Study Guide

Heart of Darkness Fate and Free Will

By Joseph Conrad

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Fate and Free Will

Chapter 1

(At Brussels): "Two women, one fat and the other slim, sat on straw-bottomed chairs, knitting black wool. The slim one got up and walked straight at me – still knitting with downcast eyes – and only just as I began to think of getting out of her way, as you would for a somnambulist, stood still, and looked up. Her dress was as plain as an umbrella-cover, and she turned round without a word and preceded me into a waiting-room." (1.23)

These two women represent the Greek Moirae, or Fates, who spin and cut every human being’s thread of life. The slim one who gets up is described as a somnambulist (or sleep-walker) who is so engrossed in her spinning (of men’s destinies) that she does not really see Marlow.

"But as I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly. How insidious he could be, too, I was only to find out several months later and a thousand miles farther. For a moment I stood appalled, as though by a warning." (1.37)

Fate allows Marlow to see what horrors lie in store for him, specifically a new kind of devil which Marlow is not familiar with. For one brief moment, he has doubts about whether or not he should go on after perceiving Fate’s warning. But he allows this doubt to rule him only for an instant.

"I heard the name of Kurtz pronounced, then the words, 'take advantage of this unfortunate accident.'" (1.56)

The fact that the manager wants to take advantage of this so-called "unfortunate accident" brings into question whether it was a bad turn of luck or someone’s willful attempt to sabotage (indirectly) Kurtz.

[The accountant]: "'Oh, he [Kurtz] will go far, very far,' he began again. 'He will be a somebody in the Administration before long. They, above – the Council in Europe, you know - mean him to be.'" (1.47)

Kurtz is presented as a man destined for great things.

Charlie Marlow

"I felt somehow I must get there [to the Congo] by hook or by crook. So I worried them. The men said, ‘My dear fellow,’ and did nothing. Then – would you believe it? – I tried the women. I, Charlie Marlow, set the women to work – to get a job. Heavens! Well, you see the notion drove me. I had an aunt, a dear enthusiastic soul. She wrote: ‘It will be delightful. I am ready to do anything, anything for you. It is a glorious idea. I know the wife of a very high personage in the Administration, and also a man who has lots of influence […].’" (1.19)

Marlow feels inevitably drawn to Africa, as if by destiny, and thus makes the choice to begin hounding his relatives to help him procure a steamboat. This leads to a chance meeting with his aunt in which she uses her influence with the Company to help him get exactly what he wants. Therefore, both chance and choice bring Marlow to Kurtz.

"In the street – I don’t know why – a queer feeling came to me that I was an imposter. Odd thing that I, who used to clear out for any part of the world at a twenty-four hours’ notice, with less thought than most men give to the crossing of a street, had a moment – I won’t say of hesitation, but of startled pause, before this commonplace affair. The best way I can explain it to you is by saying that, for a second or two, I felt as though, instead of going to the centre of a continent, I were about to set off for the centre of the earth." (1.30)

Marlow feels a nervous anticipation about starting his journey, as though Fate believes he is not capable.

[At the Central Station]: "One of them, a stout, excitable chap […] informed me […] that my steamer was at the bottom of the river. I was thunderstruck. What, how, why? Oh, it was "all right." The "manager himself" was there. All quite correct […]

I did not see the real significance of that wreck at once. I fancy I see it now, but I am not sure – not at all. Certainly the affair was too stupid – when I think of it – to be altogether natural. Still…but at the moment it presented itself simply as a confounded nuisance. The steamer was sunk. They had started two days before in a sudden hurry up the river with the manager on board, in charge of some volunteer skipper, and before they had been out three hours they tore the bottom out of her on stones, and she sank near the south bank….the repairs when I brought the pieces to the station, took some months." (1.50-51)

What seems at first an accident, Marlow later suspects to have been a planned attempt at sabotage.

"I began to feel slightly uneasy. You know I am not used to such ceremonies, and there was something ominous in the atmosphere. It was just as though I had been let into some conspiracy – I don’t know – something not quite right; and I was glad to get out. In the outer room the two women knitted black wool feverishly. People were arriving, and the younger one was walking back and forth introducing them. The old one sat on her chair…She wore a starched white affair on her head, had a wart on one cheek, and silver-rimmed spectacles hung on the tip of her nose. She glanced at me above the glasses. The swift and indifferent placidity of that look troubled me. Two youths with foolish and cheer countenances were being piloted over, and she threw at them the same quick glance of unconcerned wisdom. She seemed to know all about them and about me too. An eerie feeling came over me. She seemed uncanny and fateful. Often far away there I thought of these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinising the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes. Ave! Old knitter of black wool. Morituri te salutant. Not many of those she looked at ever saw her again – not half, by a long way." (1.25)

After signing his papers, Marlow gets an inexplicable feeling of uneasiness, as if he has just entered into some unclean conspiracy. The old knitting women do nothing to calm him, but only increase his discomfort with their placid, knowing looks. They seem to know each man’s fate and acknowledge visions of their upcoming deaths with careless acceptance.

Chapter 2

"And I didn't do badly either, since I managed not to sink that steamboat on my first trip. It's a wonder to me yet. Imagine a blindfolded man set to drive a van over a bad road. I sweated and shivered over that business considerably, I can tell you […] I don't pretend to say that steamboat floated all the time. More than once she had to wade for a bit, with twenty cannibals splashing around and pushing." (2.7)

Marlow manages to get the steamboat whole and unscathed up the Congo and to the Inner Station. He endures a great deal of difficulty keeping it afloat and one wonders whether or not he was meant to get there alive. Marlow himself admits that he scraped the bottom more than once with the steamboat. But Fate seems to be on Marlow’s side.

"I couldn't have felt more of lonely desolation somehow, had I been robbed of a belief or had missed my destiny in life […]." (2.25)

Marlow has felt all this time that it was his destiny to meet Kurtz – now he feels cheated out of it.

"It appears these n*****s do bury the tusks sometimes - but evidently they couldn't bury this parcel deep enough to save the gifted Mr. Kurtz from his fate." (2.29)

The black native Africans’ attempts to hide Kurtz’s stash of ivory could not save him from his destiny – that of being discovered by Marlow’s crew and eventually of being taken away from the interior.

[The manager’s uncle]: "Ah! my boy, trust to this – I say, trust to this." I saw him extend his short flipper of an arm for a gesture that took in the forest, the creek the mud, the river – seemed to beckon with a dishonouring flourish before the sunlit face of the land a treacherous appeal to the lurking death, to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart. It was so startling that I leaped to my feet and looked back at the edge of the forest, as though I had expected an answer of some sort to that black display of confidence […] (2.2)

The jungle is so ominous that Marlow expects whatever dark force resides there to emerge from the darkness and strike down the manager’s uncle for daring to believe it would ever bow to his will. His journey to the interior now seems more ill-starred than ever.

Charlie Marlow

"Poor fool! If he [the helmsman] had only left that shutter alone." (2.30)

Marlow laments his helmsman’s fate and wishes that he could have had the foresight to prevent his death. It is as if the helmsman was destined to die.

The Harlequin

[The harlequin]: "'So many accidents happen to a man going about alone, you know. Canoes get upset sometimes – and sometimes you've got to clear out so quick when the people get angry.'" (2.37)

The harlequin comments on the fickle nature of Fate in the interior. It gives men "many accidents," as if trying to kill those who dare venture into the interior.

Chapter 3
Charlie Marlow

"I remained to dream the nightmare out to the end, and to show my loyalty to Kurtz once more. Destiny. My destiny! Droll thing life is – that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself – that comes too late – a crop of unextinguishable regrets." (3.48)

Marlow shows contempt for Fate. He cannot fathom it or its purpose. But he does learn from it; he learns of his deepest self but is also left with "a crop of unextinguishable regrets." In Heart of Darkness, Fate does not seem to have a happy ending for anyone.

"But I am of course aware that next day the pilgrims buried something in a muddy hole.

And then they very nearly buried me." (3.46-47)

Marlow is almost fated to die alongside Kurtz. This is not remarkable per se. Marlow and Kurtz’s lives paralleled each other – it should come as no surprise that they almost share the same death.

"I was strangely cocksure of everything that night. I actually left the track and ran in a wide semicircle (I verily believe chuckling to myself) so as to get in front of that stir, of that motion I had seen - if indeed I had seen anything. I was circumventing Kurtz as though it had been a boyish game. " (3.27)

Marlow knows that since he chose to be on Kurtz’s side instead of the manager’s, he is fated to be "numbered with the dead" as far as the crew is concerned. Marlow comes to terms with this unfriendly fate, this "choice of nightmares" that was really not his choice; the circumstance forced this decision upon him.

"I was strangely cocksure of everything that night. I actually left the track and ran in a wide semicircle (I verily believe chuckling to myself) so as to get in front of that stir, of that motion I had seen - if indeed I had seen anything. I was circumventing Kurtz as though it had been a boyish game. " (3.27)

Marlow, driven by destiny, is sure of all his movements when chasing after Kurtz. He has enough confidence in fate to leave the manmade trail in the woods and strike out into the wilderness blindly, knowing he will find Kurtz. To him, it seems like a "boyish game," which is exactly what it is to the knitting Fates.

"The knitting old woman with the cat obtruded herself upon my memory as a most improper person to be sitting at the other end of such an affair." (3.26)

As Marlow chases Kurtz through the woods, the image of the old knitting woman (representing Fate) intrudes on his thoughts. Though it is only subconsciously, Marlow knows he is destined to find Kurtz in the wilderness and bring him back; he is destined to allow the greater evil to win.

"They had come together unavoidably, like two ships becalmed near each other, and lay rubbing sides at last." (3.2)

It seems destined that Kurtz and the harlequin should meet each other.

"I did not envy him [the harlequin] his devotion to Kurtz, though. He had not meditated over it. It came to him, and he accepted it with a sort of eager fatalism." (3.1)

When it comes to Kurtz, the harlequin seems to have no free will. He does not think (or "meditate") over Kurtz’s purpose but accepts his words thoughtlessly, fatefully. Marlow thinks him an eager fatalist whose blind devotion to Kurtz can only end badly.

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