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Literature Study GuidesHeart Of DarknessPart 2 Attack On The Steamer Summary

Heart of Darkness | Study Guide

Joseph Conrad

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Part 2: Attack On The Steamer

Kristen Over, Associate Professor at Northeastern Illinois University, provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Part 2: Attack On The Steamer of Joseph Conrad's book Heart of Darkness.

Heart of Darkness | Part 2 (Attack on the Steamer) | Summary



About eight miles (20 kilometers) from Marlow's destination at the Inner Station, the manager wants to stop moving until morning. But by morning a heavy fog sets in, and those on the steamer hear shrieks cut through the silence. Contemplating the possibility of attack, Marlow hauls in the chain so that the steamboat can move ahead quickly if necessary. The headman of the crew is more interested in catching one of the potential attackers so the crew can eat him. They are starving. Marlow says he would have been horrified except that he knows how hungry the crew is. The black crew members have only had some rotting hippo meat that they brought along and a few pieces of brass wire they were given to trade for food in villages that have largely been abandoned along the way.

As the fog lifts, Marlow and his helmsman head upriver. A mile and a half (4 kilometers) from the Inner Station and only 10 feet (3.5 meters) from the bank, the steamer is attacked. The pilgrims and the helmsman respond with rifle fire. Marlow speeds ahead but finds that his helmsman has been struck by a spear and lies dying at his feet. As soon as he can, Marlow tips the helmsman's body overboard. He cannot bear the idea of the helmsman, whom he feels a fondness for, being eaten by the hungry crew.

Marlow recounts that his greatest concern during this attack was the worry that he would be killed and miss the opportunity to meet Kurtz. He has grown fascinated with the man and wants to know him. This reflection prompts another flash forward, in which Marlow reflects on what he later learns about Kurtz and speculates about what factors have shaped Kurtz's experiences in Africa.


That the Company does not provide food to the steamer crew reinforces the themes of hypocrisy and indifference. It shows how little regard the Company has for native Africans. Marlow is amazed that, considering the whites' numbers relative to the crew, the crew members have not mutinied and killed Marlow and the pilgrims. What restrains them, he wonders. Superstition, fear, disgust, honor? He has no answer, but the range of choices he considers reflects a change in his thinking regarding the perceived inhumanity of the Africans. Animals would kill and eat when hungry; the natives have shown humanity—which the Company has not demonstrated toward them.

Marlow's language describing the payment and treatment of the crew reflects the corrupt thinking and behavior of the imperialists. For example, he describes the salary given the crew members (three pieces of nine-inch-long [32-centimeters-long] brass wire per week) as "extravagant" and says it was "paid with a regularity worthy of a large and honorable trading company." His comments rely on verbal irony to underscore the imperialistic Company's immorality.

In his flash forward, Marlow begins to reveal what he later learns about Kurtz. He hints at an evil that has overtaken Kurtz. While the reader has been led to believe to this point that Kurtz originally sets out with noble purposes, Marlow here describes him as depraved. He acknowledges that Kurtz has talents. He calls him "gifted," adding that his greatest gift is "his ability to talk, his words." Despite these gifts, he has transgressed his original moral boundaries. Marlow says that to understand Kurtz you have to know "how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own." Kurtz took part in "midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites," and those rites "were offered up to him." To the native people, Kurtz becomes like a god. He had "the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance in his honor." The extremes of his gifts and his behavior in some ways make him worse than the other members of the Company. As Marlow puts it, "He was [the jungle's] spoiled and pampered favorite."

In a key passage, Marlow discusses Kurtz's background. One parent was English, he says, and one was French, adding, "All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz." This statement hammers home the point that Kurtz is not so much an aberration as an inevitable product of the imperialist mentality. Marlow also discusses the report that Kurtz wrote for the Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. Marlow concludes it was "eloquent" but "too high-strung." The document begins with soaring language that reflects the Company's civilizing mission and the importance of teaching Africans morality. Marlow also recollects a postscript added later to the document, "in an unsteady hand" (meaning it was written after Kurtz had gone mad), which declares, "Exterminate the brutes!" This flat judgment of destruction of humans—presumably of the natives Kurtz had convinced he was a god—is a clear statement of the depravity to which he had descended. That Kurtz should write such words in a document meant for a society with the ostensible goal of suppressing "savage customs" creates a powerful dramatic irony.

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