Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*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. Greatest waterway in Central Africa. Joseph Conrad never names these places by...
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European Presence in Africa
In 1890 Joseph Conrad secured employment in the Congo as the captain of a river steamboat; this was also the approximate year in which the main action of Heart of Darkness takes place. Illness forced Conrad's return home after only six months in Africa, but that was long enough for intense impressions to have been formed in the novelist's mind. Today, the river at the center of Heart of Darkness is called the Zaire and the country is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but at the time Conrad wrote of them, the country was the Belgian Congo and the river the Congo.
European explorers first discovered the Congo River in 1482 and maintained a presence on it for hundreds of years thereafter, never traveling more than two hundred miles upstream. It was not until 1877, after the English-born American explorer Henry Morton Stanley had completed a three-year journey across central Africa, that the exact length and course of the mighty Congo River were known. Stanley discovered that the Congo extends some 1,600 miles into Africa from its eastern coast to its western edge, where the river empties into the Atlantic Ocean, and that only one stretch of it is impassable. That section lies...
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The story opens as a nameless narrator aboard the cruising yawl Nellie, anchored in the Thames River in England, begins to relate secondhand the story of Charlie Marlow's river voyage in the Belgian Congo. Set in the late nineteenth century, most of the story takes place at outposts along the river, each of which brings Marlow closer to his quarry: the Belgian trader, Mr. Kurtz. At the end of the story, Marlow returns to Brussels to visit Kurtz's fiancee. The setting of Heart of Darkness is practically indistinguishable from the novella's symbolic framework. The rich cultural details and natural symbols afforded by the African landscape surround Marlow, consume Kurtz, and shed light upon Conrad's exploration of man's inner darkness.
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Section I Questions and Answers
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?
1. A narrator, a company director, a lawyer, an accountant, and Marlow are aboard the Nellie.
2. It is ironic that Marlow needs his aunt’s help because she is a woman in a male-dominated world, the sea.
3. Fresleven was murdered by a native in a quarrel over black hens.
4. The women outside the secretary’s office knit black wool, the symbol of death.
5. The doctor measures Marlow’s head with calipers, and asks if there has been madness in his family.
6. The Swede hanged himself.
7. The chief accountant is neat and orderly.
8. The manager was successful because he was always healthy.
9. Marlow calls them...
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Section II Questions and Answers
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?
1. Marlow overhears the manager and his uncle talk of Kurtz.
2. The violence, degradation, and lack of civility in the jungle remind Marlow of prehistoric times.
3. The cannibals’ hippo-meat is rotten, smells, and makes Marlow think of his own hunger.
4. The book in the hut interests Marlow because it reflects a task planned and done well.
5. The men on the boat could not buy food because the manager did not stop, and/or the villages were destroyed.
6. The helmsman dies during the attack.
7. Marlow blows the steam whistle and the natives fear the noise.
8. Marlow throws his shoes overboard because they are soaked with blood from the helmsman’s wounds....
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Section III Questions and Answers
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 and love for Kurtz compels him to nurse Kurtz through two illnesses.
2. Marlow sees heads stuck on poles outside Kurtz’s house.
3. Weak, Kurtz is on a stretcher carried by the natives when Marlow first sees him.
4. The manager disapproves of Kurtz because he believes Kurtz has done more harm than good for the company by his unsound methods.
5. The Russian leaves Kurtz’s area because he fears the manager wants him killed.
6. Kurtz is taken from the forest to a cabin on the boat so he can be rescued and cured.
7. Kurtz gives Marlow a packet of letters to preserve his work and memory.
8. Worshipped in life by the natives, Kurtz is buried in a “muddy...
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Point of View
Heart of Darkness is framed as a story within a story. The point of view belongs primarily to Charlie Marlow, who delivers the bulk of the narrative, but Marlow's point of view is in turn framed by that of an unnamed narrator who provides a first-person description of Marlow telling his story. The point of view can also be seen in a third consciousness in the book, that of Conrad himself, who tells the entire tale to the reader, deciding as author which details to put in and which to leave out. Beyond these three dominant points of view are the individual viewpoints of the book's major characters. Each has a different perspective on Kurtz. These perspectives are often conflicting and are always open to a variety of interpretations. Whose point of view is to be trusted? Which narrator and which character is reliable? Conrad leaves these questions to the reader to answer, accounting for the book's complexity and multilayered meanings.
The novel takes place in the 1890s and begins on a boat sitting in the River Thames, which leads from London to the sea, waiting for the tide to turn. Marlow's story takes the reader briefly onto the European continent (Belgium) and then deep into Africa by means of a trip up the Congo River to what was then called the Belgian Congo, and back to Europe again. The Congo is described as a place of intense mystery whose stifling heat, whispering sounds, and...
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Conrad uses a variety of techniques to advance his narrative and to imbue it with a parable like quality of universal experience extrapolated from specific incidents. The technique of narrative frame, while not original with Conrad and pervasive in medieval story-telling as in Chaucer and Boccaccio, became in his hands a newly fashioned instrument both for distancing events from the narrator and plunging the narrator into them. Conrad's narrative is often related by an anonymous narrator who identifies so strongly with Marlow that his own identity and Marlow's become interchangeable. Usually, the anonymous narrator is describing the events of Marlow's recent past, such as a voyage to darkest Africa. But Marlow's character is much more complex than the anonymous narrator recognizes, and so Marlow must speak for himself as he relates his distant past — a past which the anonymous narrator has no knowledge of. This interchange between the narrator's perception of Marlow's journey and Marlow's own account establishes irony both in point of view and in narrative voice.
Another important technique is Conrad's highly charged and sometimes poetic language, his use of light and darkness, color and chiaroscuro in descriptive passages of considerable beauty. This use of language highlights the concrete details of observation and opens out to the reader a range of emotion which the details evoke in both the narrators and in the reader. His language, moreover, gives...
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Conrad uses a variety of techniques to advance his narrative and to imbue it, like a parable, with a quality of universality derived from specific experience. The technique of the narrative frame, while pervasive in the medieval tale-telling of such poets as Geoffrey Chaucer and Giovanni Boccaccio, became in Conrad's hands a newly fashioned instrument that allowed the narrator to be a distant observer of events he had witnessed. As is the case in many of Conrad's works of fiction, Heart of Darkness is related by an anonymous narrator who identifies so strongly with Marlow that the two characters' identities merge. The anonymous narrator describes events of Marlow's recent past, but Marlow must speak for himself as he relates his distant past—a complex psychological matrix of which the anonymous narrator has no knowledge. The interplay between the narrator's perception of Marlow's journey and Marlow's own account establishes irony in both point of view and narrative voice. Conrad's highly charged and sometimes poetic language, combined with his use of light and darkness, highlights the author's powers of observation and evokes a range of emotion transferred from narrator to reader. Conrad's language, moreover, not only gives a clear sense of physical place but also hints at the effect of exterior setting upon the interior landscape of the soul.
Heart of Darkness has stylistic precedents in the tales of Chaucer and Boccaccio, and thematic...
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The combined exploitative forces of capitalism and imperialism are the objects of Conrad's social criticism in Heart of Darkness, objects that, in varied contexts and settings, he would fix upon in much of his work. In this tale, quarried from his own Congo adventure (1890), Conrad focuses his moral irony on the universe at large and the hollow conventions by which men seek to deal with it. Among the forces at work in the novella are the International Association for the Civilization of Central Africa, founded by the Belgian King Leopold II in 1875 and having as one of its tenets the spread of European and Christian civilization in Africa. This, indeed, is a major dimension of what was known as "the White Man's Burden" and has its parallel in the novella's International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs to which Kurtz writes a seventeen page report that concludes with an exhortation to exterminate all the brutes. One of Conrad's narrators, Charlie Marlow, undercuts the ostensibly noble motive of civilizing the Congo by remarking that the Thames River and its environs, the seat of the British Empire, had been also one of the dark places of the earth, an outpost of the Roman Empire, every bit as primitive as the Congo, and the object of unabashed exploitation in the name of conquest and empire. Whatever the motive, the effects upon the conquerors and the conquered are similar. One example among many of the futility of the civilizing venture takes place on...
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Compare and Contrast
- 1890s: The iron steamship has supplanted the sailing ship. The British, French, and Dutch Merchant Marines are associated with colonization and the development of manufacturing. With the introduction of the steel steamship in the mid-nineteenth century, Great Britain takes first place in ship building and shipping.
Today: The turbine and diesel engine bring new power and speed to shipping, and a new age of nuclear-powered shipping is launched. Ocean-going vessels are still the dominant means for world transport of commercial goods.
- 1890s: The African slave trade has begun to die out in the Belgian Congo. The Brussels Act of 1890 is signed by eighteen nations and greatly limits the slave trade. But forced labor continues in the Congo with appalling brutality as the lucrative trade in rubber and ivory takes up where trade in human beings left off.
Today: Slavery is all but abolished throughout the world, although it is reported to still exist in parts of Africa and Asia.
- 1890s: Because of the ivory trade, the collection of ivory (present only in the tusks of elephants) thrives in Africa, where elephant tusks are larger than they are in Asia. Antwerp (Belgium) and London are major centers of ivory commerce, with Europe and the U.S. being major...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Because of his experiences in Poland, Conrad hated totalitarianism. What evidence do you see of this hatred in Heart of Darkness?
2. Marlow opens his story by saying that, during Roman times, England was the heart of the uncivilized world. What point is Marlow trying to make?
3. Why does Kurtz instruct the natives to attack Marlow, who is coming to rescue him?
4. Conrad, who himself experienced exile and loneliness as a child, wrote numerous stories about isolated characters. Does Kurtz's isolation have anything to do with his decline? What inner resources does a person need to survive?
5. Why doesn't Marlow tell Kurtz's fiancee the truth about Kurtz's final words?
6. What is the significance of Marlow's thinking the Congo River is a snake?
7. What has Marlow learned from his journey? Why does he almost not escape from Africa?
8. What is the importance of Africa as a setting for the novella? Could the story have taken place in any other location and still have the same meaning?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Critics have pointed out that Marlow's journey is a descent to the underworld, similar to Dante's in The Divine Comedy. Explain the critics' position.
2. Watch the film Apocalypse, Now! and compare it to the novella. Why is Vietnam an appropriate setting instead of Africa?
3. List all the uses of light and dark or black and white imagery, and explain how they develop the themes of the novella.
4. Discuss how the novel's physical settings reflect the psychological landscape of the characters. Cite examples from the text.
5. Discuss the effect of having an unknown third person tell Marlow's story. Is the story about Kurtz, Marlow, or someone else?
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Topics for Further Study
- Research the Belgian atrocities, committed in the Belgian Congo between 1889 and 1899, and compare them to the evidence of same presented in Heart of Darkness.
- Research Henry Stanley's three-year journey (1874-1877) up the Congo River and compare the stations Stanley founded along the river to those mentioned in Heart of Darkness.
- Compare the view of women, as presented in Heart of Darkness, to today's view. Argue whether Conrad should or should not be considered a sexist by today's standards.
- Compare the view of Africans, as presented in Heart of Darkness, to today's view. Argue whether Conrad should or should not be considered a racist by today's standards.
- Research a contemporary psychological study of the effects on an individual of isolation, solitude, or a wild jungle environment and compare it to Kurtz's situation.
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Heart of Darkness has precedents in the tales of Chaucer and Boccaccio, the epic poetry of Virgil and Dante, in the literature of the Romantic Rebellion and, in its vision of the universe, in the novels of Thomas Hardy. One must also recall Conrad's earlier fiction as setting precedents for this and his other work. With the traditions of the Victorian novel and the history of Empire behind them, Conrad and several of his contemporaries began to develop tales of adventure and travel set in exotic places. Writers of the Romantic Revival in the late Victorian era such as Robert Louis Stevenson, H. Rider Haggard, and Rudyard Kipling had already set their works in the South Seas, Africa, and India; and Conrad is surely part of the Romantic Revival, especially in the quest for experience in remote parts of the world. In his use of a protagonist who can remain apart and alone but who can still recognize "one of us," he both shares the Romantic spirit and anticipates the literature of alienation of the twentieth century. In his tales and love of the sea he is the literary heir of Homer, Victor Hugo, and Herman Melville.
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His first novels, Almayer's Folly (1895) and An Outcast of the Islands (1896), established Conrad as an observer of persons under stress, self-destructive aliens in a luxurious but decaying environment. The Nigger of the "Narcissus", the first of Conrad's novels of shipboard life, depicts a crew facing moral problems of conduct and struggling to survive during a storm at sea. Lord Jim, the foremost artistic work of his early phase, introduced Marlow, Conrad's famous narrator and alter-ego, and also introduced the author's experimentation with chronology, narrative, and symmetrical plotting.
In his later period, dating from publication of "The Secret Sharer" and Chance in 1913, Conrad garnered public appreciation with his novels Victory and The Shadow-Line (1917). Victory is a Dickensian examination of evil, idealism, and isolation. The Shadow-Line reverts to themes he had explored in "The Secret Sharer" and Lord Jim—the moral initiation into maturity.
The film Apocalypse, Now! (1979) translates Heart of Darkness to the military world of Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Innovative and compelling, the film stirred considerable critical and public controversy. Four years in the making with a $30 million budget, the film received much publicity both before and after its release. Director Francis Ford Coppola, who had also produced The Godfather, treated his...
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- Directed by Nicolas Roeg, Heart of Darkness was adapted for television and broadcast on TNT in 1994. The film features Tim Roth as Marlow and John Malkovich as Kurtz, and is available on cassette from Turner Home Entertainment.
- The structure of Heart of Darkness was incorporated into Francis Ford Coppola's award-winning 1979 film Apocalypse Now, starring Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen. The insanities presented in the book as stemming from isolation in the African jungle are in the film transposed to the jungles of Vietnam. Available from Paramount Home Video.
- Two sound recordings of Heart of Darkness exist. Both are abridged and produced on two cassettes each. One was recorded by HarperCollins in 1969, is narrated by Anthony Quayle, and runs 91 minutes. The other is a 180-minute recording, published by Penguin-High Bridge audio in 1994, with narration by David Threlfall.
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What Do I Read Next?
- In Lord Jim, published in 1900, another maritime tale, Conrad deals with issues of honor in the face of grave personal danger and colonial imposition of will upon a native people. Marlow again becomes a narrator. Here he tells the story of Jim, a simple sailor who tried and failed to adhere to an honorable code of conduct
- Nostromo (1904), Conrad's largest and most ambitious novel, has multiple heroes and flashes forward and back over a wide time frame. The familiar Conradian preoccupation with colonial interests in remote lands is here transposed to a fictional South American country seething with political unrest.
- Conrad's novel of political terrorism, The Secret Agent (1907), illustrates the author's fascination with a hero who, unlike Kurtz, seeks to remain neutral and avoid commitment in a world of conflict. Against his own will, Adolf Verloc, the book's double agent, is forced into actions which result in more than one murder and a suicide.
- Set in the author's native Nigeria, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958) shows the tragic effects of European colonialism on one man.
- Winner of the 1991 National Book Award for fiction, Middle Passage by Charles...
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For Further Reference
Baines, Jocelyn. Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography. New York: McGraw- Hill, 1960. A useful biography of Conrad in political, social, and personal contexts.
Beacham, Walton, ed. Research Guide to Biography and Criticism. Washington, DC: Beacham Publishing, 1985. Ready-reference capsule of the best volumes in biography and literary criticism to 1985.
Guerard, Albert J. Conrad the Novelist. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966. A view of Conrad's place in literary history from 1875 to 1925.
Moser, Thomas. Joseph Conrad: Achievement and Decline. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957. A pioneering and still indispensable study of Conrad's fiction as the product of a psychologist, political observer, artist, and moralist.
Najder, Zdislaw. Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle. Translated by Halina Carroll- Najder. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983. A major scholarly biography especially authoritative on Conrad's Polish years. It addresses how Conrad attempted to create his identity through literature.
Staley, Thomas F., ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography.Vol. 34. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985. Contains a good general introduction works, life and times. to Conrad's
Teets, Bruce E., and Helmut E. Gerber. Joseph Conrad: An Annotated Bibliography of Writings About Him. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1971. Contains nearly two...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Adams, Richard. Heart of Darkness. London: Penguin, 1991.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Marlow. New York: Chelsea House, 1992.
Burden, Robert. Heart of Darkness. London: Macmillan Educational, 1991.
Clifford, Hugh. Review in The Spectator, November 29, 1902.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Penguin, 1999.
---. Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.
---. The Nigger of the Narcissus. New York: Dell Publishing Company, Inc., 1960.
Dean, Leonard F., ed. Joseph Conrad's ‘‘Heart of Darkness’’: Backgrounds and Criticisms. Prentice-Hall, 1960.
Garnett, Edward. Conrad: The Critical Heritage, edited by Norman Sherry. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973, pp. 131-33.
Glassman, Peter J. Language and Being: Joseph Conrad and the Literature of Personality. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.
Guerard, Albert J. Introduction to Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer. Signet Books/New American Library, 1950.
Guetti, James L. The Limits of Metaphor: A Study of Melville, Conrad and Faulkner. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967.
Gurko, Leo. Joseph Conrad: Giant in Exile. New York: The Macmillan...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Beach, Joseph W. The Twentieth-Century Novel: Studies in Technique. New York: Century, 1932. Conrad’s narrative style and his characterizations (especially of Kurtz) are discussed. How Conrad’s life experiences are related to the plot is hypothesized.
Gillon, Adam. Joseph Conrad. Boston: Twayne, 1982. A book-length exploration of Conrad’s style and how his technique evolved, especially regarding the narrator, Marlowe. There is also an analytical consideration of Kurtz.
Guerard, Albert J. Conrad the Novelist. New York: Atheneum, 1958. Examines some of the autobiographical elements of the work as well as Conrad’s attitudes toward social and historical events of his time. Provides useful insights into Kurtz’s character.
Hay, Eloise K. The Political Novels of Joseph Conrad. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963. Presents the view that Heart of Darkness is not the masterpiece critical acclaim would suggest. Explores the social events and political climate of the time to show some of the influences on the plot and style.
Watt, Ian. “Heart of Darkness.” In Conrad in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. A discussion of sources and ideological perspectives relative to Kurtz and the Victorian era. A scholarly...
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