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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad

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Discussion Topic

The identity and fate of the helmsman in Heart of Darkness

Summary:

In Heart of Darkness, the helmsman is an African crew member who steers Marlow's steamboat. He meets his fate when he is killed by a spear during an attack by natives as the steamboat approaches Kurtz's station. His death significantly impacts Marlow, symbolizing the chaos and danger of the Congo journey.

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Who is the helmsman in Heart of Darkness?

The helmsman in Heart of Darkness is never named. He is an "athletic" Black man whom Marlow describes in terms that stress his otherness from European men: he wears "brass earrings" and is wrapped from his waist to his ankles in a blue cloth. He has a good deal of pride, which Marlow describes as thinking "the world of himself."

Marlow has ambivalent feelings about this helmsman, calling him a "fool" and "second-rate," but he also values him. Viewed from our twenty-first century perspective, it appears that learned racism causes Marlow to denigrate this figure, while his more rational, compassionate, and untainted impulses help him perceive the humanity and worth of this man.

In addition to speaking of him dismissively, after his helmsman is killed by one of the attacker's spears, Marlow says he misses him "awfully" (though whether or not he misses the man himself or his role as a helmsman is not clear). He goes so far as to say he is not sure finding Kurtz was worth the life of this man. Marlow states:

Perhaps you will think it passing strange this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara. Well, don't you see, he had done something, he had steered; for months I had him at my back—a help—an instrument. It was a kind of partnership.

This quote crystallizes much of Marlow's ambivalence about the helmsman. He knows that the social perception of his times means that he should think and speak dismissively about him, but his feelings of superiority to the man are complicated by his fondness for him. Regardless of the man's race and culture, he had a "partnership" with him and had developed a "bond" with him.

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How does the helmsman die in Heart of Darkness?

A short distance from Kurtz's Inner Station, Marlow's crew is forced to remain anchored because the extremely thick fog prevents them from traveling further down the river. All of a sudden, the crew begins hearing noises from the shore and the Natives begin shooting arrows and throwing spears towards the ship. Most of the white pilgrims panic and begin shooting their rifles towards the shore, even though they are unable to see their targets and are aiming too high to hit anyone. Interestingly, Marlow notes that the arrows are so small that they couldn't even kill a cat. During the attack, the helmsman grabs a rifle while Marlow attempts to steer the ship out of danger. While Marlow is steering the ship towards deeper water, he suddenly looks down and the helmsman is lying on his back attempting to pull out a spear that is lodged in his side. Unfortunately, the helmsman dies after he is struck by a spear, which hits him directly in the ribs.

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How does the helmsman die in Heart of Darkness?

When Marlow is on his way to see Kurtz, surrounding natives begin to fire arrows at his boat. The helmsman, who Marlow describes as "the most unstable kind of fool I had ever seen," has stopped steering the boat to open the shutter and fire a gun at the natives on shore. Marlow sees the helmsman drop the rifle, and then the helmsman falls at his feet. A spear has pierced the helmsman in his side, just below his ribs. The blade is so far inside his body that only the shaft of the spear is visible, and blood is leaking out of the dying man's body all over Marlow's feet.

As the helmsman is dying, Marlow thinks "he would presently put to us some question," but instead, the man dies without uttering a word or even moving a muscle. He frowns right before he dies, so he has a death mask with a somber expression. Marlow's shoes and socks have been covered with the helmsman's blood, so he decides to toss them overboard. He then heaves the body of the helmsman overboard as well. The helmsman's death is a foreshadowing of the destruction and death that awaits Marlow at Kurtz's station.

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How does the helmsman die in Heart of Darkness?

When the natives begin to attack Marlow's boat, he orders the helmsman to steer the boat straight. Instead, the helmsman abandons the steering wheel and foolishly grabs a gun, intent on firing at the attackers. When he opens a shutter to fire, he is fatally wounded by a spear and falls to the floor of the boat. The boat in the meantime has erratically drifted into the shoreline, even closer to the attackers. Marlow must correct their course before he can attend to the helmsman's body, which he later tosses overboard, fearing the hungry cannibals onboard may see as food. Marlow also throws overboard his shoes that were filled with the helmsman's blood in a symbolic gesture indicating his new understanding of the dangerous territory he has now entered as well as his growing awareness of the "heart of darkness."

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How does the helmsman die in Heart of Darkness?

As the helmsman steers Marlow's boat toward Kurtz's Inner Station, the crew is attacked by natives on the riverbank. Marlow recounts how a spear "caught [the helmsman] in the side just below the ribs" and made a "frightful gash." Marlow is most concerned, however, about the fact that the helmsman's blood filled up his own shoes.

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