Heart of Darkness Questions and Answers
by Joseph Conrad

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Marlow describes his memories of this time in Heart of Darkness in terms of sound and voice: as something "impalpable, like a dying vibration of an immense jabber, silly, atrocious, sordid, savage, or simply mean, without any kind of sense." Discuss possible interpretations of this description.

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This is a really interesting question—this particular quotation from the story has been much discussed and held up as an example of a particularly "Conradian" style of writing. The critic F.R. Leavis, for example, suggests that words like "impalpable," which ultimately mean nothing, are used by Conrad to emphasize Marlow's sheer inability to clearly describe what went on in the Congo—he simply cannot understand it. He grasps for long words to try and make sense of what does not make sense, but in this quotation, as we can see, the long word swiftly gives way to the onomatopoeia of "jabber," revealing how Marlow really feels when he tries to remember. This part of his life is like an overwhelming noise to him, the "vibration" of which still cannot be eradicated from his mind. It is as if the aftershock of the sound is still reverberating, and Marlow still cannot understand why this "savage" noise could ever have been made.

Just before this, Marlow has talked about Kurtz being only "a voice" to him. Elsewhere he describes him as only "a word." The Kurtz voice, combined with other voices, added to the "jabber" that was this time in Marlow's life, the "inscrutable" clamor. It is notable that he seems to have been stripped of his other senses when it comes to understanding this period -- he feels as if he is blind towards it, remembering only how it sounded, and how difficult that sound was to make sense of.

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