Study Guide

Heart of Darkness Identity

By Joseph Conrad


Chapter 1
Charlie Marlow

"Near the same tree two more bundles of acute angles sat with their legs drawn up. One, with his chin propped on his knees, stared at nothing, in an intolerable and appalling manner: his brother phantom rested its forehead, as if overcome with a great weariness; and all about others were scattered in every pose of contorted collapse, as in some picture of a massacre or a pestilence. While I stood horror-struck, one of these creatures rose to his hands and knees, and went off on all-fours towards the river to drink. He lapped out of his hand, then sat up in the sunlight, crossing his shins in front of him, and after a time let his woolly head fall on his breastbone." (1.41)

Marlow doesn't see the black Africans as complete human beings but as objects, ghosts, or through animal imagery: "acute angles," "phantom," "creature," "woolly head." You might want to put away that Nobel Peace Prize.

"I had heard Mr. Kurtz was in there. I had heard enough about it, too—God knows! Yet somehow it didn't bring any image with it - no more than if I had been told an angel or a fiend was in there. I believed it in the same way one of you might believe there are inhabitants in the planet Mars." (1.61)

Kurtz's name has literally no associations for Marlow—not even your standard Martian face. Does that mean he has no expectations about Kurtz's identity, either?

[Marlow on the manager]: "He inspired uneasiness. That was it! Uneasiness. Not a definite mistrust—just uneasiness—nothing more. You have no idea how effective such a … a … faculty can be. He had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even. That was evident in such things as the deplorable state of the station. He had no learning, and no intelligence. His position had come to him—why? Perhaps because he was never ill…He had served three terms of three years out there…Because triumphant health in the general rout of constitutions is a kind of power in itself. When he went home on leave he rioted on a large scale—pompously. Jack ashore—with a difference—in externals only. This one could gather from his causal talk. He originated nothing, he could keep the routine going—that's all. But he was great. He was great by this little thing that it was impossible to tell what could control such a man. He never gave that secret away. Perhaps there was nothing within him. Such a suspicion made one pause—for out there there were no external checks. Once when various tropical diseases had laid low almost every "agent" in the station, he was heard to say, "Men who come out here should have no entrails." He sealed the utterance with that smile of his, as though it had been a door opening into a darkness he had in his keeping. You fancied you had seen things—but the seal was on." (1.52)

The manager is basically as empty of distinction as a human being can be. He has no genius, no initiative, and no talent for organizing things. Even more disturbing, he seems to have no insides—nothing for diseases to infect. Bonus: his amazing good health has allowed him to never miss a day of work! Someone print him a certificate!

America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, 'When I grow up I will go there.'…But there was one yet - the biggest, the most blank, so to speak - that I had a hankering after."(1.17)

Marlow wants to fill the blank spaces on the map with all his discoveries, and so he's drawn to the "most blank" of them all—Africa. (Blank, that is, unless you're actually living there.) Er, we might be reading too much into this (never!), but we think that the desire to "fill" the "blank spaces" has a kind of sexual feeling to it.

[Marlow on the brickmaker]: "I let him run on, this papier-mâché Mephistopheles, and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe." (1.61)

Not only do we know that the brickmaker's words are empty, but Marlow describes him as a "papier-mâché" figure, implying that he's hollow inside. (And maybe filled with tasty candy and fun prizes?)

"A door opened, a white-haired secretarial head, but wearing a compassionate expression, appeared, and a skinny forefinger beckoned me into the sanctuary. Its light was dim, and a heavy writing-desk squatted in the middle. From behind that structure came out an impression of pale plumpness in a frock-coat. The great man himself. He was five feet six, I should judge, and had his grip on the handle-end of ever so many millions." (1.23)

The Dutch head of the Company is never described as a whole human being. Instead, we see him only in parts—a head, a forefinger—and when we finally see him in person, he's just "an impression," like a fat ghost. Someone call an ambulance! (Or the ghostbusters.) Oh wait: right at the end, Conrad suggests that this man's greed—his "grip on the handle-end of ever so many millions"—has made him less than human.

Chapter 2
Charlie Marlow

"The lustre of inquiring glance faded swiftly into vacant glassiness." (2.23)

Marlow associates death with emptiness since he describes the dead foreman's eyes as "vacant" as opposed to a once living "luster." Now just get a whole bunch of them and send them after an intrepid band of heroes, and you'll have a hit TV show!

"Mind, I am not trying to excuse or even explain - I am trying to account to myself for—for—Mr. Kurtz—for the shade of Mr. Kurtz. This initiated wraith from the back of Nowhere honoured me with its amazing confidence before it vanished altogether." (2.29)

Kurtz isn't a whole human being; he's a "shade" or "wraith," something that is literally a ghost of its former self and on the verge of vanishing into nothingness. It seems that he's completely lost his identity in the jungle.

"[…] how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man's untrammeled feet may take him into the way of solitude—utter solitude without a policeman—by the way of silence—utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbour can be heard by the whispering of public opinion?" (2.29)

Alone in the interior, isolation warps your mind. (The same might be said of sitting alone in front of a computer all day. Ahem.) After a few days of silent isolation, the men can't judge things properly.

"It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly. It's really easier to face bereavement, dishonour, and the perdition of one's soul - than this kind of prolonged hunger. Sad, but true. And these chaps [the cannibals], too, had no earthly reason for any kind of scruple." (2.14)

This is typical of how Europeans of the time might have viewed the native Africans. They think that they had "no earthly reason for any kind of scruple," never taking into account that perhaps they do have scruples, just different ones. For example, we never see any Africans brutally beating and chaining any Europeans, do we?

"And the lofty frontal bone of Mr. Kurtz! They say the hair goes on growing sometimes, but this—ah—specimen, was impressively bald. The wilderness had patted him on the head, and, behold, it was like a ball—an ivory ball; it had caressed him, and—lo!—he had withered; it had taken him, loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation." (2.29)

This isn't your run-of-the-mill male pattern baldness: this is some crazy wilderness sorcery. Like his hair, Kurtz's flesh has been "consumed" and his soul has been "sealed"—cut off from the rest of humanity. Mr. Kurtz has lost both physical and spiritual aspects of a human being; he's no longer whole.

"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. Here, the eerie stillness of the wilderness and the darkness of night render the men both deaf and blind. Without eyes or ears, they have no frame of reference—and without a frame of reference, they have no clear identities.

Chapter 3
The Intended

"'No!' she [the Intended] cried. 'It's impossible that all this should be lost — that such a life should be sacrificed to leave nothing—but sorrow. You know what vast plans he had. I knew of them, too - I could not perhaps understand - but others knew of them. Something must remain. His words, at least, have not died.'" (3.68)

The Intended can't deal with Kurtz being totally gone from the world. Luckily, Conrad wrote this book to keep his memory alive.

"He [Kurtz] rose, unsteady, long, pale, indistinct, like a vapour exhaled by the earth, and swayed slightly, misty and silent before me […]." (3.27)

Kurtz is a "vapour," "misty" and insubstantial before the wholly human form of Marlow. Pro tip: eat more protein, Kurtz!

"But the wilderness had found him 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. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core […]." (3.5)

The evil wilderness drains Kurtz of his heart and his humanity, leaving him "hollow at the core." Brain snack: the idea that we're all "hollow" at the core and that there's no clear meaning is basically the major idea of early twentieth-century writing. T.S. Eliot wrote a whole poem about it.

"Glamour urged him on, glamour kept him unscathed. He surely wanted nothing from the wilderness but space to breathe in and to push on through. His need was to exist, and to move onwards at the greatest possible risk, and with a maximum of privation. If the absolutely pure, uncalculating, unpractical spirit of adventure had ever ruled a human being, it ruled this bepatched youth. I almost envied him the possession of this modest and clear flame. It seemed to have consumed all thought of self so completely, that even while he was talking to you, you forgot that it was he—the man before your eyes—who had gone through these things." (3.1)

The harlequin is depicted as a shell of a man driven on only by "glamour" or the "pure…spirit of adventure."

"He [the manager] leaned back, serene, with that peculiar smile of his sealing the unexpressed depths of his meanness." (3.44)

The manager may have feelings about Kurtz's death (we doubt it), but we'll never know: the depths of his "meanness" are locked up by his vacant smile. As expected, he shows no real emotion at the news.

"I was struck by the fire of his eyes and the composed languor of his expression. It was not so much the exhaustion of disease. He did not seem in pain. This shadow looked satiated and calm, as though for the moment it had had its fill of all the emotions." (3.10)

Kurtz isn't even a whole human any more: he's a "shadow." Pros: because he's no longer fully human, Kurtz doesn't feel the pain of his disease as his body wastes away; he seems calm in a wholly inhuman way. Cons: He's, um, not fully human.

Charlie Marlow

"And from right to left along the lighted shore moved a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman." (3.13)

The fact that this woman is described as an "apparition" suggests that Marlow does not consider women, especially this native African one, to be as fully human or as capable as men. Similar language comes up with the Intended shows up at the end of the novel—not the "wild" bit, but the "apparition" part.

"I have wrestled with death. It's the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid skepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary." (3.48)

The dominant feature of Marlow's struggle with death is its emptiness. It takes place without anything underneath or around it, without the possibility of human contact, without noise or glory, without the desire to win or fear of losing. Most tragically, it's fought without conviction in one's own beliefs. It's as empty and meaningless a struggle as can be.

"I shall see this eloquent phantom [Kurtz] as long as I live, and I shall see her (the Intended), too, a tragic and familiar Shade, resembling in this gesture another one (the warrior woman), tragic also…" (3.73)

Marlow describes Kurtz, the Intended, and the warrior woman all as incomplete humans, as mere phantoms or shades. Does that make Kurtz feminized in some way? Or are women just always a little crazy?

"I was within a hair's breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it. […] True, he had made that last stride, he had stepped over the edge, while I had been permitted to draw back my hesitating foot. And perhaps in this is the whole difference; perhaps all the wisdom, and all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible." (3.48)

Hm, this is interesting. Marlow believes that he's just as empty as the rest of them, and that only Kurtz managed to hold on to something real. Kurtz had something to say, something of importance and meaning, while he and the rest of the crew spoke meaninglessly. Marlow believes that the only way to not completely lose one's humanity in the interior is to "step over the edge." That sounds … pretty paradoxical to us, actually.