Heart of Darkness Style, Form, and Literary Elements
by Joseph Conrad

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*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.


*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

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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...

(The entire section is 1,106 words.)