Heart of Darkness | Study Guide

Joseph Conrad

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Heart of Darkness | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In Heart of Darkness, why is work important to Marlow?

Marlow admires the writer of An Inquiry into Some Points of Seamanship's "honest concern for the right way of going to work." He says it "made these humble pages ... luminous." This admiration contrasts with the way he dismisses the pilgrims for their "show of work," as false as the "philanthropic pretence" of the Company. In Part 1 Marlow says that he likes what he finds in work—"the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others." While Marlow condemns the content of the book as "dreary," he admires the writer's concrete attempt at self-realization, which yields light or luminosity. In some ways Marlow's journey into Africa and his work at maintaining and piloting the boat up the river are his attempt to find his own light in the darkness of the jungle that is his soul.

When Marlow says in Heart of Darkness, "my speech or my silence, indeed any action of mine, would be a mere futility," what does he mean?

Marlow may refer to the immense power of the jungle that has claimed Kurtz as its own, effectively making useless any action that the human characters may take for or against Kurtz. The jungle has triumphed over Kurtz and will destroy him. He cannot be saved, not even preserved, until he can face human justice. Marlow may also feel powerless to change the Company or its agent; the power of imperialism is too strong to be overpowered by one man who sees its greed and barbarism. Finally, Marlow is powerless to redeem Kurtz. Marlow's speech or silence will have no effect on Kurtz's madness. Either action is useless, and the problems are too large. The line also foreshadows the existential statement that concludes the text. As Marlow sits silent, having finished his tale, "the heart of immense darkness" stretches onward, unaffected.

How does the setting of Heart of Darkness support the truth of Marlow's assessment regarding Kurtz that "the essentials of this affair lay deep under the surface"?

Marlow makes this observation when the crew is delayed in reaching the Inner Station by a white fog, which supports the dreamlike mood of the river trip and suggests that they cannot see what is there. On the surface Kurtz is intelligent, ambitious, successful, talented, eloquent, and godlike. However, the causes of his descent into madness are difficult to pinpoint from the outside looking in because his struggle is internal, "deep under the surface." His madness results from the pressures of his Western ambitions and his civic ideals, and his recognition of their moral exclusivity: "The horror! The horror!" The other players in the affair, Marlow and the station manager, are inconsequential in Kurtz's drama. The struggle is his alone.

Marlow remarks on the "restraint" demonstrated by the cannibals on his crew in Heart of Darkness. In what ways does this restraint contrast with the behavior of the Europeans aboard?

While the cannibals show restraint in not killing and eating the white crew members despite their extreme hunger and the fact that they outnumber the Europeans, the Europeans aboard the boat work for the Company, which has shown no restraint at all in its exploitation of Africa and its people. The manager, in particular, is a man without a moral compass. He is concerned only with his own success in the Company and disregards any suffering, African or otherwise, that results from his ambition. In fact, if he had requested or packed food for the African crew, the question of restraint would not be an issue. Yet, this foresight and sense of humanity would require some substance, of which the manager has none. Marlow remarks several times that the manager has "nothing within him." He is a shell of a man, incapable of restraint or compassion.

Why does Marlow compare the dangers of the river journey toward Kurtz to a fairy tale in Heart of Darkness?

Like Heart of Darkness, fairy tales commonly illuminate the theme of good and evil. Often the hero embarks on a journey filled with perils to rescue a princess who has been enchanted by an evil witch. Here, Marlow journeys toward Kurtz, who is also, seemingly, in need of rescue: he is "beset by as many dangers as though he [Kurtz] had been an enchanted princess." However, the good characters and the evil characters are not as clear-cut in this tale as they are fairy tales. Marlow and Kurtz are complex characters, both good and evil. Marlow comes to admire some of his African crew and to despise the exploitation and hypocrisy of the Company. Yet he exhibits racism throughout the text. Kurtz wants to better the lives of Africans, but he exploits them to rob the country of its ivory for his own gain. In addition, the juxtaposition of this fairy-tale language with the threat of attack is jarring. It emphasizes the fact that Heart of Darkness is a modernist text that defies the formulaic plot and predictable ending of a fairy tale.

In Heart of Darkness, why does Marlow discard his bloody shoes by throwing them in the river?

When the helmsman dies at Marlow's feet, Marlow's shoes fill with blood. He is "morbidly anxious to change" his shoes and "[tugs] like mad at the shoe-laces." Marlow's language is suggestive of his mental state. The word morbidly suggests an unhealthy mind, and the word mad suggests craziness. Then he throws both shoes into "the devil-god of that river," as if he is making a blood sacrifice. The act is telling on several levels. As Marlow journeys farther and farther into the jungle, his hold on his previous sense of reality slips. The entire experience becomes more and more dreamlike, which causes Marlow to begin to question his previous assumptions regarding black and white and civilization and barbarism. This descent into madness, which mirrors Kurtz's in some ways, causes Marlow to cast off a European garment soaked with the blood of an African as a sacrifice to the river. He seems to be asking, in some way, for a bit of mercy or favor.

In Heart of Darkness, compare the scenes of the warship shooting into the jungle from the African coast to the pilgrims shooting into the jungle from the river.

Both scenes represent the absurdity of the European actions in Africa. They are driven by greed to exploit the country and its people, but once there they are ruled by their fear of the unknown. They are so subject to this fear that their actions take on the quality of ridiculousness. In both cases the Europeans fire blindly at unseen targets: "shelling the bush" and "simply squirting lead into that bush." The likelihood of hitting an unseen target is slim, yet the Europeans nevertheless waste valuable time and resources. In the case of the river, these actions cause further problems. Marlow wants to steer the boat away from the attack. This is a good plan, but he is unable to see the snag because the firing of the Winchesters has produced "a lot of smoke," blinding Marlow from addressing the problem logically.

After the native attack on the boat in Heart of Darkness, why does Marlow say he has been "robbed of a belief"?

In the same way that Marlow is compared to Buddha in the text, Kurtz is compared to Jupiter, the Roman god of the sky: "Pilgrims behind the stretcher carried his [Kurtz's] arms ... the thunderbolts of that pitiful Jupiter." At several points, Marlow exclaims, even before he meets Kurtz, "By Jove," a reference to Jupiter. Here, after making a blood sacrifice of his shoes to the "devil-god of that river," Marlow believes that he is too late to rescue Kurtz: "By Jove! ... The gift has vanished. ... I will never hear that chap speak at all." He says that this loss leaves him feeling "lonely" and desolate because he has "missed [his] destiny in life." Marlow's use of the word lonely is telling. Marlow wants to feel a connection to another human, which he cannot feel with the corrupt members of the Company. He also wants to meet Kurtz so he can make sense of this journey he is on. If they do not reach Kurtz in time for Marlow to hear his voice, to understand Kurtz's story, what was the point of the trip to Africa? The loss of this connection reiterates a sense of the meaningless of Marlow's individual struggle.

As Marlow laments the possible loss of Kurtz's voice in Heart of Darkness, one of his listeners sighs. What is the significance of this sigh?

Marlow, breaking off from his tale, characterizes the sigh as "beastly," or devil-like, and interprets the sigh to mean that the listener finds Marlow's struggle to find meaning in life "absurd." This sigh, which is just a sound rather than words, contrasts with the "voices, voices" that were an essential part of the time he spent in Africa. If Kurtz is the voice of mad truth, and the Intended is the voice of civilized self-deception, then what does the sigh mean? Perhaps it is the sigh of civilization, bored with humanity's eternal quest for meaning. In the end even Marlow admits in defeat that all of his remembered voices are but "one immense jabber" that lacks "any kind of sense."

In what ways does "all Europe [contribute] to the making of Kurtz" in Heart of Darkness?

In the physical and cultural senses, Kurtz is born to a half-English mother and a half-French father, and he is educated partly in England, where he presumably learns to speak English. In a symbolic sense, Kurtz is the product of European arrogance and European colonialism. He joins a long tradition of men who seek adventure through exploration, but, once they are in new lands, exploit the peoples and the resources. It is perhaps these "half" and "partly" elements of Kurtz's nature that breed in him the heart of an explorer or a wanderer; he is a product of Europe and its combination of hunger for new cultural experiences and tendency to domination. Nonetheless, Kurtz is also a product of European intellectualism, a man capable of living his life and reflecting upon its meaning. It is this juxtaposition of self-entitlement and intellectualism that breeds madness in Kurtz when he is unable to reconcile the two opposing forces.

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