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Title: Heart of Darkness
Genre: psychological drama
Author: Joseph Conrad
Period/ School: early modernist
Publication Date: 1902
The Author and His Times: Conrad himself made a voyage down the Congo river, which was
probably the basis for many of the experiences that he describes. He also lived during a time
when Europe, and Britain especially, was at the height of its imperial dominance, so international
trade was very important. Race relations at this time were tense. White imperialists believed that
it was their moral duty to help enlighten and civilize the African peoples, and some of the residue
of these philosophies creeps into Conrad’s writing. Many events described in Heart of Darkness
are of an autobiographical nature.
Form, Structure, Plot: Frame narrative, story within a story. There are numerous breaks in
Marlow’s narrative to reconnect the reader with the concrete world. The plot of Marlow’s story
is fairly simple and moves slowly, but is very detailed. Da capo ending. The part of the story that
Marlow narrates takes place over 8 months – one year, and the ends of the story take place
several years later.
Point of View: perspective changes often. The story is technically being told by an unnamed
first-person narrator, but the bulk of the novel is related by Marlow, who occasionally speaks in
second person, but for the most part uses first person as well. This narration style makes the
reader feel slightly removed from the action that Marlow describes, and allows Conrad to show
how Marlow’s revelations are received by people from the outside world who did not directly
experience them. This highlights the themes of alienation, emotional negligence, and inability to
understand the thoughts and actions of others that are prevalent throughout the novel. Marlow’s
narration may be unreliable because 1) he is relating events that happened to him a long time ago
and that he doesn’t even fully understand and 2) he has strong opinions about his experiences
and is probably biased in his recounting of them. An interesting aspect of the perspective from
which Marlow’s story is told is that, since he has lived through the entire story already, he faces
free associations between events that did not necessarily take place in chronological order, and
can with certainty predict the events of the “future.” This plays with the readers concrete
conception of time, and gives Marlow an omniscient quality.
Characters: Marlow is the main character, and the other figures—besides Kurtz—often seem like
accessories to his journey. There is no clear antagonist, expect for the forces of Africa, which are
often personified. Marlow never seems particularly interested in the people around him, and
sometimes regards them with disdain and sarcasm. Hence, the secondary characters don’t seem
completely human and aren’t very well-developed. Even Marlow, while he does develop, always
seem kind of sketchily assembled. The only thing we know about most characters is what
Marlow tells us about them, since we see most of the novel through his perspective. While we do
learn about characters by observing their actions and what they say about each other, even these
are viewed through Marlow’s perspective, and thus he is continually manipulating the perception
of the reader.
novel he is probably in his early-mid 20s. Adventurous, curious, determined, practical, admires
things that have a concrete purpose, individualism, and people who self-actualize. He feels
disdain for the things that the doesn’t like, such as mindlessness and things that have no concrete
meaning or benefit. He is in conflict because he admires the grander and glory of the past and of
adventure, but he finds little evidence of those ideals in the modern world. He is not very
emotional and seems to be bothered by things only on a very cerebral level. He is level-headed
and efficient, but not spiritually or deeply emotionally impressed by authority. He is an
independent spirit, and respects people who embody those same ideals, but is guarded in his
personal relations. He respects Kurtz, but does not respect the people who thoughtlessly worship
him. He is caught between not being an incredibly emotional himself and being shocked at the
atrocious crimes against human decency that he sees committed in the Congo—it leaves him
unsure of how to conduct himself, so he resorts to thinking about very easily to quantify things,
“‘Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or
Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank
spaces on the earth and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that)
I would put my finger on it and say: when I grow up I will go there. The North Pole was one of these
places I remember. Well, I haven’t been there and I shall not try now. The glamour’s off.’”
This quote sets the reader up for the mental and emotional transformation that Marlow will
undergo as he penetrates deeper into Africa. As a youth he is idealistic, adventurous, and has
many exalted notions. These traits do not completely abandon him, but they mutate and find
strange ways of expressing themselves on his journey. Upon his arrival, Marlow’s naïve visions
are scared away by the horrors that he witnesses. They search out an alternative idol in Kurtz, but
Marlow finds that he is not an adequate substitute for the fantasies of his youth, because nothing
could be. In the course of his journey, Marlow discovers that there are no real heroes, and no real
more extreme version of what Marlow might become under more extreme circumstances, a free-
spirited natural leader with an eye for efficiency that sees little in people beyond their physical
presence. Marlow is both intrigued and disgusted by this, which seems to be his response to most
things. Kurtz fills the power vacuum that was created by the destruction of traditional African
societies, and fills it with violence and a cult-like worship for those who seem to provide safety
and stability. He is the personification of the purest form of evil imported from Europe, and also
it’s most glorious power. Kurtz is Marlow’s dream turned bitter. His most important feature is
“‘Kurtz discoursed. A voice! A voice! It rang deep to the very last. It survived his strength to hide in the
magnificent folds of the eloquence the barren darkness of his heart. Oh, he struggled, he struggled. The
wastes of his weary brain were haunted by shadowy images now—images of wealth and fame revolving
obsequiously around his unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression. My Intended, my station, my
career, my ideas—these were the subjects of his occasional utterances of elevated sentiments. The shade
of the original Kurtz frequented the beside of the hollow sham whose fate it was to be buried presently in
the mould of primeval earth. But both his diabolic love and the unearthly hate of the mysteries it had
penetrated fought for the possession of that soul satiated with primitive emotions, avid of lying fame, of
sham distinction, of all the appearances of success and power.’”
This quote possibly reveals more about Marlow than it does about Kurtz, but it is the most vivid
description of Kurtz’s internal world. He is a contradiction—the essence of European
imperialism at its most refined and most brutal. He is a bearer of light who serves the darkness,
the embodiment of a savage civilization. Love and money are of equal rank, and viewed in much
the same terms. He is arrogant, greedy, and represents the lie that Marlow used to believe before
his journey began. He is a decaying person, with little more than his voice still strong—he is
literary rotting from the inside out. However, he doesn’t have a sickness, he is the sickness.
Africa. She represents all the self-centered oblivion and naiveté of European civilization. She is what Marlow was before he went on his journey, and he cannot shatter the beauty of the world for her the way it was shattered for him.
“‘She had a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering. The room seemed to have grown darker
as if all the sad light of the cloudy evening had taken refuge on her forehead. This fair hair, this pale
visage, this pure brow, seemed surrounded by an ashy halo from which the dark eyes looked out at me.
Their glance was guileless, profound, confident, and trustful.’”
We can see from this quote that while the Intended has a much greater emotional capacity than either Marlow or Kurtz, she is significantly more ignorant. She is shrouded in darkness, but not the same kind of darkness that engulfs Africa; she lives in an artificial darkness that is created intentionally to keep people ignorant and innocent. She is weak, too weak for her own emotions.
Setting: Africa, the Congo River. Africa attracts Marlow because it represents uncertainty and
adventure; he believes that is a setting for the expansion of human potential. However, he
discovers that Africa has a life and spirit of its own, it is wild, unforgiving, and aggressive
towards invaders. The darkness and cruelty of its nature mirror the darkness inherent in those
who attempt to conquer it. Technology and typical European imperial efforts feel weak and
ineffectual there. The further Marlow ventures up the river, the darker his thoughts become, and
in that way he has a symbiotic relationship with nature. People are very strongly connected to
their native lands; when taken out of their natural environments they become weak and crumble
physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Diction: the diction of this novel is in general very elusive and often dreamy and vague. This is
because much of the story is related through Marlow’s memory, which is an imperfect
recollection at best. He doesn’t speak particularly formally, but tells his story with elegance.
Now bringing you back...
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