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Heart of Darkness | Study Guide

Joseph Conrad

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Heart of Darkness | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In Part 1 of Heart of Darkness, what does Marlow mean when he says that Africa introduces him to "the flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of rapacious and pitiless folly"?

Marlow's description provides insight into his assessment of imperialism, which he sees as rather a shabby, disorganized, and incoherent, albeit brutal, venture. Everywhere Marlow looks at the Outer Station and the Central Station, the Company's facilities are in ruins and the administration incompetent. The pilgrims have no desire to work. When they do work, they perform tasks without reason, such as ordering the blasting of a cliff with no purpose. Tools and machinery are in disrepair; Marlow's boat is at the bottom of the lake. Supplies are poorly allocated, sent where they are not needed and not sent where they are needed. Marlow cannot get any rivets to repair his boat; the brickmaker has no materials with which to make bricks; and water pails have holes in the bottom. These lapses compromise the economic success of the imperialist enterprise.

In Part 1 of Heart of Darkness, how does the African slave wearing "white worsted" around his neck in the thicket of death develop the theme of imperialism?

Symbolically the image represents an African man being strangled by white civilization. A group of enslaved Africans are chained together and trying to clear the rocky land to build a railroad on behalf of the Belgian imperialists. As they grow ill from starvation or disease, they are released to "crawl away" and die in a nearby thicket of trees. One dying young man, who wears "white worsted" or a "bit of white thread from beyond the seas" around his neck, catches Marlow's attention. Marlow notes that the white fabric looks "startling around this black neck." This young man's death is caused by his enslavement to the Europeans, yet he dons this symbol of his oppressors. Marlow wonders over the young man's motive: is it a badge, an ornament, a charm, or an act to make his oppressors think favorably of him? Regardless of the young man's unclear motives, the image reiterates the deadly oppositions in the text created by the imperialists: white versus black and civilization versus barbarism.

What are the roles of the two accountants in Heart of Darkness?

The accountant who lives and works at the Outer Station represents the shiny, public face of the Company. He puts forth the image of the Company as it wants to be viewed from the outside: elegant, professional, and hardworking. However, Marlow quickly penetrates this facade and identifies the accountant's hypocrisy when he finds the accountant to be insensitive to the barbarity that surrounds him; he complains that Company administrators send men to die in his office, making it difficult for him to concentrate on his numbers. The accountant who listens to Marlow's story on the Nellie foreshadows the roles that money and profit play in imperialism. Earlier in the novella the narrator explains that the meaning of Marlow's tale reveals itself in all its layers. In one sense the frame accountant is a mirror to the station accountant, revealing one element of truth about the profit-based causes and effects of imperialism.

What effect does Conrad create in Heart of Darkness by introducing Kurtz through secondhand accounts?

The structure of Heart of Darkness generally reflects Marlow's experience of events, which means that he experiences Kurtz secondhand before he can gain any direct experience of the man. As a result Marlow cannot fully comprehend Kurtz's darkness until he sees it personally. At the same time, some of what Marlow hears moves him to sympathize with Kurtz, which means his condemnation of the depraved Kurtz is not a stark judgment but a more complex, nuanced view of the man. Marlow begins to form assessments and evaluations of Kurtz without any firsthand knowledge. Kurtz is a superior agent who, inspiring both jealousy and envy, collects more ivory than anyone; he is revered by the natives, and he is ill. He also hears hints of darker things. In the process of Marlow gathering secondhand information, readers meet Kurtz just as Marlow meets him, which means their perceptions are similarly incomplete. However, these mundane elements of Kurtz's story fall away as his disembodied voice becomes all-important to Marlow and thus to readers. The narrator describes Marlow as "no more to us than a voice" as he tells the story of Kurtz on the Nellie, creating a parallel between Marlow and Kurtz, because Marlow calls Kurtz "a voice," adding "he was very little more than a voice." In Part 2 Marlow also says, "I have a voice, too, and for good or evil mine is the speech that cannot be silenced." This idea of identity as tied to speech or the voice recurs in the text. Marlow and Kurtz construct themselves and their struggles with good and evil through language, which is a medium for both self-truth and self-deception or sanity and madness.

What is the significance of Kurtz's painting of the blindfolded woman in Heart of Darkness?

The woman is a symbolic representation of the civilizing mission that the Company is supposed to represent and that Kurtz's high-flown rhetoric in his report reflect. The torch she carries represents the light of civilization, a stark contrast to the dark background, as the Company supposedly is bringing the light to the people of Africa, the dark continent. Her blindfold associates her with justice; blind justice—justice that is impartial and fair—is a common symbol. This represents the false promise that imperialism will treat the colonial subjects fairly. The figure is "stately," giving her grandeur and a sense of power and dignity that civilized Europeans assumed they possessed. But the light shining on her face makes it look "sinister," which undercuts all the positive values associated with her and reveals the true nature of the imperialistic venture. While Kurtz set out to paint a glorified vision of the Company's mission, her face tells a different and far truer story. .

In what ways is the Central Station brickmaker in Heart of Darkness a "papier-mache Mephistopheles"?

Like Mephistopheles, a literary fallen angel or devil figure torn between pride and despair, the brickmaker uses language as a means of temptation, flattering those from whom he believes he has something to gain. He tries to glean information from Marlow that will help him advance his position with the Company: "He ... had been planning to be assistant-manager by and by under the present man." However, Marlow has nothing to offer the brickmaker and recognizes him as papier-mache, or false. Calling him "papier-mache" also highlights the brickmaker's artificial nature and his essential flimsiness or insubstantiality. The brickmaker is a construction of imperialism and a man without depth: "it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside."

In Heart of Darkness, why does Marlow break off from his story to address his listeners with the questions, "Do you see him? Do you see the story"?

While language allows Marlow to construct his own truth or meaning, he suspects that it has limited ability to translate this truth or meaning to others. He breaks off from his story partway through to assess whether he is conveying his intended meaning. Marlow struggles to form words that capture the mood he experiences in Africa: absurdity, surprise, bewilderment, fear, and the overarching brooding darkness. He feels it is essential for his listeners to understand this mood so they can comprehend what happened to Kurtz. Yet, he believes that his language cannot fully place his listeners within Africa, within his story, so that they can understand the story's meaning. He laments, "We live, as we dream, alone."

Why does Marlow refer "to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart" when he describes the environment on the trip upriver in Heart of Darkness?

The voyage up the river is "like travelling back to the earliest beginning of the world," a time before civilization. The river also literally takes the crew away from the Outer Station and Central Station toward the Inner Station, carrying them farther and farther away from civilization. The Company members fear the unknown, which they equate with evil. The river and the jungle that envelops it represent the great unknown and therefore the great evil—full of "great silence," blinding fog, twisted snags, and threatening drums. The fear of the unknown contributes to paranoia, helplessness, and eventually madness. One of the horrors of the text, however, is that, for all the evil the Company members project onto the river and the jungle, the European civilization they prefer and represent is really no better as it is based on the evils of imperialism.

In Heart of Darkness, what are two ways in which Marlow penetrates "deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness"?

In a physical sense, Marlow penetrates the jungle and travels to the heart of Africa or the heart of darkness. This physical journey simulates a psychological journey as well. In a psychological sense, Marlow penetrates his own mind, heart, and soul to come to some self-revelation. Before he enters Africa, Marlow's sense of self is based on his privileged race, his career success, and his interest in exploration or filling in those blank maps of his childhood. However, his experiences in the jungle call many of his existing assumptions into question: Are white men and black men similar in their humanity? Is civilization civilized, or is it wild, jungle-like, and possibly evil? Does he share important similarities with Kurtz? What is moral behavior? Are there instances when immoral behavior is preferable? How does one draw that line? Is there any meaning in life, and, if so, how does one find it? As Marlow struggles to answer these questions, he becomes intimately conscious of his own "heart of darkness."

In Heart of Darkness, what does Marlow mean when he says that human beings need "a deliberate belief" in their search for meaning or truth?

Marlow makes this statement as the steamer moves upriver, when he is discussing the brooding silence punctuated by drum sounds at night that unsettled him and the Company men on the boat. He seems to mean that, in order to steer a steady course through life, people need a rudder, a guide of some kind, and the best such guide is a "deliberate belief," one that the individual develops and chooses for himself or herself. A person "must meet the truth," he says, "with his own true stuff—his own inner strength." Each person must draw on his or her own resources; "principles won't do" because they are handed down. "Acquisitions" won't do because they are ephemeral—they are like rags that "fly off at the first good shake." One's own strength is needed because each person faces these existential questions alone and can only count on oneself.

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