European Humanities
Spring 2019
Mr. Spragins

Heart of Darkness (Reading Four) (27-47)

The Overheard Conversation (pp. 56-57) (27-29) (38-41)

By his third month living at the Company's Middle Station, Marlow has taken to spending most of his days and every night aboard the steamboat that he has been trying to repair. One afternoon he overhears bits and pieces of a conversation between the Manager and his uncle (28) (38-41), the leader of the Eldorado Expeditionary Force. They are talking, of course, about Kurtz. They believe that Marlow has been sent on a special mission by the Home Office in Brussels to determine what is going on at the Inner Station..

Marlow also learns that only once has Kurtz made the journey back to the Middle Station, but at the last moment, he turned around and headed back into the wilderness. Since then, the rumor is that Kurtz has been ill but hasn't recovered completely from his disease. The only hard evidence of Kurtz's behavior in the interior has been the steady flow of enormous amounts of ivory down river. At this moment Marlow says that he perceives his first clear image of Kurtz, the man. 

  • Why did Kurtz turn his back on civilization, rejecting all thoughts of home and return to normal life?
  • The Manager and his uncle also refer to 'the pestiferous absurdity' of Kurtz's idealistic dreams of turning the ivory stations into beacons of humanity, education and improvement for the natives. 
  • How could they have been so sure that the jungle would end Kurtz's humanist mission?


Heart of Darkness (Reading Four)

The Voyage to the Inner Station (30-47) (41-64)

In great literature, setting, character and theme merge together. How does Conrad's description of his jungle setting not only characterize the psychological journey of Marlow towards Kurtz, but also present his central theme?

You must interpret Conrad's uncanny imagery to follow Marlow up river.

Can you interpret this imagery psychoanalytically? What is happening to Marlow? How would he describe this irrational progress into a secret realm of human nature? 


  • How has Marlow experience in the jungle nearly transformed him into a person capable of Kurtz's crimes? Has he 'gone native'? Or is something far more disturbing and terrifying happening to him? What moment of recognition saves him? How does he avert the completion of his transformation into Kurtz?

Discussion: Marlow, Conrad and the Problem of Racism

Conrad helps us to grasp the secret heart of racism. Judgments about racism are easy to make. Of course, racism is wrong and completely unacceptable, but why does racism exists.

At moments during the river trip, the boat will come around a bend, and the calm of the jungle will be shattered by the sudden excited greetings of native villagers. Marlow describes the blacks congregating at the riverbank as howling, leaping savages, rolling their eyes and clapping their hands in 'a blank and incomprehensible frenzy' (62) (32).  Marlow (and perhaps Conrad) believes he is witnessing the spectacle of 'Man in the State of Nature'. 

How have Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud influenced Conrad?

Look carefully at Marlow's description of the fireman aboard the boat who is responsible for maintaining the proper pressure in the boiler of the steam engine (63-64) (33). What is happening within Marlow's mind? He is a smart man, a representative of a highly educated civilization. Kurtz is even more brilliant. Marlow believes that he is encountering in real life a representative of his own most primitive impulses, alive and breathing beneath the thin veneer of civilization. Do you agree?

Yet you should also note how Marlow describes the 'cannibals' (36) who serve as his wood gatherers. Initially, he is disgusted by their taste for rotting hippo meat. He also ridicules them for accepting worthless brass rods as payment for their labor. However, as the journey continues, and their hunger increases, Marlow marvels at their restraint (38), their ability to control their behavior despite intense hunger. 

Finally, Marlow reviles his helmsman (40) in the most racist terms, but after witnessing the man's agony and his final moments before death, Marlow comes to a new understanding of his kinship (46-47) with this man from a strange culture. What do they both share in common?

Is it any surprise that at this moment Marlow has a glimpse into the secret of Kurtz's charisma (43)?

Marlow's frustrating failure to transform the natives into good Europeans and bring the great jungle under rational control has brought him into contact with dangerous impulses within his own psyche. Think about how the great Enlightenment ideals of reason, universal rights and progress have foundered in this encounter between two alien cultures.