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Heart of Darkness | Study Guide

Joseph Conrad

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Heart of Darkness | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


In Heart of Darkness, how does the content of Kurtz's report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs contrast with the postscript?

Known for his eloquence, Kurtz argues in the report that Europeans, who appear to the natives as "supernatural beings," can use this effect to "exert a power for good practically unbounded." This content reflects Kurtz's early thinking upon his arrival in Africa. He hopes to bring about the betterment of the native peoples while extracting some power and profit for himself. The postscript, which is "scrawled evidently much later" and lacks the eloquence of the original report, reflects Kurtz's madness: "Exterminate all the brutes!" It is noteworthy, though, that Marlow says that this postscript blazes "like a flash of lightning," hearkening back to the the flash of light in the darkness that begins the tale. The postscript is illuminating rather than racist if the reader understands the term brutes, meaning "nonhumans or beasts," to include all men with evil in their hearts—Europeans and Africans alike. Kurtz's condemnation of himself at the end of his life suggests that he counts himself among the "brutes." The fictional Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs to which the report is addressed is Conrad's stand-in for all the European groups that supported the civilizing mission that imperialism was thought by some to promote.

In what ways are Marlow and Kurtz similar in Heart of Darkness?

Marlow and Kurtz come from similar backgrounds: both come from well-off white European families who exert influence to further the professional interests of the men. Marlow and Kurtz have an entitled sense of superiority: Marlow looks down on the Africans and the Company agents, while Kurtz exploits the African natives. Marlow and Kurtz are motivated by obsession: Marlow obsesses over Africa and Kurtz, and Kurtz obsesses over ivory. Marlow and Kurtz respond to Africa with varying degrees of madness: Marlow survives in a dreamlike state, while Kurtz succumbs completely to madness. Marlow and Kurtz take on godlike attributes: Marlow becomes a kind of enlightened Buddha, and Kurtz, revered as a god by the natives, blazes out of life like one of Jupiter's lightning bolts.

In Heart of Darkness, when Marlow and the Russian discuss Kurtz, what setting elements does Marlow witness when the Russian's "voice lost itself in the calm of the evening"?

The Russian tells Marlow a great deal about Kurtz, including Kurtz's threat on the Russian's life and that the heads on his fence posts are those of "rebels." However, the setting drowns out the Russian's voice and replaces it with "calm." The "long shadows of the forest" hide Kurtz's hovel and fence in "gloom," while Marlow and the Russian remain "in the sunshine ... [where] the stretch of the river abreast of the clearing glittered in a still and dazzling splendor." In this scene the jungle, frequently characterized by evil and darkness, rejects the evil of Kurtz and bathes Marlow and the Russian in warmth, rejecting, too, the story that threatens to carry Marlow into the shadows, into the evil.

In Heart of Darkness, how does the Russian's clothing resemble the map of Africa in the Company office?

The Russian is dressed in "bright patches, blue, red, and yellow." The map in the Company office in Brussels is similarly colored: "a vast amount of red ... a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and ... a purple patch." This patchwork map of Africa represents European colonization in Africa. However, it is interesting to note that Russia does not maintain any African colonies. This lack of a Russian presence in Africa may explain why the Russian Harlequin is alone and frequently threatened in the jungle. The Russian's presence in Africa provides yet another outsider's perspective, much like the friends on the River Thames, on the events in the text and thus their ultimate meaning.

How does the three-part division of Heart of Darkness function?

In Part 1 Marlow, the main character, becomes embroiled in the conflict of the tale. Marlow realizes his boyhood dream of visiting Africa, but, in the process, he is exposed to the brutality and corruption of imperialism. He is also tantalized by an eventual meeting with an enigmatic figure named Kurtz. In Part 2 Marlow journeys literally and figuratively to the heart of darkness. This part of the text builds toward the meeting with Kurtz as Marlow hears information about Kurtz from secondary sources. At the end of Part 2, Kurtz is revealed, and Marlow is conflicted over his own judgments and morality in a setting that is more dreamlike than anything else. In Part 3 Marlow finally encounters Kurtz, witnesses his death, and returns home and finds some resolution. He chooses to protect Kurtz's reputation as well as the illusions of Kurtz's Intended and comes to some conclusions regarding morality and the meaning in life.

In what ways does Kurtz show "no restraint" in Heart of Darkness?

Kurtz theorizes that, by acting like a god, he will be able to lead the native people to help him gather ivory for profit. In exchange he will act for their betterment, working to civilize them. However, when the natives actually begin to worship Kurtz as a god, his greed for power becomes insatiable, and he behaves with selfishness and brutality in his quest for ivory and profit, devastating the countryside and posting the heads of African "rebels" on stakes to form a fence around his hut. In some ways restraint equates with civilization. Civilized people show restraint by behaving according to accepted customs despite their basic instincts. However, in the jungle the hungry cannibals eat rotten hippo meat rather than attack Marlow's white crew. On the other hand, Kurtz, the European imperialist who tries to bring civilization to the jungle, allows the "powers of darkness" or greed to claim "him for their own." This releases a primitive brutality in Kurtz's character.

In Heart of Darkness, how are Kurtz and the Central Station manager similarly "hollow at the core"?

A hollow interior suggests a lack of substance. The manager claims, "'Men who come out here should have no entrails.' He sealed the utterance with that smile of his, as though it had been a door opening into a darkness he had in his keeping." While the manager makes this comment in reference to the tendency of Europeans to suffer digestive problems in Africa, the true meaning runs deeper. Without substance or an interior, the manager lacks the moral compass that would prevent him from oppressing and exploiting the natives. In the same way, Kurtz is a man "hollow at the core." He, too, lacks the moral strength to serve right action above the lust for power and profit.

For Marlow, in Heart of Darkness, what is the significance of Kurtz's voice, which he calls "grave, profound, vibrating"?

For Marlow Kurtz's voice has the same attractive power that the jungle has for Kurtz. When traveling upriver toward the Inner Station, Marlow anticipates his meeting with Kurtz by equating his voice with the jungle: "The man presented himself as a voice. ... the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness." After the natives attack the steamer, when Marlow and the Company men believe that Kurtz is probably dead, it is the missed opportunity to hear Kurtz that Marlow most regrets: "I didn't say to myself, 'Now I will never see him,' or 'Now I will never shake him by the hand,' but, 'Now I will never hear him.'" Marlow, the storyteller, believes in the power of language to communicate, even as he mistrusts its ability to fully communicate. He wants to hear Kurtz's voice, to converse with him, so that he can learn whatever Kurtz has learned. Even though Marlow never really gets a chance to converse with Kurtz—they only exchange a few words, and it is not clear that Kurtz ever has interest in conversing (exchanging ideas) with anyone—he still comes to understand what he thinks Kurtz learned.

In Part 3 of Heart of Darkness, what does Marlow mean when he says, "I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice"?

Marlow is haunted by two nightmares—one about the Company's hypocrisy and greed and the other about Kurtz's treatment of the native people who live near the Inner Station. Marlow makes the conscious choice to be loyal to Kurtz above the Company when he does not sound the alarm that Kurtz has escaped and crawled into the jungle. This choice comes from Marlow's belief that somehow Kurtz will help Marlow find his own salvation. In his descent into madness, Kurtz holds the secrets to many of the text's themes—greed, hypocrisy, indifference, civilization, barbarism. When Marlow confronts Kurtz in the forest, he finds his answer: "Being alone in the wilderness, it [Kurtz's soul] had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad. I had—for my sins, I suppose—to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself." In many ways the journey toward madness and the return follow this same path: introspection. Although Kurtz is trapped in the madness, Marlow respects the process through which Kurtz has gone.

What is the relationship among Kurtz's life, the river, and the jungle in Heart of Darkness?

The river and the jungle are metaphors for Kurtz's journey into his soul. During this journey Kurtz must confront his "sins" or the darkness of his soul. The journey up the river and into the heart of the jungle facilitates this inner exploration. He comes to Africa thinking that he will better the lives of the people in his pursuit for adventure. In reality he exploits the land and the people in pursuit of power and wealth. Because he cannot reconcile his opposing ideals and will not give up one for the other, Kurtz's mind collapses into madness, the only state that will allow him his contradictions.

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