Study Guide

Heart of Darkness Madness

By Joseph Conrad

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Chapter 1
Charlie Marlow

"The old doctor felt my pulse, evidently thinking of something else the while. "Good, good for there," he mumbled, and then with a certain eagerness asked me whether I would let him measure my head. Rather surprised, I said Yes, when he produced a thing like calipers and got the dimensions back and front and every way, talking notes carefully. He was an unshaven little man in a threadbare coat like a gaberdine, with his feet in slippers, and I thought him a harmless fool. "I always ask leave, in the interests of science, to measure the crania of those going out there," he said. "And when they come back too?" I asked. "Oh, I never see them, " he remarked; "and, moreover, the changes take place inside, you know." He smiled, as if at some quiet joke. "So you are going out there. Famous. Interesting too." He gave me a searching glance and made another note. "Ever any madness in your family?" he asked, in a matter-of-fact tone. I felt very annoyed. "Is that question in the interests of science too?" "It would be," he said, without taking notice of my irritation, "interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals, on the spot, but […]." (1.26)

The doctor implies that going into the interior changes men's psyches and he tries to measure their skulls before they leave. You know, for science. Marlow thinks this is all lunacy, but we suspect he might change his mind once he sees the actual skulls that Kurtz has impaled around his hut.

"No, I don't like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don't like work - no man does - but I like what is in the work - the chance to find yourself. Your own reality - for yourself, not for others - what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means." (1.68)

Marlow like to work because he can find his own version of reality in it. Nobody else, he claims, can see what a worker sees when he does his duty and claims the work as his own. Another can only see the external—the least true—account of reality. Um, if Marlow really is seeing different versions of reality, we're not sure that he's totally sane at this point.

"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)

Marlow is appalled by these pilgrims' depth of corruption. It seems utterly "unreal" to him that men could be so hypocritical. The unifying trait between them seems to be greed. (Nice words coming from someone who's heading to the Interior for profit himself.)

"I avoided a vast artificial hole somebody had been digging on the slope, the purpose of which I found it impossible to divine. It wasn't a quarry or a sandpit, anyhow. It was just a hole. It might have been connected with the philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do. I don't know. Then I nearly fell into a very narrow ravine, almost no more than a scar in the hillside." (1.38)

This random hole is another sign that people go crazy in the wilderness. (Maybe it's aliens?) But it isn't harmless eccentricity—when Marlow almost falls into another little ravine, we get the feeling that the madness is getting dangerous.

"In the steady buzz of flies the homeward-bound agent was lying finished and insensible; the other, bent over his books, was making correct entries of perfectly correct transactions; and fifty feet below the doorstep I could see the still tree-tops of the grove of death." (1.48)

Marlow draws our attention to the madness of the situation by juxtaposing two very different images together—one of a man lying on his deathbed, and another of the accountant quietly going about his business as if nothing were wrong.

"The idleness of a passenger, my isolation amongst all these men with whom I had no point of contact, the oily and languid sea, the uniform sombreness of the coast, seemed to keep me away from the truth of things, within the toil of a mournful and senseless delusion. The voice of the surf heard now and then was a positive pleasure, like the speech of a brother. It was something natural, that had its reason, that had a meaning." (1.30)

Marlow's isolation from other men and the unchanging scenery of the coast lulls him into a comforting and false sense of security. In retrospect, he knows that he was living a "senseless delusion" in which nature is "a positive pleasure" and even makes sense. The further he gets into the interior, the more he becomes disillusioned.

"He [Marlow's white companion] was very anxious for me to kill somebody, but there wasn't the shadow of a carrier near. I remembered the old doctor—'It would be interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals, on the spot.' I felt I was becoming scientifically interesting." (1.50)

Both Marlow's companion and Marlow himself find themselves going mad because the white friend has obviously been attacked. He wants Marlow to kill the assaulters, but there is nobody around. Marlow jokes that because his world no longer makes sense, he is becoming "scientifically interesting."

"I went to work the next day, turning, so to speak, my back on that station. In that way only it seemed to me I could keep my hold on the redeeming facts of life. Still, one must look about sometimes; and then I saw this station, these men strolling aimlessly about in the sunshine of the yard. I asked myself sometimes what it all meant. They wandered here and there with their absurd long staves in their hands, like a lot of faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence […] I've never seen anything so unreal in my life." (1.54)

Marlow convinces himself that the only way he can remain sane is to work by himself, obsessing about fixing the steamboat. However, he finds himself sneaking peeks at his fellow men and discovering that everything is as absurd as he'd feared. The men are so aimless that Marlow compares them to pilgrims who have lost their faith or been bewitched. He seems to hate their aimlessness because it contradicts so sharply with his keen sense of purpose.

"For a time I would feel I belonged still to a world of straightforward facts; but the feeling would not last long. Something would turn up to scare it away. Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn't even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech—and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives—he called them enemies!—hidden out of sight somewhere." (1.30)

Marlow is going down the rabbit hole here. One of the first acts of madness he sees is a man-of-war firing at a totally empty coastline—which sounds pretty crazy to us, too.

"Another report from the cliff made me think suddenly of that ship of war I had seen firing into a continent. It was the same kind of ominous voice; but these men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. They were called criminals and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from over the sea. All their meager breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily up-hill. They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages." (1.36)

It's a mad, mad, mad world: the chained slaves are so beaten down that they don't even notice their surroundings. They're the opposite of dangerous enemies—in fact, it's the Europeans who are the dangerous enemies.

"He had come out for a moment, he said, 'to get a breath of fresh air. The expression sounded wonderfully odd, with its suggestion of sedentary desk-life." (1.43)

Wait, if you're actually living in the wilderness in a hut, why do you need to come outside for air? It's as though the accountant is trying to live the same kind of life he'd be living back in Brussels—which sounds pretty crazy to us.

"I was smoking my pipe quietly by my dismantled steamer, and saw them all cutting capers in the light, with their arms lifted high, when the stout man with moustaches came tearing down to the river, a tin pail in his hand, assured me that everybody was 'behaving splendidly, splendidly,' dipped about a quart of water and tore back again. I noticed there was a hole in the bottom of his pail." (1.55)

A man with a broken pail is trying to put out the fire: yep, we're thinking this is symbolic. He's the only one who seems to care about the fire, but—in the context of this scene—trying to put it out seems insane.

[The Swede]: "'The other day I took up a man who hanged himself on the road. He was a Swede, too.' 'Hanged himself! Why, in God's name?' I cried. He kept on looking out watchfully. 'Who knows? The sun too much for him, or the country perhaps.'" (1.33)

Marlow gets his first taste of danger when he learns that the sun has actually driven the "Swede" to suicide. Is this a clear argument for nature making men go crazy?

Chapter 2
Charlie Marlow

"I own to you that just then I perceived - in a new light, as it were—how unwholesome the pilgrims looked, and I hoped, yes, I positively hoped, that my aspect was not so - what shall I say?—so—unappetizing: a touch of fantastic vanity which fitted well with the dream-sensation that pervaded all my days at that time." (2.14)

Marlow hopes he looks prettier than the pilgrims, even though his stunning good looks might get him eaten by his own cannibal aides. In this situation, caring about your appearance goes beyond vanity right toward madness. (Seriously, wouldn't the rational response be to uglify yourself as much as possible?)

"You can't understand. How could you? - with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbours ready to cheer you or to fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums - how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man's untrammelled feet may take him into by 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 whispering of public opinion? These little things make all the great difference. When they are gone you must fall back upon your own innate strength, upon your own capacity for faithfulness…The earth for us is a place to live in, where we must put up with sights, with sounds, with smells, too, by Jove! - breathe dead hippo, so to speak, and not be contaminated." (2.29)

Marlow claims that his audience cannot understand his feeling of utter loneliness and the ensuing madness without being there. He describes how isolation from one's fellow man can mess with one's sense of reality, that without public opinion, one cannot judge the morality of one's actions.

"The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us—who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember because we were travelling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign—and no memories." (2.7)

Catching sight of wild native Africans in their homeland rouses fear in the pilgrims. They feel as if they have traveled to a place where nothing is comprehensible. They cannot read the attitude of the Africans towards them. Marlow compares their mental state to that of inmates in an insane asylum right before an outbreak—teetering on the edge of insanity.

"Were we to let go our hold of the bottom, we would be absolutely in the air - in space. We wouldn't be able to tell where we were going to - whether up or down stream, or across - till we fetched against one bank or the other - and then we wouldn't know at first which it was." (2.15)

Marlow knows that if he follows the manager's orders and begins sailing again in the fog, left will become right, upstream will become downstream, and they will probably die. It's good to know that he's clinging to some shred of sanity.

"There were moments when one's past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare for yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect." (2.5)

Marlow's very own comfy memories start to seem just as alien as the wilderness. This surrealism makes Marlow feel as though the jungle around them is alive and looking at him "with a vengeful aspect," and—as we all know—thinking that the world is out to get you is a pretty good sign of madness. (Usually. Unless there's a good reason they're after you.)

[During the fog]: What we could see was just the steamer we were on, her outlines blurred as though she had been on the point of dissolving, and a misty strip of water, perhaps two feet broad, around her—and that was all. The rest of the world was nowhere, as far as our eyes and ears were concerned. Just nowhere. Gone, disappeared; swept off without leaving a whisper or a shadow behind. (2.13)

If you've ever been in a thick fog, you might know this feeling: that you're the only one left on earth. (Stephen King wrote a pretty freaky book about it.) When you think about it, this is probably how Kurtz feels: that he's the only (white) man left on earth, or at least the only one worth caring about.

"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.

"The current ran smooth and swift, but a dumb immobility sat on the banks. The living trees, lashed together by the creepers and every living bush of the undergrowth, might have been changed into stone, even to the slenderest twig, to the lightest leaf. It was not sleep — it seemed unnatural, like a state of trance. Not the faintest sound of any kind could be heard." (2.13)

In this scene of madness, every aspect of the wilderness seems struck dumb, as if all of nature has turned to stone.

"There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot of 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!' The curious part was that he had apparently forgotten all about that valuable postscriptum, because, later on, when he in a sense came to himself, he repeatedly entreated me to take good care of 'my pamphlet'(he called it), as it was sure to have in the future a good influence upon his career." (2.29)

Here is one of the first signs of Kurtz's madness: the fact that the tone of his postscriptum differs so sharply from the rest of the manuscript. Kurtz isn't rational and idealistic anymore; he's desperate and deranged—so desperate and deranged that he apparently doesn't even remember it later, or doesn't think that it's, um, slightly problematic.

"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. His mother was half-English, his father was half-French. All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz […]." (2.29)

The fact that "all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz" and the subsequent fact that Kurtz went mad in the wilderness suggests that all of Europe contributes something to mankind that makes them susceptible to madness. Maybe something is wrong with the way Europe is conditioning and educating and raising its citizens. Or maybe everyone has the seeds of madness, and maybe the Africans would be just as bad in the same situation.

"You can't breathe dead hippo waking, sleeping, and eating, and at the same time keep your precarious grip on existence." (2.14)

Yep: the madness-inducing stink of rotting hippo meat is what passes for comic relief in Heart of Darkness.

Chapter 3

"[…] as a rule Kurtz wandered alone, far in the depths of the forest." (3.4)

Kurtz willingly isolates himself from his friend, the harlequin—and by now, we know that isolation is a major warning sign for subsequent insanity. (We knew we needed to get out more.)

"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)

As true as everything else, which means … complete false. One of the biggest signs of madness in Heart of Darkness is the way that language and meaning don't match up at all—in fact, they're so at odds that we end up with no meaning at all.

The Harlequin

[The harlequin]: "'You can't judge Mr. Kurtz as you would an ordinary man. No, no, no! Now - just to give you an idea - I don't mind telling you, he wanted to shoot me, too, one day - but I don't judge him.' 'Shoot you!' I cried 'What for?' 'Well, I had a small lot of ivory the chief of that village near my house gave me. You see I used to shoot game for them. Well, he wanted it, and wouldn't hear reason. He declared he would shoot me unless I gave him the ivory and then cleared out of the country, because he could do so, and had a fancy for it, and there was nothing on earth to prevent him killing whom he jolly well pleased. And it was true, too. I gave him the ivory. What did I care! But I didn't clear out. No, no. I couldn't leave him. I had to be careful, of course, till we got friendly again for a time.'" (3.4)

It looks like the harlequin has gone a little crazy, too, sticking to Kurtz even though Kurtz threatened to kill him for ivory. Don't know about you, but we prefer our friends not to be homicidal maniacs.

[The harlequin]: "'He [Kurtz] made me see things—things.'" (3.2)

We have to ask: did Kurtz happen to pass along any pharmaceuticals, too? Because if he's making the harlequin "see things" (unnamed things) just with words—that's pretty crazy. In all senses of the word.

Charlie Marlow

"There was nothing either above or below him, and I knew it. He [Kurtz] had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! He had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air." (3.29)

Kurtz has "kicked himself loose" of all things that humans know, which means that he has no set of morals and no definitions of good or evil anymore. Does that make him crazy? And does that mean that "crazy" is just relative to our expectations?

"I fancy I had some vague notion of falling upon him and giving him a drubbing. I don't know. I had some imbecile thoughts. The knitting old woman with the cat obtruded herself upon my memory as a most improper person to be sitting at the other end of such an affair. I saw a row of pilgrims squirting lead in the air out of Winchesters held to the hip. I thought I would never get back to the steamer, and imagined myself living alone and unarmed in the woods to an advanced age. Such silly things—you know." (3.26)

When Marlow goes chasing after Kurtz, he is confused and has evil thoughts like beating him or "giving him a drubbing" when he finds him. He is confused and certain images burst into his mind. Marlow is concerned mainly with an inevitable sense of catastrophe (which is why he thinks of the old woman who represents Fate) and fear (represented by the pilgrims shooting blindly from their hips).

"I've been telling you what we said - repeating the phrases we pronounced—but what's the good? They were common everyday words - the familiar, vague sounds exchanged on every waking day of life. But what of that? They had behind them, to my mind, the terrific suggestiveness of words heard in dreams, of phrases spoken in nightmares." (3.29)

By this point, Marlow is basically living in a waking nightmare. He seems to be at a point where he can't even tell what's real.

"Sometimes I ask myself whether I had ever really seen him—whether it was possible to meet such a phenomenon! […]." (3.22)

The harlequin is so hilariously weird that Marlow can't help wondering if he was really real, or if he was just some deranged hallucination of the interior. We have to say, it doesn't seem impossible that Marlow just imagined him.

"But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad. I had—for my sins, I suppose—to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself. No eloquence could have been so withering to one's belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity. He struggled with himself, too. I saw it—I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself." (3.29)

Marlow claims that being alone in the wilderness has made Kurtz crazy, but it's complicated: Kurtz knows he's crazy, but he doesn't know that it's his own lack of self-restraint—or maybe, lack of human restraint—that's made him that way. He can't get out. In fact, it seems like he's made himself mad.

"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. 'Why! he's mad,' I said." (3.4)

Even though Kurtz "hates all this," he won't leave it willingly. And that, somehow, is the final clue that Marlow needs to decide that Kurtz is totally crazy. (Really, Marlow? We got there a lot faster than you.)

Mr. Kurtz

"One evening coming in with a candle I was startled to hear him [Kurtz] say a little tremulously, 'I am lying here in the dark waiting for death.' The light was within a foot of his eyes. I forced myself to murmur, 'Oh, nonsense!' and stood over him as if transfixed." (3.41)

We're pretty sure that this blindness is metaphoric: Kurtz is blinded by the darkness and evil of his soul.

"He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:

'The horror! The horror!'" (3.42-43)

Wow. This is not what we want to be whispering on our deathbed. We don't exactly know what Kurtz is seeing, but we know it's not good.

"[…] I heard him 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 against, 'for the furthering of my ideas. It's a duty.'" (3.39)

Kurtz just gets crazier and crazier as he dies, sputtering random words like a mid-grade hip-hop artist.

[Marlow with the doctor]: "As we sat over our vermouths he glorified the Company's business, and by-and-by I expressed casually my surprise at him not going out there. He became very cool and collected all at once. "I am not such a fool as I look, quoth Plato to his disciples," he said sententiously, emptied his glass with great resolution, and we rose." (1.25)

The doctor implies that going into the interior is something only a "fool" would do and suggests that the journey can only end badly. Anyone who starts it is only setting himself up for madness and defeat. We actually think he has a point.

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