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. Marlow: at the beginning of the novel, he is probably in his mid-late 30s, for the bulk of the 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, like rivets.
“‘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 heroic images. Kurtz: mid to late 40s, powerful, cruel, independent, enigmatic, captivating. Kurtz represents a more extreme version of what Marlow might become under more extreme circumstances, a freespirited 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 his voice.

“‘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. Intended: young, naïve, gracious, delicate. She provides a stark contrast to the wild world of 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.

There are many contrasts between light and dark. The word “savage” has a very different meaning at the end of the novel than it does at the beginning.
“‘I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago—the other day…Light came out of this river since—you say Knights? Yes, but it is like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker—may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday.’”

This quote establishes the contrast between light and darkness, and it is interesting to note that the sources of light that Marlow lists are all very primeval, violent, and emotive. We can also see Marlow’s rather abstract conception of time, which is likely a result of his enlightenment. He also hints at the idea that Europe is also a creator of darkness, and most people are so swamped by the shadows that their world creates that they never grasp more than a few flickers of sunlight.
“‘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. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of the sunshine. The long stretches of waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of the overshadowed distances.’”

As Marlow ventures up the Congo River, he returns to a wilder, more primitive state of being, one in which even the sunshine seems ominous and unpleasant. All of nature seems violent, and plants take on the brutal qualities traditionally reserved for people. Even the air seems to be trying to weaken Marlow, and the threat of danger looms everywhere.
“‘I came upon him and if he had not heard me coming, I would have fallen over him too, but he got up in time. He rose, unsteady, long, pale, indistinct like a vapour exhaled by the earth, and swayed slightly, misty and silent before me while at my back the fires loomed between the trees, and the murmur of many voices issued from the forest.’”

This quote illustrates Kurtz’s physical weakness. In his scene he appears more spectral than human, which must be difficult for someone who seems to lack a soul. He is waste, flimsy, and ill-equipped to handle the world that has now turned against him. This scene has a very ghastly and ominous tone, making it seem like Marlow and Kurtz have entered a new plain of existence, or descended into hell entirely, making them impervious to normal human intervention. Syntax: syntax, like diction, is often ambiguous. One gets the impression that Marlow is not relating words exactly as he heard them, but what he has chosen to remember. Words and phrases often feel removed from a direct reading experience because the reader is seeing them through Marlow’s own perspective, which is impossible for anyone but him to fully understand.
“‘At this moment I heard Kurtz’s deep voice behind the curtain. “Save me—save the ivory, you mean. Don’t tell me! Save me! Why, I’ve had to save you. You are interrupting my plans now. Sick. Sick. Not as sick as you would like to believe. Never mind. I’ll carry my ideas out yet—I will return. I’ll show you what can be done. You with your little peddling notions—you are interfering with me. I will return. I…”’”

The most interesting thing about the structure of this passage is that it is never specified who Kurtz is speaking to, meaning he could be speaking to anyone from himself, to Marlow, to anyone else on the boat or anyone else alive. His fragmented sentences indicate a crumbling mental state, and the childlike demeanor that he is regressing to. All his words turn back to

himself, reflecting his self-centered conception of the universe. He also equates the value of his life to that of ivory, revealing his materialistic understanding of life and value. Concrete Detail/ Imagery: there is a repeated image of the grass crawling up through skeletons, showing how the wild nature of Africa is much stronger than the ineffectual tools and weapons of white imperialism. There is also the image of the snake, embodied by the Congo river, that entrances Marlow down the path into the heart of darkness. There are also many references to holes, hollowness, or emptiness, referring to the spiritual and emotional void that exists where one’s “heart” should be. There is a continual opposition between European technology, which struggles to establish itself and is often falling apart, and the more untamed and powerful forces of Africa. There are also many images pertaining to a beating heart, usually created by the beating of drums. Africa is often described using hellish imagery. Africa itself often seems like a Garden of Eden, or beginning of life itself. Shoes are also a recurring image, showing how hard it can be to understand someone else’s perspective on life. Conrad makes heavy use of contrast between light and dark forces. Symbolism: the sea represents loneliness and isolation. Rivets represent Marlow’s attempt to retain order in his life and cling onto something concrete and logical amid the chaos and uncertainty of Africa. Weapons are a recurring representation of the European’s attempts to assign order to a world over which they have no real control. Boats represent mobility, and the certain degree of autonomy that comes with being able to choose one’s own path in life. The image of the river mirrors that of the snake—which represents temptation and the loss of innocence through education about the evils of the outside world. Figurative Language: the various natural forces of Africa are often personified and imbued with a kind of mystical and ominous energy. There is a lot of repetition. Technology especially is anthropomorphized. Ironic Devices: Marlow’s expectations are contradicted upon his arrival in Africa. He comes expecting grand and exciting adventure—and what he discovers is only grand in the horror that it instills in him. There is also a contradiction between the rumor and reality of Kurtz. He is made to sound as powerful, altruistic, and grand as Marlow’s naïve ideals, but in reality he is weak, struggling, and flimsy. European weapons also prove significantly less effective than simple, innocent devices, like the whistle on the steamer. Tone: ominous, melancholy, opaque. Marlow often phrases things in an abstract manner, making the reader feel removed from the main action of the story and giving his narration a dream-like and mystical quality. Marlow often seems removed from the feelings of other people, and describes them with a hint of irony.

Theme: the main point of this novel is to give the reader an opportunity to peer into the darkest corners of the globe, and of themselves. Marlow’s physical journey mirrors his internal one, as he penetrates deeper and deeper into the darkness, expecting grandeur, meaning, or at the very least something worth working for and believing in. instead, what he uncovers is a gigantic void, an eternal physical and spiritual emptiness that all the forces of evil in the world have rushed in to fill. At the center of the man, at the center of the world, there is no purpose, there is no reason, there is only the darkness of empty space. Individualism vs. the mentality of the group is an important recurring idea. Both Marlow and Kurtz are highly individualistic, but Kurtz is further removed from the convention rules of society than Marlow is, and thus capable of accomplishing greater things and inflicting greater evil. Marlow respects people with a strong sense of internal motivation and independence, like Kurtz, and resents those that acquiesce too easily to the beliefs and commands of others. for Marlow, the only way to exonerate oneself of the actions of the group is to act as an individual, following an internal moral compass. However, Marlow has more internal limitations than Kurtz, and understands the importance of not straying too far from the bounds of society. Thus, he is fascinated by Kurtz, but never would want to be him. He sees in Kurtz the most extreme versions of both individualism and cult-like devotion taken too far, and the harsh duality affronts him. Another important concept is that of willful vs. unintended ignorance, and the role that each plays both in the lives of individuals and the functioning of society. Marlow begins his journey with youthful innocence that is gradually stripped from him as he ventures deeper up the Congo River. He begins to look down on those who are still suspended in ignorance, either because they blindly follow the ideals of Kurtz or because they follow the will of the Company. After his journey is finished, the question arises of whether he has an obligation to share with his knowledge with the rest of the world. Ultimately, Marlow seems to come to the conclusion that becoming enlightened is a personal experience, and not something that he should try to impose on other people. Significance of Title: the heart of darkness is the heart of all uncertainty, evil, and cruelty. We think that this is best embodied by Africa, but it really exists within everyone, and is waiting for the right environment to be released. The heart of darkness is the truth at the center of everything. Memorable Quotes:
“‘I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself—not for others—what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.’”

This quote reflects the importance of individuality and self-actualization, too conceptions that Marlow highly values. It also relates to the idea of alienation via experience—people can never understand the life of someone else because they are incapable of living it themselves. This quote also shows Marlow’s appreciation of concrete, easily-accessible things.

“‘I lived in an infernal mess of rust, filings, nuts, bolts, spanners, hammers, ratchet-drills—things I abominate because I don’t get on with them.’”

It is interesting to track how Marlow’s relationships with physical things changes throughout the novel. Marlow likes things that have a clear and concrete purpose, which generally includes tools. So it seems strange that he would not “get on” with some of the same tools that he seemed to have such a positive relationship with earlier in the novel. This is likely because his internal state is too convoluted to make use of them, and when he says that he cannot get on with the tools he really means that he cannot get on with himself.
“‘The earth for us is a place to live in, where we must put up with sights, with sounds, with smells too, by Jove!—breathe dead hippo so to speak and not be contaminated. And there, don’t you see, your strength comes in, the faith in your ability for the digging of unostentatious holes to bury the stuff in—your power of devotion not to yourself but to an obscure, back-breaking business.’”

This quote reflects Marlow’s practical viewpoint on life. His philosophy seems to be that, even though there are sources of evil in the world, people must find it within themselves to overcome and achieve self-actualization. It feels like Marlow is being sarcastic in the examples he gives of ways to achieve this self-realization.

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