Study Guide

Heart of Darkness Fear

By Joseph Conrad

Fear

Chapter 1
Charlie Marlow

"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 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." (1.29)

Here, Marlow’s earlier sense of unease deepens. He feels inexplicably that he is an imposter on this journey. Instead of taking this trip in stride – as he is accustomed to doing – he feels suddenly a stab of nervous anticipation, as if he is headed on a perilous journey towards the center of the earth, from which he may not come back alive.

"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 cheery 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)

Marlow begins feeling nervous about his trip right after he signs his papers. The two knitting women increase his anxiety by gazing at him and all the other sailors with knowing unconcern. Their eerie looks suggest that they know what will happen (the men dying), yet don’t care. This is the first time Marlow feels as if his trip might be ill-omened, but he quickly shakes it off.

"We capered on the iron deck. A frightful clatter came out of that hulk, and the virgin forest on the other bank of the creek sent it back in a thundering roll upon the sleeping station. It must have made some of the pilgrims sit up in their hovels." (1.70)

The pilgrims, sitting up fearful in bed, are ironically hearing only the wild celebration of their fellow men, not something frightful coming from the wilderness.

Chapter 2

"I had to keep guessing at the channel; I had to discern, mostly by inspiration, the signs of hidden banks; I watched for sunken stones; I was learning to clap my teeth smartly before my heart flew out, when I shaved by a fluke some infernal sly old snag that would have ripped the life out of the tin-pot steamboat and drowned all the pilgrims; I had to keep a lookout for the signs of dead wood we could cut up in the night for next day's steaming." (2.5)

Marlow lives in constant fear for the well-being of his steamboat, which is the pilgrims’ one means of survival. He learns a healthy respect and fear for this hostile and vengeful beast that is the wilderness.

"You should have seen the pilgrims stare! They had no heart to grin, or even to revile me: but I believe they thought me gone mad - with fright, maybe. I delivered a regular lecture." (2.17)

The pilgrims think their captain Marlow has gone mad with fear when he does something as mundane as giving a lecture while everyone else is freaking out from paranoia.

"'Will they attack?' whispered an awed voice. 'We will be all butchered in this fog,' murmured another. The faces twitched with the strain, the hands trembled slightly, the eyes forgot to wink." (2.14)

The pilgrims fear attack from the native Africans, who’ve just screamed somewhere beyond the blinding fog. Their fear is so potent that it has physical effects: their faces twitch involuntarily, their hands tremble, and their eyes watch the perimeter unblinkingly.

"They swore aloud together – out of sheer fright, I believe – then pretending not to know anything of my existence, turned back to the station." (2.3)

The manager and his uncle exemplify the constant fear induced by the wilderness.

"Before it stopped running with a muffled rattle, a cry, a very loud cry, as of infinite desolation, soared slowly in the opaque air. It ceased. A complaining clamour, modulated in savage discords, filled our ears. The sheer unexpectedness of it made my hair stir under my cap. I don't know how it struck the others: to me it seemed as though the mist itself had screamed, so suddenly, and apparently from all sides at once, did this tumultuous and mournful uproar arise. It culminated in a hurried outbreak of almost intolerably excessive shrieking, which stopped short, leaving us stiffened in a variety of silly attitudes, and obstinately listening to the nearly as appalling and excessive silence. 'Good God! What is the meaning – ' stammered at my elbow one of the pilgrims - a little fat man, with sandy hair and red whiskers, who wore side-spring boots, and pink pyjamas tucked into his socks. Two others remained open-mouthed a while minute, then dashed into the little cabin, to rush out incontinently and stand darting scared glances, with Winchesters at 'ready' in their hands." (2.13)

The bloodcurdling cries of the native Africans, hiding somewhere in the underbrush on the riverbank, scare the men badly. Their fear is exacerbated by the former eerie silence and their inability to understand what is being communicated by the screeches. Though sensible Marlow does not panic, the pilgrims are either rendered speechless or run to grab their guns.

"'It is unpleasant,' grunted the uncle. 'He has asked the Administration to be sent there,' said the other, 'with the idea of showing what he could do; and I was instructed accordingly. Look at the influence that man must have. Is it not frightful?'" (2.1)

The manager and his uncle fear Kurtz for his ability to survive in the interior; therefore, they fear having to survive the interior themselves.

"Not the faintest sound of any kind could be heard. You looked on amazed, and began to suspect yourself of being deaf – then the night came suddenly, and struck you blind as well. About three in the morning some large fish leaped, and the loud splash made me jump as though a gun had been fired. When the sun rose there was a white fog, very warm and clammy, and more blinding than the night. It did not shift or drive; it was just there, standing all around you like something solid." (2.13)

The interior deprives men of their senses and drives them slowly into madness. Here, the eerie stillness of the wilderness and the darkness of night render the men both deaf and blind. Any noise – even the mundane splashing of leaping fish – startles them and makes them fear immediately for their lives. When daylight comes, the fog still blinds them, seeming even more sinister than the night.

Charlie Marlow

"I had put on a dry pair of slippers, I dragged him out, after first jerking the spear out of his side, which operation I confess I performed with my eyes shut tight." (2.30)

Marlow has an irrational fear of touching the dead helmsman.

"The man had rolled on his back and stared straight up at me; both his hands clutched that cane. It was the shaft of a spear that, either thrown or lunged through the opening, had caught him in the side, just below the ribs; the blade had gone in out of sight, after making a frightful gash; my shoes were full; a pool of blood lay very still, gleaming dark-red under the wheel; his eyes shone with an amazing lustre. The fusillade burst out again. He looked at me anxiously, gripping the spear like something precious, with an air of being afraid I would try to take it away from him. I had to make an effort to free my eyes from his gaze and attend to the steering. With one hand I felt above my head for the line of the steam whistle, and jerked out screech after screech hurriedly. The tumult of angry and warlike yells was checked instantly, and then from the depths of the woods went out such a tremulous and prolonged wail of mournful fear and utter despair as may be imagined to follow the flight of the last hope from the earth." (2.22)

At the sight of his foreman dying at his feet, Marlow feels a stab of fear and a weird fascination with death that forces him to "make an effort to free my eyes from his gaze." After the Africans evoke his fear, Marlow returns the favor. He blows the steam whistle loudly and repeatedly, scaring the attacking Africans away.

Chapter 3

"Only the barbarous and superb woman did not so much as flinch, and stretched tragically her bare arms after us over the sombre and glittering river." (3.34)

The warrior woman is the only one of the native Africans who doesn’t fear the noise of the steam whistle. She doesn’t budge. Perhaps this is because she represents the wilderness, which does not fear the men but is only amused by their antics.

"His [Kurtz’s] ascendancy was extraordinary. The camps of these people surrounded the place, and the chiefs came every day to see him. They would crawl. […] 'I don't want to know anything of the ceremonies used when approaching Mr. Kurtz,' I shouted. Curious, this feeling that came over me that such details would be more intolerable than those heads drying on the stakes under Mr. Kurtz's windows. After all, that was only a savage sight, while I seemed at one bound to have been transported into some lightless region of subtle horrors, where pure, uncomplicated savagery was a positive relief, being something that had a right to exist – obviously – in the sunshine." (3.6)

Marlow is still clinging to his morals, if only by a thread. He is no longer horrified at the thought of living in a world where evil can exist openly. He is, however, scared badly by the thought of people (like the native Africans) openly worshipping evil – as symbolized by Kurtz.

Mr. Kurtz

[Kurtz]: "'The horror! The horror!'" (3.43)

Kurtz’s final judgment on his life, his actions, mankind in general, imperialism, or his fate is one of deep and profound fear.

Charlie Marlow

"The fact is I was completely unnerved by a sheer blank fright, pure abstract terror, unconnected with any distinct shape of physical danger. What made this emotion so overpowering was – how shall I define it? – the moral shock I received, as if something altogether monstrous, intolerable to thought and odious to the soul, had been thrust upon me unexpectedly. This lasted of course the merest fraction of a second, and then the usual sense of commonplace, deadly danger, the possibility of a sudden onslaught and massacre, or something of the kind, which I saw impending, was positively welcome and composing. It pacified me, in fact, so much that I did not raise an alarm." (3.24)

Marlow is struck senseless with fear, an absolutely pure terror, at the realization that Kurtz is gone. He describes this as a "moral shock" that quickly subsides into a more rational and less bleak fear of commonplace danger. It is disconcerting that "commonplace, deadly dangers, the possibility of a sudden onslaught and massacre" are "positively welcome and composing."

"These round knobs were not ornamental but symbolic; they were expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing - food for thought and also for vultures if there had been any looking down from the sky; but at all events for such ants as were industrious enough to ascend the pole. They would have been even more impressive, those heads on the stakes, if their faces had not been turned to the house. Only one, the first I had made out, was facing my way. I was not so shocked as you may think. The start back I had given was really nothing but a movement of surprise. I had expected to see a knob of wood there, you know. I returned deliberately to the first I had seen – and there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids – a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling, too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber." (3.4)

Marlow’s lack of fear at this horrifying discovery is telling. He has become desensitized to the horrors of the interior.

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