Heart of Darkness Study Guide
1. The setting of the story begins on the Nellie, a ship. The turn of the tide is significant because it gives the men on board extra time to talk, and Marlow begins telling his story. In addition, symbolically, the turning of the tide conveys a change, and perhaps, foreshadowing of the story. The author spends a lot of time dealing with light because it is the main symbol in the novella. Light and darkness are universal symbols that represent good and evil.
Although not explicitly stated, those who have the light are those who are “civilized”, and those who have the darkness are those who remain “uncivilized”, particularly the people living in Africa. 2. Marlow appears different from everyone else on the ship because of how the author describes Marlow’s character. Conrad describes Marlow as having “sunken cheeks”, a “yellow complexion”, and resembling that of an “idol”. Marlow seems ill through this description. Sunken cheeks convey a lack of nourishment, as well as exhaustion.
The color yellow in literature has two meanings: happiness and sickness. In this context, one may infer the color yellow to symbolize Marlow’s sickness, or corruption, as it correlates to the rest of his description. Lastly, an “idol” connotes a phantom. Marlow appears to be different from everyone on the ship through his description. The audience is civilized. All of the men have jobs, a lawyer, an accountant, the director, and the outside narrator. The story also explains how Marlow remained the only one out of the men to still follow the sea. He also portrays how he did not “represent his class.” This suggests that Marlow may not be as “civilized” as the other men.
As Marlow begins to tell his story, the narrator explains how Marlow is about to embark on another “inconclusive” experience. The word inconclusive suggests not fully answering doubts and questions. In addition, Marlow begins to remark the “weakness of many tellers of tales who seem so often unaware of what their audience would best like to hear.” This conveys how Marlow hopes to interest, or intrigue, his audience. Marlow feels inclined to share his story so that his audience better understands him.
3. The Roman reacted to England, a dark place, by “civilizing” it, or conquering its territory. At that time, England looked like the “very end of the world.” It possessed “sand banks, marshes, forests, savages.” The story conveys how there was little to eat for a civilized man and only the Thames water for drink. England was a dark place at that time because it was uncivilized. 4. According to Marlow, what redeems the conquest of the Earth is the idea only; the idea that men will unselfishly sacrifice themselves for. Marlow explains how conquering land, and the land’s people, really is not a pretty thing.
I think Marlow breaks off because it is a sensitive subject for him to discuss, and maybe only something he truly understands. 5. Marlow keeps comparing the river to a serpent. The comparison is interesting because a serpent symbolizes evil, corruption, and temptation. Similar to the story of Adam and Eve, a snake, or the river in this case, tempts the protagonist. 6. Aside from knitting, the two women in the office appear to be secretaries, or receptionists, for the doctor. Both women appear to symbolize fate; they are the fates who spin, measure, or cute the thread of life.
This symbol is an allusion to Greek mythology. As Marlow is progressing toward his journey to Africa, it is in the Company’s office that he meets these two women. 7. Fresleven went insane because he had spent so much time in the jungle. After attempting to stab the village chief, Fresleven was killed. The conflict began with an argument over a couple of hens, which cost him, his life. The village became abandoned because the natives became superstitious; they were all very afraid to kill a white man. 8. Marlow’s Aunt calls Marlow an “emissary of light” because she believes that during his journey to Africa, Marlow is going to bring knowledge and civilization to the “savages.”
This reflects the imperialism during that time period. 9. The man-of-war is a lifeless forested stretch of coast. Once they reach the Congo River, Marlow boards another ship to journey further upriver. The man-of-war portends the lifelessness of many coasts in Africa; most parts of the place appear corrupt and dreary. 10. Marlow describes the Company’s station as a “Grove of Death”, in which among the trees there are dying natives and recurring dynamite blasts.
I think the natives allowed themselves to be bullied by the white men because they felt inferior. During this time, imperialism was popular and the belief that a white man was better than a black man was common. I also do not think natives had the proper technology, means, or knowledge to necessarily stand up to a group of white men either. 11. The accountant is described as an elegant white man with a clean and well-mannered appearance. The accountant is described as a “miracle” because he represents the Company, or how the Company wishes to be seen. The accountant is devoted to the Company. The station manager is described as an average man.
The manager’s supreme gift is his ability to never get sick. Marlow does not like the station manager because he is jealous of Kurtz, and also because Marlow describes him as “originating nothing.” This suggests how the manager lacks innovation and is devoted to keeping up with appearances, although he has nothing to offer. The manager comments about how ‘men should only come out here if they don’t have anything inside.’ This conveys that in order to succeed in the ivory trade business and survive in Africa, one must be ruthless. 12. The brick maker appears to be idle as Marlow remarks on how there “wasn’t a fragment of a brick anywhere in the station.”
The brick maker is waiting for his opportunity to move up the ladder within the company. 13. Kurtz’ painting is of a blindfolded woman carrying a lighted torch, in which her face is appears deceived by shadows. I suppose the painting reflects the men traveling to Africa, blindfolded, to civilize the natives, who represent the light. The woman is blindfolded as the European men are blinded by their negative influence on the natives. The shadows suggest darkness, which suggests corruption. 14. The manager and brick maker are upset at Kurtz’ pre-eminence because they are envious at his success.
This conveys the competition, desperation, and corruption during this time period to do whatever it takes to be successful, powerful, and rich. For these European men, money was power and that was their desire. Marlow lies to the brick maker by playing along to further understand his motives. In addition, Marlow allows the brick maker to think he has an influence in Europe to gain information about Kurtz. 15. Marlow was unable to get the rivets from the Company.
This suggests how the enterprise is allowing loose policies and for things to follow apart; this conveys a lack of professionalism. The manager does not want the rivets to make it out because he wants his Eldorado Exploring Expedition to follow through. 16. The Eldorado Exploring Expedition suggests an expedition in search for gold during this time. Although there was no gold in Africa, ivory was very valuable. This expedition was led by the manager’s uncle. Its purpose is to find ivory and exploit African resources.
1. The manager survives because he cannot get sick. His plan to “beat Kurtz” is by delaying the trip to the Inner Station, that way hopefully Kurtz’ illness will kill him because he will not receive the proper care in time. 2. The crew of the steamboat was the cannibals. Although savage, the cannibals are much better at controlling their behavior than the pilgrims. The pilgrims appear willing to begin destruction at any cause in order to gain ivory. The definition of “civilized” seems to belong to those who are able to exercise self-restraint. 3. The drums symbolize the culture that still exists in Africa.
The forest appears to be moving throughout the journey, which may be foreshadowing how the natives are moving with the boat to assure that it does not meet Kurtz. 4. “The earth seemed unearthly” suggests the discomfort Marlow feels along his journey. On a larger scale, this conveys how Africa has become a place lacking of normality and humanity; Marlow expresses how he feels separated from Earth. “That was the worst of us, the suspicion that they weren’t human,” suggests how corrupt the men were; they appear to show no signs of humanity.
5. Marlow discovers a book about seamanship. The book appears admirable because it is the only bit of reality Marlow has encountered recently. 6. When they wake up, eight miles from the station, the coast has been covered in a thick fog which keeps them stationary. The fog is a white, however, it does not represent light or goodness. The fog suggests how Marlow’s steamer does not know exactly where they are or what lies ahead in their journey; everything appears unclear physically and emotionally. 7. Marlow claims that the natives will not attack because the “nature of their noise” seems to convey sadness. In addition, Marlow does not understand how there could be an attack with the severe fog.
8. The sounding man is killed first in the attack because he is the first man seen. The river comes to symbolize not only the way in which Marlow begins his journey into himself, but as they venture further up the river, Marlow begins to realize he has more in common with the natives than Europeans. In addition, the river continues to represent the heart of temptation. The helmsman gets killed because he began to freak out, abandoning his position to grab a gun. Marlow drives the natives away by using the steam-whistle. 9. Marlow wanted to meet Kurtz because he had heard such interesting, wild things about him. Kurtz represents the thrilling and horrifying wildness that Marlow desired. Kurtz abandoned his life in Europe to pursue fortune in Africa.
10. Kurtz head was compared to that of an ivory ball. This suggests how important ivory was to this man; it was the only thing on his mind. Conrad uses a simile, irony, as well as symbolism to convey this. 11. Kurtz paper is about how white men must treat Africans as though the white men are much greater, super natural beings so that they can exert power over them. At the end, the scribble proclaims to exterminate all brutes. 12. The harlequin is the Russian man, Kurtz’ disciple. The harlequin knows a lot about Kurtz, he claims to only listen to Kurtz, and he acts only has information for Marlow. Chapter 3
1. The harlequin is boyish in appearance, and he is young. His brightly patched clothes are similar to the maps in the office Marlow had admired. The harlequin represents youth and adventure. The harlequin is still alive due to Kurtz’ influence. 2. The stakes outside of Kurtz’ compound were human heads. Most were faced in, while a couple was faced outward. They are the heads of “rebels”. 3. A group of native Africans carry Kurtz on a stretcher. Marlow describes Kurtz as resembling “an animated image of death carved out of ivory.”
This further suggests how Kurtz was willing to die in pursuit of ivory, which symbolizes power. 4. Kurtz brings his guns with him. Since the natives view Kurtz as a deity, they believe that the guns hold great power. Kurtz brings them to further emphasize his power over the natives. 5. The “wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman” is a native woman, Kurtz’ mistress. Conrad pairs here with being a warrior. 6. Right before Kurtz dies, Marlow recognizes all of Kurtz’ emotions. This relates to Kurtz’ last words “the horror! The horror!” because perhaps Kurtz realized that the life he was living was actually not worth dying for. Marlow blows out the candle because it is symbolic of Kurtz’ life.
7. “He had something to say” relates to Kurtz, who always had something to say, while Marlow had nothing to say. Marlow believes that Kurtz last words are a victory because he thinks he realized his negative impact in the world and his corruption at that moment. 8. Back in the city, Marlow discovers that Kurtz had many other talents such as a gift in music and writing. 9. Marlow gives up the idea that the Europeans belong in Africa. He has gone about doing that by no longer choosing to pursue that lifestyle. 10. The Intended is Kurtz’ fiancée.
She is described as being beautiful and often connected with imagery of light and heaven. Marlow’s belief that women live in beautiful worlds, which should not be disturbed, is relevant here as this beautiful woman is not intertwined with Kurtz’ alter lifestyle, his corrupt lifestyle. 11. Kurtz’ Intended claimed to have known him more than anyone else on Earth. However, she did not know the type of lifestyle Kurtz was living. Marlow tells the Intended that Kurtz’ last words were for her name.
Marlow claims that “it would have been too dark” to tell her the truth. I think the Heart of Darkness is when one allows him or herself to live in a false reality, allowing themselves to lie and deceive others for their own benefit.
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