Heart of Darkness Questions and Answers
by Joseph Conrad

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How does physical illness relate to madness in Heart of Darkness? How does one’s environment relate to one’s mental state in this book?

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Jonathan Ryan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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You really pose two distinct questions about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, so I’ll answer your question in two parts:

1) The most obvious connection between madness and physical illness can be found in the character of Kurtz, who suffers from an unnamed tropical fever and succumbs to it at the end of the novella. When Marlow encounters Kurtz, he is emaciated and reduced to a hollow shell of his former self. He is haunted by his past, infatuated with collecting ivory and brutalizes the Natives. After Kurtz’s death, Marlow is given the dead man’s official report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs and is impressed by its eloquence and precision. At the end of the writing though, a postscript is scrawled reading “Exterminate all the Brutes!” This small detail is just one of several examples tracing Kurtz’s mysterious descent into savagery. Whether his physical illness or mental illness came first is up for debate, which brings us to your second...

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