Study Guide

Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness Analysis

Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*London. Capital and largest city of Great Britain. The story opens with five men on a cruising yawl on the River Thames on a hazy evening at sundown. One of the men present is named Marlow. He is the only one of the men who is still active as a sailor or naval officer. Marlow begins telling a long story by remarking that the Thames has a dark history. He is referring to ancient times when the Romans first colonized England. At that time, London was an uncivilized place for the relatively sophisticated Romans to be entering.


*Brussels. Capital city of Belgium. Marlow tells a story concerning his voyage to the heart of the African continent. The company that has hired Marlow to fix a river steamer and become its captain is headquartered in Brussels. At the time of the story, the 1890’s, Belgium was a colonial power in control of a large portion of central Africa. Marlow must visit the company offices to obtain his commission and get orders concerning his new job. The people who work at the company headquarters treat him as though they do not expect him to return. The entire story Marlow tells shows that he has strong contempt for the way the Belgians have managed the country. He compares the city to a sepulcher—white on the outside but full of rotting bones.

*Congo River

*Congo River. Greatest waterway in Central Africa. Joseph Conrad never names these places by their proper names, but it is obvious from his descriptions of them and their place on the map of Africa that he is referring to Congo Free State and to the lengthy Congo River. Marlow also discusses the company’s lower station and a central station, analogous to Stanley Falls, far up the Congo River in the center of Africa. The trip that the steamer, captained by Marlow, makes up the Congo River to relieve Kurtz is eventful and dangerous both because of African attacks and because of tropical diseases. The journey into the heart of the dark rain forest is symbolic of the journey into the dark depths of the human soul.

Heart of Darkness Historical Context

Map of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Published by Gale Cengage

European Presence in Africa
In 1890 Joseph Conrad secured employment in the Congo...

(The entire section is 776 words.)

Heart of Darkness Setting

The story opens as a nameless narrator aboard the cruising yawl Nellie, anchored in the Thames River in England, begins to relate...

(The entire section is 119 words.)

Heart of Darkness Quizzes

Section I Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Identify the people on the Nellie.

2. Why is it ironic that Marlow needs his aunt’s help to secure his appointment?

3. What happened to Fresleven, one of the Company’s captains?

4. How are the two women outside the secretary’s office symbolic?

5. Name two unusual procedures at Marlow’s physical exam.

6. How did the Swede die?

7. What is unique about the chief accountant’s appearance?

8. Why was the manager successful at his job?

9. Why does Marlow call some people on the boat “pilgrims”?

10. Why does Marlow need the brickmaker’s help?


(The entire section is 219 words.)

Section II Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. When he is on the boat, who does Marlow overhear speaking about Kurtz?

2. Why does Marlow compare the jungle to prehistoric times?

3. How does the cannibals’ food affect Marlow?

4. Why does the book Marlow finds in the hut interest him?

5. Why couldn’t the men aboard the boat spend their money for food?

6. Who aboard the boat is killed during the attack?

7. How does Marlow scare the natives during the fight?

8. Why does Marlow throw his shoes overboard?

9. Why does the Russian leave a note on the woodpile?

10. Why did Kurtz write a report?


(The entire section is 237 words.)

Section III Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Why does the Russian nurse Kurtz through two illnesses?

2. What frightening sight does Marlow see outside Kurtz’s house?

3. Who is with Kurtz when Marlow first sees him?

4. Why does the manager disapprove of Kurtz?

5. Why does the Russian leave Kurtz’s area?

6. Why is Kurtz carried from the forest?

7. Why does Kurtz give Marlow papers before he dies?

8. Explain the irony of where they bury Kurtz.

9. Why do three people visit Marlow when he returns to Europe?

10. What lie does Marlow tell Kurtz’s Intended?

1. The Russian’s admiration...

(The entire section is 238 words.)