Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

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Examine the meaning of, "We live in the flicker-may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling."

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Marlow makes this statement in the opening of the novel, the frame section in which another first-person narrator introduces us to him and allows him to launch into his long story.

This narrator describes Marlow as ascetic, with a straight back, yellow skin, sunken cheeks and a Buddha-like posture. Marlow suddenly says that the Thames, where they all now are,

has been one of the dark places of the earth.

This is an odd statement, as the Thames is the river leading to London and is, therefore, in the year 1899, at the world center of power and development. Marlow goes on to say,

We live in the flicker—may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling!

What he means by the quote above is that the British live in a state they consider enlightenment; England has now become a place that has risen out of "barbarism." But the word flicker means an uncertain light, one that might go out at any time. Marlow hopes this flicker of light will stay alive in England until the end of time; however, he describes the country's past, when the Romans first came to its shores, as if to emphasize the fragility of civilization. He says the Roman arrival, metaphorically speaking, was "yesterday." Then, the Romans confronted a civilization as "barbarous" as that the English are now encountering in their exploration of Africa.

By making this statement, which is not completely comprehensible until you have heard Marlowe's entire story, Marlowe universalizes the "darkness" in Africa. It is common to all of humankind, a force we must all struggle to transcend. The civilization that England now has could flicker out, though Marlow hopes it won't.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Marlow's statement reveals his beliefs about the existential and political condition of human beings.  This condition of human beings that "live in the flicker" helps to convey their temporal predicament.  Marlow speaks from a position in which what he has seen is representative of his thoughts.  His experiences, sitting as "the Buddha" on the Nellie, is one in which he believes that what we, as human beings do, exist in the brief instant, "the flicker."  The "old earth keeps rolling" without our consent, and devoid of the flicker.  The flicker, the human beings' endeavors, comes and goes, while the "old earth keeps rolling."  Marlow's statement, expressed at the exposition of the novel helps to establish this condition of human beings.

Another understanding of the statement can help to illuminate and almost foreshadow more of the story.  The darkness that the flicker seeks to illuminate is permanent.  There is no escaping it.  This could very well be the "heart of darkness."  There is darkness that surrounds "the flicker."  All attempts to escape from this condition are futile, for there is only the darkness that envelops and consumes "the flicker."  For Marlow, his construction of the human condition is one in which the flicker is temporary.  The darkness is permanent.

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