Study Guide

Heart of Darkness Time

By Joseph Conrad

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Chapter 1
Charlie Marlow

"I asked myself what I was to do there, now my boat was lost. As a matter of fact, I had plenty to do in fishing my command out of the river. I had to set about it the very next day. That, and the repairs when I brought the pieces to the station, took some months." (1.51)

Marlow is so intent on making his journey that he loses no time in beginning repairs on the steamboat. However, the damage is done and he must delay his trip yet again.

"I had to wait in the station for ten days – an eternity." (1.45)

Marlow hates delay and wants to get started as soon as possible on his journey into the heart of Africa. He is impatient. This is interesting, given that the Nellie is itself delayed while he tells his story.

[Marlow]: "Of course in this you fellows see more than I could then. You see me, whom you know […]." (1.65)

The current, story-telling Marlow emphasizes the differences between himself now and himself as a character in his tale. His maturation from these events of a year ago has now given him a wisdom and perspective he previously lacked.

And indeed nothing is easier for a man who has, as the phrase goes, ‘followed the sea’ with reverence and affection, that to evoke the great spirit of the past upon the lower reaches of the Thames. The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled - the great knights-errant of the sea. It had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time, from the Golden Hind returning with her rotund flanks full of treasure, to be visited by the Queen's Highness and thus pass out of the gigantic tale, to the Erebus and Terror, bound on other conquests – and that never returned. It had known the ships and the men. (1.6)

Marlow’s love for the sea turns his eyes to its past and glorious history. He recounts all the pioneers of the Thames River, all commissioned to exploration by the crown. It is obvious from Marlow’s tone that he reveres these historical figures.

"However, they were all waiting – all the sixteen or twenty pilgrims of them – for something; and upon my word it did not seem an uncongenial occupation, from the way they took it, though the only thing that ever came to them was disease – as far as I could see. They beguiled the time by back-biting and intriguing against each other in a foolish kind of way. There was an air of plotting about that station, but nothing came of it, of course." (1.56)

Conrad plays with time to give the situation a feeling of futility and ineptitude. Everyone experiences a sense of delay and, particularly in Marlow’s case, a sense of endless ennui in the constant waiting.

We looked on, waiting patiently – there was nothing else to do till the end of the flood; but it was only after a long silence, when he said, in a hesitating voice, "I suppose you fellows remember I did once turn fresh-water sailor for a bit," that we knew we were fated, before the ebb began to run, to hear about one of Marlow's inconclusive experiences. (1.14)

Marlow’s story is told in a period of delay as the Nellie cannot sail for lack of a sufficient tide. The crew resigns itself to hearing about one of Marlow’s past inscrutable journeys.

"Oh, these months!" (1.55)

Conrad uses these delays to increase the sense of suspense and give Marlow (and the readers) more time to grow curious about Kurtz.

The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearly calm, and being bound down the river, the only thing for it was to come to and wait for the turn of the tide. (1.1)

The story begins with an interruption. The Nellie, stranded by a flood, can do nothing but wait for the tide to turn to continue her journey. It is during this delay that Marlow tells his story.

Chapter 2
Charlie Marlow

"I don't think a single one of them had any clear idea of time, as we at the end of countless ages have. They still belonged to the beginnings of time […]." (2.14)

Marlow observes that the native Africans’ concept of time is far different from the linear European one. However, he is arrogant about it and assumes that they have no concept of time whatsoever, never entertaining the thought that theirs might simply be different.

"[…] the memory of that time itself lingers around me, impalpable, like a dying vibration of one immense jabber, silly, atrocious, sordid, savage, or simply mean, without any kind of sense." (2.27)

In the present, Marlow comments that the memory of his journey up the Congo remains with him, as if he is constantly caught in that journey and cannot break free of it.

"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." (2.5)

In the weird, prehistoric world of the interior, Marlow’s own past comes flashing back to him. Though one would expect this to give him reassurance, to help him remember who he is and remain sane, it does quite the opposite. For the memories come back not as he remembers them, but wrapped in the unfamiliar disguise of an "unrestful and noisy dream." Thus, even one’s own memories become alien and unfamiliar in the reality-warping interior.

"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." (2.5)

The Congo River is a linear representation of time; the further the men go up it, the more they feel as if they are traveling backwards in time. The jungle they encounter is so thick and untouched that they feel as if they are traversing a prehistoric world.

"We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil." (2.7)

Marlow and his crew feel as if they have stepped into a deep past; he believes they are the first men ever to walk this savage planet. Marlow feels as if he is charged with the duty to tame this wild earth at the cost of personal turmoil. Such is the power of the interior.

"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)

The men are completely devoid of any understanding of their surroundings; even though they are traversing the prehistoric past, they cannot access their own pasts, their own memories.

Chapter 3

"The brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing us down towards the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress; and Kurtz's life was running swiftly, too, ebbing, ebbing out of his heart into the sea of inexorable time." (3.36)

Going downstream on the Congo River, which we have by now equated with traveling through time, is much faster than moving upstream. Since Marlow and his crew are headed back towards civilized Europe, they feel as if they are traveling forward in time.

Charlie Marlow

"All that had been Kurtz's had passed out of my hands: his soul, his body, his station, his plans, his ivory, his career. There remained only his memory and his Intended – and I wanted to give that up, too, to the past, in a way – to surrender personally all that remained of him with me to that oblivion which is the last word of our common fate." (3.50)

One of the reasons Marlow wants to get rid of Kurtz’s letters is so that he can put Kurtz and his whole journey behind him, so that he can resign it peacefully to the past.

"I thought his memory was like the other memories of the dead that accumulate in every man's life – a vague impress on the brain of shadows that had fallen on it in their swift and final passage; but before the high and ponderous door, between the tall houses of a street as still and decorous as a well-kept alley in a cemetery, I had a vision of him on the stretcher, opening his mouth voraciously, as if to devour all the earth with all its mankind. He lived then before me; he lived as much as he had ever lived – a shadow insatiable of splendid appearances, of frightful realities; a shadow darker than the shadow of the night, and draped nobly in the folds of a gorgeous eloquence. The vision seemed to enter the house with me - the stretcher, the phantom-bearers, the wild crowd of obedient worshippers, the gloom of the forests, the glitter of the reach between the murky bends, the beat of the drum, regular and muffled like the beating of a heart – the heart of a conquering darkness. 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. 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.' […] He wanted no more than justice - no more than justice. I rang the bell before a mahogany door on the first floor, and while I waited he seemed to stare at me out of the glassy panel – stare with that wide and immense stare embracing, condemning, loathing all the universe. I seemed to hear the whispered cry, "The horror! The horror!" (3.51)

The past comes powerfully and vividly alive for Marlow as he makes his way to the Intended’s house. He finds that his memories are not the "vague impress on the brain" that he has been accustomed to. In contrast, he remembers his meeting with Kurtz quite lucidly.

The Harlequin

"The glamour of youth enveloped his [the harlequin’s] parti-coloured rags, his destitution, his loneliness, the essential desolation of his futile wanderings. For months - for years - his life hadn't been worth a day's purchase; and there he was gallantly, thoughtlessly alive, to all appearances indestructible solely by the virtue of his few years and of his unreflecting audacity." (3.1)

The harlequin has survived in the wilderness for years, despite the fact that back in Europe, he is not worth a "day’s purchase" – or a single payday. However, in the interior, time becomes as warped as reality.

[The harlequin]: "'We talked of everything,' he said, quite transported at the recollection. 'I forgot there was such a thing as sleep. The night did not seem to last an hour." (3.2)

The harlequin’s conversations with Kurtz were so engaging that time seemed to fly for them. Words have a way of warping time.

Mr. Kurtz

"It was more than a year since his death, more than a year since the news came; she [the Intended] seemed as though she would remember and mourn forever […]. But while we were still shaking hands, such a look of awful desolation came upon her face that I perceived she was one of those creatures that are not the playthings of Time. For her he had died only yesterday. And, by Jove! the impression was so powerful that for me, too, he seemed to have died only yesterday – nay, this very minute. I saw her and him in the same instant of time – his death and her sorrow – I saw her sorrow in the very moment of his death. Do you understand? I saw them together – I heard them together." (3.53)

Kurtz’s Intended seems as if she is not susceptible to the ravages nor the comforts of passing time. She stretches the time of mourning into eternity.

Heart of Darkness Time Study Group

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