Magazine: Explicator, Fall, 1995


In Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the very first observation that the narrator Marlow makes about his African experiences is that when he came upon the remains of his predecessor, Fresleven, "the grass growing through his ribs was tall enough to hide his bones."[1] This juxtaposition of grass and mortal remains may remind many readers of several powerful scriptural images of mortality and the vanity of earthly endeavor--for instance

All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower fadeth away.[2]

Marlow's striking image resonates not only with these scriptural connotations, but also with suggestions of the paradoxical natural vitality of the grass growing through the bones, and with overtones of moral judgment for the culpable neglect of Fresleven's remains by his survivors.

Images of death are associated with grass repeatedly in Heart of Darkness. Long grass half conceals but ultimately reveals the bodies of dead carders, still in harness, in final repose beside the paths on which they labored (23). When Marlow's native helmsman is killed, Marlow says that the dead body is "heavier than any man on earth," yet when Marlow tips it over the side, it is swept back in the current "like a wisp of grass" (51). Here, if not earlier, a reader may realize that Conrad is combining images of death and grass systematically.

This motif is carried forward in two more strands. First, grass is associated with impermanence and futility in a series of increasingly intense images of material things, beginning with the almost comic picture of "wallowing in the grass" at the Lower Station, more like a hog than a corpse (19). More poignantly, Marlow describes rains of grass walls as somehow "pathetically childish" (23). Readers may recall this impression ironically when Marlow later describes the reactions of the other Europeans at the Central Station to the burning of a grass shed full of contemptibly cheap trade goods. The "pilgrims" futilely fight the fire with a single small, leaking bucket and then vent their frustration by beating a native who may or may not be guilty of starting the fire (26).

This strand of the motif is concluded powerfully in Marlow's description of Kurtz's Inner Station: "a long decaying building . . . half buried in the grass," with gaping holes in the roof (perhaps recalling the spaces between Fresleven's ribs) and--as Marlow eventually recognizes with a shock--a row of human heads on slender posts standing before it (52). The series of posts in the grass, too, may remind readers of Fresleven's ribs. In these images of Kurtz's station, the motif's earlier connotations of mortality, neglect, and unsuccessful concealment are compounded with overtones of the most profound moral revulsion.

Yet another thread of the motif begins when Marlow recalls that in the empty land along the lower reaches of the Congo, "the long grass, the burnt grass," of the African bush was marked by a network of paths which must have been "'stamped in," as Marlow says, by the feet of the invading Europeans and their exploited and oppressed African bearers, some of whose bodies we have already noted lying in the long grass (23). As Marlow proceeds further up the river, his route continues to be marked by grass. Even on the river, a bright green grassy hummock at the foot of a long bar like a spine in the river (also recalling Fresleven's bones) forces Marlow's river steamer inshore (44-45), where it is attacked by Kurtz's savage followers, who in the catastrophe kill the boat's native helmsman.

Finally, Marlow's progress into the heart of darkness climaxes on another trail through the grass--the same waist deep grass, one presumes, through which Kurtz was earlier carried on a stretcher (58). When Marlow finds the broad trail of the desperate and dying Kurtz, he follows it through the darkness toward the powerfully compelling, ultimately undescribable, barbaric but essentially human rites of the savages around their fires (64). Were they gathered in mourning? In celebration? For aggression or defense? Did Kurtz approach them for motives of self-indulgence, self-aggrandizement, or self-abnegation? Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, Marlow seems to have felt the attraction too, although he turned back and brought Kurtz with him.

This grass motif in Marlow's narrative, beginning with his description of the grass growing through Fresleven's ribs, and climaxing in the tall grass that reveals rather than conceals Kurtz's last, desperate attempt to penetrate the heart of darkness, carries with it connotations of impermanence, futility, and neglect. A profound, primitive, and powerful compound of irrepressible natural vitality and inescapable human mortality, these connotations taken together are the antithesis to human civilization at the same time that they ineluctably inhere in all humanity, civilized or not.

The full force of this motif may be seen, on reflection, in only the second image of grass in Marlow's narrative. Immediately after describing the grass growing through Fresleven's ribs, Marlow remembers visiting the sepulchral city where, on a silent and deserted street, in the dark shadows cast by tall buildings, he notices, improbably, "grass sprouting between the stones" (13) and then enters the offices of the trading company to begin a journey that does not end, not even at the end of Kurtz's broad trail through the grass wet with dew and sparkling in the starlit darkness.


1. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, ed. Robert Kimbrough, 3rd ed. (New York: Norton, 1988). The description of Fresleven's remains is on page 13.

2. 1 Peter 1:21. See also Psalm 90:5-6 and Isaiah 40:6 and 8.


By DAVID W. COLE & KENNETH B. GRANT, University of Wisconsin Center, Baraboo-Sauk County

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Source: Explicator, Fall95, Vol. 54 Issue 1, p24, 3p.