Heart of Darkness: Setting & Time Period Video

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  • 0:04 Heart of Darkness
  • 0:36 Time Period
  • 1:25 Setting: London & Congo
  • 2:58 Setting: Trading Posts
  • 4:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the time period and setting of Joseph Conrad's novel, 'Heart of Darkness.' You'll also see how the setting plays into overall themes in the novel.

Heart of Darkness

When you tell someone about a trip you took, what do you say? You probably tell them when you went and something about the scenery and the sights you saw. What you're doing is describing the time period and the setting of your trip. This helps the person listening get a better sense of what the trip was like.

Authors do the same thing in their novels. The time period and setting of a novel help the reader see what was going on, often in light of particular historical events. The setting can also add to the overall themes of a novel. We can see this in Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness.

Time Period

Time period helps put the events of the novel into a historical perspective. The exact time period isn't stated in this novel, but it seems to take place at the time Conrad is writing it - the late 1890s. This assumption is helped by the fact that Marlow, the main character, is based on Conrad himself, who was a steamboat captain in the interior of the Congo during the early 1890s. He wrote the book immediately after his return.

During this time, the British Empire was especially focused on African colonization and trade. Heart of Darkness centers around the ivory trade along the Congo River, which was huge during the late 1800s. In addition, the novel clearly illustrates the British view of native Africans during that time. They were viewed as savages who needed to be brought under control, and certainly not as people. The attitudes of the white men in the novel all reflect this.

Setting: London & Congo

Setting helps place the reader in the novel and adds to the themes. This book begins on the Thames in London, where Marlow is talking to his fellow shipmates. Marlow's story begins in London as well, so the novel and the narrative have parallel beginnings. Marlow's narrative quickly moves into the Congo, after he gets his appointment as a steamboat captain.

From there, the setting is mostly either on the Congo River, or at a few trading posts Marlow stops at along the way. He begins as a passenger on another steamboat, until he gets to the first trading post, where he's supposed to collect his own steamer.

A good portion of the novel takes place on Marlow's steamer as it moves toward the Inner Station. It's on the river that the setting really reflects and adds to the overall themes of darkness and savagery in the novel. It's described as a whole different world from either London or the trading posts. Marlow notes that 'Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings.'

As they move along, the river becomes figuratively darker. It moves them away from civilization and into the unknown, and the uneasiness this inspires is emphasized by vegetation that is so thick they can't see beyond the river itself. Later, this vegetation provides cover for the natives that hide in the brush and shoot at them, and so the setting also adds to the idea of natives as savages.

Eventually, Marlow makes it back to London, and so the setting of his narrative comes full circle. The setting of the overall novel does as well, when the focus goes back to the Thames and 'present day', where Marlow has been telling his story.

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