Notes for the Study of Heart of Darkness


-Notes prepared by Mr. Bauld

Symbol: a concrete image which, because of its placement in a work of literature, suggests an abstract meaning in addition to the literal one. In Macbeth, blood comes to symbolize guilt, and the night comes to symbolize hell.

Conrad is a treasure trove (or minefield) of symbols. Consider the following images:(pg references to Bantam Classic edition)

Congo river 56 etc.
Thames river 3
Nellie (at anchor, floating on the Thames)
Marlow's Buddha postures 4/9/80/132/
rivets 45
fire bucket at the central station 37
light (positive and negative)
dark (positive and negative)
painting of the blindfolded woman 40
blindfolded man
snake/bird (Genesis)
"whited sepulchre" (Matthew 23, 27-28) and sepulchral city(120)
ladies in black (Dante)16 (morituri te salutant- we who are about to die salute you)
"blank spaces" of the globe
pilgrims
veil (at K's death, and the idea of epiphany) 118
centre of the earth 19
removing the "cloak of time" 59-60//"night of first ages" 59
city of the dead (Brussels)
Towson's Book 62/63
staves (of the pilgrims) 37/42
butcher and policeman 80/82
Marlow's shoes 77
native woman 102
Intended 123
decorative heads 97
bricks (the "philanthropic pretense") 39
lie 44
restraint 69-70
"nightmare of my choice"
meanings: cracked nuts or spectral moonshine ?
the "flicker" of civilization 7
the "work" 26 etc (the sarcastic attitude to "progress")
"paths, paths everywhere" 31
"what did it matter" - this ironic detachment seems impt. part of the new Marlow
Inferno 26 (Dante)
Marlow and Kurtz (are their names revealing?)


The tone of Marlow's narration is infused with irony. He is often sarcastic in his reaction to his "listeners" and vicious when describing the effects of European colonialism. He has no use for what "the work"(26) or "their bright and just proceedings"(25) and he mocks the "permanent improvement" of bullet-riddled natives (32). Further, Marlow expresses a deep sense of the absurdity of all men's intentions (surely a part of the vision overwhelming Kurtz in "the horror"). He speaks of the "monkey tricks" of "pilgrims" but one senses that even Marlow is struggling to see any purpose to life. See his definition of life on 119: "Droll thing life is - that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose." This is a quieter version of Macbeth's "tale told by an idiot."

Marlow is faced with the Intended who requires him to lie. In the ancient Indian epic, Mahabarata, the lead brother of the Pandavas brings his poisoned brothers back to life because he is able to impress the gods with his answer that the virtuous man must be prepared to lie. Is Marlow's lie a sign of increased virtue/wisdom and if so, how?


Some questions to consider for an essay dealing with Kurtz's last words:

Who is K? European/African; light/dark
Why is his appearance delayed in the novel and then given such little space?
When M says the story is not really about himself, is he right?
What significance has K's name?
How far has Kurtz sunk?
Why is K the "nightmare" of M's choice? 105What is the other nightmare?
In what sense is K "a remarkable man"?105/119 Is it more than just the power he wielded?
How are Kurtz's last words an "achievement"?115-120
Why is Kurtz worth lying for?
What were K's European virtues?
Why does M feel as if "a veil" has lifted? 118 (or is the veil K's)
In what sense did K lack restraint?113 in what sense hollow?
What does the Russian/Harlequin reveal about K?
What of K's two women?
What of the natives' attitude to K?
What does K's treatise (Suppression of Savage Customs) say about K? 84-85
K dies and M almost dies 120-21
Is there an echo of Othello in the "reputation" lines? 106

Consider the 4 part structure of K's development:

1 who he was (Europe)
2 who he becomes (Africa)
3 the nature of his defeat
4. The residual significance/importance to Marlow

Consider the following 4 aspects of Kurtz's last words, "The horror, the horror":

1.Personal Disappointment - the guilt and sense of failure that must have come to him as perhaps he sees in a flash the greatness of a life ruined.

2. Insight into the darkness (cruelty, barbarity, violence, bloodlust etc ) that resides in the heart of everyman (does this include women? - what does M mean when he says women are "out of it"? - what of Ms Pearson's new book showing women share about equally in domestic violence statistics?)

3. Cosmic sense of the pointless and blind absurdity of life. The nihilism of Macbeth

4. Insight into the dark, horrific, inescapable horror upon which life is built ( "we are all murderers" - kill or be killed - survival of the fittest - the realization that paradise is lost, this is not Eden.

These, if you consider them carefully, are distinct aspects of a common theme. How does this nightmare compare to the "papier-maiche Mephistopheles"42 of the assistant manager, or the pilgrims and all the others?


Epiphany is a religious term which means a "showing forth of the Lord" and is a religious holiday celebrating the announcement of Christ's birth to the Magi. James Joyce used the word in literature to mean a profound awakening to some truth. The feeling is that both Marlow and Kurtz have rent the veil (another religious image) and come upon some profound insight into self and the cosmos. The difficult part is putting this into words and Conrad is not about to make it easy for us. (For a full description of this term, see Terms on the website.)

Vicarious means to experience through another as a parent experiences delight through her child's experiences. Literature may work this way, and so with the narrator and audience in Heart of Darkness. Let's not "sigh" along with the Director/Lawyer/Accountant. "Mustn't a man ever..."

All the handouts I have given you are not a substitute for reading the book carefully and seeing the context in which these symbols and ideas appear. There is still the whole book to feel, and it can be felt in many ways (but beware of the too obvious - it's the "spectral moonshine" we're after). These notes should be guides to direct you, or bells to awaken you, but will be counterproductive if you use them to sidestep Conrad's own words. His is language worth honouring.


List of Characters

Marlow
Kurtz
Narrator
Lawyer
Accountant
Director
aunt
ladies in black
doctor
Fresleven
Swede
Chief Company Accountant (outer Stn)
Central Station Manager
papier maiche Mephistopheles (ass't manager)
uncle of manager and EEE
Russian (Harlequin)
fireman
Kurtz's Black lover
The Intended
Cannibals
Helmsman
various pilgrims

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