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Literature Study GuidesHeart Of DarknessPart 2 Traveling Up The River Summary

Heart of Darkness | Study Guide

Joseph Conrad

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Part 2: Traveling Up The River

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

Heart of Darkness | Part 2 (Traveling up the River) | Summary



The steamer is finally repaired, and Marlow takes it up the river. It takes two months to reach the Inner Station. As he travels he remarks on the riot of vegetation, the hippos and alligators, and the difficulty of finding a safe channel and avoiding sunken stones and snags in the shallow river. Three or four pilgrims and the manager are onboard, and along the way Marlow picks up 20 native people (whom he calls cannibals) to push the steamer when the river is too shallow. They pass some small European outposts and often hear drums from villages on the shore. Marlow begins to find it hard to focus on reality and feels he is in a dreamlike place.

Helping Marlow to manage the steamer is a black man, "an improved specimen" in Marlow's words, who is put in charge of stoking the boiler. About 50 miles (130 kilometers) short of the Inner Station, the crew comes upon a reed hut and the tatters of what had been a flag, marking a neat pile of wood. The crew needs the wood for the boiler and so stops to investigate. There is a note telling them to "approach cautiously." This note is signed; though it is illegible, it appears not to be Kurtz's name as it is longer. There is also an old book titled An Inquiry into Some Points of Seamanship by a British seaman. Marlow believes the notes in the book are written in cipher or code.

Marlow's curiosity about Kurtz increases as he and his crew travel through the primeval wilderness.


The imagery of the river basin is vivid and engulfing as the steamer travels "back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth" and hippos and alligators sun themselves on silvery sandbanks. The narrative is ripe with sound as "twenty cannibals [splash] around and [push]" the steamboat in shallow waters to "the ponderous beat of the stern-wheel," and the drums often accompany the ship as it moves along the river. He could also hear the "ring of ivory," probably from the pilgrims' hopeful conversation. While Marlow notes these sounds, the overwhelming sense is one of quiet. He uses the words silence, stillness, and quiet to describe the ominous, brooding mystery of the jungle.

The theme of racism emerges strongly in this section. Marlow considers whether the black people he sees are human. He and those in the Company view Africans as inhuman, no better than animals: "They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces," says Marlow. "What thrilled you," he goes on in what seems to be a growing realization of his faulty thinking, "was the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar." This idea of kinship challenges the racist European notions of civilization that have been evident to this point. The language here raises the question of whether Conrad was expressing racism or whether he was accurately portraying the blatant racism of the time and thus encouraging readers to reject it.

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