This PDF is brought to you in association with . . . Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad ©2002, 2007 by SparkNotes All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission from the publisher. sparknotes is a registered trademark of SparkNotes llc SparkNotes A Division of Barnes & Noble 76 Ninth Avenue New York, NY 10011 USA www. sparknotes. com Brought to you in association with: Context
Joseph Conrad did not begin to learn English until he was twenty-one years old. He was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski on December 3, 1857, in the Polish Ukraine. When Conrad was quite young, his father was exiled to Siberia on suspicion of plotting against the Russian government. After the death of the boy’s mother, Conrad’s father sent him to his mother’s brother in Krakow to be educated, and Conrad never again saw his father. He traveled to Marseilles when he was seventeen and spent the next twenty years as a sailor. He signed on to an English ship in 1878, and eight years later he became a British subject.
In 1889, he began his ? rst novel, Almayer’s Folly, and began actively searching for a way to ful? ll his boyhood dream of traveling to the Congo. He took command of a steamship in the Belgian Congo in 1890, and his experiences in the Congo came to provide the outline for Heart of Darkness. Conrad’s time in Africa wreaked havoc on his health, however, and he returned to England to recover. He returned to sea twice before ? nishing Almayer’s Folly in 1894 and wrote several other books, including one about Marlow called Youth: A Narrative before beginning Heart of Darkness in 1898.
He wrote most of his other major works—including Lord Jim, which also features Marlow; Nostromo; and The Secret Agent, as well as several collaborations with Ford Madox Ford—during the following two decades. Conrad died in 1924. Conrad’s works, Heart of Darkness in particular, provide a bridge between Victorian values and the ideals of modernism. Like their Victorian predecessors, these novels rely on traditional ideas of heroism, which are nevertheless under constant attack in a changing world and in places far from England.
Women occupy traditional roles as arbiters of domesticity and morality, yet they are almost never present in the narrative; instead, the concepts of “home” and “civilization” exist merely as hypocritical ideals, meaningless to men for whom survival is in constant doubt. While the threats that Conrad’s characters face are concrete ones—illness, violence, conspiracy—they nevertheless acquire a philosophical character. Like much of the best modernist literature produced in the early decades of the twentieth century, Heart of Darkness is as much about alienation, confusion, and profound doubt as it is about imperialism.
Imperialism is nevertheless at the center of Heart of Darkness. By the 1890s, most of the world’s “dark places” had been placed at least nominally under European control, and the major European powers were stretched thin, trying to administer and protect massive, far-? ung empires. Cracks were beginning to appear in the system: riots, wars, and the wholesale abandonment of commercial enterprises all threatened the white men living in the distant corners of empires. Things were clearly falling apart.
Heart of Darkness suggests that this is the natural result when men are allowed to operate outside a social system of checks and balances: power, especially power over other human beings, inevitably corrupts. At the same time, this begs the question of whether it is possible to call an individual insane or wrong when he is part of a system that is so thoroughly corrupted and corrupting. Heart of Darkness, thus, at its most abstract level, is a narrative about the dif? culty of understanding the world beyond the self, about the ability of one man to judge another. Although Heart of Darkness was one of the ? st literary texts to provide a critical view of European imperial activities, it was initially read by critics as anything but controversial. While the book was generally admired, it was typically read either as a condemnation of a certain type of adventurer who could easily take advantage of imperialism’s opportunities, or else as a sentimental novel reinforcing domestic values: Kurtz’s Intended, who appears at the novella’s conclusion, was roundly praised by turn-of-the-century reviewers for her maturity and sentimental appeal. Conrad’s decision to set the book n a Belgian colony and to have Marlow work for a Belgian trading concern made it even easier for British readers to avoid seeing themselves re? ected in Heart of Darkness. Although these early reactions seem ludicrous to a modern reader, they reinforce the novella’s central themes of hypocrisy and absurdity. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission from the publisher. Copyright 2002, 2007 by SparkNotes 2
Brought to you in association with: Plot Overview Heart of Darkness centers around Marlow, an introspective sailor, and his journey up the Congo River to meet Kurtz, reputed to be an idealistic man of great abilities. Marlow takes a job as a riverboat captain with the Company, a Belgian concern organized to trade in the Congo. As he travels to Africa and then up the Congo, Marlow encounters widespread inef? ciency and brutality in the Company’s stations. The native inhabitants of the region have been forced into the Company’s service, and they suffer terribly from overwork and ill treatment at the hands of the Company’s agents.
The cruelty and squalor of imperial enterprise contrasts sharply with the impassive and majestic jungle that surrounds the white man’s settlements, making them appear to be tiny islands amidst a vast darkness. Marlow arrives at the Central Station, run by the general manager, an unwholesome, conspiratorial character. He ? nds that his steamship has been sunk and spends several months waiting for parts to repair it. His interest in Kurtz grows during this period. The manager and his favorite, the brickmaker, seem to fear Kurtz as a threat to their position.
Kurtz is rumored to be ill, making the delays in repairing the ship all the more costly. Marlow eventually gets the parts he needs to repair his ship, and he and the manager set out with a few agents (whom Marlow calls pilgrims because of their strange habit of carrying long, wooden staves wherever they go) and a crew of cannibals on a long, dif? cult voyage up the river. The dense jungle and the oppressive silence make everyone aboard a little jumpy, and the occasional glimpse of a native village or the sound of drums works the pilgrims into a frenzy. Marlow and his crew come across a hut with stacked ? ewood, together with a note saying that the wood is for them but that they should approach cautiously. Shortly after the steamer has taken on the ? rewood, it is surrounded by a dense fog. When the fog clears, the ship is attacked by an unseen band of natives, who ? re arrows from the safety of the forest. The African helmsman is killed before Marlow frightens the natives away with the ship’s steam whistle. Not long after, Marlow and his companions arrive at Kurtz’s Inner Station, expecting to ? nd him dead, but a half-crazed Russian trader, who meets them as they come ashore, assures them that everything is ? e and informs them that he is the one who left the wood. The Russian claims that Kurtz has enlarged his mind and cannot be subjected to the same moral judgments as normal people. Apparently, Kurtz has established himself as a god with the natives and has gone on brutal raids in the surrounding territory in search of ivory. The collection of severed heads adorning the fence posts around the station attests to his “methods. ” The pilgrims bring Kurtz out of the station-house on a stretcher, and a large group of native warriors pours out of the forest and surrounds them.
Kurtz speaks to them, and the natives disappear into the woods. The manager brings Kurtz, who is quite ill, aboard the steamer. A beautiful native woman, apparently Kurtz’s mistress, appears on the shore and stares out at the ship. The Russian implies that she is somehow involved with Kurtz and has caused trouble before through her in? uence over him. The Russian reveals to Marlow, after swearing him to secrecy, that Kurtz had ordered the attack on the steamer to make them believe he was dead in order that they might turn back and leave him to his plans.
The Russian then leaves by canoe, fearing the displeasure of the manager. Kurtz disappears in the night, and Marlow goes out in search of him, ? nding him crawling on all fours toward the native camp. Marlow stops him and convinces him to return to the ship. They set off down the river the next morning, but Kurtz’s health is failing fast. Marlow listens to Kurtz talk while he pilots the ship, and Kurtz entrusts Marlow with a packet of personal documents, including an eloquent pamphlet on civilizing the savages which ends with a scrawled message that says, “Exterminate all the brutes! The steamer breaks down, and they have to stop for repairs. Kurtz dies, uttering his last words—“The horror! The horror! ”—in the presence of the confused Marlow. Marlow falls ill soon after and barely survives. Eventually he returns to Europe and goes to see Kurtz’s Intended (his ? ancee). She is still in mourning, even though it has been over a year since Kurtz’s death, and she praises him as a paragon of virtue and achievement. She asks what his last words were, but Marlow cannot bring himself to shatter her illusions with the truth. Instead, he tells her that Kurtz’s last word was her name.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission from the publisher. Copyright 2002, 2007 by SparkNotes 3 Brought to you in association with: Character List Marlow All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission from the publisher.
The protagonist of Heart of Darkness. Marlow is philosophical, independent-minded, and generally skeptical of those around him. He is also a master storyteller, eloquent and able to draw his listeners into his tale. Although Marlow shares many of his fellow Europeans’ prejudices, he has seen enough of the world and has encountered enough debased white men to make him skeptical of imperialism. The chief of the Inner Station and the object of Marlow’s quest. Kurtz is a man of many talents—we learn, among other things, that he is a gifted musician and a ? ne painter— the chief of which are his charisma and his ability to lead men.
Kurtz is a man who understands the power of words, and his writings are marked by an eloquence that obscures their horrifying message. Although he remains an enigma even to Marlow, Kurtz clearly exerts a powerful in? uence on the people in his life. His downfall seems to be a result of his willingness to ignore the hypocritical rules that govern European colonial conduct: Kurtz has “kicked himself loose of the earth” by fraternizing excessively with the natives and not keeping up appearances; in so doing, he has become wildly successful but has also incurred the wrath of his fellow white men.
The chief agent of the Company in its African territory, who runs the Central Station. He owes his success to a hardy constitution that allows him to outlive all his competitors. He is average in appearance and unremarkable in abilities, but he possesses a strange capacity to produce uneasiness in those around him, keeping everyone suf? ciently unsettled for him to exert his control over them. The brickmaker, whom Marlow also meets at the Central Station, is a favorite of the manager and seems to be a kind of corporate spy. He never actually produces any bricks, as he is supposedly waiting for some essential element that is never delivered.
He is petty and conniving and assumes that other people are too. An ef? cient worker with an incredible habit of dressing up in spotless whites and keeping himself absolutely tidy despite the squalor and heat of the Outer Station, where he lives and works. He is one of the few colonials who seems to have accomplished anything: he has trained a native woman to care for his wardrobe. The bumbling, greedy agents of the Central Station. They carry long wooden staves with them everywhere, reminding Marlow of traditional religious travelers.
They all want to be appointed to a station so that they can trade for ivory and earn a commission, but none of them actually takes any effective steps toward achieving this goal. They are obsessed with keeping up a veneer of civilization and proper conduct, and are motivated entirely by self-interest. They hate the natives and treat them like animals, although in their greed and ridiculousness they appear less than human themselves. Natives hired as the crew of the steamer, a surprisingly reasonable and well-tempered bunch. Marlow respects their restraint and their calm acceptance of adversity.
The leader of the group, in particular, seems to be intelligent and capable of ironic re? ection upon his situation. A Russian sailor who has gone into the African interior as the trading representative of a Dutch company. He is boyish in appearance and temperament, and seems to exist Copyright 2002, 2007 by SparkNotes Kurtz General manager Brickmaker Chief accountant Pilgrims Cannibals Russian trader 4 Copyright 2002, 2007 by SparkNotes Brought to you in association with: wholly on the glamour of youth and the audacity of adventurousness. His brightly patched clothes remind Marlow of a harlequin.
He is a devoted disciple of Kurtz’s. Helmsman A young man from the coast trained by Marlow’s predecessor to pilot the steamer. He is a serviceable pilot, although Marlow never comes to view him as much more than a mechanical part of the boat. He is killed when the steamer is attacked by natives hiding on the riverbanks. Kurtz’s African mistress A ? ercely beautiful woman loaded with jewelry who appears on the shore when Marlow’s steamer arrives at and leaves the Inner Station. She seems to exert an undue in? uence over both Kurtz and the natives around the station, and the Russian trader points her out as someone to fear.
Like Kurtz, she is an enigma: she never speaks to Marlow, and he never learns anything more about her. Kurtz’s Intended Kurtz’s naive and long-suffering ? ancee, whom Marlow goes to visit after Kurtz’s death. Her unshakable certainty about Kurtz’s love for her reinforces Marlow’s belief that women live in a dream world, well insulated from reality. Marlow’s doting relative, who secures him a position with the Company. She believes ? rmly in imperialism as a charitable activity that brings civilization and religion to suffering, simple savages. She, too, is an example for Marlow of the naivete and illusions of women.
Aunt The men aboard the Nellie Marlow’s friends, who are with him aboard a ship on the Thames at the story’s opening. They are the audience for the central story of Heart of Darkness, which Marlow narrates. All have been sailors at one time or another, but all now have important jobs ashore and have settled into middle-class, middle-aged lives. They represent the kind of man Marlow would have likely become had he not gone to Africa: well meaning and moral but ignorant as to a large part of the world beyond England. The narrator in particular seems to be shaken by Marlow’s story.
He repeatedly comments on its obscurity and Marlow’s own mysterious nature. Fresleven Marlow’s predecessor as captain of the steamer. Fresleven, by all accounts a goodtempered, nonviolent man, was killed in a dispute over some hens, apparently after striking a village chief. character list 5 Brought to you in association with: Analysis of Major Characters Marlow All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission from the publisher.
Although Marlow appears in several of Conrad’s other works, it is important not to view him as merely a surrogate for the author. Marlow is a complicated man who anticipates the ? gures of high modernism while also re? ecting his Victorian predecessors. Marlow is in many ways a traditional hero: tough, honest, an independent thinker, a capable man. Yet he is also “broken” or “damaged,” like T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock or William Faulkner’s Quentin Compson. The world has defeated him in some fundamental way, and he is weary, skeptical, and cynical. Marlow also mediates between the ? gure of the intellectual and that of the “working tough. While he is clearly intelligent, eloquent, and a natural philosopher, he is not saddled with the angst of centuries’ worth of Western thought. At the same time, while he is highly skilled at what he does—he repairs and then ably pilots his own ship—he is no mere manual laborer. Work, for him, is a distraction, a concrete alternative to the posturing and excuse-making of those around him. Marlow can also be read as an intermediary between the two extremes of Kurtz and the Company. He is moderate enough to allow the reader to identify with him, yet open-minded enough to identify at least partially with either extreme.
Thus, he acts as a guide for the reader. Marlow’s intermediary position can be seen in his eventual illness and recovery. Unlike those who truly confront or at least acknowledge Africa and the darkness within themselves, Marlow does not die, but unlike the Company men, who focus only on money and advancement, Marlow suffers horribly. He is thus “contaminated” by his experiences and memories, and, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, destined, as purgation or penance, to repeat his story to all who will listen. Kurtz Kurtz, like Marlow, can be situated within a larger tradition.
Kurtz resembles the archetypal “evil genius”: the highly gifted but ultimately degenerate individual whose fall is the stuff of legend. Kurtz is related to ? gures like Faustus, Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Moby-Dick’s Ahab, and Wuthering Heights’s Heathcliff. Like these characters, he is signi? cant both for his style and eloquence and for his grandiose, almost megalomaniacal scheming. In a world of mundanely malicious men and “? abby devils,” attracting enough attention to be worthy of damnation is indeed something.
Kurtz can be criticized in the same terms that Heart of Darkness is sometimes criticized: style entirely overrules substance, providing a justi? cation for amorality and evil. In fact, it can be argued that style does not just override substance but actually masks the fact that Kurtz is utterly lacking in substance. Marlow refers to Kurtz as “hollow” more than once. This could be taken negatively, to mean that Kurtz is not worthy of contemplation. However, it also points to Kurtz’s ability to function as a “choice of nightmares” for Marlow: in his essential emptiness, he becomes a cipher, a site upon which other things can be projected.
This emptiness should not be read as benign, however, just as Kurtz’s eloquence should not be allowed to overshadow the malice of his actions. Instead, Kurtz provides Marlow with a set of paradoxes that Marlow can use to evaluate himself and the Company’s men. Indeed, Kurtz is not so much a fully realized individual as a series of images constructed by others for their own use. As Marlow’s visits with Kurtz’s cousin, the Belgian journalist, and Kurtz’s ? ancee demonstrate, there seems to be no true Kurtz. To his cousin, he was a great musician; to the journalist, a brilliant politician and leader of men; to his ? ncee, a great humanitarian and genius. All of these contrast with Marlow’s version of the man, and he is left doubting the validity of his memories. Yet Kurtz, through his charisma and largerthan-life plans, remains with Marlow and with the reader. Copyright 2002, 2007 by SparkNotes 6 Brought to you in association with: Themes, Motifs & Symbols Themes All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission from the publisher.
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work. The Hypocrisy of Imperialism Heart of Darkness explores the issues surrounding imperialism in complicated ways. As Marlow travels from the Outer Station to the Central Station and ? nally up the river to the Inner Station, he encounters scenes of torture, cruelty, and near-slavery. At the very least, the incidental scenery of the book offers a harsh picture of colonial enterprise. The impetus behind Marlow’s adventures, too, has to do with the hypocrisy inherent in the rhetoric used to justify imperialism.
The men who work for the Company describe what they do as “trade,” and their treatment of native Africans is part of a benevolent project of “civilization. ” Kurtz, on the other hand, is open about the fact that he does not trade but rather takes ivory by force, and he describes his own treatment of the natives with the words “suppression” and “extermination”: he does not hide the fact that he rules through violence and intimidation. His perverse honesty leads to his downfall, as his success threatens to expose the evil practices behind European activity in Africa.
However, for Marlow as much as for Kurtz or for the Company, Africans in this book are mostly objects: Marlow refers to his helmsman as a piece of machinery, and Kurtz’s African mistress is at best a piece of statuary. It can be argued that Heart of Darkness participates in an oppression of nonwhites that is much more sinister and much harder to remedy than the open abuses of Kurtz or the Company’s men. Africans become for Marlow a mere backdrop, a human screen against which he can play out his philosophical and existential struggles. Their existence and their exoticism enable his self-contemplation.
This kind of dehumanization is harder to identify than colonial violence or open racism. While Heart of Darkness offers a powerful condemnation of the hypocritical operations of imperialism, it also presents a set of issues surrounding race that is ultimately more troubling. Madness as a Result of Imperialism Madness is closely linked to imperialism in this book. Africa is responsible for mental disintegration as well as for physical illness. Madness has two primary functions. First, it serves as an ironic device to engage the reader’s sympathies. Kurtz, Marlow is told from the beginning, is mad.
However, as Marlow, and the reader, begin to form a more complete picture of Kurtz, it becomes apparent that his madness is only relative, that in the context of the Company insanity is dif? cult to de? ne. Thus, both Marlow and the reader begin to sympathize with Kurtz and view the Company with suspicion. Madness also functions to establish the necessity of social ? ctions. Although social mores and explanatory justi? cations are shown throughout Heart of Darkness to be utterly false and even leading to evil, they are nevertheless necessary for both group harmony and individual security.
Madness, in Heart of Darkness, is the result of being removed from one’s social context and allowed to be the sole arbiter of one’s own actions. Madness is thus linked not only to absolute power and a kind of moral genius but to man’s fundamental fallibility: Kurtz has no authority to whom he answers but himself, and this is more than any one man can bear. The Absurdity of Evil This novella is, above all, an exploration of hypocrisy, ambiguity, and moral confusion. It explodes the idea of the proverbial choice between the lesser of two evils.
As the idealistic Marlow is forced to align himself with either the hypocritical and malicious colonial bureaucracy or the openly malevolent, rule-defying Kurtz, it becomes increasingly clear that to try to judge either alternative is an act of folly: how can moral standards or Copyright 2002, 2007 by SparkNotes 7 Copyright 2002, 2007 by SparkNotes Brought to you in association with: social values be relevant in judging evil? Is there such thing as insanity in a world that has already gone insane? The number of ridiculous situations Marlow witnesses act as re? ctions of the larger issue: at one station, for instance, he sees a man trying to carry water in a bucket with a large hole in it. At the Outer Station, he watches native laborers blast away at a hillside with no particular goal in mind. The absurd involves both insigni? cant silliness and life-or-death issues, often simultaneously. That the serious and the mundane are treated similarly suggests a profound moral confusion and a tremendous hypocrisy: it is terrifying that Kurtz’s homicidal megalomania and a leaky bucket provoke essentially the same reaction from Marlow. Motifs
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes. Observation and Eavesdropping Marlow gains a great deal of information by watching the world around him and by overhearing others’ conversations, as when he listens from the deck of the wrecked steamer to the manager of the Central Station and his uncle discussing Kurtz and the Russian trader. This phenomenon speaks to the impossibility of direct communication between individuals: information must come as the result of chance observation and astute interpretation.
Words themselves fail to capture meaning adequately, and thus they must be taken in the context of their utterance. Another good example of this is Marlow’s conversation with the brickmaker, during which Marlow is able to ? gure out a good deal more than simply what the man has to say. Interiors and Exteriors Comparisons between interiors and exteriors pervade Heart of Darkness. As the narrator states at the beginning of the text, Marlow is more interested in surfaces, in the surrounding aura of a thing rather than in any hidden nugget of meaning deep within the thing itself.
This inverts the usual hierarchy of meaning: normally one seeks the deep message or hidden truth. The priority placed on observation demonstrates that penetrating to the interior of an idea or a person is impossible in this world. Thus, Marlow is confronted with a series of exteriors and surfaces—the river’s banks, the forest walls around the station, Kurtz’s broad forehead—that he must interpret. These exteriors are all the material he is given, and they provide him with perhaps a more profound source of knowledge than any falsely constructed interior “kernel. Darkness Darkness is important enough conceptually to be part of the book’s title. However, it is dif? cult to discern exactly what it might mean, given that absolutely everything in the book is cloaked in darkness. Africa, England, and Brussels are all described as gloomy and somehow dark, even if the sun is shining brightly. Darkness thus seems to operate metaphorically and existentially rather than speci? cally. Darkness is the inability to see: this may sound simple, but as a description of the human condition it has profound implications.
Failing to see another human being means failing to understand that individual and failing to establish any sort of sympathetic communion with him or her. Symbols Symbols are objects, characters, ? gures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts. Fog Fog is a sort of corollary to darkness. Fog not only obscures but distorts: it gives one just enough information to begin making decisions but no way to judge the accuracy of that information, which often ends up being themes, motifs & symbols 8
Copyright 2002, 2007 by SparkNotes Brought to you in association with: wrong. Marlow’s steamer is caught in the fog, meaning that he has no idea where he’s going and no idea whether peril or open water lies ahead. The “Whited Sepulchre” The “whited sepulchre” is probably Brussels, where the Company’s headquarters are located. A sepulchre implies death and con? nement, and indeed Europe is the origin of the colonial enterprises that bring death to white men and to their colonial subjects; it is also governed by a set of rei? d social principles that both enable cruelty, dehumanization, and evil and prohibit change. The phrase “whited sepulchre” comes from the biblical Book of Matthew. In the passage, Matthew describes “whited sepulchres” as something beautiful on the outside but containing horrors within (the bodies of the dead); thus, the image is appropriate for Brussels, given the hypocritical Belgian rhetoric about imperialism’s civilizing mission. (Belgian colonies, particularly the Congo, were notorious for the violence perpetuated against the natives. ) Women
Both Kurtz’s Intended and his African mistress function as blank slates upon which the values and the wealth of their respective societies can be displayed. Marlow frequently claims that women are the keepers of naive illusions; although this sounds condemnatory, such a role is in fact crucial, as these naive illusions are at the root of the social ? ctions that justify economic enterprise and colonial expansion. In return, the women are the bene? ciaries of much of the resulting wealth, and they become objects upon which men can display their own success and status.
The River The Congo River is the key to Africa for Europeans. It allows them access to the center of the continent without having to physically cross it; in other words, it allows the white man to remain always separate or outside. Africa is thus reduced to a series of two-dimensional scenes that ? ash by Marlow’s steamer as he travels upriver. The river also seems to want to expel Europeans from Africa altogether: its current makes travel upriver slow and dif? cult, but the ? ow of water makes travel downriver, back toward “civilization,” rapid and seemingly inevitable.
Marlow’s struggles with the river as he travels upstream toward Kurtz re? ect his struggles to understand the situation in which he has found himself. The ease with which he journeys back downstream, on the other hand, mirrors his acquiescence to Kurtz and his “choice of nightmares. ” themes, motifs & symbols 9 Brought to you in association with: Summary & Analysis Part I All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission from the publisher.
Beginning through Marlow’s being hired as a steamboat captain. Summary At sundown, a pleasure ship called the Nellie lies anchored at the mouth of the Thames, waiting for the tide to go out. Five men relax on the deck of the ship: the Director of Companies, who is also the captain and host, the Lawyer, the Accountant, Marlow, and the unnamed Narrator. The ? ve men, old friends held together by “the bond of the sea,” are restless yet meditative, as if waiting for something to happen.
As darkness begins to fall, and the scene becomes “less brilliant but more profound,” the men recall the great men and ships that have set forth from the Thames on voyages of trade and exploration, frequently never to return. Suddenly Marlow remarks that this very spot was once “one of the dark places of the earth. ” He notes that when the Romans ? rst came to England, it was a great, savage wilderness to them. He imagines what it must have been like for a young Roman captain or soldier to come to a place so far from home and lacking in comforts.
This train of thought reminds Marlow of his sole experience as a “fresh-water sailor,” when as a young man he captained a steamship going up the Congo River. He recounts that he ? rst got the idea when, after returning from a six-year voyage through Asia, he came across a map of Africa in a London shop window, which reinvigorated his childhood fantasies about the “blank spaces” on the map. Marlow recounts how he obtained a job with the Belgian “Company” that trades on the Congo River (the Congo was then a Belgian territory) through the in? uence of an aunt who had friends in the Company’s administration.
The Company was eager to send Marlow to Africa, because one of the Company’s steamer captains had recently been killed in a scuf? e with the natives. Analysis Marlow’s story of a voyage up the Congo River that he took as a young man is the main narrative of Heart of Darkness. Marlow’s narrative is framed by another narrative, in which one of the listeners to Marlow’s story explains the circumstances in which Marlow tells it. The narrator who begins Heart of Darkness is unnamed, as are the other three listeners, who are identi? ed only by their professional occupations. Moreover, the narrator usually speaks in the ? st-person plural, describing what all four of Marlow’s listeners think and feel. The unanimity and anonymity of Marlow’s listeners combine to create the impression that they represent conventional perspectives and values of the British establishment. For the narrator and his fellow travelers, the Thames conjures up images of famous British explorers who have set out from that river on glorious voyages. The narrator recounts the achievements of these explorers in a celebratory tone, calling them “knight-errants” of the sea, implying that such voyages served a sacred, higher purpose.
The narrator’s attitude is that these men promoted the glory of Great Britain, expanded knowledge of the globe, and contributed to the civilization and enlightenment of the rest of the planet. At the time Heart of Darkness was written, the British Empire was at its peak, and Britain controlled colonies and dependencies all over the planet. The popular saying that “the sun never sets on the British Empire” was literally true. The main topic of Heart of Darkness is imperialism, a nation’s policy of exerting in? uence over other areas through military, political, and economic coercion.
The narrator expresses the mainstream belief that imperialism is a glorious and worthy enterprise. Indeed, in Conrad’s time, “empire” was one of the central values of British subjects, the fundamental term through which Britain de? ned its identity and sense of purpose. From the moment Marlow opens his mouth, he sets himself apart from his fellow passengers by conjuring up a past in which Britain was not the heart of civilization but the savage “end of the world. ” Likewise, the Copyright 2002, 2007 by SparkNotes 10 Copyright 2002, 2007 by SparkNotes Brought to you in association with:
Thames was not the source of glorious journeys outward but the ominous beginning of a journey inward, into the heart of the wilderness. This is typical of Marlow as a storyteller: he narrates in an ironic tone, giving the impression that his audience’s assumptions are wrong, but not presenting a clear alternative to those assumptions. Throughout his story, distinctions such as inward and outward, civilized and savage, dark and light, are called into question. But the irony of Marlow’s story is not as pronounced as in a satire, and Marlow’s and Conrad’s attitudes regarding imperialism are never entirely clear.
From the way Marlow tells his story, it is clear that he is extremely critical of imperialism, but his reasons apparently have less to do with what imperialism does to colonized peoples than with what it does to Europeans. Marlow suggests, in the ? rst place, that participation in imperial enterprises degrades Europeans by removing them from the “civilizing” context of European society, while simultaneously tempting them into violent behavior because of the hostility and lawlessness of the environment.
Moreover, Marlow suggests that the mission of “civilizing” and “enlightening” native peoples is misguided, not because he believes that they have a viable civilization and culture already, but because they are so savage that the project is overwhelming and hopeless. Marlow expresses horror when he witnesses the violent maltreatment of the natives, and he argues that a kinship exists between black Africans and Europeans, but in the same breath he states that this kinship is “ugly” and horrifying, and that the kinship is extremely distant.
Nevertheless, it is not a simple matter to evaluate whether Marlow’s attitudes are conservative or progressive, racist or “enlightened. ” In the ? rst place, one would have to decide in relation to whom Marlow was conservative or progressive. Clearly, Marlow’s story is shaped by the audience to whom he tells it. The anonymous narrator states that Marlow is unconventional in his ideas, and his listeners’ derisive grunts and murmurs suggest that they are less inclined to question colonialism or to view Africans as human beings than he is.
His criticisms of colonialism, both implicit and explicit, are pitched to an audience that is far more sympathetic toward the colonial enterprise than any twenty-? rst-century reader could be. The framing narrative puts a certain amount of distance between Marlow’s narrative and Conrad himself. This framework suggests that the reader should regard Marlow ironically, but there are few cues within the text to suggest an alternative to Marlow’s point of view. Part I (continued) Marlow’s visit to the Company Headquarters through his parting with his aunt.
Summary After he hears that he has gotten the job, Marlow travels across the English Channel to a city that reminds him of a “whited sepulchre” (probably Brussels) to sign his employment contract at the Company’s of? ce. First, however, he digresses to tell the story of his predecessor with the Company, Fresleven. Much later, after the events Marlow is about to recount, Marlow was sent to recover Fresleven’s bones, which he found lying in the center of a deserted African village. Despite his reputation as mild mannered, Fresleven was killed in a scuf? over some hens: after striking the village chief, he was stabbed by the chief’s son. He was left there to die, and the superstitious natives immediately abandoned the village. Marlow notes that he never did ? nd out what became of the hens. Arriving at the Company’s of? ces, Marlow ? nds two sinister women there knitting black wool, one of whom admits him to a waiting room, where he looks at a map of Africa color-coded by colonial powers. A secretary takes him into the inner of? ce for a cursory meeting with the head of the Company. Marlow signs his contract, and the secretary takes him off to be checked over by a doctor.
The doctor takes measurements of his skull, remarking that he unfortunately doesn’t get to see those men who make it back from Africa. More important, the doctor tells Marlow, “the changes take place inside. ” The doctor is interested in learning anything that may give Belgians an advantage in colonial situations. With all formalities completed, Marlow stops off to say goodbye to his aunt, who expresses her hope that he will aid in the civilization of savages during his service to the Company, “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways. ” Well aware that the Company operates for pro? and not for the good of humanity, and bothered by his aunt’s naivete, Marlow takes his leave of her. Before boarding the French steamer that is summary & analysis 11 Copyright 2002, 2007 by SparkNotes Brought to you in association with: to take him to Africa, Marlow has a brief but strange feeling about his journey: the feeling that he is setting off for the center of the earth. Analysis This section has several concrete objectives. The ? rst of these is to locate Marlow more speci? cally within the wider history of colonialism. It is important that he goes to Africa in the service of a Belgian company rather than a British one.
The map that Marlow sees in the Company of? ces shows the continent overlaid with blotches of color, each color standing for a different imperial power. While the map represents a relatively neutral way of describing imperial presences in Africa, Marlow’s comments about the map reveal that imperial powers were not all the same. In fact, the yellow patch—“dead in the center”—covers the site of some of the most disturbing atrocities committed in the name of empire. The Belgian king, Leopold, treated the Congo as his private treasury, and the Belgians had the reputation of being far and away the most cruel and rapacious of the colonial powers.
The reference to Brussels as a “whited sepulchre” is meant to bring to mind a passage from the Book of Matthew concerning hypocrisy. The Belgian monarch spoke rhetorically about the civilizing bene? ts of colonialism, but the Belgian version of the practice was the bloodiest and most inhumane. This does not, however, mean that Conrad seeks to indict the Belgians and praise other colonial powers. As Marlow journeys into the Congo, he meets men from a variety of European nations, all of whom are violent and willing to do anything to make their fortunes.
Moreover, it must be remembered that Marlow himself willingly goes to work for this Belgian concern: at the moment he decides to do so, his personal desire for adventure far outweighs any concerns he might have about particular colonial practices. This section of the book also introduces another set of concerns, this time regarding women. Heart of Darkness has been attacked by critics as misogynistic, and there is some justi? cation for this point of view. Marlow’s aunt does express a naively idealistic view of the Company’s mission, and Marlow is thus right to fault her for being “out of touch with truth. However, he phrases his criticism so as to make it applicable to all women, suggesting that women do not even live in the same world as men and that they must be protected from reality. Moreover, the female characters in Marlow’s story are extremely ? at and stylized. In part this may be because Marlow uses women symbolically as representatives of “home. ” Marlow associates home with ideas gotten from books and religion rather than from experience. Home is the seat of naivete, prejudice, con? nement, and oppression. It is the place of people who have not gone out into the world and experienced, and who therefore cannot understand.
Nonetheless, the women in Marlow’s story exert a great deal of power. The in? uence of Marlow’s aunt does not stop at getting him the job but continues to echo through the Company’s correspondence in Africa. At the Company’s headquarters, Marlow encounters a number of apparently in? uential women, hinting that all enterprises are ultimately female-driven. Marlow’s departure from the world of Belgium and women is facilitated, according to him, by two eccentric men. The ? rst of these is Fresleven, the story of whose death serves to build suspense and suggest to the reader the transformations that Europeans undergo in Africa.
By European standards, Fresleven was a good and gentle man, not one likely to die as he did. This means either that the European view of people is wrong and useless or else that there is something about Africa that makes men behave aberrantly. Both of these conclusions are dif? cult to accept practically or politically, and thus the story of Fresleven leaves the reader feeling ambivalent and cautious about Marlow’s story to come. The second ? gure presiding over Marlow’s departure is the Company’s doctor. The doctor is perhaps the ultimate symbol of futility: he ses external measurements to try to decipher what he admits are internal changes; moreover, his subjects either don’t return from Africa or, if they do, don’t return to see him. Thus his work and his advice are both totally useless. He is the ? rst of a series of functionaries with pointless jobs that Marlow will encounter as he travels toward and then up the Congo River. summary & analysis 12 Copyright 2002, 2007 by SparkNotes Brought to you in association with: Part I (continued) Marlow’s journey down the coast of Africa through his meeting with the chief accountant. Summary
The French steamer takes Marlow along the coast of Africa, stopping periodically to land soldiers and customshouse of? cers. Marlow ? nds his idleness vexing, and the trip seems vaguely nightmarish to him. At one point, they come across a French man-of-war shelling an apparently uninhabited forested stretch of coast. They ? nally arrive at the mouth of the Congo River, where Marlow boards another steamship bound for a point thirty miles upriver. The captain of the ship, a young Swede, recognizes Marlow as a seaman and invites him on the bridge. The Swede criticizes the colonial of? ials and tells Marlow about another Swede who recently hanged himself on his way into the interior. Marlow disembarks at the Company’s station, which is in a terrible state of disrepair. He sees piles of decaying machinery and a cliff being blasted for no apparent purpose. He also sees a group of black prisoners walking along in chains under the guard of another black man, who wears a shoddy uniform and carries a ri? e. He remarks that he had already known the “devils” of violence, greed, and desire, but that in Africa he became acquainted with the “? bby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly. ” Finally, Marlow comes to a grove of trees and, to his horror, ? nds a group of dying native laborers. He offers a biscuit to one of them; seeing a bit of white European yarn tied around his neck, he wonders at its meaning. He meets a nattily dressed white man, the Company’s chief accountant (not to be confused with Marlow’s friend the Accountant from the opening of the book). Marlow spends ten days here waiting for a caravan to the next station. One day, the chief accountant tells him that in the interior he will undoubtedly meet Mr. Kurtz, a ? stclass agent who sends in as much ivory as all the others put together and is destined for advancement. He tells Marlow to let Kurtz know that everything is satisfactory at the Outer Station when he meets him. The chief accountant is afraid to send a written message for fear it will be intercepted by undesirable elements at the Central Station. Analysis Marlow’s description of his journey on the French steamer makes use of an interior/exterior motif that continues throughout the rest of the book. Marlow frequently encounters inscrutable surfaces that tempt him to try to penetrate into the interior of situations and places.
The most prominent example of this is the French man-of-war, which shells a forested wall of coastline. To Marlow’s mind, the entire coastline of the African continent presents a solid green facade, and the spectacle of European guns ? ring blindly into that facade seems to be a futile and uncomprehending way of addressing the continent. “The ? abby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly” is one of the central images with which Marlow characterizes the behavior of the colonists. He refers back to this image at a number of key points later in the story.
It is thus a very important clue as to what Marlow actually thinks is wrong about imperialism—Marlow’s attitudes are usually implied rather than directly stated. Marlow distinguishes this devil from violence, greed, and desire, suggesting that the fundamental evil of imperialism is not that it perpetrates violence against native peoples, nor that it is motivated by greed. The ? abby, weak-eyed devil seems to be distinguished above all by being shortsighted and foolish, unaware of what it is doing and ineffective. The hand of the “? abby devil” is apparent in the travesties of administration and the widespread decay in the Company’s stations.
The colonials in the coastal station spend all their time blasting a cliff for no apparent reason, machinery lies broken all around, and supplies are poorly apportioned, resting in abundance where they are not needed and never sent to where they are needed. Given the level of waste and inef? ciency, this kind of colonial activity clearly has something other than economic activity at stake, but just what that something might be is not apparent. Marlow’s comments on the “? abby devil” produce a very ambivalent criticism of colonialism.
Would Marlow approve of the violent exploitation and extortion of the Africans if it was done in a more clear-sighted and effective manner? This question is dif? cult to answer de? nitively. On the other hand, Marlow is appalled by the ghastly, infernal spectacle of the grove of death, while the other colonials show no concern over it at all. For Marlow, the grove is the dark heart of the station. Marlow’s summary & analysis 13 Copyright 2002, 2007 by SparkNotes Brought to you in association with: horror at the grove suggests that the true evils of this colonial enterprise are dehumanization and death.
All Marlow can offer these dying men are a few pieces of biscuit, and, despite the fact that Marlow is “not particularly tender,” the situation troubles him. In this section, Marlow ? nally learns the reason for the journey he is to take up the Congo, although he does not yet realize the importance this reason will later take on. The chief accountant is the ? rst to use the name of the mysterious Mr. Kurtz, speaking of him in reverent tones and alluding to a conspiracy within the Company, the particulars of which Marlow never deciphers. Again, the name “Kurtz” provides a surface that conceals a hidden and potentially threatening situation.
It is appropriate, therefore, that the chief accountant is Marlow’s informant. In his dress whites, the man epitomizes success in the colonial world. His “accomplishment” lies in keeping up appearances, in looking as he would at home. Like everything else Marlow encounters, the chief accountant’s surface may conceal a dark secret, in this case the native woman whom he has “taught”—perhaps violently and despite her “distaste for the work”—to care for his linens. Marlow has yet to ? nd a single white man with a valid “excuse for being there” in Africa. More important, he has yet to understand why he himself is there.
Part I (continued) Marlow’s journey to the Central Station through the arrival of the Eldorado Exploring Expedition. Summary Marlow travels overland for two hundred miles with a caravan of sixty men. He has one white companion who falls ill and must be carried by the native bearers, who start to desert because of the added burden. After ? fteen days they arrive at the dilapidated Central Station. Marlow ? nds that the steamer he was to command has sunk. The general manager of the Central Station had taken the boat out two days before under the charge of a volunteer skipper, and they had torn the bottom out on some rocks.
In light of what he later learns, Marlow suspects the damage to the steamer may have been intentional, to keep him from reaching Kurtz. Marlow soon meets with the general manager, who strikes him as an altogether average man who leads by inspiring an odd uneasiness in those around him and whose authority derives merely from his resistance to tropical disease. The manager tells Marlow that he took the boat out in a hurry to relieve the inner stations, especially the one belonging to Kurtz, who is rumored to be ill. He praises Kurtz as an exceptional agent and takes note that Kurtz is talked about on the coast.
The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. (See QUOTATIONS, p. 27) Marlow sets to work dredging his ship out of the river and repairing it, which ends up taking three months. One day during this time, a grass shed housing some trade goods burns down, and the native laborers dance delightedly as it burns. One of the natives is accused of causing the ? re and is beaten severely; he disappears into the forest after he recovers. Marlow overhears the manager talking with the brickmaker about Kurtz at the site of the burned hut.
He enters into conversation with the brickmaker after the manager leaves, and ends up accompanying the man back to his quarters, which are noticeably more luxurious than those of the other agents. Marlow realizes after a while that the brickmaker is pumping him for information about the intentions of the Company’s board of directors in Europe, about which, of course, Marlow knows nothing. Marlow notices an unusual painting on the wall, of a blindfolded woman with a lighted torch; when he asks about it, the brickmaker reveals that it is Kurtz’s work.
The brickmaker tells Marlow that Kurtz is a prodigy, sent as a special emissary of Western ideals by the Company’s directors and bound for quick advancement. He also reveals that he has seen con? dential correspondence dealing with Marlow’s appointment, from which he has construed that Marlow is also a favorite of the administration. They go outside, and the brickmaker tries to get himself into Marlow’s good graces—and Kurtz’s by proxy, since he believes Marlow is allied with Kurtz. Marlow realizes the brickmaker had planned on being assistant manager, and Kurtz’s arrival has upset his chances.
Seeing an opportunity to use the brickmaker’s in? uence to his own ends, Marlow lets the man believe he really does have in? uence in Europe and summary & analysis 14 Copyright 2002, 2007 by SparkNotes Brought to you in association with: tells him that he wants a quantity of rivets from the coast to repair his ship. The brickmaker leaves him with a veiled threat on his life, but Marlow enjoys his obvious distress and confusion. Marlow ? nds his foreman sitting on the deck of the ship and tells him that they will have rivets in three weeks, and they both dance around exuberantly.
The rivets do not come, however. Instead, the Eldorado Exploring Expedition, a group of white men intent on “tear[ing] treasure out of the bowels of the land,” arrives, led by the manager’s uncle, who spends his entire time at the station talking conspiratorially with his nephew. Marlow gives up on ever receiving the rivets he needs to repair his ship, and turns to wondering disinterestedly about Kurtz and his ideals. Analysis As Marlow describes his caravan journey through the depopulated interior of the colony, he remarks ironically that he was becoming “scienti? ally interesting”—an allusion to his conversation with the company doctor in Brussels. Given this, it is curious that Marlow talks so little about the caravan journey itself. In part, this is because it’s not directly relevant to his story—during this time he is neither in contact with representatives of the Company nor moving directly toward Kurtz. Nonetheless, something about this journey renders Marlow a mystery even to himself; he starts to think of himself as a potential case study. Africa appears to him to be something that happens to a man, without his consent.
One way to interpret this is that Marlow is disowning his own responsibility (and that of his fellow employees) for the atrocities committed by the Company on the natives. Because of its merciless environment and savage inhabitants, Africa itself is responsible for colonial violence. Forced to deal with his ailing companion and a group of native porters who continually desert and abandon their loads, Marlow ? nds himself at the top of the proverbial slippery slope. The men he ? nds at the Central Station allow him to regain his perspective, however.
The goings-on here are ridiculous: for example, Marlow watches a man try to extinguish a ? re using a bucket with a hole in it. The manager and the brickmaker, the men in charge, are repeatedly described as hollow, “papier-mache” ? gures. For Marlow, who has just experienced the surreal horrors of the continent’s interior, the idea that a man’s exterior may conceal only a void is disturbing. The alternative, of course, is that at the heart of these men lies not a void but a vast, malevolent conspiracy.
The machinations of the manager and the brickmaker suggest that, paradoxically, both ideas are correct: that these men indeed conceal bad intentions, but that these intentions, despite the fact that they lead to apparent evil, are meaningless in light of their context. The use of religious language to describe the agents of the Central Station reinforces this paradoxical idea. Marlow calls the Company’s rank and ? le “pilgrims,” both for their habit of carrying staves (with which to beat native laborers) and for their mindless worship of the wealth to be had from ivory. Ivory,” as it echoes through the air of the camp, sounds to Marlow like something unreal rather than a physical substance. Marlow suggests that the word echoes because the station is only a tiny “cleared speck,” surrounded by an “outside” that always threatens to close in, erasing the men and their pathetic ambitions. Over and over again in this section of the book human voices are hurled against the wilderness, only to be thrown back by the river’s surface or a wall of trees. No matter how evil these men are, no atter how terrible the atrocities they commit against the natives, they are insigni? cant in the vastness of time and the physical world. Some critics have objected to Heart of Darkness on the grounds that it brushes aside or makes excuses for racism and colonial violence, and that it even glamorizes them by making them the subject of Marlow’s seemingly profound ruminations. On a more concrete level, the events of this section move Marlow ever closer to the mysterious Kurtz. Kurtz increasingly appeals to Marlow as an alternative, no matter how dire, to the repellent men around him.
The painting in the brickmaker’s quarters, which Marlow learns is Kurtz’s work, draws Marlow in: the blindfolded woman with the torch represents for him an acknowledgment of the paradox and ambiguity of the African situation, and this is a much more sophisticated response than he has seen from any of the other Europeans he has encountered. To the reader, the painting may seem somewhat heavy-handed, with its overtly allegorical depiction of blind and unseeing European attempts to bring the “light” of civilization to Africa.
Marlow, however, sees in it a level of self-awareness that offers a compelling alternative to the folly he has witnessed throughout the Company. summary & analysis 15 Copyright 2002, 2007 by SparkNotes Brought to you in association with: Part II Marlow’s overhearing of the conversation between the manager and his uncle through the beginning of his voyage up the river. Summary One evening, as Marlow lies on the deck of his wrecked steamer, the manager and his uncle appear within earshot and discuss Kurtz.
The manager complains that Kurtz has come to the Congo with plans to turn the stations into beacons of civilization and moral improvement, and that Kurtz wants to take over the manager’s position. He recalls that about a year earlier Kurtz sent down a huge load of ivory of the highest quality by canoe with his clerk, but that Kurtz himself had turned back to his station after coming 300 miles down the river. The clerk, after turning over the ivory and a letter from Kurtz instructing the manager to stop sending him incompetent men, informs the manager that Kurtz has been very ill and has not completely recovered.
Continuing to converse with his uncle, the manager mentions another man whom he ? nds troublesome, a wandering trader. The manager’s uncle tells him to go ahead and have the trader hanged, because no one will challenge his authority here. The manager’s uncle also suggests that the climate may take care of all of his dif? culties for him, implying that Kurtz simply may die of tropical disease. Marlow is alarmed by the apparent conspiracy between the two men and leaps to his feet, revealing himself to them. They are visibly startled but move off without acknowledging his presence.
Not long after this incident, the Eldorado Expedition, led by the manager’s uncle, disappears into the wilderness. In a few days the Eldorado Expedition went into the patient wilderness, that closed upon it as the sea closes over a diver. (See QUOTATIONS, p. 27) Much later, the cryptic message arrives that all the expedition’s donkeys have died. By that time, the repairs on Marlow’s steamer are nearly complete, and Marlow is preparing to leave on a two-month trip up the river to Kurtz, along with the manager and several “pilgrims. The river is treacherous and the trip is dif? cult; the ship proceeds only with the help of a crew of natives the Europeans call cannibals, who actually prove to be quite reasonable people. The men aboard the ship hear drums at night along the riverbanks and occasionally catch glimpses of native settlements during the day, but they can only guess at what lies further inland. Marlow feels a sense of kinship between himself and the savages along the riverbanks, but his work in keeping the ship a? at and steaming keeps him safely occupied and prevents him from brooding too much. Analysis Marlow’s work ethic and professional skills are contrasted, throughout this section, w