What are external and internal conflicts in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Conrad's Heart of Darkness includes numerous examples of internal and external conflict.

Marlow is hired by the company that also employs Kurtz, their most successful harvester of ivory. Marlow’s job is to travel deep into the Belgian Congo to bring Kurtz home.

Marlow experiences external conflict when he witnesses how horribly the Congolese slaves are treated by white traders, who call those they have enslaved "enemies" and "criminals." His compassion for these poor souls is evident as he observes that they walk chained together at the neck. 

Marlow characterizes the captors as devils:

...but, by all the stars! these were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men—men, I tell you.

The quote infers that the whites do not treat those under their charge as human beings, as "men." Marlow struggles with this. He also reacts to the sight of wretched men who are clustered together to rest...

...scattered in every pose of contorted collapse, as in some picture of massacre or pestilence...I stood horror-struck...

In these instances, the external conflict for Marlow is man vs. man and man vs. society.

The reader may infer that Marlow experiences internal conflict in these situations in that in his disbelief, he realizes that there is nothing he can do but silently witness the atrocities against the people of the Congo.

At the Lower Station, Marlow notes:

The word 'ivory' rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it.

This sense of worship in this observation is echoed when Marlow finally reaches Kurtz, the novel's second prominent character. Kurtz has abandoned his civility—his humanity—putting his greed before civilized behavior. He has adopted the behaviors of the natives and allowed himself to be "converted by them to savagery." He has become like a god to these people. He has been a party to enslaving innocent men, and has even condoned murder by those who follow him.

It is in Kurtz's character that the reader witnesses internal conflict. When Marlow reaches Kurtz, he finds the other man has gone mad. Inexplicably, he seems to have simultaneously embraced but also in that moment rejects the horrific mindset that has encompassed him and altered how he sees and interacts with the "powers of darkness" around him.

Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn't touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror—of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: “The horror! The horror!”

Marlow also notes...

But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself and, by heavens I tell you, it had gone mad.

This quote demonstrates the inner struggle that has haunted Kurtz. This internal conflict, Marlow believes, has driven Kurtz mad, something that temporarily subsides as he finally experiences a moment of clarity and reflection as he faces the horror of his life, of what he has done and what he has condoned.


ms-mcgregor eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "Heart of Darkness" the internal and external conflicts are intertwined with Marlow's trip into colonial Africa. Initially seeking adventure, Marlow is looking forward to taking a journey up the Congo River to find Kurtz, a man whom he initially admires. However, during the trip, Marlow encounters many external conflicts that begin to change Marlow's internal beliefs. His journey is a difficult one and the external conflicts Marlow sees are horrific. He sees a French ship shelling the bush country but there seem to be no humans in sight. He sees naked black men dead and dying of disease. He boat is fired upon by supporters of Kurtz. Finally, when Marlow meets Kurtz, he finds a man whom he can no longer admire. He sees and feels how low man can sink into corruption. Internally, Marlow is disgusted. Then he takes Kurtz, who is dying, back down the Congo. Kurtz has become his "choice of nightmares". When he hears Kurtz's last words, "The horror, the horror". Marlow assumes that Kurtz has seen the consequences of his actions and resumes his loyalty to Kurtz. But seeing the horrors of Africa changes Marlow. At the beginning of the novel, he says he hates lies. However, one year after returning to Belgium, he sees Kurtz's fiancee and lies to her, telling her Kurtz died with her name on his lips. He lies in order to prevent her from seeing the same kinds of horrors he witnessed in Africa. Thus, his external voyage has affected his interior beliefs.

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Heart of Darkness

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