Heart of Darkness Questions and Answers
by Joseph Conrad

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What does the phrase "that was the worst of it—the suspicion of their not being inhuman" mean?

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In Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, the character Marlow recounts his transformational experience in the African jungle, discovering, to his shock, that he and his companions have more in common with those living in the jungle than he once suspected. His discomfort with this realization is indicated by the quote, “that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman.”

As the crew “penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness,” Marlow felt as though they were withdrawing further and further from modern civilization:

We were wanderers on prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil.

Marlow’s words show that initially, he sees himself and his companions as distinct and removed from this wilderness. In fact, he sees them as superior beings coming in from the outside with a responsibility to tame this uncivilized world. But as they continue down the river, the impenetrable darkness of the jungle begins to dissolve, and Marlow begins to see glimpses of the people that populate this area.

But suddenly, as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, or eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage ... The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us—who could tell?

These sightings lead Marlow to a realization. While he began this voyage believing the indigenous people of the jungle to be savages far removed from him and his companions, they may not be so different after all.

It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman ... They howled and leaped and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity ... the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.

Marlow is realizing that he is not separate from or superior to the people living in this wilderness. The passion that animates them is found deep inside him as well, and this connection frightens him. It shakes the security he derives from his identity as a modern and “civilized” man.

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