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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad

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Essential Quotes by Theme: Civilization

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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 strangeness of the native Africans they encounter along the shores only reinforce this feeling.

Essential Passage 3: Chapter 3

"His last word—to live with," she insisted. "Don't you understand I loved him—I loved him—I loved him!"
I pulled myself together and spoke slowly.
"The last word he pronounced was—your name."
I heard a light sigh, and then my heart stood still, stopped dead short by an exulting and terrible cry, by the cry of inconceivable triumph and of unspeakable pain. "I knew it—I was sure!"...She knew. She was sure. I heard her weeping; she had hidden her face in her hands. It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle. Would they have fallen, I wonder, if I had rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due? Hadn't he said he wanted only justice? But I couldn’t. I could not tell her. It would have been too dark—too dark altogether...
Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha. Nobody moved for a time. “We have lost the first of the ebb,” said the Director, suddenly. I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.


After Kurtz’s death and burial along the banks of the river in Africa, Marlow returns to Europe, ill for many months. It is almost a year after his journey that he meets Kurtz’s fiancée, his Intended. Still in mourning, she continues to love the man she knew. Marlow is faced with the challenge of recounting the last days of the man she loved. She holds to her memory of Kurtz—a successful and honorable trader, a representative of civilization, bearing its light to the darkness that was Africa. Believing that the last words spoken prior to death would reveal the central object of Kurtz’s heart, she asks Marlow what Kurtz had said before he died. Marlow struggles, not wanting to tell her that his last words were, “The horror! The horror!” Thus he chooses to lie, telling her instead that Kurtz spoke her name. Although the fiancée is relieved, Marlow feels that in some way he has betrayed Kurtz by not relating to this woman the struggle that Kurtz fought and lost. Marlow, however, could not bring such darkness into the light of civilization. As Marlow ends his story, his audience is spellbound. Still waiting to depart down the Thames, they have discovered that they lost the first ebbing of the tide that would hasten their journey to the sea. Marlow looks out and sees that this most civilized of rivers is itself leading into the heart of darkness.

Analysis of Essential Passages

Two locales are presented in The Heart of Darkness that reflect the nineteenth-century worldview: Europe as the region of light and goodness, and Africa as the region of dark and evil. The ostensible purpose of European colonization during the time period was to bring governmental order, cultural and religious enlightenment, and financial prosperity to the “Dark Continent.” And it is in fact this “mission mentality” that Marlow sees as the redemptive quality of colonization. For him, the conquest of a third-world country is justified only so far as the colonizing power is there for the people’s good.

Marlow’s journey is a symbolic quest into the dark heart of man. This bent toward evil, the concept of “original sin,” goes against the Enlightenment view that man in his heart is good but society corrupts him. Conrad seems to reject this notion, stating that darkness lies in each one of us. Given a certain set of circumstances and attitudes, an individual can—and will—be overcome by the darkness and the horror that was the final vision of Kurtz as he approached death.

Yet Conrad also presents civilization as an engineered concept. It rests on the surface of the individual but cannot reach into his very heart. The Nellie, the ship on which Marlow is initially voyaging when he tells his tale, floats on the Thames in the heart of London, which is symbolic of the highest level of civilization. Yet the waters of the Thames connect to the waters of Africa. Darkness can thus never be truly eradicated or prevented from influencing civilization. At the end, Marlow realizes this as he looks down the Thames and sees the darkness in London itself.

Conrad’s pessimistic view is that civilization is weaker than darkness, than evil. It will eventually be overcome, as Kurtz was in Africa. Kurtz thus becomes a cautionary tale, warning of this lurking evil, not in some foreign locale, but within the human heart of the most civilized of creatures.

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Essential Quotes by Character: Kurtz