Study Guide

Heart of Darkness Power

By Joseph Conrad

Power

Chapter 1

"Strings of dusty n*****s with splay feet arrived and departed; a stream of manufactured goods, rubbishy cottons, beads, and brass-wire set into the depths of darkness, and in return came a precious trickle of ivory." (1.44)

Everyone cares only for the ivory; almost anything will be given up in exchange for it—manufactured goods like cotton, beads, brass-wire, and even human slaves.

"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)

Woohoo! Untimely death = promotion for our intrepid hero. Check out the way he says that his predecessor died in a "glorious affair"—sure, he's being ironic, but he's not exactly mourning the guy. In fact, he seems downright pleased.

"When near the buildings I met a white man, in such an unexpected elegance of get-up that in the first moment I took him for a sort of vision. I saw a high starched collar, white cuffs, a light alpaca jacket, snowy trousers, a clean necktie, and varnished boots. No hat. Hair parted, brushed, oiled, under a green-lined parasol held in a big white hand. He was amazing, and had a penholder behind his ear." (1.42)

We were with all this right up until the green-lined parasol. (Seriously? A parasol?) The accountant's fancy clothes let him show off his position of power: no need to get his hand dirty pushing numbers around on an Excel spreadsheet, after all. You can wear your very best clothes for that.

"He alluded constantly to Europe, to the people I was supposed to know there - putting leading questions as to my acquaintances in the sepulchral city, and so on. His little eyes glittered like mica discs—with curiosity—though he tried to keep up a bit of superciliousness." (1.57)

The ambitious brickmaker tries to pump information out of Marlow without telling him why, even though Marlow can totally tell what he's after.

"He, don't you see, had been planning to be assistant-manager by and by under the present man, and I could see that the coming of that Kurtz had upset them both not a little." (1.61)

Honestly, isn't it kind of pathetic that the goal of all the brickmaker's ambitions is to become the assistant manager? If he's going to be such a slimy suckup, at least he could set his sights a little higher.

[At the Central Station]: "The word 'ivory' rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By Jove!" (1.53)

Everyone at the Central Station wants to get their hands on ivory so badly they actually make ivory into a god. But instead of giving them power, this greed ends up making them into "imbeciles." The whole affair feels as dirty to him as the stench of a corpse.

"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)

Let's see: building an overseas empire on the backs of oppressed native Africans, and making a giant profit by exploiting the African Interior. There's no way this can end badly, right?

"When annoyed at meal-times by the constant quarrels of the white men about precedence, he ordered an immense round table to be made, for which a special house had to be built. This was the station's mess-room. Where he sat was the first place—the rest were nowhere. One felt this to be his unalterable conviction." (1.52)

Hm. See, we thought the point of a round table was to make everyone equal—but instead, it just ends up making the manager seem more powerful. Wherever he sits, that's the head of the table. This power play keeps the manager on top and his underlings decidedly beneath him. Smooth move!

The Brickmaker

[The brickmaker]: "'The same people who sent him [Kurtz] specially also recommended you. Oh, don't say no. I've my own eyes to trust.' Light dawned upon me. My dear aunt's influential acquaintances were producing an unexpected effect upon that young man." (1.59)

Here, we find out that the brickmaker is trying to get in good with the Company bigwigs, the friends of Marlow's aunts. And we also find out that Kurtz was recommended by the same people as Marlow. Hmmm. That's an interesting parallel.

Charlie Marlow

"I am sorry to own I began to worry them. This was already a fresh departure for me. I was not used to get things that way, you know. I always went my own road and on my own legs where I had a mind to go. I wouldn't have believed it of myself; but, then—you see—I felt somehow I must get there by hook or by crook. So I worried them. The men said 'My dear fellow,' and did nothing. Then—would you believe it?—I tried the women. I, Charlie Marlow, set the women to work—to get a job. Heavens! Well, you see, the notion drove me. I had an aunt, a dear enthusiastic soul. She wrote: 'It will be delightful. I am ready to do anything, anything for you. It is a glorious idea. I know the wife of a very high personage in the Administration, and also a man who has lots of influence with,' etc. She was determined to make no end of fuss to get me appointed skipper of a river steamboat, if such was my fancy." (1.20)

It helps to have friends in high places. Marlow knows that power can be useful—and we even suspect that he'd like to have a little bit of it himself. (But not too much. Not so much that it makes him go crazy, you know.)

Chapter 2
Charlie Marlow

"Besides that, they had given them every week three pieces of brass wire, each about nine inches long; and the theory was they were to buy their provisions with that currency in riverside villages. You can see how that worked. There were either no villages, or the people were hostile, or the director, who like the rest of us fed out of tins, with an occasional old he-goat thrown in, didn't want to stop the steamer for some more or less recondite reason. So, unless they swallowed the wire itself, or made loops of it to snare the fishes with, I don't see what good their extravagant salary could be to them. I must say it was paid with a regularity worthy of a large and honourable trading company." (2.14)

The Company is so greedy that they assume the Africans are that way, too. Marlow makes fun of this attitude in the last sentence. When the pilgrims cannot offer suitable food to the Africans, they offer useless brass wire as payment. They don't care that brass wire isn't edible, or that the steamboat doesn't pass any villages where the Africans can step off and barter it for food. In other words, they have only themselves to blame that the cannibals are now so eager for human flesh.

"He [Kurtz] won't be forgotten. Whatever he was, he was not common. He had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance in his honour; he could also fill the small souls of the pilgrims with bitter misgivings: he had one devoted friend at least, and he had conquered one soul in the world that was neither rudimentary nor tainted with self-seeking. No; I can't forget him, though I am not prepared to affirm the fellow was exactly worth the life we lost in getting to him." (2.29)

Marlow admires Kurtz's power, but he's not blindly attracted to it like the harlequin is. Why? Does he know that Kurtz is corrupt?

The Manager

"'Yes,' answered the manager; 'he sent his assistant down the river with a note to me in these terms: "Clear this poor devil out of the country, and don't bother sending more of that sort. I had rather be alone than have the kind of men you can dispose of with me." (2.1)

Kurtz is so powerful in the company that he can kick out his assistant and order the Company not to send him any more "of that sort." Must be nice—until it makes you crazy.

"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." (2.29)

Kurtz's sense of ownership has been warped by his status as a "god" amongst the native Africans. He thinks everything, including the wilderness he inhabits, belongs to him. His sense of himself has expanded to include everything around him, in sharp contrast to the other men's (i.e., Marlow's crew's) sense of getting smaller when they're surrounded by the wilderness.

Chapter 3

"A voice! a voice! It was grave, profound, vibrating, while the man did not seem capable of a whisper. However, he had enough strength in him—factitious no doubt—to very nearly make an end of us, as you shall hear directly." (3.11)

Kurtz may look like a skeleton/ ghost/ phantom/ dying man, but he still has enough power in him to almost do away with Marlow and his crew.

"They [the heads] only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him - some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence." (3.5)

Er, saying that the beheadings shows that Kurtz couldn't "restrain" his "lusts" seems like a bit of an understatement. This "lack of restraint" ultimately brings about Kurtz's downfall. You think?

"A clean-shaved man, with an official manner and wearing gold-rimmed spectacles, called on me one day and made inquiries, at first circuitous, afterwards suavely pressing, about what he was pleased to denominate certain 'documents.' I was not surprised, because I had had two rows with the manager on the subject out there. I had refused to give up the smallest scrap out of that package, and I took the same attitude with the spectacled man. He became darkly menacing at last, and with much heat argued that the Company had the right to every bit of information about its 'territories.' And said he, 'Mr. Kurtz's knowledge of unexplored regions must have been necessarily extensive and peculiar - owing to his great abilities and to the deplorable circumstances in which he had been placed: therefore - ' I assured him Mr. Kurtz's knowledge, however extensive, did not bear upon the problems of commerce or administration. He invoked then the name of science. 'It would be an incalculable loss if,' etc., etc. I offered him the report on the 'Suppression of Savage Customs,' with the postscriptum torn off. He took it up eagerly, but ended by sniffing at it with an air of contempt. 'This is not what we had a right to expect,' he remarked. 'Expect nothing else,' I said. 'There are only private letters.' He withdrew upon some threat of legal proceedings […]." (3.49)

The Company has all kinds of arguments about why they really need Kurtz's papers—devotion to science, legal right, etc.—but they obviously just want one thing: profit.

Charlie Marlow

"I am not disclosing any trade secrets. In fact, the manager said afterwards that Mr. Kurtz's methods had ruined the district. I have no opinion on that point, but I want you clearly to understand that there was nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there." (3.5)

All of a sudden, Marlow seems awfully concerned with the Company's profits. Like the manager, he disagrees with Kurtz's judgment here, saying that beheading native Africans wasn't exactly profitable. Callous? Cynical? Satiric? You decide.

"'Kurtz got the tribe to follow him, did he?' I suggested. He fidgeted a little. 'They adored him,' he said. The tone of these words was so extraordinary that I looked at him searchingly. It was curious to see his mingled eagerness and reluctance to speak of Kurtz. The man filled his life, occupied his thoughts, swayed his emotions. 'What can you expect?' he burst out; 'he came to them with thunder and lightning, you know—and they had never seen anything like it—and very terrible. He could be very terrible." (3.4)

Kurtz is so powerful that he manages to convince the native Africans to help him steal ivory from their fellow tribes. What's weird is we can't quite tell if the Africans worship him because they think he's awesome, or because they're terrified of him. Is it the same?

Mr. Kurtz

"At this moment I heard Kurtz's deep voice behind the curtain: 'Save me!—save the ivory, you mean. Don't tell me. Save me!'" (3.18)

Kurtz is so debauched by greed that he assumes everyone feels the same way. He believes that the manager does not actually want to save him, but to save the ivory in order to look good to the Company. He is, of course, correct.

[Kurtz]: "'Sick! Sick! Not so sick as you would like to believe. Never mind. I'll carry my ideas out yet—I will return. I'll show you what can be done. You with your little peddling notions - you are interfering with me. I will return.'" (3.18)

Kurtz—apparently ignoring the fact that he is literally dying—still thinks he's going to win. He considers not only that the manager himself is less powerful than he, but that the manager's ideas are merely "little peddling notions" beside his own great ambitions.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...