Study Guide

Heart of Darkness Man and the Natural World

By Joseph Conrad

Man and the Natural World

Chapter 1
Charlie Marlow

"At last we opened a reach. A rocky cliff appeared, mounds of turned-up earth by the shore, houses on a hill, others with iron roofs, amongst a waste of excavations, or hanging to the declivity. 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. 'There's your Company's station,' said the Swede, pointing to three wooden barrack-like structures on the rocky slope." (1.34)

We hope Marlow wasn't expecting much, because the Company station looks pretty pathetic: three wooden barrack-like structures. Nice. Do you think they have high-speed wireless?

"The smell of mud, of primeval mud, by Jove! was in my nostrils, the high stillness of primeval forest was before my eyes; there were shiny patches on the black creek. The moon had spread over everything a thin layer of silver—over the rank grass, over the mud, upon the wall of matted vegetation standing higher than the wall of a temple, over the great river I could see through a sombre gap glittering, glittering, as it flowed broadly by without a murmur. All this was great, expectant, mute, while the man jabbered about himself. I wondered whether the stillness on the face of the immensity looking at us two were meant as an appeal or as a menace. What were we who had strayed in here? Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us? I felt how big, how confoundedly big, was that thing that couldn't talk, and perhaps was deaf as well. What was in there?" (1.61)

Okay, this is about the time that we'd be checking Expedia for last-minute flights back to civilization: Marlow starts to see Nature as a living being, too big and too eerily silent for human comprehension. But notice how he's still clinging to his Englishness—"by Jove!" and "confoundedly big" are slang phrases that seem much more appropriate to cozy fireside chats than mute, primeval forests. It seems like maybe he still doesn't quite get it.

"I came upon a boiler wallowing in the grass, then found a path leading up the hill. It turned aside for the boulders, and also for an undersized railway-truck lying there on its back with its wheels in the air. One was off. The thing looked as dead as the carcass of some animal. I came upon more pieces of decaying machinery, a stack of rusty rails. To the left a clump of trees made a shady spot, where dark things seemed to stir feebly." (1.35)

The creepiest part about all this nature is how it turns even manmade objects into extensions of itself, like the railway-truck resembling the carcass of some dead animal. Is Conrad suggesting that there really isn't much distinction between the natural world and the human world? Or that the natural world is more powerful?

"I had a cup of tea—the last decent cup of tea for many days—and in a room that most soothingly looked just as you would expect a lady's drawing-room to look, we had a long quiet chat by the fireside." (1.27)

Ah, England: good food, lots of doilies on the chairs, and "chatting" by the fireside. And Marlow wants to give up all this to go sail up a river in a jungle filled with hungry cannibals? No thanks. We'd miss our Hulu subscription too much.

"We called at some more places with farcical names, where the merry dance of death and trade goes on in a still and earthy atmosphere as of an overheated catacomb; all along the formless coast bordered by dangerous surf, as if Nature herself had tried to ward off intruders; in and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened into slime, invaded the contorted mangroves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair." (1.31)

Check out how Marlow personifies "Nature" as wanting to "ward off" intruders. From this perspective, the Interior of Africa almost sounds like a woman trying to protect herself.

"And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion." (1.53)

Here, Marlow describes Nature as a gigantic living thing that puts up with man's trivial attempts to conquer it. It's so much bigger and more powerful than anything the humans have that it's "invincible" like absolute concepts of "evil or truth." But we have to ask: if part of Heart of Darkness is specifically about how concepts like "evil" and "truth" aren't so obvious, what is Conrad saying about the wilderness?

"The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence. And it moved not." (1.70)

Nature is a living, silent, immobile, and malevolent mass: we're thinking that Marlow knew about kudzu.

"This one [coast] was almost featureless, as if still in the making, with an aspect of monotonous grimness. The edge of a colossal jungle, so dark-green as to be almost black, fringed with white surf, ran straight, like a ruled line, far, far away along a blue sea whose glitter was blurred by a creeping mist. The sun was fierce, the land seemed to glisten and drip with steam. Here and there greyish-whitish specks showed up clustered inside the white surf, with a flag flying above them perhaps. Settlements some centuries old, and still no bigger than pinheads on the untouched expanse of their background. We pounded along, stopped, landed soldiers; went on, landed custom-house clerks to levy toll in what looked like a God-forsaken wilderness, with a tin shed and a flag-pole lost in it; landed more soldiers - to take care of the custom-house clerks, presumably. Some, I heard, got drowned in the surf; but whether they did or not, nobody seemed particularly to care. They were just flung out there, and on we went. Every day the coast looked the same, as though we had not moved; but we passed various places - trading places - with names like Gran' Bassam, Little Popo; names that seemed to belong to some sordid farce acted in front of a sinister back-cloth." (1.30)

When Marlow sets out, he describes the wilderness as ominous—but mostly just big. Man seems puny beside it—his settlements "no bigger than pinheads." Individual lives seems a lot less important in a colossal jungle than they do drinking tea by a cozy fireplace.

"Yes; I respected his collars, his vast cuffs, his brushed hair. His appearance was certainly that of a hairdresser's dummy; but in the great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance. That's backbone. His starched collars and got-up shirt-fronts were achievements of character." (1.43)

This is sort of like putting on your party clothes to go camping: silly at best, and downright dangerous at worst. Either way, you end up looking like a dummy—a "hairdresser's dummy," in this case. Marlow sarcastically claims that the accountant's "starched collars and got-up shirt-fronts" are "achievements of character" when, in actuality, they mean quite the opposite to him.

"A narrow and deserted street in deep shadow, high houses, innumerable windows with venetian blinds, a dead silence, grass sprouting right and left, immense double doors standing ponderously ajar. I slipped through one of these cracks, went up a swept and ungarnished staircase, as arid as a desert, and opened the first door I came to." (1.23)

Well, this is a rather unflattering view of civilization: the Company's Brussels office is narrow, filthy, and tense. In other words, just like our grad school apartment.

"[…] afterwards he arose and went out—and the wilderness without a sound took him into its bosom again." (1.56)

The black man blamed for the fire eventually abandons the Central Station and heads back into the wilderness. But does Nature protect him or kill him? "Took him into its bosom" isn't exactly clear.

"One evening a grass shed full of calico, cotton prints, beads, and I don't know what else, burst into a blaze so suddenly that you would have thought the earth had opened to let an avenging fire consume all that trash." (1.55)

We're guessing that the Company trades these cheap Western goods—calico and cotton are inexpensive fabrics; beads are inexpensive decoration—for the African's ivory. Is it a fair trade? Nature doesn't seem to think so.

"After this I got embraced, told to wear flannel, be sure to write often, and so on - and I left." (1.29)

Civilization seems to have a lot to do with trivialities like wearing flannel or writing letters. The wilderness has other ideas—more primal ideas, like impaling heads on sticks. Awesome.

The Brickmaker

[The brickmaker to Marlow]: "There was an old hippo that had the bad habit of getting out on the bank and roaming at night over the station grounds. The pilgrims used to turn out in a body and empty every rifle they could lay hands on at him. Some even had sat up o' nights for him. All this energy was wasted, though. 'That animal has a charmed life,' he said; 'but you can say this only of brutes in this country. No man - you apprehend me?—no man here bears a charmed life.'" (1.68)

In case you had any doubts about which side Nature is on, this passage should clear things up: the animals'.

Chapter 2

"[…] the uncle said, 'The climate may do away with this difficulty for you. Is he alone there?'" (2.1)

The uncle says that nature (the climate) might "do away" with Kurtz, freeing up a rung on the corporate ladder for him and his nephew. Let's see: heat, darkness, wild animals, cannibals—yep, things are looking pretty dire for Kurtz. (Of course, the subtext is that the manager and his nephew might be running into some of these problems, too.)

"The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness." (2.7)

Nature itself seems to be cutting the pilgrims off from returning to civilization and condemning them to live forever in its nightmarish jungle. It almost holds a grudge against them for invading its territory, that heart of darkness of the novel's title.

"Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish […]. On silvery sand-banks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once—somewhere—far away—in another existence perhaps." (2.5)

As the pilgrims travel upriver, they feel like they're heading back in time—all the way back to the prehistoric ages when wild beasts ruled the world. Want to hear our thoughts about this time travel? Check out what we have to say in "Setting."

[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)

The manager hopes that nature will kill Kurtz, even though, honestly, isn't it just as likely that the jungle will kill him instead? Isn't the point of evil that it's not too picky about its victims? (Well—unless you're a virgin in a horror movie, that is. Then you're probably safe.)

Charlie Marlow

"I had to lean right out to swing the heavy shutter, and I saw a face amongst the leaves on the level with my own, looking at me very fierce and steady; and then suddenly, as though a veil had been removed from my eyes, I made out, deep in the tangled gloom, naked breasts, arms, legs, glaring eyes—the bush was swarming with human limbs in movement, glistening of bronze colour." (2.21)

Here, the forest swarms with human activity—furthering the association of Nature with the living. Nature's ill will towards the pilgrims is now manifested in the native Africans' surprise attack on Marlow's steamboat. The Africans are depicted as an extension of Nature and minions of her will.

"Trees, trees, millions of trees, massive, immense, running up high; and at their foot, hugging the bank against the stream, crept the little begrimed steamboat, like a sluggish beetle crawling on the floor of a lofty portico. It made you feel very small, very lost, and yet it was not altogether depressing, that feeling. After all, if you were small, the grimy beetle crawled on—which was just what you wanted it to do." (2.7)

Though it would be understandable for Marlow to feel overwhelmed by his smallness, he twists his situation rather optimistically, saying that while a beetle is small, it still crawls towards its destination. Um, okay. And we're still going to smash it with our shoe.

"The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there - there you could look at a thing monstrous and free." (2.8)

The earth is compared to an unchained monster, giving it the feel of an alien evil. Like a Predator.

"We had just floundered and flopped round a bend, when I saw an islet, a mere grassy hummock of bright green, in the middle of the stream. It was the only thing of the kind; but as we opened the reach more, I perceived it was the head of a long sand-bank, or rather of a chain of shallow patches stretching down the middle of the river. They were discoloured, just awash, and the whole lot was seen just under the water, exactly as a man's backbone is seen running down the middle of his back under the skin." (2.18)

The riverbank, a manifestation of nature, is compared to a man's backbone. This is another instance of Marlow considering the wilderness a live thing.

"Perhaps I had a little fever, too. One can't live with one's finger everlastingly on one's pulse. I had often 'a little fever,' or a little touch of other things—the playful paw-strokes of the wilderness, the preliminary trifling before the more serious onslaught which came in due course." (2.14)

Aw, look, nature is a little kitty cat! Oh, wait. Not a little kitty cat; more like a hungry cheetah. Nature is depicted as wickedly playing with Marlow's health for its own amusement before hitting him with a real assault.

Chapter 3
Charlie Marlow

"[…] she [the Intended] went on, and the sound of her low voice seemed to have the accompaniment of all the other sounds, full of mystery, desolation, and sorrow, I had ever heard - the ripple of the river, the sighing of the trees swayed by the wind, the murmurs of the crowds, the faint ring of incomprehensible words cried from afar, the whisper of a voice speaking from beyond the threshold of an eternal darkness." (3.61)

Marlow associates the Intended's low voice with sounds of the wilderness. Sure, these are slightly friendlier sounds than we're used to hearing from the wilderness—trees swaying, rivers rippling—but they still make us wonder if the line between civilization and the natural word is all that firm.

"The woods were unmoved, like a mask—heavy, like the closed door of a prison - they looked with their air of hidden knowledge, of patient expectation, of unapproachable silence." (3.4)

Look, we get that Marlow is a little freaked about by all this nature, but we're starting to suspect that he's taking it too seriously. They're just trees. Right? Right??

"The long reaches that were like one and the same reach, monotonous bends that were exactly alike, slipped past the steamer with their multitude of secular trees looking patiently after this grimy fragment of another world, the forerunner of change, of conquest, of trade, of massacres, of blessings." (3.38)

Marlow seems to see the wilderness as existing in a separate time from civilization, a sort of eternal land of the lost effect that makes civilization equivalent to change. Wow, that's a lot to get out of "monotonous bends."

"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 describes the wilderness almost like Kurtz's lover—whispering to him, hanging out alone with him, being all sexy and "irresistibly fascinating." How could he pass that up?

"Her face had a tragic and fierce aspect of wild sorrow and of dumb pain mingled with the fear of some struggling, half-shaped resolve. She stood looking at us without a stir, and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose." (3.15)

Like the wilderness (yep, we're still on this), the warrior woman is "fierce" but also "dumb" or silent. Her purpose is uncertain and only "half-shaped," as if the wilderness has not yet decided what to do about its invaders. (You have to love how Marlow sees women, right? Not.)

"It was a moment of triumph for the wilderness, an invading and vengeful rush which, it seemed to me, I would have to keep back alone for the salvation of another soul." (3.51)

The tables turn! Instead of the explorers "invading" the wilderness, the wilderness is invading the explorers. Hm. Doesn't feel so good when someone does it to you, does it, Marlow?

"I tried to break the spell—the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness—that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions. This alone, I was convinced, had driven him out to the edge of the forest, to the bush, towards the gleam of fires, the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations; this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations." (3.29)

Marlow totally gets it: he feels the spell of the wilderness, just like Kurtz does, but he's not going to succumb to it. Really. He promises.

"We broke down—as I had expected—and had to lie up for repairs at the head of an island. This delay was the first thing that shook Kurtz's confidence." (3.39)

Marlow's steamboat breaks down again. Gee, it's almost like nature doesn't want them to take Kurtz back to civilization.

"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," completely inaccessible to the human mind, incomprehensible and merciless to human weakness.

"She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress. And in the hush that had fallen suddenly upon the whole sorrowful land, the immense wilderness, the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul." (3.14)

Like the wilderness, the warrior woman is savage, wild, magnificent, and, oh yeah, ominous, almost as though she's the soul of the wilderness. (And if she is the soul of the wilderness, what does it mean that she's also probably Kurtz's mistress?)

"One of the agents with a picket of a few of our blacks, armed for the purpose, was keeping guard over the ivory; but deep within the forest, red gleams that wavered, that seemed to sink and rise from the ground amongst confused columnar shapes of intense blackness, showed the exact position of the camp where Mr. Kurtz's adorers were keeping their uneasy vigil. The monotonous beating of a big drum filled the air with muffled shocks and a lingering vibration. A steady droning sound of many men chanting each to himself some weird incantation came out from the black, flat wall of the woods as the humming of bees comes out of a hive, and had a strange narcotic effect upon my half-awake senses." (3.23)

This kind of sounds like the last night of summer camp, but we're guessing Conrad meant it to be a lot more menacing, what with the hellish, eerie colors of fiery red and "intense blackness." Also, cannibals.

"I noticed that the crowd of savages was vanishing without any perceptible movement of retreat, as if the forest that had ejected these beings so suddenly had drawn them in again as the breath is drawn in a long aspiration." (3.9)

The native Africans are merely an extension of the wilderness—a living, breathing wilderness that is drawing its minions back in as it inhales. Yikes.

"She turned away slowly, walked on, following the bank, and passed into the bushes to the left. Once only her eyes gleamed back at us in the dusk of the thickets before she disappeared." (3.16)

If the warrior woman is supposed to be something like Mother Nature (which we kind of think she is), this is a pretty menacing show of potential power.

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