Heart of Darkness Reading Guide
ENG 109, Spring 2007
Joseph Conrad (Poland-U.K, 1857-1924)
Heart of Darkness (1899, 3-part serial, Blackwood's Magazine; 1902, rev. Blackwood)
One of the "Representative Texts" featured in:
Davis, Paul, and others, ed. Western Literature in a World Context.
Volume 2: The Enlightenment through the Present. New York: St. Martins Press, 1995.
Unless otherwise indicated, in-text citations & page references are to this English 109 required textbook.
Part I (Conrad 1367-1387)
|1. Narrative Structure. In Heart of
Darkness, we encounter another "frame
narrative," as we did in
Wuthering Heights. That is, the
initial narrative frame-story, told by a first
(never named) establishes the situation for and "frames" the telling
of a second embedded (and the main) story, told by a second and main
Who are the two narrators of the novel? Describe the
situation and characters on board the
Nellie. How does Marlow
differ from the other men, his audience, on board the
What do the first unnamed narrator and the
frame-story contribute to Heart of Darkness?
2. Parallels & Foreshadowing.
The unnamed first-person narrator prepares the way for Marlow's
initial meditation "evok[ing] the great spirit of the past upon the
lower reaches of the Thames" river (1368). Marlow begins his story
suddenly: "'And this [England] also . . . has been one of the dark
places of the earth'" (1368), "'when the Romans first came here
nineteen hundred years ago--the other day . . .'" (1369). In
describing the Roman conquest of England (1369-1370), Marlow
suggests parallels to the main story of
Heart of Darkness: what
seems to be foreshadowed? How does Marlow define "conquerors" and
what kind of "idea" might redeem such conquest (1370)?
[See also Marlow's attitude toward women
Marlow's Story-telling. The unnamed
Nellie narrator describes Marlow at various moments in the
novel. What is Marlow like? How do the others regard him? How does
the unnamed narrator characterize Marlow's tales (1369)? Marlow
suggests that his audience must "'understand the effect'" on him to
construct the meaning of this story--what the unnamed narrator calls
another of "Marlow's inconclusive experiences" (1370). Later Marlow
says, "It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream,'" perhaps an
"'impossible task'" (1385).
4. Settings & Plot Events. Try constructing a chart, timeline, or map identifying the key places, events, and stages of Marlow's journey: his initial attraction to Africa, the Company's office in the "city," the voyage from Europe to Africa, the first stop in the Congo, stages of the journey up the Congo River to Kurtz, and the return.
5. More Foreshadowing. Consider Marlow's account of what drew him out to Africa. What is suggested by his likening the Congo River to a "snake" and himself to a foolish, charmed "bird"? Note the case of Fresleven, the river captain whom Marlow is to replace; Marlow's comparison of the city of his employers to "a whited sepulchre" (1372); the ominous atmosphere of the Company's office with the two women knitting black wool and "guarding the door of Darkness" (1373); the doctor ["alienist" = early psychologist] who measures Marlow's head because he has a scientific interest in measuring "the mental changes of individuals" who venture out to Africa in the Company's employ (1373). What type of experience, what type of journey, do these signs seem to predict?
6. Notice Marlow's attitude toward "excellent" women like his aunt [and later Kurtz's fiancée, the"Intended"]. Characterize Marlow's attitude toward women like his aunt (1374). Despite his protest that the Company is "run for profit," note that Marlow has been "represented"--like Kurtz before him--as "an exceptional and gifted creature," "Something like an emissary of light" or "lower sort of apostle," and his "excellent" aunt runs on about '''weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways.'" Afterwards he feels he is "an imposter." Compare that "too beautiful" world such women live in, apt to fall apart at the first encounter with reality, to the image of the blind-folded woman carrying a "lighted torch" depicted in Kurtz's painting (1383) in the room of the young aristocratic agent at Central Station.
7. Europeans in Africa. Describe Marlow's first impressions of the European presence in Africa, captured in his observations regarding the French steamer firing into the coast and regarding the Company's lower station (1376-1379). Contrast the Europeans' naming of the Africans as "enemies" to Marlow's view of the Africans.
8. Marlow’s Devils. Consider Marlow's description of the "devils" he has seen (1377). What are the different types of "devils" he describes? Why is he so appalled by the "flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly" that he sees in most Europeans in Africa? What does he mean?
9. Europeans in the [Belgian] Congo. Consider the Europeans that Marlow meets at the Company's stations:
10. African Wilderness as Setting & Character: How does Marlow describe the setting: the Congo jungle--the "wilderness" (e.g., see pp. 1384, 1387)? Consider how Conrad's representation of the physical nature differs from that of Romanticist writers.
11. Marlow & Kurtz. Long before he meets Kurtz, Marlow hears from others that Kurtz is extraordinary, "remarkable." On what evidence do these claims seem to be based? By the end of Part I, Marlow develops a strong curiosity about Kurtz: why?
12. Marlow’s Attitude toward Lies. Marlow sometimes leaps ahead of his story, as when he says that he would not have fought for Kurtz, "but I went for him near enough to lie" (1384). Why does Marlow "flashforward" in this way at times in his narrative? What is Marlow's attitude toward lies (1384)? What is the consequence of his allowing the "young fool" to overestimate Marlow's "influence in Europe" (1385)? Here we are returned to the "narrative present" of the narrative frame: how does the unnamed Nellie narrator feel at this point in Marlow's narrative (1385)?
13. Marlow, Work and Rivets. Analyze Marlow's statements about his "work": why is he so intent upon wanting "rivets" (1385-1386)? Given his surroundings, the example of the other Europeans around him, his admission that he doesn't really like work (1386)--why do you think Marlow now turns so avidly to the "battered, twisted, ruined, tin-pot steamboat" (1386)?
Part II (Conrad 1387-1404)
Part II opens with Marlow stranded for some time at the Central Station, waiting for rivets so that he can fix his wrecked steamboat and do the job he was hired to do: make the journey upriver to the Inner Station, fetch the ailing Kurtz, and bring him back. Marlow's interest in meeting Kurtz grows.
Marlow and Kurtz.
Marlow, unobserved, overhears
a conversation about Kurtz between the manager and his nephew
(pp. 1387-89), and states, "...I seemed to see Kurtz for the
first time," turning his [Kurtz's] back on headquarters and
home, "setting his face towards the depths of the
wilderness..." (p. 1388). Marlow wonders at Kurtz's motive
in turning back to the Inner Station instead of returning home as
he had intended. A bit later Marlow begins to supply an answer:
"Everything belonged to him--but that was a trifle. The
thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of
darkness claimed him for their own" (p. 1400). What do you
think had called Kurtz back to his Inner Station in the
"heart of darkness"?
15. Atavism, Primal Nature & Allusions to the Title Heart of Darkness: Marlow observes: "Going up the river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world," a past remembered "in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream," amid this "strange" African "silence, a "stillness" without "peace"--the "stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect" (1389). They "crawled toward Kurtz" and "penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness" (1390; emphasis mine--note this title allusion). "We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth"--an atavistic journey into the human past--"We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil" (1390-91). What is this "accursed inheritance" that Marlow envisions? Kurtz has travelled up this river before Marlow--what has happened to Kurtz? (See also p. 1400.)
16. Marlow's Attitude toward Africans.
Marlow's attitude toward black
Africans is complex, but Chinua Achebe
has charged that Heart of Darkness is ultimately racist in a famous essay
entitled "An Image of Africa." Consider the attitudes Marlow
expresses about the natives on shore who attack the steamboat, the "cannibals"
onboard his steamboat, and his "improved" fireman:
17. An Annotated Book, a Warning and a Russian. Fifty miles below the Inner Station, Marlow and his crew come upon an abandoned dwelling, an old annotated book and a cryptic message of warning. Why does Marlow consider Towson's An Inquiry into some Points of Seamanship "an extraordinary find" (1392)? Marlow judges it "luminous with another than a professional light"--why...especially in the midst of all this madness? Later we learn that this book belonged to the "harlequin" Russian (1403-1404). Describe the Russian. What seems to be his relationship to Kurtz?
18. Theme of Voice and Voice/s. Marlow admits that there is
"an appeal to me in this fiendish row [the "wild and
passionate uproar" of the Africans onshore]....Very well; I
hear;...but I have a voice, too, and for good or evil mine is the
speech that cannot be silenced" (1391). A bit later Marlow
argues with himself about "whether or no I would talk openly
with Kurtz," but doubts seriously whether it would matter:
"my speech or my silence ...would be a mere futility,"
for "The essentials of this affair lay deep under the
surface, beyond my reach, and beyond my power of meddling"
(1393). Still, Marlow wants to talk to Kurtz and he must tell his
[Marlow's own? Kurtz's] story of Heart of Darkness: why?
19. Rescue or Grail Mission? "The approach to this Kurtz grubbing for ivory in the wretched bush was beset by as many dangers as though he had been an enchanted princess sleeping in a fabulous castle" (1396). Does this comparison seem ironic, accurate, or both? Is Marlow on a kind of quest? Does his journey bear any parallels, for example, to the Romantic quest of Faust?
20. Why Kurtz's People Attack Marlow's
Steamboat & Kurtz's African Woman. Marlow's boat is attacked by
Kurtz's natives, we learn, because "'They don't want him to
go'" (1404). And at one point Marlow sees "a face
amongst the leaves...looking at me very fierce and steady;"
(1397)--Kurtz's African woman. Note how she will be compared to
Kurtz's European fiancee, the "Intended."
24. Consider the characteristic ways that Marlow describes the African jungle setting--the "wilderness"--in Part II: e.g., pp. 1393, 1400. What part does the African "wilderness" play in this novel?
Part III (Conrad 1404-1421)
25. What is the function of the Russian in the novel? What motivates him? What is his relationship to Kurtz? Why does Marlow consider the Russian "bewildering," "an insoluable problem" (1404)? What do we and Marlow learn about Kurtz from the Russian? What was Kurtz doing in the "heart of darkness"?
26. What do the "heads on the stakes" reveal (1406)? How do you interpret Marlow's response to this "savage sight": he says, "pure, uncomplicated savagery was a positive relief"--from what?--"being something that had a right to exist--obviously--in the sunshine" (1407)? Why does Marlow scoff at the description of the heads belonging to "Rebels!" (1407)? The heads, Marlow decides, "only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint..." (1406). What is the "deficiency" that Marlow perceives in Kurtz--the lack of "restraint" that left Kurtz vulnerable to "the wilderness [which] had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion" (1406)?
27. When Kurtz finally appears in the story (1407 & following), does he confirm the advance accounts that we have had of him? Marlow describes Kurtz repeatedly as "a voice"--again (see Part II. question #21), what is the significance of this description? What other terms used to describe Kurtz seem to you particularly important?
28. The African woman, "a wild and gorgeous apparition," appears on p. 1408. Note how she is described, the gesture she makes more than once (e.g. pp. 1409, 1414), Marlow's associations between her and the "wilderness itself" (1409). What is her significance? Compare/contrast her to Kurtz's European "Intended."
29. The manager judges Kurtz's "method...unsound" (1409). What "method" and of doing what, does the manager have in mind? Why does Marlow react the manager with such disgust?--he says, "...I had never breathed an atmosphere so vile" (1410). What prompts Marlow to turn, instead, "mentally to Kurtz for relief"--and ultimately pronounce Kurtz "a remarkable man" (1410)? Marlow observes that he has "at least a choice of nightmares" (1410): what "choice" does he mean? (See also pp. 1411, 1414, when Marlow repeats this expression and indicates that Kurtz is associated with Marlow's "choice.")
30. What is the source of Marlow's feeling of kinship with Kurtz? What leads him to call himself "Mr Kurtz's friend--in a way" (1410), to confess that "I did not betray Mr. Kurtz--it was ordered I should never betray him" (1411), to take into his keeping Kurtz's personal papers and his fiancee's photograph, and to remain "loyal" to Kurtz to the end?
31. Amid drum beats and "weird incantation" dying in the night, "a strange narcotic effect" coming over him, Marlow discovers Kurtz missing. Then Marlow experiences "a sheer blank fright," an "overpowering" emotion induced by "moral shock...as if something altogether monstrous, intolerable to thought and odious to the soul, had been thrust upon me unexpectedly" (1411). The sensation lasts "the merest fraction of a second"; then Marlow follows Kurtz's trail into the darkness. What "moral shock" has Marlow experienced, do you think?
32. When Marlow finds Kurtz, it is the "moment, when the foundations of our intimacy were being laid" (1412). Marlow tries "to break the spell--the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness--that seemed to draw [Kurtz] to its pitiless breast"--and understands what "had driven him out to the edge of the forest...towards...the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations;...beguiled his unlawful soul...beyond the bounds of permitted aspiration" (1412). What is driving Marlow into this terrible "intimacy" with Kurtz? Here, in the heart of darkness, Marlow proclaims: "Soul! If anybody had ever struggled with a soul, I am the man" (1413). Kurtz's soul, "Being along in the wilderness,...had looked into 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" (1413). Interpret this moment of crisis--for Kurtz and for Marlow.
33.On board the boat, moved by the "brown current...swiftly out of the heart of darkness" (1414), that soul "that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear" (1413), still continues to struggle (1414). What opposing forces do you believe struggle within Kurtz? What "diabolic love and...unearthly hate of the mysteries it had penetrated" contend for "possession of that soul satiated with primitive emotions, avid of lying fame, of sham distinction, of all the appearances of success and power" (1414)? Do you see any correspondences with Faust?
34. To what do Kurtz's final words, "The horror! The horror!" refer (1415)? It is because of Kurtz's last words, finally, that Marlow affirms, "Kurtz was a remarkable man" (1415). Why does Marlow call these words "an affirmation, a moral victory" (1416)? and why does Marlow later lie to the Intended (p. 1420) when she asks for Kurtz's final words?
35. When Marlow returns to Europe and "the sepulchral city," why does he find it so profoundly "irritating" and "offensive" (1416)?
36. Marlow goes to see Kurtz's Intended--whether out of "unconscious loyalty" or "ironic necessit[y]," he's not sure (1417). Why do you think he goes?
37. The final scene (pp. 1418-1421) between Marlow and Kurtz's fiancee is charged throughout with verbal and dramatic irony: that is, when the speaker's implicit meanings differ from what he says, and/or the readers share with the author or character knowledge of which another character (i.e. the Intended) is ignorant. Identify some instances of such ironies in this final scene.
38. Revisit the opening section of Part I, from "when the Romans first came here" to "What redeems it is the idea only...an unselfish belief in the idea--something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to..." (1369-1370). Consider the parallels foreshadowing what you now know happens to Kurtz, and to Marlow, in the heart of darkness. Reconsider also Marlow's allusion to a redeeming "idea" (1370) in relation to the Intended's "mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering" (1418), "the faith that was in her,...that great and saving illusion" before which Marlow bows his head (1419)--and which Marlow preserves by telling a lie.
39. The novel concludes by returning to the narrative frame, set aboard the Nellie: the tide is now turning; the unnamed narrator observes that "the tranquil waterway [the Thames]" seems now "to lead into the heart of an immense darkness" (1421). Marlow is described as sitting "apart...in the pose of a meditating Buddha": do you think Marlow has achieved some sort of enlightenment? Have you? Now that you, too, have experienced Marlow's story, revisit and reinterpret the unnamed narrator's description of where the meaning lies of one of Marlow's tales on p. 1369. What, for you, seem to be the meaning(s) of Heart of Darkness?
Cora. "Heart of Darkness Reading Guide."
[Handout] English 109: Western World Literature:
Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 1st published
1899; 1902. Rpt.
Western Literature in a
Davis, Paul, et al., eds. Western Literature in a World Context.
Vol. 2: The Enlightenment through
Murfin, Ross, and Supryia M. Ray. The
Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. 2nd ed. Boston:
For Further Reading
(available online by subscription and by request):
"An Image of Africa."
The Massachusetts Review 18.4 (Winter 1977):
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