see today. Conrad was a morally evolved man: a true human being. Gillian is right to ponder the internal moral compass that directs so many of our modern politicians. King Leopold II certainly had none. I am not sure our current Australian politicians are quite as bad as he was, but there is certainly a need for them to show some moral direction.
Edward Fido | 13 December 2018

It is so uplifting to read a piece of writing drawing its links from significant writers of the past such as Joseph Conrads. The now seen hypocrisy and underlying racial superiority underlining a deep and rich piece of historical writing and the issues our parliamentarians today are having to grapple with appears to almost casually raise the conundrums involved in decision making. The conclusions of the writer are starkly presented as showing the hypocrisy of the modern politician. If only life was that simple.
alan roberts | 13 December 2018

Your timely and pertinent observations are all too applicable to what goes down in the absence of a true moral compass in those in a position to act in ways which will have a lasting impact on many of their constituents as well as the disenfranchised. Sad to say.
Jena Woodhouse | 13 December 2018

Thank you so much for that thought provoking article. I must read the book as I still must read To Kill a Mocking Bird.
Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 13 December 2018

Conrad was only 67 when he died in 1924. Had he lived a mere twenty to thirty more years, he might have thought Kurtz an anachronism compared to the Bolsheviks and the Nazis. And had he, very improbably, lived until 1994, he would have seen the heart shift ever so slightly from Congo to Rwanda. Well, actually, from Congo to Kampuchea to Rwanda. I might be missing something but how are Dutton and Morrison (and, for that matter, Kurtz) comparable with all that?
roy chen yee | 13 December 2018

Very apt applications, Gillian. Conrad's 1907 novel, The Secret Agent, also bears striking contemporary relevance, especially in relation to terrorism and the complex, often sinister forces and networks at play behind the scenes of everyday democratic assumptions and conventions.
John | 13 December 2018

I agree Gillian, hypocrisy and human nature don’t seem to change much. It is a long time since I read ‘ Heart of Darkness ‘ but I will now reread it with thoughts of politics in mind!
Maggie | 14 December 2018

A despairingly interestingly and unsettling insight Gillian, about the heart of mankind, which seems to comprise a mixture of deep spirituality and traits of dark animality. Despite ‘redemptions’ that seem to occur from time to time, mankind seems to have the greatest propensity for ‘self kiddery’.
John Whitehead | 15 December 2018

These are indeed the moral questions one wishes were asked of every politician: What of our universal sibling-hood - What of compassion - What of regret? Why is it that many politicians lie with impunity? Why are they not serving the citizens - instead costing up to the wealthy and vested interest corporations? Here in Australia right now we are watching with interest the cases of church figures yet to be sentenced over cases of paedophilia, of banking and financial figures surely facing gaol terms and watching the sexual shenanigans of yet another National Party ministerial figure play out. When will we ever again be able to trust significant public figures? Never?
Jim KABLE | 18 December 2018

'Heart of Darkness' did have a contemporary setting, which, because it is a truly Great Work of Art, like one of Shakespeare's tragedies, it transcends. The real 'heart of darkness' it looks into is our own. I am not sure most people, including most of our politicians, have either the humility or self-awareness to see this as a moral fable which applies to them personally. Therein lies real tragedy. What lights light them? Aye, there's the rub.
Edward Fido | 19 December 2018


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