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Heart of Darkness | Study Guide

Joseph Conrad

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Heart of Darkness | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


What are the effects of the narrative frame as it is introduced in Part 1 of Heart of Darkness?

Conrad's choice of using an unnamed narrator to provide the frame of Marlow's story has two main effects: deepening the theme of civilization versus barbarism and giving readers clues as to how to understand the story. The narrator describes the Thames as stretching "before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway." This comment connects the Thames, and thus Europe, to Africa, the darkness, because it is on an African river that Marlow travels to reach the darkness. The narrator describes a serene and calm ending of the day, with water gleaming in the sunlight and the sky "a benign immensity of unstained light." This tranquil setting provides a startling contrast to the dark tale Marlow tells. The narrator also comments on Marlow's storytelling, saying his stories have a tendency to be "inconclusive experiences." Yet the narrator passes on Marlow's story, suggesting that, even if it might be "inconclusive," it is significant in some way. The narrator explains that to Marlow, "the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside." This comment suggests that the meaning of the story emerges from the totality of it, from the overarching sense to be made of it, rather than from specific, concrete details or explicit messages found within it. The narrator thus prepares the reader to read Marlow's narrative.

In Heart of Darkness, what is the significance of the occupations of Marlow's audience on the Nellie?

Marlow's audience is made up of the Lawyer, the Accountant, and the Director of Companies, along with the unnamed narrator. These occupations introduce important concerns of the novella. The Lawyer represents ethics, which is explored in the treatment of the African natives by the Belgian imperialists and in the struggles of both Marlow and Kurtz to reconcile this treatment with personal concerns. The Accountant represents finances, the motivating force behind Belgian colonialism and Kurtz's actions in Africa. The Director of Companies mirrors Marlow's role in Africa as the pilot of the boat. These competing interests bear witness to Marlow's account and, along with the narrator, provide varying outside perspectives from which to judge the events.

In Part 1 of Heart of Darkness, what is significant in the narrator's description of Marlow sitting "cross-legged ... the palms of his hands outwards, [resembling] an idol"?

This early description foreshadows the comparison later in Part 1 and again in Part 3 between Marlow and Buddha: "Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha." The image of an idol suggests that Marlow is a dispenser of wisdom, a conveyer of deeper truths. As a Buddha figure, Marlow relays these truths in the form of stories with multiple layers of meaning and symbolism that are open to interpretation. It is significant that the narrator compares him to Buddha and not Jesus, a teller of parables more familiar to Conrad's European readers. The Buddha conveys a sense of the strange and foreign, like the African setting of the story, and the mysterious and challenging. The narrator is warning readers that they will not be hearing a recognizable story retold, but something different, something they will need to pay careful attention to.

In Part 1 of Heart of Darkness, what mood is created through the narrator's description of the tide, river, and ships?

The Nellie is at rest because the men are waiting for the tide to turn and begin to ebb, which will enable them to easily sail out to sea. The air is "dark" and "condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless." "A haze [rests] on the low shores." Yet, the "sea-reach" of the Thames reveals a "luminous space" where "the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint." However, the space between the Nellie and the sea seems "interminable." There is a calmness, a sense of stasis and relaxation that contrasts with the violence in Marlow's story. The passing of other ships and thoughts of the "tidal current run[ning] to and fro" compel the men of the sea to think of empires past, the narrator says. Certainly Marlow has these thoughts, as the tide and the light bring him to muse on the ancient, dark past of Britain, when it was a primitive land peopled by those whom Romans regarded as barbarians. Marlow muses that England, like Africa, was a place of darkness before the arrival of the Romans, who brought civilization and light. If this comparison holds, then white Englishmen were once like the black Africans, and they share a humanity and a history as well.

What effect does Conrad achieve in Heart of Darkness by layering the narrator's, Marlow's, and Kurtz's voices in the story?

The unnamed narrator tells readers about Marlow. Marlow tells readers about his journey to Africa and about Kurtz. In this way the novella moves toward the voice of Kurtz, whose eloquence is well documented by other characters before readers ever meet him. When readers meet Kurtz, he says very little, but he does utter the novel's most haunting words: "The horror! The horror!" Each voice adds to the richness of the narrative and adds a layer to the reader's understanding. Readers need Kurtz's words to hear directly from him, but they also need the help of Marlow in interpreting Kurtz's words and experiences—as well as others' views of Kurtz—to develop a fuller picture of the man and what he did and to place him in context. Similarly, readers need the narrator to set the frame for Marlow's narration by explaining the storyteller's narrative style.

In Heart of Darkness, what do the two women knitting at the Company office in Brussels symbolize?

The two women who knit in the Company office in Brussels symbolize death, as they are knitting "black wool as for a warm pall," or a burial shroud. In their knitting, they allude to the three Fates of Greek mythology, who spin out the thread of human life, snipping it when it is time for death. They also conjure the image of the Cumaean sibyl in the Aeneid, who tells Aeneas how to get to the underworld. In Heart of Darkness, the women silently and with "swift and indifferent placidity" guard "the door of Darkness" as they knit. This door, which leads to Africa for Marlow, is the door to the underworld or the door to death. The shrouds they knit may be meant for Marlow, as the suggestion is that those who travel to the heart of darkness do not return. In recognition of this fate, Marlow responds by saying, "Morituri te salutant," a Latin expression generally made by condemned criminals or gladiators to the Roman emperor that means "Those who are about to die salute you."

In Heart of Darkness, how are Marlow's aunt and Kurtz's Intended shown to be similar?

While Marlow's aunt has the power to provide him with access to Africa, he comments that she, like other women, is "out of touch with truth" when she demonstrates belief in the Company's propaganda regarding the civilization of the African natives. He goes on to say that women live in artificial, beautiful worlds that would shatter at the hands of truth. The Intended also lives in a world of illusion, one in which Kurtz's death is a great loss to the world and to her. Her illusion and Marlow's view of female misunderstanding of the world explain why he lies to the Intended regarding Kurtz's last words rather than tell her the truth. The truth of what Kurtz did and said is "too dark—too dark altogether" for her, and he chooses to betray his insistence on truth in service of protecting her heart. Readers may conclude that, while Marlow recognized truth in his understanding of both Kurtz and himself, his understanding of women is quite deficient.

In what ways does Kurtz's African mistress in Heart of Darkness contrast with Marlow's aunt and Kurtz's Intended?

Marlow's aunt and Kurtz's Intended are portrayed as gentle, naive, and living under illusions, the aunt accepting the illusion of the Company's civilizing mission in Africa and the Intended embracing the illusion of Kurtz's importance and his love for her. While both are white and associated with the light of civilization, they also live in the darkness of ignorance in that they do not see certain truths. Kurtz's African mistress possesses stately composure, sexual power, and a strong sense of self. In the jungle setting where she lives, these traits take on an association with primeval darkness. However, she also possesses a light, an understanding of aspects of Kurtz's nature that are unknown to, even hidden from, his Intended. In this way the women are complex aspects of the light and dark imagery of the text.

In Heart of Darkness, Marlow refers to the doctor as a "harmless fool." In what ways is this assessment erroneous?

While Marlow dismisses the doctor's tests as foolish, the doctor, in fact, serves to foreshadow the fate of those who journey into Africa or the heart of darkness when he questions Marlow about the presence of madness in his family. In the end it is madness that claims Kurtz and threatens to claim Marlow. Like the Russian harlequin later in the story, the doctor is a wise or prophetic fool. In addition, the doctor is anything but harmless. In his own way, he, like the imperialists, is exploiting Africa for his own gain. By measuring Marlow's skull, the doctor collects data for his own unofficial and unethical scientific experiment, hoping to gain his "share in the advantages [his] country shall reap from the possession of such a magnificent dependency."

Which group in Heart of Darkness exhibits more barbarism, the Europeans who represent civilization or the Africans who represent barbarism?

The so-called civilized Europeans are far more barbaric than the Africans in Heart of Darkness. The Company is built on the principle of stealing the resources of Africa and, in fact, forcing native Africans to secure those resources, essentially robbing themselves of these goods. The Europeans put Africans in chains, force them to work, beat them for crimes they may or may not have committed, and provide little food for those under their care. Kurtz executes those he deems to be rebels and decapitates them, then displays their heads as a warning to all others. Even relatively benign Europeans like Marlow harbor racist attitudes and only gradually acknowledge their humanity. Africans, by contrast, do nothing so harsh. The only European who is killed by an African is Fresleven, the Danish captain who preceded Marlow, and he was killed by a chief's son trying to protect his father. While Kurtz's followers attack the steamer, they do so in an effort to protect Kurtz. The crew members Marlow says are cannibals never attack the whites on the steamer, even though they outnumber them. Africans do nothing that compares to the depravity and venality that the Europeans show.

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