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, eds. 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 Eng 109 required textbook.
Part I (HD in Davis and others 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
Revisit the opening section of Part
1 after you have finished reading Heart of Darkness.
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?
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 the Romantics.]
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)?
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Heart of Darkness Reading Guide Part II and II forthcoming soon!
Cora. "Heart of Darkness Reading Guide." Handout,
English 109, Central Oregon
For Further Reading
(paper handout to be distributed in class & available online by subscription):
"An Image of Africa."
The Massachusetts Review 18.4 (Winter 1977):
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