Study Guide

Heart of Darkness Language and Communication

By Joseph Conrad

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Language and Communication

Chapter 1

"Now letters went to the coast every week. . . . 'My dear sir,' he cried, 'I write from dictation.' I demanded rivets. There was a way – for an intelligent man." (1.68)

The brickmaker’s role as the manager’s puppet is furthered when we find out that he writes all the letters asking for supplies word-for-word (or by "dictation") from the manager. Not even his written words are his own – they originate from another’s mouth. Marlow insults his intelligence for being such a mindless automaton.

We exchanged a few words lazily. Afterwards there was silence on board the yacht. For some reason or other we did not begin that game of dominoes. We felt meditative, and fit for nothing but placid staring. (1.4)

Even early in the book, the breakdown of language begins. The men are too lazy even to speak.

"He shook hands, I fancy, murmured vaguely, was satisfied with my French. Bon Voyage." (1.23)

The Dutch head of the Company does not speak English with Marlow and obviously does not try very hard to understand – or confer understanding upon – Marlow. He hears so little of Marlow’s French – a mere well-known phrase – that he cannot possibly judge his French adequately. But it is obvious he does not care about meaningful communication; he sees Marlow as only another opportunity to increase his profits.

[Unnamed narrator]: For a long time already he [Marlow], sitting apart, had been no more to us than a voice. There was not a word from anybody. The others might have been asleep, but I was awake. I listened, I listened on the watch for the sentence, for the word, that would give me the clue to the faint uneasiness inspired by this narrative that seemed to shape itself without human lips in the heavy night-air of the river. (1.66)

Like Kurtz will be later, Marlow has become just a voice to his listeners. The darkness and stillness have rendered them blind to each other and to Marlow; they can use only their sense of hearing.

"Otherwise there was only an indefinable, faint expression of his lips, something stealthy - a smile - not a smile - I remember it, but I can't explain. It was unconscious, this smile was, though just after he had said something it got intensified for an instant. It came at the end of his speeches like a seal applied on the words to make the meaning of the commonest phrase appear absolutely inscrutable." (1.52)

The manager’s talk is as meaningless as his expressions and only this mysterious (but empty) smile gives his words any semblance of profundity.

"He [the manager] began to speak as soon as he saw me. I had been very long on the road. He could not wait. Had to start without me. The up-river stations had to be relieved. There had been so many delays already that he did not know who was dead and who was alive, and how they got on--and so on, and so on. He paid no attention to my explanations, and, playing with a stick of sealing-wax, repeated several times that the situation was 'very grave, very grave.' […] All this talk seemed to me so futile." (1.53)

The manager’s bumbling and useless talk tells Marlow very little about the situation. He only makes excuses for his incompetence. His talk is so meaningless it is like background babble. To emphasize this fact, Conrad does not even put quotation marks around his speech. Whenever the manager wants to underscore the importance of something, he stupidly repeats it, as in the situation being "very grave, very grave." It is no wonder that Marlow finds this talk a waste of time.

Charlie Marlow

"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…He was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story?" (1.61)

To Marlow, "Kurtz" is "just a word." Any rumors and words about Kurtz are empty for Marlow. He believes in Kurtz only as one would believe in a fairy tale.

The Brickmaker

"There was nothing but that wretched, old, mangled steamboat I was leaning against, while he [the brickmaker] talked fluently about 'the necessity for every man to get on.' 'And when one comes out here, you conceive, it is not to gaze at the moon.' Mr. Kurtz was a 'universal genius,' but even a genius would find it easier to work with 'adequate tools – intelligent men.' He did not make bricks – why, there was a physical impossibility in the way – as I was well aware; and if he did secretarial work for the manager, it was because 'no sensible man rejects wantonly the confidence of his superiors.'" (1.67)

The brickmaker goes all over the place with his speech, flitting from random topic to random topic and trying to make each one sound profound. He does not even notice when Marlow stops listening to him.

Chapter 2
Charlie Marlow

"'You made notes in Russian?' I asked. He nodded. 'I thought they were written in cipher,' I said." (2.37)

Language does not function well in the interior. For example, Marlow mistakes the harlequin’s Russian notes for cipher simply because he cannot read them.

"I made the strange discovery that I had never imagined him [Kurtz] as doing, you know, but as discoursing. I didn’t say to myself, ‘Now I will never see him,’ or ‘Now I will never shake him by the hand,’ but, ‘Now I will never hear him.’ The man presented himself as a voice…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)

Marlow realizes he has imagined Kurtz this whole time not as a man, but only as a voice. Kurtz’s reality – for Marlow, at least – occurs primarily in language. Marlow admires him most for his "gift of expression" which he can use both for good (for making contact with mankind, for making things understood) or for evil (for deceit).

[Marlow on Kurtz’s writing]: "But 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 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 […]" (2.29)

Marlow admires Kurtz’s eloquence even though the content of the words is frightening. Kurtz tells the white men to approach the black native Africans as gods, to incite their worship so they can "exert a power for good practically unbounded." Marlow is carried away by Kurtz’s idealism and his "unbounded power of eloquence." It is Kurtz’s words that deeply move him.

"[…] I picked up a book. It had lost its covers, and the pages had been thumbed into a state of extremely dirty softness; but the back had been lovingly stitched afresh with white cotton thread, which looked clean yet. It was an extraordinary find. Its title was, "An Inquiry into some Points of Seamanship", by a man Towser, Towson – some such name - Master in his Majesty's Navy. The matter looked dreary reading enough, with illustrative diagrams and repulsive tables of figures, and the copy was sixty years old. I handled this amazing antiquity with the greatest possible tenderness, lest it should dissolve in my hands. Within, Towson or Towser was inquiring earnestly into the breaking strain of ships' chains and tackle, and other such matters. Not a very enthralling book; but at the first glance you could see there a singleness of intention, an honest concern for the right way of going to work, which made these humble pages, thought out so many years ago, luminous with another than a professional light. The simple old sailor, with his talk of chains and purchases, made me forget the jungle and the pilgrims in a delicious sensation of having come upon something unmistakably real. Such a book being there was wonderful enough; but still more astounding were the notes penciled in the margin, and plainly referring to the text. I couldn't believe my eyes! They were in cipher! Yes, it looked like cipher." (2.9)

Marlow rejoices at the discovery of a book because it gives him a sense of contact with the civilized human world, from which he has been absent from for so long. Despite its boring content, Marlow treasures the book for its attention to how things should be done, its care for correctness – something distinct from Marlow’s activities in the last few months. In this world of strange surrealism, Marlow feels the book is a touchstone to reality, especially when he sees handwritten notes in the margin – proof that other men have existed in this place.

"'Can you steer?' I asked the agent eagerly. He looked very dubious; but I made a grab at his arm, and he understood at once I meant him to steer whether or no." (2.23)

It is not the words "can you steer" but the gesture of grabbing the pilgrim’s arm that make him understand that Marlow wants him to steer. Language is ineffective in the interior, but gestures and human contact are not.

"I slipped the book into my pocket. I assure you to leave off reading was like tearing myself away from the shelter of an old and solid friendship." (2.10)

Marlow, through the connecting medium of language, feels as though the author of the book is a close friend. It helps stave off some of his loneliness.

"[…] but I have a voice, too, and for good or evil mine is the speech that cannot be silenced." (2.8)

In making his claim that the native Africans are human like white men, Marlow is regarded incredulously by his traveling companions; he feels the need to justify himself. He uses his voice as a vehicle of (what he hopes is) truth. He understands how important it is to have a say, especially after living in the oppressive silence of the interior and hearing Kurtz’s harsh and merciless voice.

"This initiated wraith from the back of Nowhere honoured me with its amazing confidence before it vanished altogether. This was because it could speak English to me. The original Kurtz had been educated partly in England, and – as he was good enough to say himself – his sympathies were in the right place." (2.29)

Kurtz can communicate to Marlow because he speaks English, though English is not his first language. However, Marlow identifies with him because "his sympathies were in the right place." In other words, Kurtz sympathizes with the English.

"But what made the idea of attack inconceivable to me was the nature of the noise – of the cries we had heard. They had not the fierce character boding immediate hostile intention. Unexpected, wild, and violent as they had been, they had given me an irresistible impression of sorrow. The glimpse of the steamboat had for some reason filled those savages with unrestrained grief." (2.16)

Despite the fact that the native Africans’ cries had no comprehensible words, Marlow still understood one of the emotions communicated: sadness. While language is not universal, emotions, it seems, are.

""We two whites stood over him, and his lustrous and inquiring glance enveloped us both. I declare it looked as though he would presently put to us some questions in an understandable language; but he died without uttering a sound, without moving a limb, without twitching a muscle." (2.23)

In his dying moments, the black helmsman communicates without words, through a simple gaze. Marlow feels as if he could understand the man if he tried to speak. Again, this understanding is achieved not with language, but with emotion.

"I fretted and fumed and took to arguing with myself whether or no I would talk openly with Kurtz; but before I could come to any conclusion it occurred to me that my speech or my silence, indeed any action of mine, would be a mere futility." (2.12)

At the thought of speaking with Kurtz, of perhaps sharing some of his own ideas with this man who has earned his awe, Marlow quickly begins to doubt himself. He feels as if his speech would make no difference to Kurtz or their awful situation. He feels as if words are futile in the interior and carry no power.

"When deciphered it said: 'Wood for you. Hurry up. Approach cautiously.' There was a signature, but it was illegible – not Kurtz – a much longer word. 'Hurry up.' Where? Up the river? 'Approach cautiously.' We had not done so. But the warning could not have been meant for the place where it could be only found after approach. Something was wrong above. But what – and how much? That was the question. We commented adversely upon the imbecility of that telegraphic style." (2.9)

Language breaks down in the interior, making any written signs difficult to decipher and harder to interpret.

"His [Kurtz’s] name, you understand, had not been pronounced once. He was 'that man.'" (2.2)

The manager and his uncle refuse to pronounce Kurtz’s name, perhaps in a gesture of awe and fear-inspired respect or simply because they do not want any eavesdroppers (like Marlow) to know whom they are talking about.

"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." (2.13)

None of the men understand the wordless cries of the native Africans onshore. Their inability to communicate linguistically reflects a larger disconnect between the two groups of people.

Mr. Kurtz

"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 idealistic and moving words change suddenly with this postscriptum. His condemnatory tone here blazes "like a flash of lightning in a serene sky" and sends a message far different from the rest of his report.

The Harlequin

[The harlequin]: "'At first old Van Shuyten would tell me to go to the devil,' he narrated with keen enjoyment; 'but I stuck to him, and talked and talked, till at last he got afraid I would talk the hind-leg off his favourite dog, so he gave me some cheap things and a few guns, and told me he hoped he would never see my face again.’" (2.36)

The harlequin uses language to wear down the Dutchman’s patience. The Dutchman eventually gives in to the harlequin, providing him with some supplies to face the interior. Thus, the harlequin has found that his tongue opens doors for him.

Chapter 3
The Intended

"'No!' she [the Intended] cried. 'It is 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.'

'His words will remain,' I said." (3.68-69)

Words, it is suggested, are the only things that remain forever, that can capture memory and not fade away into nothingness.

[The Intended]: "‘I feel I can speak to you - and oh! I must speak. I want you – you who have heard his last words – to know I have been worthy of him. […] It is not pride. […] Yes! I am proud to know I understood him better than any one on earth – he told me so himself.’" (3.59)

The Intended equates speaking with understanding, begging Marlow to speak to her of Kurtz because he was one of the few who understood him as she did.

"'[…] Who was not his friend who had heard him speak once?' she (the Intended) was saying. 'He drew men towards him by what was best in them.' She looked at me with intensity. 'It is the gift of the great,' she went on […]." (3.61)

The Intended puts great store by Kurtz’s words, believing that they lured men to him and earned him his admiration from all mankind. She is naïve about the true motivations of men which are often far darker and more self-serving.

Mr. Kurtz

"'To the very end,' I said, shakily. 'I heard his very last words. . . .' I stopped in a fright.

'Repeat them,' she murmured in a heart-broken tone. 'I want–I want–something – something – to – to live with.'

I was on the point of crying at her, 'Don't you hear them?' The dusk was repeating them in a persistent whisper all around us, in a whisper that seemed to swell menacingly like the first whisper of a rising wind. 'The horror! The horror!'" (3.80-82)

That Kurtz’s last words drum repeatedly in Marlow’s mind reinforces the idea that words last forever.

"Kurtz discoursed. A voice! a voice! It rang deep to the very last. It survived his strength to hide in the magnificent folds of eloquence the barren darkness of his heart. Oh, he struggled! he struggled! The wastes of his weary brain were haunted by shadowy images now – images of wealth and fame revolving obsequiously round his unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression. My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas – these were the subjects for the occasional utterances of elevated sentiments." (3.37)

Even when deprived of his potential kingdom, Kurtz speaks with moving eloquence. But now Marlow realizes just how "barren" and empty his words are. His words are now just hollow reflections of his dreams "of wealth and fame" and his favorite adjective, "my," is meaningless. Kurtz owns nothing now that he has been removed from the interior.

Charlie Marlow

"Suppose he [Kurtz] began to shout? Though he could hardly stand, there was still plenty of vigour in his voice." (3.28)

Marlow recognizes that Kurtz’s voice, the only strong thing about him, can still be a vehicle of communication. Thus, it poses a danger to him.

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

The fact that Marlow says this and the Intended believes him is partially due to the fact that names constitute a very important part of language. They are an indication of identity.

"Kurtz – Kurtz – that means short in German – don't it? Well, the name was as true as everything else in his life - and death. He looked at least seven feet long." (3.9)

The meaning of the German word "kurtz" is contradicted by reality. Kurtz is not short but "at least seven feet long." This demonstrates the divorce between language and meaning here in the interior.

"And the memory of what I had heard him say afar there, with the horned shapes stirring at my back, in the glow of fires, within the patient woods, those broken phrases came back to me, were heard again in their ominous and terrifying simplicity. I remembered his abject pleading, his abject threats, the colossal scale of his vile desires, the meanness, the torment, the tempestuous anguish of his soul. And later on I seemed to see his collected languid manner, when he said one day, 'This lot of ivory now is really mine. The Company did not pay for it. I collected it myself at a very great personal risk. I am afraid they will try to claim it as theirs though. H'm. It is a difficult case. What do you think I ought to do – resist? Eh? I want no more than justice.' […]." (3.51)

When having flashbacks, Marlow primarily remembers Kurtz’s words, emphasizing his conviction that Kurtz has only a voice, not a true presence.

"The voice was gone. What else had been there?" (3.46)

Kurtz is referred to as simply a voice. Now that that is gone, he is truly dead. Marlow does not make any references to Kurtz’s soul as he believes it is lost to perdition. Only emptiness remains in Kurtz’s wake.

"His [the harlequin’s] voice lost itself in the calm of the evening." (3.7)

Language is swallowed up and rendered meaningless by the African wilderness.

"I like to think my summing-up would not have been a word of careless contempt. Better his cry – much better. It was an affirmation, a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats, but abominable terrors, by abominable satisfactions. But it was a victory! That is why I have remained loyal to Kurtz to the last, and even beyond, when a long time after I heard once more, not his own voice, but the echo of his magnificent eloquence thrown to me from a soul as translucently pure as a cliff of crystal." (3.48)

Marlow suspects that, had he faced such a challenge, he would not have had Kurtz’s courage to judge, to hang on to a true belief. His judgment would have been "a word of careless contempt," perhaps a meaningless one. This is why, he claims, he remains loyal to Kurtz – he wants something to believe in firmly and resolutely and unwaveringly, just as Kurtz did.

"There was no sign on the face of nature of this amazing tale that was not so much told as suggested to me in desolate exclamations, completed by shrugs, in interrupted phrases, in hints ending in deep sighs." (3.4)

Nature is depicted in terms of nonverbal communication: "exclamations," "shrugs," "phrases," and "sighs." Each one suggests that Marlow’s tale is "desolate" or "interrupted," incomplete and perhaps unreliable.

"[…] I heard him [Kurtz] mutter, 'Live rightly, die, die . . .' I listened. There was nothing more. Was he rehearsing some speech in his sleep, or was it a fragment of a phrase from some newspaper article? He had been writing for the papers and meant to do so again, 'for the furthering of my ideas. It's a duty.'" (3.39)

In his dying stages, Kurtz’s words become incomprehensible to Marlow. He does not know whether Kurtz’s meditations on life and death are meant for himself or for the public.

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)

The manager’s words mean nothing. They cannot even get near the heart of the situation because his thoughts are so warped by his own greed and jealousy.

The Harlequin

[The harlequin]: "’She got in one day and kicked up a row about those miserable rags I picked up in the storeroom to mend my clothes with. I wasn't decent. At least it must have been that, for she talked like a fury to Kurtz for an hour, pointing at me now and then. I don't understand the dialect of this tribe.’" (3.17)

The harlequin does not understand the warrior woman’s speech. He assumes that she is talking about his clothing with no hard proof. She could very well have been blaming him for the coming of Marlow’s crew. Readers are as clueless about her tirade as the harlequin is. This is another example of language breaking down in the interior.

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