Heart of Darkness

Background Information
Use of Frame Story: the Frame takes place on a
ship sailing down the Thames River in southern
England. An unknown narrator relays Marlow’s
The Inner Story: Marlow recounts his earlier
journey to find Kurtz in the unchartered, African
Conrad sets this story in one of the last unexplored
territories where civilization completely
disappears. Marlow’s voyage is away from the
bright, artificial world travelling through endless
scenes of disintegration and decay until he at last
arrives in “the heart of darkness.”
Born to aristocratic Polish parents when Poland
was a part of the Russian empire.
To avoid being drafted into the Russian army, he
fled to France and England.
Didn’t learn English until he was twenty.
Entered the Merchant Marine to continue a career
at sea.
His career took him around the world; but most
time was spent in Asia and the South Pacific
Eventually retired due to health problems.
Wrote mostly adventurous sea stories for young
At first, his novels were not well-received
However, some important writers appreciated the
quality of his writing
His experience as a seafarer had a major influence
on his work
But his major focus was human beings under
extreme conditions and the struggle against
surrender to the darkness
Ambiguity: he never comes to clear conclusions as
to why people behave the way they do
Conrad’s career as a sailor coincided with the
peak of the British Empire 1870-1900
British colonies circled the globe
British navy protected sea lanes and merchant
marine moved people and cargo
Imperial governments were primarily
concerned with exploiting natural resources of
their colonies
Colonies were markets for manufactured goods
Frequently a matter of oppressing native
populations and taking advantage of their lack of
British also felt it was their duty to bring the fruits
of civilization to the non-white populations they
Conrad noticed the contradictions between the
goals of greed and bringing culture to native
Conrad’s purpose was to make people aware of
the problems and contradictions of the colonial
Conrad’s view of the world is that there are dark,
chaotic forces that continually threaten to destroy
individuals and whole civilizations
The only protection from this is the resolute
steadfastness of men and their stubborn reliance
upon each other—no matter how hopeless the
Conrad was an Existentialist, thus believing that
darkness and oblivion are an inevitable part of life
But humans must not surrender to these impulses
Some people, like “the Intended” cannot face
the true nature of darkness in the world; they
would be destroyed if they were forced to
confront it
Conrad believes that to truly understand the
world, we must confront the destructive heart
of the universe.
But we do so at great risk.
Man acts with inhumanity toward his fellow man.
Man’s nature is dualistic in that it has both a dark
and light side; that is, man’s nature
contains the potential for good and evil.
To confront the dark side of oneself may lead to
self-knowledge, but it can also lead to disastrous
Those who claim to be bringing light and
enlightenment to Africa wound up destroyingthe
Conrad learned from Henry James the technique called
“Ambiguous Narrator”
Allows him to better represent how uncertain we must
always be about the words, actions, and motivations of
As opposed to the “Omniscient narrator,” it increases the
distance between the main characters and the reader by
adding layers of isolation
1st Layer: Marlow tells his experiences as a fresh-water
commander of a steamboat expedition up the Congo River
2nd Layer: Narrator who is listening to Marlow’s story
3rd Layer: Marlow tells a story, the meaning of which, he
himself admittedly does not fully understand; his stories
are “inconclusive experiences”
The reader must work through three distinct layers to reach
the truth about Kurtz
Metaphors for the human condition
Used as a way to analyze literary worksespecially tragedy
Apollonian impulse = Rationality: Thought
before action; self-restraint
Dionysian impulse = Irrationality: Giving in to
impulses; removal of boundaries
Think about characters in HOD which
exemplify these characteristics…
This story can be interpreted on three levels:
As a mystery story, a story of the mystery of
character (especially the true character of Kurtz).
As an adventure story, the story of an African
journey which the narrator, Marlow, takes in his
quest to meet the legendary Kurtz.
Above all, the record of a descent into the center,
into the darkness at the core of existence.
• the color white
• darkness, blackness
• Kurtz
• Marlow’s four friends on the Nellie
• the jungle,
• the wilderness
• the journey
Provide ample details from the novel to support the following thesis:
The novel Heart of Darkness reflects Conrad’s anger at the barbarities
of imperialistic greed.
Identify the major symbols in this story and give a symbolic
interpretation for Marlow’s journey.
Discuss the significance of the title of this novel. State how you know
the title is significant, and identify at least three things that the
phrase “heart of darkness” may mean.
A number of times, the river (the Congo) is described as a snake. In
the Bible, the snake is an obvious symbolic archetype. Can you
suggest any relationship between these two symbols?
Why do you suppose Conrad uses the frame story style of narration?
What might Conrad have been after by having Marlow tell his story
to four friends rather than just having him tell the story directly?

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