Study Guide

Heart of Darkness Analysis

By Joseph Conrad

  • Tone

    Cynical, Stark, Poetic

    Just to choose a totally random passage:

    Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair. Another mine on the cliff went off, followed by a slight shudder of the soil under my feet. The work was going on. The work! (1.39)

    Okay, fine, we didn't exactly choose this randomly. But Marlow's description of dying slaves is a good example of Heart of Darkness's tone. It's stark and unflinching, describing the dying slaves in really poetic language—all that "half coming out, half effaced" business—along with a kind of emotionless statement of facts: they slaves are dying, and the work is going on. Over and over, Conrad renders terrible scenes with a literary flick of the wrist. Maybe he sees poetry as the only way to deal with horror?

    But notice the exclamation mark after the second "work." That's Marlow (or Conrad) being cynical: it tells us that he can't believe the work is just going on while all these humans are suffering, but it also tells us that he's not surprised. His journey into Africa has made him cynical about what humans are capable of.

  • Genre

    Adventure, Psychological Thriller and Suspense, Literary Fiction

    Let's take these one at a time:

    Adventure. You've got a boat. You've got hippos. You've got cannibals, heads on sticks, and a white guy who's gone "native." Sounds like an adventure to us.

    Psychological Thriller. At the same time, we have to admit that Heart of Darkness is a little light on the action. This is no summer blockbuster. It's much more of a twisted journey into the dark interior of a madman's mind than it is a journey into the dark interior of a continent—which lets us slap on a "psychological thriller" sticker.

    Literary Fiction. "Literary fiction" is basically a euphemism for "required reading." Since the odds are better than even that you're here exactly because you're being required to read Heart of Darkness—yup, sounds like literary fiction to us.

    Okay, want a better definition? Literary fiction tends to focus more on character and psychological development than plot and action, and its goals isn't to entertain you so much as to go, "Hm, I never thought about that before. Sounds to us like Heart of Darkness fits the bill.

  • What’s Up With the Title?

    With such an ominous title, Heart of Darkness delivers what it promises: ruminations on the nature of evil. (You know, just like Wicked, but without the song-and-dance.) The "heart of darkness" refers not only to a physical location (inside Africa), but also to a state of mind and the grim consequences of imperialism (the European world takeover during the 15th through 20th centuries).

    So yeah, Conrad was into metaphors. The text considers the deep jungle of Africa as the heart of darkness both for its untamed and hostile wilderness and for its supposed "savages" who hang out there practicing certain non-European customs such as cannibalism.

    But why is the African jungle called "dark"?

    The no-duh answer is that there's not much light in there, what with the heavy foliage and the mists. The more complicated answer is that, according to the novel, the wilderness makes men metaphorically blind to their situation and surroundings. In the heart of darkness, you can't do good: you can only choose to be less evil.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Lol, you tell us!

    No, seriously. Right at the end of Marlow's visit with the Intended, he tells us that he couldn't tell her the truth about Kurtz: "It would have been too dark—too dark altogether …" (3.86). And then we scoot back to the top level of the frame, where the flood is receding and the unnamed narrator tells us that the "tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness" (3.87).

    We suspect these two "darknesses" are related. (You think?) When Marlow tells us that he lied to the Intended to preserve her vision of Kurtz as a good crusader bringing light to dark Africa, is the point of the story to make us realize that there's just as much darkness in Europe as there is in Africa? Are we supposed to imagine the Thames flowing out into the ocean and then mixing with the waters flowing out of the Congo? Are we supposed to close our book and throw it across the room in frustration?

    Well, maybe. Here's a thought: the ending of Heart of Darkness is intentionally vague and ambiguous because we humans are vague and ambiguous, with good and evil, civilized and savage duking it out in our souls every single day. (That is, unless we're women, in which case we're just pure and beautiful. Score!)

    In other words, we're saying, we suspect that the ending isn't supposed to give us a clear answer about what all this means. Remember that for Marlow, the meaning is outside of the text, and not inside (1.9).

    And what's outside of the text is… us.

  • Setting

    The Congo River in Africa around 1890, and Aboard the Nellie on the Thames River in 1891

    Marlow tells the story of his travels up the Congo River. That makes the setting…the Congo. And more generally, Africa. Check out one of Marlow's descriptions of sailing up the river:

    Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sand-banks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once—somewhere—far away—in another existence perhaps. (2.5)

    What's cool about this is the way that Marlow compares sailing up that river to going back in time. It's almost as though—hint, this is SUPER important, Shmoopers—he's making Africa into a version of Europe's past. Remember that Marlow is telling us this story on a different river, the English Thames. That makes the Thames into a parallel for the Congo. So, if the Thames is like the Congo, then England is like Africa, which means that … white men are like black men, with a key difference: white men used to be like black men.

    Want more evidence? At the beginning of the novel, Marlow breaks the silence by saying, "And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth" [1.8]). In other words, England, too, was a place of "primitive darkness" until men from Rome (in this scenario, the noble, altruistic "civilized" people invading to do good) rode up and conquered it.

    What we have here is allochronic discourse, a very fancy phrase for—well, actually, a complex idea: that Westerners often talk and write about other countries as though they exist in different times and are just trying to catch up with the West. You can hear that kind of thinking even in phrases like "developing countries": developing countries are countries that are stuck in a different time and are racing to get up to our time. (Does this idea get you excited? There's a whole book about it! Er, well, a whole library really—but that should be enough to get you started.)

    But there's a major problem with thinking that way: Africa actually exists in the exact same time that Europe does. It's not really a prehistoric land that only serves to remind Europe about its past, and treating it that way sounds, well, a little (or a lot) racist. And that's the source of a major critique against Heart of Darkness: even though Conrad seems to be saying that Europeans can be just as bad by putting the "heart of darkness" on the Thames, he's still saying that Africans represent a primitive and savage stage of human development.

    What do you think?

  • Tough-o-Meter

    Snow Line (7)

    Sorry, guys. This one's a toughie. Not only are the plot, themes, and motivation a little obscure (maybe even dark), but the language isn't exactly easy, either. Check out this set of sentences from the beginning of the novel:

    Forthwith a change came over the waters, and the serenity became less brilliant but more profound. The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of day, after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth. We looked at the venerable stream not in the vivid flush of a short day that comes and departs for ever, but in the august light of abiding memories. (1.4-6)

    Translation: the river continued to flow, but it looked different after the sun went down.

    All right, come back. Before you give up, consider this: English was Conrad's third language, and he couldn't even speak it well until he was in his twenties. (Polish and French are numbers one and two.) If he could churn out prose like this in his third language, surely you can read it in your first or second. Right?

  • Writing Style

    Verbose, Poetic, Introspective

    We hear you: Conrad isn't easy to read. His writing can come across as long-winded and (we'll go there) tedious. But we think you should give it a chance. It might help to slow down and read it almost like poetry, because it really is more like poetry than like your typical prose narrative. Once you get the hang of his writing, it's worth it. Check out this passage:

    She stood looking at us without a stir, and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose. A whole minute passed, and then she made a step forward. There was a low jingle, a glint of yellow metal, a sway of fringed draperies, and she stopped as if her heart had failed her. (3.15)

    Notice how Conrad hops from physical ("she stood looking at us") to metaphorical ("like the wilderness") to speculative ("with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose") in just one sentence. The sentence's slow, meditative rhythm almost makes us feel the pause of the warrior woman looking over the group—and then we move back into rich physical description ("jingle," "glint," "sway") before veering off again into the speculative "as if her heart had failed her."

    This passage shows us that, even when Conrad is describing the physical world and physical action, it's always tightly linked to psychology and motivation. Just as the journey into Africa is really a journey into the human heart, a description of a woman stepping forward is really a description of her mind.

    We told you it was worth it.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

  • Narrator Point of View

    First person (Peripheral Narrator), First Person (Central Narrator)

    Welcome to our frame narrative. First, our unnamed narrator introduces the frame for the story (the evening spent aboard the Nellie). Why do we start out like this? Well, because we have another narrator, we can stop Marlow's story and hear commentary on the Thames River and its surroundings. We also get some great little lines about Marlow's voice, with the implicit parallel to Kurtz. In short, the nameless narrator is an opportunity for more commentary, more connections, and more flexing of Conrad's literary muscles.

    And then there's this little tidbit about Marlow:

    to him 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, in the likeness of one of those misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine. (1.9)

    If the meaning of this story is similarly on the outside, then we need to be outside this story (i.e., on the Thames) to understand Conrad's parallels between the Thames and Congo Rivers, Europe and Africa, white Europeans and black Africans, etc. Pretty neat.

    Listen Up

    Obviously, the frame is crucial to Conrad's whole literary agenda. But once Marlow starts yapping away, most of the novel is told from his point of view. We have to ask: just how accurate is his portrayal of Kurtz as a madman? Just how frightening is the interior? Since Marlow clearly has point to make, and isn't above lying to make a point (as with the Intended), can we trust that he's being straight with us? And would it matter if he weren't?

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    "Fall" into the Other World

    Road Trip!

    Marlow embarks on his journey aboard the steamboat and travels up the Congo River. For this stuffy old white guy, navigating the Congo feels like "traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world." It's totally alien: unfamiliar, timeless, and full of drum-pounding Africans.

    Sounds like a "fall into another world" to us.

    Initial Fascination

    Luv U, Kurtz

    Marlow is a little freaked out by all the native Africans and cannibals surrounding him, but he's also pretty fascinated by all these people who don't live by European customs. That includes Kurtz, who Marlow just can't wait to meet.

    Frustration Stage

    So Long, Nice to Know You

    The frustration stage begins when Marlow's ship gets stuck in a thick white fog deep in the interior. You know, since their journey is frustrated. When one of their crew (the black helmsman) is killed by attacking "savages," frustration quickly becomes the …

    Nightmare Stage

    Head on a Stick

    Well, first, things actually look up for a while. Marlow meets the harlequin, a strange but harmless disciple of Kurtz, and learns more and more about the mystery man. But it quickly gets weird. Kurtz is practically a god to the native Africans: he kills them if they disobey and orders the attack on Marlow's steamboat. Plus, he doesn't even want to go back to Europe. (Whaaaa?) He's also super sick and possibly (okay, almost certainly) crazy.

    And did we mention that the Africans really don't want him to leave?

    Thrilling Escape and Return

    Um, Not Everybody Escapes

    Finally, Marlow manages to get Kurtz onboard his ship and escape by scaring the agitated Africans with his steam-whistle. Escape from Africa! Oh, but then Kurtz dies, leaving Marlow to deal with his letters and papers.

    When Marlow gets back to Belgium, he finds that Europe isn't as great as he remembered it. Incidentally, Kurtz is also not as great as his fiancée (the Intended) remembers. We feel like those two sentences must be related somehow.

  • Plot Analysis

    Initial Situation

    Just a Small Town Boy

    Charlie Marlow loves maps. He wants to become an explorer so he can fill in those blank spaces on the maps. Upon acquiring a steamboat with the Company, he begins his journey into the African interior. This is a lovely little conflict-free initial situation. Although, with comments like "morituri te salutant" ("we who are about to die salute you") (1.4), we have a feeling there's some conflict coming soon.



    Marlow hears about Kurtz and almost immediately becomes obsessed with him. To Marlow, Kurtz answers all sorts of problems: the eerie silence of the jungle (by having an eloquent voice), the shenanigans of the native Africans (by "taming" them), the chaos of the wilderness (by acquiring ivory), and the moral ambiguity of the interior (by making himself into a kind of god).

    So, where's the conflict? To find this paragon and bring him back to civilization, Marlow has to go on a perilous journey—both physical and mental. Plus, there are cannibals.


    Hurry Up and Wait

    All Marlow wants to do is be BFFs with Kurtz (and bring him home), but he just runs into problem after problem. First, he can't get his steamboat moving up the Congo. Second, a bunch of Company peons are trying to undermine Kurtz.

    And third, Kurtz is a total loony who orders Marlow's steamboat to be attacked because he doesn't want to leave the interior. Oh, and the native Africans don't want him to leave either.



    Kurtz tries to escape from his hut right before Marlow and company are scheduled to bring him home, but it's not much an escape since the guy is half-dead already. Marlow catches up to him and, at this point, has two options: either let him go and allow Kurtz his victory, or follow Company orders and bring him back.

    Marlow goes with option two, and the next morning they make a successful escape from the restless Africans. It's all very climactic.


    Things Get Twisted

    Right when you think Marlow is going to succeed in his mission of bringing Kurtz back to civilization … Kurtz dies. In fact, he dies in complete agony, first going blind, then raving incomprehensibly, then finally seeing visions as he expires. His last words—"The horror! The horror!"—pronounce his final judgment on his world.

    Okay, we admit that a death sounds a lot more like a climax than suspense. Here's where he think the suspense comes in: with Kurtz dying in this dramatic way, we're left wondering what's going to happen to Marlow. Is he going to go back to his regular Company life, just a regular imperialist working stiff? Or has he actually learned something from his trip into the heart of darkness?


    Brussels Kind of Sucks

    Marlow returns safely to Belgium, only to find that everything is petty and small when compared to the horrors he experienced on the Congo. (Wait, isn't that a good thing?) He has one final task before he can finally move on: handing over Kurtz's letters to his Intended, i.e. fiancée.


    You Kiss Your Mama With That Mouth?

    For some reason, everyone back home still thinks of Kurtz as a saint and martyr and all-around good guy—particularly the Intended, who goes on and on about how awesome Kurtz is. Marlow doesn't correct her. In fact, he lies right to her face, leaving us wondering what kind of lesson he's learned at all.

  • Three Act Plot Analysis

    Act I

    Rollin' on the River

    Marlow is sailing down the Thames in the Nellie when he decides to tell a story. A long story. Act I of his story begins when he gets a job in Brussels and then heads down the Outer and Central Stations in Africa. Turns out, life in Africa isn't so great. The black Africans work under appallingly inhumane conditions and it's all pretty gross. The one cool thing is that he hears about this guy, Kurtz. Kurtz sounds pretty neat, and Marlow is stoked to meet him—but he's delayed by a series of, well, delays.

    You're right; this sounds like a whole lot of nothing. The point is, the first act ends when Marlow finally heads up the Congo with a crew of unlikable "pilgrims" and a Company manager and his uncle.

    Act II

    Mr. Kurtz, I Presume

    Marlow learns more about Kurtz by eavesdropping on the manager and his uncle, like that they want to be promoted and that Kurtz's stunning outputs of ivory threaten their ambition. Meanwhile, the whole journey is kind of nightmarish—there are cannibals, and then they get attacked by a group of Africans. The one high point is when Marlow finds a seaman's book in an abandoned hut.

    At the Inner Station, Marlow meets a weird guy who we call the harlequin. He knows Kurtz, so Marlow cozies up to him to get more info. It seems that Kurtz has allied himself with the native Africans and uses them to raid other villages and steal ivory. Meanwhile, the Africans worship him as a god. All this suits Kurtz so well that he orders the African's to attack Marlow's steamboat; he doesn't want to be taken away from the interior and his precious ivory stash.

    At this point, we see Kurtz for the first time. It's not very inspiring, seeing as he's sick and apparently incapable of walking. But he is capable of crawling, so he tries to make a run for it by crawling out of the tent. Marlow—being still able to walk on two feet—easily overtakes him and carts him off down the Congo. Where he dies. Horribly.

    At this point, with Kurtz dead and Marlow half-dead himself, we're going to call an end to Act II.

    Act III

    Return to Normalcy

    Marlow finds himself ostracized by his crew and unable to return to a normal life. So he concerns himself instead with returning Kurtz's letters to his fiancée—who still thinks he's the bee's knees. She's so wrong that she actually thinks that the last words Kurtz said were her name. And Marlow actually lets her believe that, meaning that he's … learned a lesson? Changed? Matured? Lost his illusions?

    You tell us.

  • Allusions

    Literature, Philosophy, and Mythology

    The Bible: Matthew 23:27-28 – "a whited sepulchre" (1.22)
    Moirae (Greek Fates): "two women…knitting black wool" (1.23), "knitting old woman" (3.27)
    Plato (1.26)
    Dante: the Divine Comedy – "some Inferno" (1.38)
    King Arthur: "round table" (1.52)
    Bunyan: The Pilgrim’s Progress – "faithless pilgrims…with their absurd long staves in their hands" (1.54)
    The Devil: "with a forked little beard and a hooked nose" (1.56), "A black figure…it had horns" (3.29), "that Shadow" (3.29)
    Astrea, Greek goddess of justice: "a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch" (1.57)
    Goethe: Faust – "Mephistopheles" (1.61)
    "Sleeping Beauty": The enchanted forest – "a state of trance" (2.13), "an enchanted princess sleeping in a fabulous castle" (2.15)
    Jupiter, Roman king of gods: "the thunderbolts of that pitiful Jupiter" (3.11)
    Poe: "A Descent into the Maelstrom" – "I had peeped over the edge" (3.48)
    Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau – "a danger it is unable to comprehend" (3.49)
    Dickens: A Christmas Carol – Marley’s face – "he seemed to stare at me out of the glassy panel." (3.51)

    Historical References

    Sir Francis Drake: the Golden Hind (1.6)
    Sir John Franklin: the Erebus, the Terror (1.6)
    East India Company: "commissioned ‘generals’ of East India" (1.6)
    Ravenna, Italy: Roman naval base (1.11)
    Buddha (1.13), (3.87)
    Freiesleben, Johannes, A Danish captain, Conrad’s predecessor in command of the Florida, was killed on 29 January 1890 at Tchumberi in a dispute over hens: "Fresleven" (1.21)
    Roman gladiators: "Ave! [...] Morturi te salutant" (1.25), ("Hail! [...] Those who are about to die salute you.")
    El Dorado: "Eldorado Exploring Expedition" (1.72)
    Towson, J.T., published two volumes of navigation tables: "Towson" (2.9), (2.37)
    International Association for the Exploration and Civilizing of Africa, of which King Leopold was the president: "International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs" (2.29)
    Government of Tambov, Russia (2.35)
    Latin maxim "Fiat justitia, ruat coelum" or "Let justice be done, though the heavens fall": "The heavens do not fall for such a trifle." (3.86)