Places Discussed

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*London

*London. Capital and largest city of Great Britain. The story opens with five men on a cruising yawl on the River Thames on a hazy evening at sundown. One of the men present is named Marlow. He is the only one of the men who is still active as a sailor or naval officer. Marlow begins telling a long story by remarking that the Thames has a dark history. He is referring to ancient times when the Romans first colonized England. At that time, London was an uncivilized place for the relatively sophisticated Romans to be entering.

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*Brussels

*Brussels. Capital city of Belgium. Marlow tells a story concerning his voyage to the heart of the African continent. The company that has hired Marlow to fix a river steamer and become its captain is headquartered in Brussels. At the time of the story, the 1890’s, Belgium was a colonial power in control of a large portion of central Africa. Marlow must visit the company offices to obtain his commission and get orders concerning his new job. The people who work at the company headquarters treat him as though they do not expect him to return. The entire story Marlow tells shows that he has strong contempt for the way the Belgians have managed the country. He compares the city to a sepulcher—white on the outside but full of rotting bones.

*Congo River

*Congo River. Greatest waterway in Central Africa. Joseph Conrad never names these places by their proper names, but it is obvious from his descriptions of them and their place on the map of Africa that he is referring to Congo Free State and to the lengthy Congo River. Marlow also discusses the company’s lower station and a central station, analogous to Stanley Falls, far up the Congo River in the center of Africa. The trip that the steamer, captained by Marlow, makes up the Congo River to relieve Kurtz is eventful and dangerous both because of African attacks and because of tropical diseases. The journey into the heart of the dark rain forest is symbolic of the journey into the dark depths of the human soul.

Literary Techniques

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Conrad uses a variety of techniques to advance his narrative and to imbue it with a parable like quality of universal experience extrapolated from specific incidents. The technique of narrative frame, while not original with Conrad and pervasive in medieval story-telling as in Chaucer and Boccaccio, became in his hands a newly fashioned instrument both for distancing events from the narrator and plunging the narrator into them. Conrad's narrative is often related by an anonymous narrator who identifies so strongly with Marlow that his own identity and Marlow's become interchangeable. Usually, the anonymous narrator is describing the events of Marlow's recent past, such as a voyage to darkest Africa. But Marlow's character is much more complex than the anonymous narrator recognizes, and so Marlow must speak for himself as he relates his distant past — a past which the anonymous narrator has no knowledge of. This interchange between the narrator's perception of Marlow's journey and Marlow's own account establishes irony both in point of view and in narrative voice.

Another important technique is Conrad's highly charged and sometimes poetic language, his use of light and darkness, color and chiaroscuro in descriptive passages of considerable beauty. This use of language highlights the concrete details of observation and opens out to the reader a range of emotion which the details evoke in both the narrators and in the reader. His language, moreover, gives not only a clear sense of physical place but also hints at the effect of the exterior landscape upon the interior landscape in a carefully articulated polyphonic counterpoint.

Literary Qualities

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Conrad uses a variety of techniques to advance his narrative and to imbue it, like a parable, with a quality of universality derived from specific experience. The technique of the narrative frame, while pervasive in the medieval tale-telling of such poets as Geoffrey Chaucer and Giovanni Boccaccio, became in Conrad's hands a newly fashioned instrument that allowed the narrator to be a distant observer of events he had witnessed. As is the case in many of Conrad's works of fiction, Heart of Darkness is related by an anonymous narrator who identifies so strongly with Marlow that the two characters' identities merge. The anonymous narrator describes events of Marlow's recent past, but Marlow must speak for himself as he relates his distant past—a complex psychological matrix of which the anonymous narrator has no knowledge. The interplay between the narrator's perception of Marlow's journey and Marlow's own account establishes irony in both point of view and narrative voice. Conrad's highly charged and sometimes poetic language, combined with his use of light and darkness, highlights the author's powers of observation and evokes a range of emotion transferred from narrator to reader. Conrad's language, moreover, not only gives a clear sense of physical place but also hints at the effect of exterior setting upon the interior landscape of the soul.

Heart of Darkness has stylistic precedents in the tales of Chaucer and Boccaccio, and thematic precedents in the epic poetry of Virgil and Dante. Its dark vision of the universe recalls the novels of Thomas Hardy. Building upon the tradition of the Victorian novel and the history of the British Empire, Conrad and several of his contemporaries began to develop tales of adventure and travel set in exotic places. Late Victorian writers, such as Robert Louis Stevenson, H. Rider Haggard, and Rudyard Kipling, had already set their works in the South Seas, Africa, and India by the time Conrad began writing. In his use of a protagonist who remains apart but can still be recognized as "one of us," he both shares the Romantic spirit and anticipates twentieth-century literature of alienation. In the love of the sea his tales reflect, he is the literary heir of Homer, Victor Hugo, and Herman Melville.

Setting

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The story opens as a nameless narrator aboard the cruising yawl Nellie, anchored in the Thames River in England, begins to relate secondhand the story of Charlie Marlow's river voyage in the Belgian Congo. Set in the late nineteenth century, most of the story takes place at outposts along the river, each of which brings Marlow closer to his quarry: the Belgian trader, Mr. Kurtz. At the end of the story, Marlow returns to Brussels to visit Kurtz's fiancee. The setting of Heart of Darkness is practically indistinguishable from the novella's symbolic framework. The rich cultural details and natural symbols afforded by the African landscape surround Marlow, consume Kurtz, and shed light upon Conrad's exploration of man's inner darkness.

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Historical and Social Context