Study Guide

Heart of Darkness Good vs. Evil

By Joseph Conrad

Good vs. Evil

Chapter 1

The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and lights began to appear along the shore. The Chapman lighthouse, a three-legged thing erect on a mudflat, shone strongly. Lights of ships moved in the fairway—a great stir of lights going up and going down. And farther west on the upper reaches the place of the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars. (1.7)

Conrad isn't giving us some simple light = good/ dark = bad equation. Check out how even the light isn't very cheerful: the sunshine is "brooding" and the town glares "luridly" under the stars.

A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth. (1.2)

Dark air; "Gravesend" and a "mournful gloom." Hm. Already, it sounds like this "greatest town on earth" (London) might not be as great as we want to think.

[The accountant]: "What a frightful row," he said. He crossed the room gently to look at the sick man, and returning, said to me, "He does not hear." "What! Dead?" I asked, startled. "No, not yet," he answered, with great composure. Then alluding with a toss of the head to the tumult in the station-yard, "When one has got to make correct entries, one comes to hate those savages—hate them to the death." (1.47)

There's a weird contrast here between the accountant's "gentle" room crossing and his callous attitude towards the dying slaves. Is this another version of Conrad's binaries? Is there less difference between compassion and callousness than we think?

Flames glided in the river, small green flames, red flames, white flames, pursuing, overtaking, joining, crossing each other—then separating slowly or hastily. The traffic of the great city went on in the deepening night upon the sleepless river. (1.14)

Hmmm. The river is dark, but it's reflecting little flames. Light in darkness—this is sounding pretty familiar by now. But not just any kind of light: green, red, and white light. This sounds a little hellish, doesn't it?

"When a truckle-bed with a sick man (some invalid agent from upcountry) was put in there, he exhibited a gentle annoyance. 'The groans of this sick person,' he said, 'distract my attention. And without that it's extremely difficult to guard against clerical errors in this climate.'" (1.45)

You could offer a dying slave some food—or you could get irritated because he's dying. Your pick.

It was difficult to realize that his [the Director of Companies] work was not out there in the luminous estuary, but behind him, within the brooding gloom. (1.3)

The Company's work is done in the darkness and gloom, not on the lit water. We're going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the Company's work might be just a little shady.

"In a very few hours I arrived in a city that always makes me think of a whited sepulchre. Prejudice no doubt. I had no difficulty in finding the Company's offices. It was the biggest thing in the town, and everybody I met was full of it. They were going to run an over-sea empire, and make no end of coin by trade." (1.22)

Better put away that wedding dress: white, usually a sign of purity, here is inverted to mean the exact opposite. The phrase "whited sepulchre" comes from the Christian Bible's Book of Matthew, and it refers to people who are outwardly pure and inwardly filthy with deceit. This suggests that the Company is inwardly corrupt—and it's probably true. Belgian colonies were notorious for being particularly brutal toward Africans.

"He struck a match, and I perceived that this young aristocrat had not only a silver-mounted dressing-case but also a whole candle all to himself. Just at that time the manager was the only man supposed to have any right to candles…The business intrusted to this fellow was the making of bricks - so I had been informed; but there wasn't a fragment of a brick anywhere in the station, and he had been there more than a year - waiting." (1.56)

The brickmaker is surrounded by awesome possessions—silver-mounted canes, whole candles, iPads. But he didn't get these by actually doing his work; he got them by being totally (if vaguely) corrupt.

"They [the slaves] were dying slowly—it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, - nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest. These moribund shapes were free as air—and nearly as thin. I began to distinguish the gleam of eyes under the trees. Then, glancing down, I saw a face near my hand. The black bones reclined at full length with one shoulder against the tree, and slowly the eyelids rose and the sunken eyes looked up at me, enormous and vacant, a kind of blind, white flicker in the depths of the orbs, which died out slowly." (1.40)

The white colonists snatch Africans from their homes, take them to alien places, feed them unfamiliar food, and then work them to death. Nice. Here, white doesn't represent purity or truth, but the last gasp of miserable life before succumbing to death.

But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and 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 these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine. (1.9)

Up is down, in is out, light is dark, Jon Snow is actually a Targaryen. (What, you don't think that's where George R. R. Martin is going?) Here, Conrad inverts the relationship between light and dark to suggest that you need both light and dark to see.

"He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination - you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate." (1.11)

This is a lot of fancy words to describe a simple and familiar human emotion: not being able to look away from something disgusting but fascinating. Like the comments on a YouTube video.

"This devoted band called itself the Eldorado Exploring Expedition, and I believe they were sworn to secrecy. Their talk, however, was the talk of sordid buccaneers: it was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world. To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe." (1.72)

The Eldorado Exploring Expedition is a really neutral name for a really evil company. Their sole intention is to rob and rape the earth of its treasures for profit, and they don't even bother pretending to have a moral justification. At least they're honest?

"The shed was already a heap of embers glowing fiercely." (1.56)

Light is all friendly and illuminating when you just have to flip on a switch, but when the light is produced by a burning shed, it doesn't seem quite so harmless.

"My purpose was to stroll into the shade for a moment; but no sooner within than it seemed to me I had stepped into the gloomy circle of some Inferno." (1.38)

Ahhhh—time to stretch out in the shade and enjoy a refreshing beverage. Well … not quite. It turns out that the cooling shade is pretty hellish—especially for the dying slaves.

[At the Outer Station]: "A continuous noise of the rapids above hovered over this scene of inhabited devastation. A lot of people, mostly black and naked, moved about like ants. A jetty projected into the river. A blinding sunlight drowned all this at times in a sudden recrudescence of glare." (1.34)

Here, light does not reveal the truth but repeatedly "drown[s]" the true horror of the "inhabited devastation" in a "recrudescence of glare." (Okay, we admit, we had to look that one up: a "recrudescence" is a "new outbreak after a period of abatement.")

The day was ending in a serenity of still and exquisite brilliance. The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds. Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more somber every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun.

And at last, in its curved and imperceptible fall, the sun sank low, and from glowing white, changed to a dull red without rays and without heat, as if about to go out suddenly, stricken to death by the touch of that gloom brooding over a crowd of men.

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)

Man, we just love sunsets. Everything is bathed in heavenly white light … oh, wait. Except the western horizon. We're thinking that maybe the West (as in Europe) isn't quite as enlightened as it thinks it is. Check out how the sunlight grows more sinister as it falls towards the western horizon, turning from a friendly white to a "dull red"—you know, like fire. And in case you think that this is just a description and not metaphorical or symbolic, Conrad tells us that they're watching the Thames in the "august light of abiding memories," i.e. that they're looking at it though the lens of all their past experiences.

"Good heavens! and I was going to take charge of a twopenny-half-penny river-steamboat with a penny whistle attached! It appeared, however, I was also one of the Workers, with a capital—you know. Something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle. There had been a lot of such rot let loose in print and talk just about that time, and the excellent woman [Marlow's aunt], living right in the rush of all that humbug, got carried off her feet. She talked about 'weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,' till, upon my word, she made me quite uncomfortable." (1.28)

Marlow's aunt thinks that Marlow is altruistic "emissary of light" bringing knowledge to "those ignorant millions." Uh, nope. Marlow calls this all "rot" and "humbug": he's not going to Africa out of the goodness of his heart, but rather to explore and help the Company profit. (This reminds us a lot of the Intended's attitude toward Kurtz at the end. Women, right??)

Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! (1.6)

The European pioneers head into the darkness of unknown territory bearing little flares of light like torches or glittering swords that represent their vigor and their enlightenment. This is super conventional imagery, which makes us wonder if we're really supposed to take it seriously. Somehow, we don't think Conrad would be quite so obvious.

"He [the brickmaker] was a first-class agent, young, gentlemanly, a bit reserved, with a forked little beard and a hooked nose. He was stand-offish with the other agents, and they on their side said he was the manager's spy upon them." (1.56)

The fact that the brickmaker has a "forked little beard" and is called the "manager's spy" immediately throws his moral purity into doubt. (You think?) At least Conrad is giving us one freebie, since the rest of the book is beyond confusing.

"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." (1.39)

Notice how the light half-illuminates and half-hides the dying slaves? Yeah, we did too.

"It was as unreal as everything else - as the philanthropic pretence of the whole concern, as their talk, as their government, as their show of work. The only real feeling was a desire to get appointed to a trading-post where ivory was to be had, so that they could earn percentages. They intrigued and slandered and hated each other only on that account - but as to effectually lifting a little finger - oh, no." (1.56)

Conrad finally says straight out that the men are hypocrites. They pretend that their mission is to philanthropically help the black Africans, but they exploit them instead. They want to make money for their governments, but even here, they won't lift a finger to do an hour of honest work.

Charlie Marlow

"It [Africa] had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery—a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness." (1.18)

When he's a kid, Marlow sees the map's blank spaces as full of mystery and wonder. (Notice that "mystery" and "wonder" are exactly the opposite of what we expect to associate with whiteness.) But when Western explorers fill in that map, it becomes dark—another reversal of traditional imagery.

"I found nothing else to do but to offer him one of my good Swede's ship's biscuits I had in my pocket. The fingers closed slowly on it and held - there was no other movement and no other glance." (1.40)

Ship's biscuits: compressed cakes of flour and water. Yep, if we were dying that would definitely be the last food we'd want. Still, this little incident lets us see that Marlow is compassionate—or, at least, that he's able to take on the African perspective, just like Kurtz.

[Marlow]: "It was the farthest point of navigation and the culminating point of my experience. It seemed somehow to throw a kind of light on everything about me—and into my thoughts. It was somber enough too—and pitiful—not extraordinary in any way—not very clear either. No, not very clear. And yet it seemed to throw a kind of light." (1.15)

Marlow describes meeting Kurtz as an experience that "throw[s] a kind of light […] into my thoughts." Great! Light probably helps him clear up some of those vague ideas he has about Kurtz, right? Not so much. It's still "not very clear"—and the separation between light and dark is getting even fuzzier.

(Marlow): "They were men enough to face the darkness." (1.11)

Darkness here represents the unknown and potentially hostile land. Zzzz. This is so conventional that we have to wonder if Conrad really expects us to believe this—or if Marlow's perspective is as flawed as everyone else's.

"Now and then a boat from the shore gave one a momentary contact with reality. It was paddled by black fellows. You could see from afar the white of their eyeballs glistening. They shouted, sang; their bodies streamed with perspiration; they had faces like grotesque masks—these chaps; but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement, that was as natural and true as the surf along their coast. They wanted no excuse for being there. They were a great comfort to look at." (1.30)

Marlow describes the black native Africans as "natural and true," absolutely invigorating in their "wild vitality." They seem happy just to live and, to Marlow, who feels stuck in a dream, they're comforting to watch. Gee, we're sure it must be a real comfort to them to know that they make Marlow so happy.

[Marlow on Kurtz's painting]: "Then I noticed a small sketch in oils, on a panel, representing a woman, draped and blind-folded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was somber—almost black. The movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torchlight on the face was sinister." (1.57)

Kurtz's painting starts out with some pretty conventional symbols: Liberty (symbolized by the torch) and Justice (symbolized by the blindfold). But Kurtz has put his own special twist on it: the background is black, and the torchlight is "sinister." Hmm. Looks like liberty and justice aren't as straightforward as they seem.

"But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land. And as I looked at the map of it in a shop-window, it fascinated me as a snake would a bird - a silly little bird." (1.18)

Ooh, ooh, we've got this one: the Congo is like a snake, one of the oldest symbols of evil and deception. But Marlow is fascinated by it, hypnotized like a "silly little bird." We guess he just can't look away.

"You know I hate, detest, and can't bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies - which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world - what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do. Temperament, I suppose. Well, I went near enough to it by letting the young fool there believe anything he liked to imagine as to my influence in Europe. I became in an instant as much of a pretence as the rest of the bewitched pilgrims." (1.61)

Marlow may hate lies, but he comes pretty close to lying by letting the brickmaker think he's influential. And in the end, he admits that he's become "as much of a pretence as the rest of the bewitched pilgrims" by letting himself lie. Sigh. There are just no heroes any more.

"I let him run on, this papier-mâché Mephistopheles [the brickmaker] […]." (1.61)

Just in case we haven't picked up on the fact that the brickmaker is totally corrupt, Marlow calls him Mephistopheles, the devil figure in Goethe's Faust.

(Marlow): "Light came out of this river (the Thames) since—you say Knights? Yes; but it's like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker—may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday." (1.11)

This is essentially a more poetic way of saying that humankind has really only been around for a fraction of a fraction of Earth's history. Conrad associates "light" with humankind—but then immediately undermines all our warm fuzzy feelings about light by using "knights" and "lighting" to make light seem, well, violent and destructive.

"I've seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! these were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men - men, I tell you. 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." (1.37)

Yikes. We wouldn't want to meet these guys in a dark alley. Marlow sees the slavers as devils—but we're fairly sure they wouldn't see themselves the same way. In fact, they probably see themselves a lot more like angels.

[Marlow]: "Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this. What saves us is efficiency—the devotion to efficiency. But these chaps were not much account, really. They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force—nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it's the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea." (1.13)

Marlow says that "strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others." In other words, he totally undermines any sense that these Western explorers are noble or motivated by emotions other than greed: they're just glorified robbers. Shh, don't tell Ayn Rand.

"And this also," said Marlow suddenly, "has been one of the dark places of the earth." (1.8)

Out of the blue, Marlow declares that London—pretty much the capital of the world in the late nineteenth century—used to be as dark as the interior of Africa. Well, gee, who asked you?

"I got my appointment - of course; and I got it very quick. It appears the Company had received news that one of their captains had been killed in a scuffle with the natives. This was my chance, and it made me the more anxious to go… through this glorious affair I got my appointment, before I had fairly begun to hope for it." (1.21)

Nice! We love when we benefit from another person's violent death. (How do you think we got this job?) But seriously: Marlow doesn't seem particularly sympathetic, and he also doesn't appear to see that the guy's death might foreshadow his own possible fate.

The Brickmaker

[The brickmaker]: "'He [Kurtz] is an emissary of pity and science and progress, and devil knows what else. We want,' he began to declaim suddenly, 'for the guidance of the cause intrusted to us by Europe, so to speak, higher intelligence, wide sympathies, a singleness of purpose.'" (1.59)

The brickmaker presents Kurtz to Marlow as a do-gooder, something of a missionary as well as a Company agent, who wants to bring all the 'civilized' European qualities like "pity and science and progress" to Africa. Um, this would be a lot more believable if the brickmaker weren't obviously corrupt.

[The brickmaker to Marlow]: "'You are of the new gang - the gang of virtue.'" (1.59)

We're not sure that "virtue" is a word that means anything in this novel, much less anything when applied to the pilgrims.

Chapter 2

"'Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing.' Conceive you - that ass!" (2.2)

Sure, a "beacon": a beacon of immorality and evil. The manager is a hypocrite. Nothing he does helps the stations improve. In fact, under his authority, everything has decayed.

"'We won't be free from unfair competition till one of these fellows is hanged for an example,' he said. 'Certainly,' grunted the other; 'get him hanged! Why not? Anything - anything can be done in this country.'" (2.2)

In an otherwise confusing book, this seems pretty straightforward: the manager and his uncle are evil, willing to kill a man just to get at Kurtz.

[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)

We're used to thinking of nature as a relatively friendly, nurturing place—Mother Nature, and all that. But the manager's uncle assumes that Nature is evil, and Marlow obviously agrees. Awesome! Another binary smashed.

There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. (2.5)

Sunlight is supposed to be symbol of truth or a blessing from God. Here, it's the exact opposite: there's "no joy" in its brilliance or heat. It's oppressive, just like everything else.

"The dusk came gliding into it long before the sun had set." (2.13)

The sun may be up, but it's not light outside. In the interior, evil (or darkness, at least) seems to have a greater hold than on the outside.

Charlie Marlow

[Marlow describing Kurtz's speech]: "The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words—the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness." (2.24)

Language can be used for good or evil. Fair enough. We accept that Kurtz has a silver tongue, and he's been using it to manipulate everyone into thinking that he's a swell guy. Okay—so which side is Conrad on?

"The other explained that it [the ivory] had come with a fleet of canoes in charge of an English half-caste clerk Kurtz had with him; that Kurtz had apparently intended to return himself, the station being by that time bare of goods and stores, but after coming three hundred miles, had suddenly decided to go back, which he started to do alone in a small dugout with four paddlers, leaving the half-caste to continue down the river with the ivory. The two fellows there seemed astounded at anybody attempting such a thing. They were at a loss for an adequate motive. As to me, I seemed to see Kurtz for the first time. It was a distinct glimpse: the dug-out, four paddling savages, and the lone white man turning his back suddenly on the headquarters, on relief, on thoughts of home—perhaps; setting his face towards the depths of the wilderness, towards his empty and desolate station. Perhaps he was just simply a fine fellow who stuck to his work for its own sake." (2.2)

Talk about moral ambiguity. On the one hand, you could see returning the interior as a positive sign of courage. On the other hand (of course there's another hand), you could see it as pure greed. Which is it?

[Marlow on Kurtz's writing]: "…the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had intrusted him [Kurtz] with the make of a report, for its future guidance…it was a beautiful piece of writing. The opening paragraph, however, in the light of later information, strikes me now as ominous. He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, 'must necessarily appear to them (savages) in the nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might as of a deity,' and so on, and so on. 'By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded,' etc., etc. From that point he soared and took me with him. The peroration was magnificent, though difficult to remember, you know. It gave me the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence. It made me tingle with enthusiasm. This was the unbounded power of eloquence - of words - of burning noble words. There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot on the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand, may be regarded as the exposition of a method. It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: 'Exterminate all the brutes!'" (2.29).

Kurtz's last letter starts off all noble, talking about benevolence and exerting good and bringing light and blah blah blah. Things take a dire turn at the end when he scrawls, "Exterminate all the brutes"—and notice how this rather upsetting sentence is compared to a "flash of lightning"? Yeah, we saw that too.

"The red-haired pilgrim was beside himself with the thought that at least this poor Kurtz had been properly avenged. 'Say! We must have made a glorious slaughter of them in the bush. Eh? What do you think? Say?' He positively danced, the bloodthirsty little gingery beggar. And he had nearly fainted when he saw the wounded man! I could not help saying, 'You made a glorious lot of smoke, anyhow.' I had seen, from the way the tops of the bushes rustled and flew, that almost all the shots had gone too high." (2.31)

The red-haired pilgrim shows his evil side by rejoicing at the thought of killing the native Africans who attacked them. He's not only "bloodthirsty" but also a hypocrite, since he "nearly fainted" at the sight of the wounded helmsman. Marlow despises him, obviously.

"Let the fool gape and shudder - the man knows, and can look on without a wink. But he must at least be as much of a man as these on the shore. He must meet that truth with his own true stuff - with his own inborn strength. Principles won't do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags - rags that would fly off at the first good shake. No; you want a deliberate belief." (2.8)

Weird. We usually think of principles as being pretty firm, but Marlow seems to think they're nothing more than "pretty rags." So, what's the difference between "principles" and "beliefs"?

"Their headman, a young, broad-chested black, severely draped in dark-blue fringed cloths, with fierce nostrils and his hair all done up artfully in oily ringlets, stood near me. 'Aha!' I said, just for good fellowship's sake. 'Catch 'im,' he snapped, with a bloodshot widening of his eyes and a flash of sharp teeth - 'catch 'im. Give 'im to us.' 'To you, eh?' I asked; 'what would you do with them?' 'Eat 'im!' he said curtly, and, leaning his elbow on the rail, looked out into the fog in a dignified and profoundly pensive attitude. I would no doubt have been properly horrified, had it not occurred to me that he and his chaps must be very hungry: that they must have been growing increasingly hungry for at least this month past." (2.14)

Marlow just can't help feeling sympathy for the native Africans, even though he knows that what they really want is to nosh on some tasty human flesh. Now that is fellow feeling.

"No; I can't forget him [Kurtz], though I am not prepared to affirm the fellow was exactly worth the life we lost in getting to him. I missed my late helmsman awfully - I missed him even while his body was still lying in the pilot-house…It was a kind of partnership. He steered for me - I had to look after him, I worried about his deficiencies, and thus a subtle bond had been created, of which I only became aware when it was suddenly broken. And the intimate profundity of that look he gave me when he received his hurt remains to this day in my memory - like a claim of distant kinship affirmed in a supreme moment." (2.29)

Marlow may be on the edge, but he hasn't gone over it: unlike Kurtz, he still has some basic human emotion left. He's touched by death and honestly grieves at the loss of a man that he considers his partner. Well, kind of. He still sees the guy as primarily "an instrument" to help him get where he wants to go.

"It was unearthly, and the men were - No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it - this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity - like yours - the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you - you so remote from the night of first ages - could comprehend." (2.8)

Marlow is so mixed up that he's even beginning to consider the wild screaming Africans to be human. (Crazy, right?) This means that he has to reformulate what falls in the boundaries of humanness. What he once thought of as savage is actually just part of being human.

Mr. Kurtz

"You should have heard him say, 'My ivory.' Oh, yes, I heard him. 'My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my - ' everything belonged to him. It made me hold my breath in expectation of hearing the wilderness burst into a prodigious peal of laughter that would shake the fixed stars in their places. Everything belonged to him - but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own. That was the reflection that made you creepy all over. It was impossible — it was not good for one either - trying to imagine. He had taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land - I mean literally." (2.29)

Kurtz, in his madness, is being taken over by the "powers of darkness." He no longer belongs to himself, but to the evil wilderness because he has accepted worship from the native Africans, who are described as "devils," and willingly taking his place among them. In essence, Marlow claims, Kurtz has accepted a seat in hell and thus belongs to the darkness.

Chapter 3

"I steamed up a bit, then swung down stream, and two thousand eyes followed the evolutions of the splashing, thumping, fierce river-demon beating the water with its terrible tail and breathing black smoke into the air. In front of the first rank, along the river, three men, plastered with bright red earth from head to foot, strutted to and fro restlessly. When we came abreast again, they faced the river, stamped their feet, nodded their horned heads, swayed their scarlet bodies; they shook towards the fierce river-demon a bunch of black feathers, a mangy skin with a pendent tail - something that looked a dried gourd; they shouted periodically together strings of amazing words that resembled no sounds of human language; and the deep murmurs of the crowd, interrupted suddenly, were like the responses of some satanic litany." (3.30)

Both groups—the white men and black men—come off looking pretty bad in this description. Marlow's steamboat is described as a "fierce river-demon" while the native Africans waiting onshore are painted scarlet and shout in a "satanic litany." Hm. In a game of dodgeball between these two teams, we'd probably just sit out.

"He [the harlequin] informed me, lowering his voice, that it was Kurtz who had ordered the attack to be made on the steamer. 'He hated sometimes the idea of being taken away - and then again. . . ." (3.22)

Kurtz is so far gone that he actually orders an attack on the men sent to rescue him. There's literally no difference between black and white to him—but it's not exactly a coca-cola vision of racial harmony. It's more like a jungle nightmare.

"But both the diabolic love and the unearthly hate of the mysteries it had penetrated fought for the possession of that soul satiated with primitive emotions, avid of lying fame, of sham distinction, of all the appearances of success and power." (3.37)

Kurtz may have gone over to the dark side, but he's not exactly going quietly. He's torn between loving and hating Africa and the colonial project—which actually seems like a logical response for someone in his position.

"The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and 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)

That sound you heard was the anvil of symbolism. Conrad closes the novel with a scene of darkness, suggesting heavy-handedly that evil exists and no one cares. Awesome.

"This clearly was not a case for fisticuffs, even apart from the very natural aversion I had to beat that Shadow - this wandering and tormented thing. 'You will be lost,' I said - 'utterly lost.' One gets sometimes such a flash of inspiration, you know." (3.28)

Kurtz is a "Shadow," a "wandering and tormented" soul that will be "lost" if he escapes into the wilderness. And this isn't just any kind of lost—it's lost physically, psychologically, and morally. (You know why they say about men never asking for directions.)

"A black figure stood up, strode on long black legs, waving long black arms, across the glow. It had horns - antelope horns, I think - on its head. Some sorcerer, some witch-man, no doubt: it looked fiendlike enough." (3.28)

Blackness, horns, and a fire-illuminated silhouette? Yeah, we'll pass, thanks.

"And then that imbecile crowd down on the deck started their little fun, and I could see nothing more for smoke." (3.35)

The "imbecile crowd" of white pilgrims are evil because they want to shoot and kill the native Africans simply for a "little fun." Woohoo! That does sound like a good time. (Not.)

"I said with something like despair in my heart, but bowing my head before the faith that was in her [the Intended], before that great and saving illusion that shone with an unearthly glow in the darkness, in the triumphant darkness from which I could not have defended her—from which I could not even defend myself." (3.62)

The Intended believes unwaveringly in the goodness of Kurtz. Too bad it's all a lie. Which makes us ask: do all illusions shine "with an unearthly glow"? If light is an illusion and darkness is truth, which one is really better? Can we even say that one is better?

"It seemed to me I had never breathed an atmosphere so vile, and I turned mentally to Kurtz for relief - positively for relief." (3.19)

You know things are bad when you're looking to the depraved warlord for moral and mental relief.

"She [the Intended] came forward, all in black, with a pale head, floating towards me in the dusk. She was in mourning…The room seemed to have grown darker, as if all the sad light of the cloudy evening had taken refuge on her forehead. This fair hair, this pale visage, this pure brow, seemed surrounded by an ashy halo from which the dark eyes looked out at me. Their glance was guileless, profound, confident, and trustful." (3.52)

Whew. Now we're back on solid ground: the shining brow and hair of the fair girl indicates her goodness and purity while the darkness represents her sorrow. Right? Right??

"A grand piano stood massively in a corner, with dark gleams on the flat surfaces like a somber and polished sarcophagus." (3.52)

Hello, paradox! The piano's surfaces are full of "dark gleams," a sinister oxymoron that has us scratching our heads a bit. The piano reminds Marlow of a "polished sarcophagus," a repository for the dead. We're guessing that pretty much everything reminds Marlow of death now.

Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha. (3.87)

If Marlow is like the Buddha, then we're assuming that Conrad wants us to think he's been enlightened in some way. Unfortunately, his knowledge isn't exactly comforting.

"Evidently the appetite for more ivory had got the better of the - what shall I say? - less material aspirations. However he had got much worse suddenly. 'I heard he was lying helpless, and so I came up - took my chance,' said the Russian. 'Oh, he's bad, very bad.'" (3.4)

Kurtz is a sick, sick man—in both senses of the word. He's physically sick, but he's mentally sick as well. In fact, it seems like we're supposed to identify physical sickness with mental sickness, as though having a migraine means that you're depraved.

Charlie Marlow

"My hour of favour was over; I found myself lumped along with Kurtz as a partisan of methods for which the time was not ripe: I was unsound! Ah! but it was something to have at least a choice of nightmares." (3.19)

Heading into the interior teaches Marlow that there's really no such thing as good or evil: there's only evil and slightly less evil.

[Marlow to the Intended]: "'The last word he pronounced was - your name.'" (3.85)

This one's tricky. Marlow is lying and lying's wrong, right? Well, yes. Except that he does it to preserve the Intended's lovely illusion of Kurtz. It could be considered an act of mercy—unless you think that it's just another excuse for slavery and coercion.

"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." (3.24)

The "moral shock" that Marlow feels when he realizes Kurtz is gone probably comes from his shock that this guy who's so much like him is gone. The fact that Marlow just recently chose Kurtz over the manager and the Company makes it even worse.

"I know that the sunlight can be made to lie too, yet one felt that no manipulation of light and pose could have conveyed the delicate shade of truthfulness upon those features." (3.48)

Marlow doesn't trust the sunlight anymore because he has learned from his experience in the interior that light can be deceitful or hellish. (Plus, it can give you wicked sunburns.) However, he trusts the Intended because he believes women are naïve. Hm. We're thinking that's a bad idea.

"He [Kurtz] hated all this, and somehow he couldn't get away. When I had a chance I begged him to try and leave while there was time; I offered to go back with him. And he would say yes, and then he would remain; go off on another ivory hunt; disappear for weeks; forget himself amongst these people—forget himself—you know.'" (3.4)

Kurtz can't eat just one. Or do just one evil deed. Even though he claims to hate the whole thing, Kurtz stays in the interior. It's claimed him.

"I looked around, and I don't know why, but I assure you that never, never before, did this land, this river, this jungle, the very arch of this blazing sky, appear to me so hopeless and so dark, so impenetrable to human thought, so pitiless to human weakness." (3.3)

Nature seems to Marlow completely "hopeless" and "dark," entirely inaccessible to the human mind, incomprehensible and merciless to human weakness. You know, evil.

"I felt an intolerable weight oppressing my breast, the smell of the damp earth, the unseen presence of victorious corruption, and the darkness of an impenetrable night…" (3.20)

Check this out: once Marlow decides to go over to the dark side, the imagery starts getting pretty grave. Literally. A weight, damp earth, "corruption," darkness—doesn't it sound a little (okay, a lot) like he's being buried alive?

"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 shocked to find out that those ornamental knobs surrounding Kurtz's house aren't wooden but, er, human. Yep, we're going to go with evil.

"'You knew him best,' I repeated. And perhaps she did. But with every word spoken the room was growing darker, and only her forehead, smooth and white, remained illumined by the unextinguishable light of belief and love." (3.56)

As the Intended doubles down on her lies, the darkness grows. We're pretty sure it's a metaphorical darkness.

"But the wilderness had found him (Kurtz) out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude - and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating." (3.5)

Check out how Marlow personifies the wilderness, making it into a living, breathing force of evil.

"I did not betray Mr. Kurtz - it was ordered I should never betray him—it was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice." (3.25)

Marlow knows that Kurtz is corrupt, but stays loyal to him anyway. Between the two evils of the Company and Kurtz, he decides to hang with the lesser evil.

"I had turned to the wilderness really, not to Mr. Kurtz, who, I was ready to admit, was as good as buried." (3.20)

Marlow seems to see Kurtz and the wilderness as different, but from where we are (safely on the other side of the page) they look pretty similar: dark, evil, and inescapable.

"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 still has a shred of morality left—let's say, enough to keep from downloading illegal music, but not enough to keep from sharing his Netflix login. He's not horrified at the thought of living in a world where evil can exist openly, but he is terrified by the thought of people (like the native Africans) openly worshipping evil.

"It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle." (3.86)

By the end of the novel, Marlow has come to some conclusions about the world: it's ultimately indifferent to good and veil. There are no gods to pass judgment; there's no punishment for a tiny little lie. Hm. Is that a freeing realization—or is it just super depressing?

"I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror - of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge?" (3.42)

As Kurtz dies, Marlow sees a parade of negative emotions pass over his face—pride, ruthlessness, terror, and despair. Contrast that with the white, calm connotations of "ivory," and you'll see why this book has us scratching our heads so thoughtfully.

"His [Kurtz's] was an impenetrable darkness. I looked at him as you peer down at a man who is lying at the bottom of a precipice where the sun never shines." (3.40)

Kurtz is so evil now that light can't even touch him. Metaphorically.

The Harlequin

[The harlequin]: "'I have a canoe and three black fellows waiting not very far. I am off. Could you give me a few Martini-Henry cartridges?' I could, and did, with proper secrecy. He helped himself, with a wink at me, to a handful of my tobacco. 'Between sailors - you know - good English tobacco.' At the door of the pilot-house he turned round - 'I say, haven't you a pair of shoes you could spare?' He raised one leg. 'Look.' The soles were tied with knotted strings sandalwise under his bare feet. I rooted out an old pair, at which he looked with admiration before tucking it under his left arm." (3.22)


Marlow shows his last vestiges of goodness by generously giving the harlequin some gun cartridges, tobacco, and spare shoes to escape the manager. Well, if we had to choose we'd probably go with the delusional harlequin rather than the creepy manager, too.

Mr. Kurtz

[Kurtz]: "'I was on the threshold of great things,' he pleaded, in a voice of longing, with a wistfulness of tone that made my blood run cold. 'And now for this stupid scoundrel—'" (3.29)

Kurtz thinks himself a force of good while the manager is a "stupid scoundrel," as a force of evil who thwarts his glorious plans. Well, we don't like the manager or anything, but we're pretty sure it's not that simple.

The Intended

"She [the Intended] said suddenly very low, 'He died as he lived.'

'His end,' said I, with dull anger stirring in me, 'was in every way worthy of his life.'" (3.73-74)

Well, this is a skillfully ambiguous statement. Marlow manages to condemn Kurtz (since his life wasn't so great) while still letting the Intended think that he was a great guy. Nicely done.

The Manager

[The manager]: "'He [Kurtz] is very low, very low,' he said. He considered it necessary to sigh, but neglected to be consistently sorrowful. 'We have done all we could for him - haven't we? But there is no disguising the fact, Mr. Kurtz has done more harm than good to the Company. He did not see the time was not ripe for vigorous action. Cautiously, cautiously - that's my principle. We must be cautious yet. The district is closed to us for a time. Deplorable! Upon the whole, the trade will suffer. I don't deny there is a remarkable quantity of ivory — mostly fossil. We must save it, at all events - but look how precarious the position is - and why? Because the method is unsound.'" (3.19)

Let's count the ways in which the manager is depraved: first, he misrepresents Kurtz's condition and twists his words. Second, he tries to attack Kurtz's "method" by calling it "unsound." Finally, his words are just empty—which doesn't sound so bad to us, but is evidently the tipping point for Marlow. This guy is definitely getting unfriended.