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Heart of Darkness | Study Guide

Joseph Conrad

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Heart of Darkness | Quotes


And this also ... has been one of the dark places of the earth.

Marlow, Part 1 (Framing the Story)

Marlow refers to the 1st century CE, when Rome conquered and then ruled Britain, thought at the time to be primitive and dark. Conrad's point is to link modern Europe—proud of now being civilized—with its wild, uncivilized past and thereby connect Europeans to the native Africans they view as barbaric.


There is a taint of death, a flavor of mortality in lies.

Marlow, Part 1 (At the Central Station)

After listening for a while to the brickmaker, Marlow expresses his hatred of lies, helping establish him as a narrator readers can trust and also creating a contrast between his honesty and the hypocrisy of the others who work for the Company.


We live, as we dream—alone.

Marlow, Part 1 (At the Central Station)

Marlow reflects on the difficulty of communicating experience. He wants to explain what happened during his voyage to Africa and how it affected him, but he finds it impossible. Because his experience is unique to him and because experiences are complex and multifaceted, speech cannot adequately convey it. Each human is, in the end, isolated from all others by the uniqueness of his or her experiences.


It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.

Marlow, Part 2 (Traveling up the River)

Marlow describes the trip up the river to the Inner Station as similar to traveling back to the earth's earliest beginnings. The word brooding personifies the jungle, the Europeans' antagonist, and implacable suggests the utter helplessness of human beings to resist that force. At the same time, humans—or at least Europeans—cannot understand that force, as it has "inscrutable intention," which means that this force is alive; it has intention, or will, but its desires are unknowable.


Well ... that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman.

Marlow, Part 2 (Traveling up the River)

Marlow reflects the European view that the uncivilized Africans are somehow inhuman. Here, the negative construction "not being inhuman" allows him to distance himself from the shocking realization that not only might the natives be human and thus their mistreatment sinful but also that he and other Europeans have, in their nature, something similar to the natives.


Exterminate all the brutes!

Kurtz, Part 2 (Attack on the Steamer)

Kurtz adds this at the end of his report on the suppression of savage customs. The 17-page handwritten opus, full of his idealistic, moralistic rhetoric, offers suggestions for how the Company can carry out its civilizing mission in Africa. This postscript, "evidently scrawled much later, in an unsteady hand," Marlow notes, reflects Kurtz's descent into mad depravity. The "brutes" he wants to exterminate are the same natives he induced to worship him.


I had expected to see a knob of wood there, you know. I returned deliberately to the first I had seen—and there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids—a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling, too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber.

Marlow, Part 3 (Harlequin in the Jungle)

Marlow describes the fence that he sees outside Kurtz's station and his recognition that the objects on top of each post are not wooden. After dark hints about Kurtz's actions and methods, this is the first direct evidence that something horribly wrong had taken place. While Marlow had seen brutality and an indifferent attitude toward natives' lives at other stations, there is something grizzly about displaying heads. They are also, with one exception, turned toward the station, so Kurtz can, presumably, look out a window and see the faces of his victims every day. The frozen smile adds an eerie note to the vision but takes on added meaning when thinking about Marlow as a victim of the darkness; the heads, then, have the last laugh.


I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, ... yet struggling blindly with itself.

Marlow, Part 3 (Encountering Kurtz)

Marlow asserts that Kurtz, alone in the jungle and without contact with European standards of conduct and thus having no restraints or boundaries, has gone mad. The struggle is between the romantic notion that humans are innately good and the purposefully evil actions of Kurtz.


His was an impenetrable darkness.

Marlow, Part 3 (Return Downriver and Kurtz's Death)

Marlow speaks of Kurtz, making the point that the evil within Kurtz is different from that he has observed in the other Company agents. Marlow suggests Kurtz's goes deeper and cannot be understood. Marlow's words also equate Kurtz with the darkness, showing how completely it has taken him over.

These are Kurtz's last words. He has recognized the abject horror of existence—and without a moral compass, that is all he can see. The horror he describes might also be rooted in the meaninglessness of existence. In another reading, he has finally recognized and acknowledged the horror of his own actions.


Droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose.

Marlow, Part 3 (Return to Brussels)

Near the end of the novella, Marlow expresses a kind of disdain for destiny. As a human he cannot ascertain the purpose of life. Nonetheless, his capacity for empathy has evolved, and he is still able to show compassion toward Kurtz's Intended.

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