Heart of Darkness Essential Quotes by Theme: Civilization
by Joseph Conrad

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Essential Quotes by Theme: Civilization

Essential Passage 1: Chapter 1

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to....


A company of travelers are aboard the steamer Nellie, waiting for the tide to turn so that they can commence their voyage. As they wait, they begin to discuss various topics. One of the travelers, Marlow, ponders a time when London was uninhabited except by “savages,” before the Romans came and sparked life into the development of modern civilization. He compares the Romans to modern-day explorers, colonists, and especially commercial developers, who go to distant places to make money. He thinks about the unrefined conditions which such people must endure until civilization appears. Rather than speculate on the good that explorers might bring to these dark areas, Marlow reflects on the nature of civilization itself, especially the colonizing process, which in the nineteenth century was viewed as a means of civilizing “uncivilized” countries. Marlow states that it is only the idea of civilization sparked in a dark region that redeems the whole colonial mindset.

Essential Passage 2: Chapter 2

...The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. I was very quiet there. At night sometimes the roll of drums behind the curtain of trees would run up the river and remain sustained faintly, as if hovering in the air high over our heads, till the first break of day. Whether it meant war, peace, or prayer we could not tell. The dawns were heralded by the descent of a chill stillness; the wood-cutters slept, their fires burned low; the snapping of a twig would make you start. We were wanderers on a pre-historic 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. 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, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us—who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember because we were travelling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign—and no memories.


Marlow has begun his journey to the Inner Station to find Kurtz . While sleeping on the upper deck, he is awakened by a conversation between the station manager and his uncle. The pair resent Kurtz and his success. Moreover, they despise the philosophy to which Kurtz holds—that as a trader he is not only in Africa to trade for ivory but to be a “beacon,” bringing civilization to the regions of darkness. Despite this negative opinion of Kurtz, Marlow is more intrigued than ever and is anxious to meet the legendary man. The boat travels deeper and deeper into “the heart of darkness,” until it seems to Marlow that they are not only leaving civilization behind but even the concept of civilization, travelling backward in time to the days when man was at his most primitive. The wildness and the...

(The entire section is 1,524 words.)