Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Tips from Toby, one of our English tutoring experts, on how to tackle Heart of Darkness.
Heart of Darkness — Frequently Asked Questions
Notoriously ambiguous, it can be a confusing work for students to approach. So, in aid of summer revision, I’ve written up a few evidence-based answers to questions of both plot and theme that you might want to ask about the novel.
Why Does Marlow go to the Congo?
Marlow goes to the Congo because he is attracted to the unknown. He tells us that from a young age he has fantasised about leaving Europe: “when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration.”
He is particularly fascinated by the “blank spaces” on maps, i.e. the places not yet charted by Europeans. Of all such places, he explains that he had a great hankering after “the biggest, the most blank” space he could find, by which we can infer he means Central Africa, as this is where he ends up.
We get a further insight into Marlow’s attraction to the Congo when he says “there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled.” He goes onto say, “It fascinated me as a snake would a bird.”
The metaphor links the Congo River to the Snake in the Garden of Eden, therefore suggesting that to Marlow the Congo represents temptation; just as the serpent tempts Eve to eat the fruit to gain knowledge of good and evil, the Congo River offers Marlow the promise of secret wisdom.
Why does Marlow find it so difficult to tell his story?
One of the central themes of Heart of Darkness is the difficulty of one human being communicating something to another. The novella takes the form of a story within a story (Marlow is telling his tale of travels in Africa to his friends on a boat on the Thames), which enables Conrad to build this theme into the structure of his fiction.
By writing the story as an oral account, beginning nearly every new paragraph with a set of speech marks, Conrad creates extra narrative level dividing his story from his readership. This means that rather than following Marlow’s actions as if in real time, we are only given his memory of events long after they have taken place, which obviously raises questions of how reliable the narrative is. The novella can therefore be seen as a drama of storytelling.
Marlow himself picks up this theme of unreliability. At a moment of frustration, he proclaims “it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence.” He goes on to muse that “we live, as we dream--alone...” The suggestion is that just as no one can ever really understand anyone else’s dreams, nor can anyone understand another person’s subjective experience of life. This makes communication between two people essentially futile.
The theme comes to a head when Marlow describes meeting Kurtz at last, and he tells his listeners that it is no good for him to report the conversation. “I've been telling you what we said[...] but what's the good? They were common everyday words[...]. But what of that? They had behind them, to my mind, the terrific suggestiveness of words heard in dreams, of phrases spoken in nightmares.” Again life is compared to a dream, and Marlow hints that the true meaning of words is not there on the surface, but rather remains hidden, in some unspecified “suggestiveness.”
What is meant by “The horror! The horror!”?
Kurtz’s dying words might be the most famous last line of any character in English literature, but what precisely is he trying to say? Kurtz himself is such an ambiguous creation that is hard to know just what he is thinking at the end of his life. However, Marlow gives us a few hints about what he might be saying. He describes Kurtz’s valediction as “the expression of some sort of belief; it had candour, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth—the strange commingling of desire and hate.”
We might infer from these words that Kurtz is horrified by his own actions, that “the glimpsed truth” produces moral repulsion at colonial violence. This is a man who has raided villages, and has stuck men’s heads on the tops of poles, and in his final moments he is comprehending the terrible mixture of “desire and hate” (both his own and other people’s) that has led him down this path.
Whatever Kurtz intends by his last words, Marlow feels them unsuitable for the ear of his beloved; he shields Kurtz’s fiancee from the truth by telling her that the last word he spoke was her name.
So there you have it...
A little close reading, and everything starts to become clear. Now knuckle down with your books, and get revising!
Blog Post Crafted by Toby
Toby is in charge of recruitment of new tutors. He conducts interviews with prospective tutors and assesses their lessons to get a feel for whether they have the teaching style we're looking for.