Because of its multiple layers of meaning and unrelenting ambiguity, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is likely to leave readers with the same thought Marlow, the novel’s principal narrator, has about his own story. He says, “It seemed somehow to throw a kind of light on everything about me,” but it was “not very clear either. No, not very clear” (p. 21). The novel opens aboard a boat anchored on the Thames River near London, darkness descending. An unidentified narrator introduces us to a group of friends and to Marlow. As a kind of preface to his tale, Marlow points out that to the invaders from ancient Rome, Britain must have appeared just as uncivilized as Africa does to European colonizers. This observation, like many Marlow makes throughout the story, unsettles any assumptions the reader may have about the opposition between barbarity and civilization, colonizer and colonized.
Adrift in London, Marlow decides to seek work aboard a ship that will take him to Africa. The Congo River, as he looks at it on a map in a shop window, fascinates Marlow “as a snake would a bird—a silly little bird” (p. 22). He gets a job with a Belgian trading company—which he refers to only as “the Company”—commanding a steamboat up the Congo. As he travels deeper into Africa, Marlow feels a growing sense of dread. Just as the native Congolese people and the difficulty of keeping the boat afloat pose a physical threat to Marlow, his increasing distance from a familiar world poses a threat to his mental state. The stillness of the river does not seem peaceful to him, but rather suggests “an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention” (p. 60). He describes his meeting with Mr. Kurtz—an employee of the Company in charge of a trading post that acquires huge quantities of ivory—as “the culminating point of my experience” (p. 21). It is only in retrospect, however, that Marlow understands his experience this way. When he sets out, Marlow has never heard of Kurtz; the purpose of his journey, never clearly explained, becomes obscured by Marlow’s growing fascination with him. An accountant for the Company whom Marlow meets on the Congo is the first to mention Kurtz. He tells Marlow that Kurtz is “a very remarkable person” (p. 37), an opinion that Marlow comes to share. In what sense this assessment of Kurtz may be true, why Marlow believes it, and why his encounter with Kurtz becomes so heavily laden with significance for Marlow are central questions posed by the novel.
Early in the novel, the narrator tells us that to Marlow, “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze” (p. 18). This comment suggests that the meaning of Marlow’s encounter with Kurtz can be found not in the experience itself, but in the telling of the story—a transaction between Marlow and his listeners. The larger implication is that, rather than perceiving significance or sense within the external world, we infuse past experience with meaning. Kurtz is the focal point of Marlow’s story, but only insofar as he is a catalyst for Marlow’s contemplation of human nature, specifically the impulse to bring “civilization” to the “uncivilized.”
In saying that Kurtz “was hollow at the core” (p. 95), is Marlow saying that the only meaning his encounter with Kurtz can possibly have is that which he imposes on it after the fact? Does Marlow intend to say something about the enterprise in which Kurtz was engaged? Marlow to sees clearly that the Company is run for profit, but many people around him convince themselves that Europeans are in Africa for a higher purpose. Marlow’s aunt, who helps him to get command of the steamboat, considers him “an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle” (p. 28); she believes that the European colonizers are “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways” (p. 28). But once he finally meets Kurtz and beholds his trading post dotted with shrunken heads atop sticks, Marlow finds a man whose ways seem beyond horrid, who “had kicked himself loose of the earth” (p. 107) and “knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear” (p. 108).
Marlow tells us that many who have come into contact with Kurtz are in awe of him, but why this is so remains mysterious. The Russian is the most striking example; he is religiously devoted to Kurtz. In Marlow’s own case, it is difficult to know whether his conclusion that Kurtz is indeed remarkable is based on what Kurtz says (he is always primarily a voice to Marlow) or on Marlow’s own disposition and needs. The difficulty is best illustrated by Marlow’s attempt to interpret Kurtz’s dying words: “The horror! The horror!” (p. 112). Marlow insists that Kurtz is remarkable because upon dying “he had summed up—he had judged” (p. 113). To Marlow, Kurtz’s words are “the expression of some sort of belief” (p. 113). What has Kurtz pronounced judgment on—himself, human nature, the colonial enterprise? What does he believe in? Marlow has no answers to these questions. Is Marlow unable to let go of his hope that there is some truth to be understood, and that it can be understood, even if it remains inaccessible to him?
Equally puzzling is Marlow’s meeting with “the Intended,” the unnamed woman to whom Kurtz was apparently engaged. When she asks Marlow to tell her Kurtz’s last words, he tells her that Kurtz said her name. Marlow fears that “the house would collapse” and “the heavens would fall” (p. 123) in response to his lie, but he then wonders if they would have fallen had he “rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due” (p. 123). Is Marlow obligated by his admiration for Kurtz to tell the truth no matter what the consequences? Marlow only says that telling the Intended the truth would have been “too dark—too dark altogether” (p. 123). His story ends here, leaving open the question of whether it was the Intended or Marlow for whom the truth would have been too dark. Heart of Darkness is a profound meditation on not only the elusiveness of truth, but also the irresistible inducements to living with lies.
ABOUT JOSEPH CONRAD
One of the world’s great writers of fiction, Joseph Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857 in Berdichev, near Kiev, in what was then Russian Poland (now Ukraine). In 1861, Conrad’s family was forced to move to northern Russia when his father, a Polish patriot, was exiled for his activism against Russian rule. His mother and father both died of tuberculosis, in 1865 and 1869, respectively. In the care of his maternal uncle, Conrad was sent to school in Krakow and then Switzerland. Wanting to go to sea, he left in 1874 for Marseilles, where he joined the French merchant service.
In 1878, Conrad joined the British merchant navy; he sailed on many ships over the next sixteen years, starting as a deckhand and working his way up to captain. It was during this period that Conrad mastered the English language. Taking him all over the globe—Africa, Australia, India, Singapore, South America—his voyages provided subject matter for his writing and helped him gain insight into what drives human behavior. Conrad published his first novel, Almayer’s Folly, in 1895. Among Conrad’s most acclaimed works are Lord Jim (1900), Heart of Darkness (1902), Nostromo(1904), The Secret Agent (1907), and Under Western Eyes (1911). Conrad maintained that his stories were not about life on the sea, but that human problems “stand out with a particular force and colouring” on board a ship. His writing is particularly concerned with whether individuals can act virtuously amid forces of chaos, destruction, and hypocrisy. Conrad’s characters struggle with evil—in themselves and in others—but are rarely victorious.
Conrad’s other major works include The Nigger of the “Narcissus (1897), Youth (1902), Typhoon (1903), and Victory (1915).
- Why does Conrad have one of Marlow’s listeners relate the story, rather than make Marlow the narrator of the novel who speaks directly to the reader?
- Why does the narrator note Marlow’s resemblance to a Buddha, at the beginning as well as the end of Marlow’s story?
- Why does Marlow want to travel up the Congo River?
- What is Marlow’s attitude toward the African people he encounters on his trip up the Congo? In describing them, why does Marlow say that “what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar” (p. 63)?
- What does Marlow mean when he says that “there is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies” (p. 49)?
- Why does Marlow consider it lucky that “the inner truth is hidden” (p. 60)?
- What does Kurtz mean when, as he’s dying, he cries out, “The horror! The horror!” (p. 112)?
- What is the significance of the report Kurtz has written for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs? Why does Marlow tear off the postscriptum, which reads “Exterminate all the brutes!” (p. 84), before giving the report to the man from the Company?
- Why does Marlow think that Kurtz was remarkable?
- Why does Marlow tell the Intended that Kurtz’s last words were her name?
- What does Marlow mean when he says that Kurtz “was very little more than a voice” (p. 80)?
- What does the narrator mean when he says of Marlow’s narrative that it “seemed to shape itself without human lips in the heavy night-air of the river” (p. 50)?
For Further Reflection
- Is it possible to distinguish between civilized and uncivilized societies?
- Is complete self-knowledge desirable? Is it possible?
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1958)
This moving story realistically depicts Nigeria’s Igbo tribe as its way of life is changed by the encroachment of European colonizers. The internal struggles and eventual downfall of the main character, Okonkwo, are accented by the inevitable loss of tribal culture.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground (1864)
The narrator of this dark—and darkly comic—novella comes to see all explanations for human behavior as self-imposed limitations on our freedom.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
Nick Carraway, the narrator of this classic novel, tells the story of Jay Gatsby, a man of vast ambition who embodies both the allure and the emptiness of the American dream.
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851)
In this multifaceted masterpiece, Ishmael turns his story of Ahab’s maniacal pursuit of a legendary white whale into the occasion for an exploration of the most profound metaphysical questions.