Study Guide

Heart of Darkness Language and Communication

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Language and Communication

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For someone who wrote a lot of big words, Conrad seems to have some serious doubts about the power of language. In Heart of Darkness, words are always trying and failing to live up to their big, impressive goal: ensuring that two people can understand each other. For Kurtz, language is a way to justify white man's superiority over the Africans. For Marlow, language represents a way out of madness by establishing a connection with other humans. For the Africans—well, who knows? To Marlow, their words aren't even language. We might say the same about you, Mr. Conrad.

Questions About Language and Communication

  1. What is significant about the manager's and the brickmaker's characteristic blabbering? What does it say about their characters?
  2. How does Marlow receive information about Kurtz? Are these sources reliable? What expectations does Marlow form about Kurtz based on this hearsay?
  3. What is Kurtz's relationship to language? How does his troubled psyche manifest itself in his words? What is Marlow's opinion of all this and how does it affect his own relationship to language? Does he see it as a cure for madness?
  4. What is Marlow's style of narration? Does the fact that he is telling the story compromise our belief in its validity? Is he a reliable narrator? What might be his goal in relating the story to his fellow passengers?

Chew on This

Linguistic expression—through either speech or text—represents one way out of madness, but they also represent a way into madness. Kurtz's handle on language helps make him go crazy.

In Heart of Darkness, problems with words give us a clue to character defects.

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