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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad

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Section I 1. From the very opening on the Thames in Heart of Darkness, when day mixes with night, Conrad uses images of light and dark. Traditionally, light represents “good” and dark represents “bad.” Does Conrad use these interpretations in the same way? What do his constant references to light and dark suggest about Marlow’s story? Remember, Africa is the “dark continent,” where the black natives live.

2. Conrad alters his narration by making Marlow jump back and forth in time. Marlow mentions people and events we won’t know about until later. Cite examples when he does this, and explain how it affects the story. What advantages are there in breaking the sequence of events? Why does he tell us some things, while withholding others?

3. In a sense, two narrators speak—a nameless “I” and Charlie Marlow. The narrator introduces Marlow, then tells us some of his ideas. When Marlow speaks, we see everything from his perspective. Suppose someone else told Marlow’s story? Say, perhaps, the narrator or, possibly, one of the people Marlow meets along his journey. How would the story change? Would the information and details be different?

4. After taking the steamer captained by the Swede, Marlow sees the blacks for the first time. Why does the sight of them appall him? Why is he bothered by the way they are treated? No one else seems to be disturbed by their condition, so why is Marlow?

5. Section I contains a number of shorter episodes, as Marlow switches steamers and heads deeper into the jungle. What does he see and experience at each temporary stop over? Is there a progression as he moves from one boat to another? Does each stop affect Marlow’s attitude and opinion toward what he sees?

Section II 1. Marlow hears about Kurtz when other people talk about him. The accountant, brickmaker, manager, and the manager’s uncle speak of Kurtz to each other and/or Marlow. He pieces together their offhand remarks to form his opinion of Kurtz. From their references, characterize Kurtz. Is he admirable, a good ivory-agent, successful? Is it possible their positions influence their feelings toward Kurtz?

2. Marlow’s journey to Africa enables him to meet for the first time the natives, people unlike him in many ways. How does Marlow, as well as the other white men, contrast with the blacks? Focus not only on their physical differences, but their behavior and general way of life. Are they representative of their distinct cultures, since one group comes from “civilized” Europe and the other comes from the “dark” continent?

3. A few times during Section I, Marlow mentions how he anticipates meeting Kurtz. Why does Kurtz intrigue him? Has the gossip about Kurtz fueled his interest? Is there any logical reason why he becomes obsessed with meeting Kurtz, a white man like himself?

4. The conversation between Marlow and the manager in Section I, and the talk between the manager and his uncle at the beginning of Section II, establish the manager’s character. According to Marlow, he has no good qualities. Show how the manager is greedy, self-centered, and more of a hindrance to Marlow than a help. Remember, the manager envies Kurtz, a man Marlow longs to meet. Could this account for Marlow’s unflattering picture of him?

5. Conrad ends Section I between when the manager’s uncle arrives and the manager talks to his uncle about Kurtz. Section II ends right after the Russian greets Marlow and tells them preliminary information about himself and Kurtz. Why does Conrad end these sections here? Are they important breaks in the plot?...

(This entire section contains 977 words.)

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WouldHeart of Darkness have been different if Conrad had left the novella as one chapter, with no separate sections?

Section III 1. From what the Russian says, he worships Kurtz. He always praises him, even justifying Kurtz’s barbaric killings. Marlow admires Kurtz also. How, though, does their admiration for Kurtz differ? Is the Russian’s more exaggerated, and Marlow’s more controlled? Since the Russian already knows Kurtz and has spoken to him, and Marlow has not met Kurtz yet, can that influence their respective feelings?

2. There are many indications of Kurtz’s mental illness. The decapitated heads on poles outside his home, his “exterminate all the brutes” philosophy, and his obsessive quest for ivory show his “unsound method,” as the manager terms it. Is Kurtz mad, or has he simply adapted to a barbaric society? Is he just playing by the rules of the jungle, which differ from those of a civilized society?

3. Though seemingly minor, the three women are important to Marlow’s adventure. His aunt, Kurtz’s black mistress, and Kurtz’s Intended influence the story in various ways. Compare the three of them. What does each one represent? Include how they come from different parts of society with separate values and beliefs, especially Kurtz’s two loves.

4. Kurtz appears in Heart of Darkness for a very short time. He does and says little. Why then is he so important to the story? Why didn’t Conrad expand his actual role? Does his limited appearance detract from his importance?

5. Describe the three people who visit Marlow to get Kurtz’s papers after he returns to Europe from Africa. What do their positions and interest in Kurtz say about Kurtz’s reputation? Why is Marlow so reluctant about giving them Kurtz’s papers? What are his personal reasons for protecting them?

6. Besides Marlow and Kurtz, Conrad identifies all the characters who appear by description, not name. We see the chief accountant, the manager, the manager’s uncle, the helmsman, the Russian, etc. Why does Conrad use these vague references? By not giving them names, does he shift the emphasis away from them, even though they all contribute to Marlow’s journey? Is their function, as suggested through their title, more important than their name?


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