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Heart of Darkness Part One Analysis

Updated on November 3, 2016
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Notes for Discussion

Note: Page Reference in brackets are referring to the Heart of Darkness copy by Penguin Classics.

  1. Meaning of the title
  2. Narrative structure
  3. The Thames acts as a linking device, a waterway linked to all else (15), leading to the 'uttermost ends of the earth.' (16)
  4. Note the first lot of repeated references to darkness (15). What is it associated with here? Note the contrast between the brilliant sky and the 'gloom' (16) and the association of gloom with death (16).
  5. Conrad's use of resonating imagery - dominoes as bones (16). This reference to the death-like will be used repeatedly. Consider also the material from which they are made.
  6. Marlow as idol, ascetic (16), like a Buddha (20). This will link him later to Kurtz.
  7. Thames is seen as a site, historically, of exploration, adventure, empire. It therefore links present to recent past and to historic past. Note the language of bounty - 'jewels', 'flanks full of treasure' (17). Success, though, is not all - the reference to the Erebus and the Terror (17) suggest the ominous. read the notes and notice also the suggestion of cannibalism.
  8. Note the description of empire (17).
  9. Marlow's ominous first words (18).
  10. The nature of Marlow's yarn - the meaning not like a kernel but outside (18). What does this mean?
  11. Britain itself as once a possession, part of a dominant empire, Roman (18). See note 17 (pg. 128). A site of 'darkness' (19) in the past. A place of savagery, mystery, wilderness (19). It is incomprehensible yet fascinating - the 'fascination of abomination ... the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate' (20). Marlow is, of course, referring to an imagined past, but his comments are equally applicable to the experiences he is about to relate.
  12. Marlow draws a distinction between 'then' and 'now', the distinction being 'efficiency' (20). This will take on a powerful irony once his tale is told. A distinction is also drawn between colonists and conquerors. (This too will be rendered ironic.) Note his definition of these conquerors (20). Is the idea sufficient to redeem it as he suggests?
  13. Use of suspense in the construction of Kurtz ( 21) - the 'poor chap.'
  14. The journey as metaphor (21) : it will cast a light upon Marlow, though not necessarily clearly (21). ( The reference to lack of clarity will be used repeatedly in the novel.) Note the reference to throwing a light on everything about him. His experiences are as much about him as Kurtz.
  15. Africa as a blank space, a space on which empire can inscribe. Consider the discourse of empire. The blankness then becomes darkness (22) in Marlow's narration.
  16. The faintly comical, absurd tale of Fresleven. The ironic tone is now clearly detectable ( 23-24). The outcome is , of course, ominous. The country conquers Fresleven (consider the image of the grass through his ribs). There are also echoes of Kurtz, Fresleven as a 'supernatural being' (24).
  17. The 'whited sepulchre' (24) - allusion, Matthew 23.
  18. The two women knitting at the doorway (24,26). Symbolising? Note Marlow's description: 'guarding the door of Darkness' (26). What is the site of darkness here? Note also the faintly mocking: Morituri te salutant.
  19. Marlow is impressed by the amount of 'red' on the map, indicative of 'real work' (25) being done. Ironic? Note also the image of a continent carved up amongst different colours.
  20. The deadly references continue - dead centre, deadly like a snake ( and also fascinating ) (25). An unsettling mood builds in the narrative through such references.
  21. The doctor's reference to changes inside (27). He too sees himself benefitting from empire (27).
  22. Empire symbolising through light, and the empire builders as apostles (28). Marlow's aunt sees the missionary purpose of empire. Reflects the belief that empire was holy work, redeeming the savages.
  23. Note the purpose of the French steamer's voyage - to drop off soldiers (military might) and custom-house officers (economic) (29).
  24. The coast line as alive and threatening (29).
  25. Note the carelessness - men drown, though 'nobody seemed particularly to care.' (30)
  26. Imperialism - a 'sordid farce acted in front of a sinister backcloth.' (30)
  27. Marlow's language regarding the Africans is problematic: the cliched white of the eyeball; the faces like grotesque masks; the wild vitality (30) But he also points out their natural belonging, contrasting the absurdity of the imperial position.
  28. The French man-o-war (30-31) - a symbol of futility and absurdity ('insanity').
  29. Imperialism - the 'merry dance of death and trade' (31). Intruders, unwanted by Nature (31).
  30. The Company Station - images of decay, futility, uselessness, inhumanity (32-33).
  31. Empire as a 'flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly.' (34) But a devil that was also insidious.
  32. The absurdity continues (the hole), followed by the Grove of Death (34-36). Note the use of irony throughout.
  33. Chief Accountant as alien (36) - the 'other' in this world. Note the description and the phrase 'a hairdresser's dummy' (36). Is Marlow's admiration of this figure real? Is the novel's position ironic? (Consider the double narrators.) Contrast his devotion to 'apple-pie order' with the scene just described and that which follows (described as 'chaos' by Marlow - 37). Marlow himself points out the incongruity (38).
  34. use of suspense continues - Marlow first hears 'the name of the man' (36). The word 'Kurtz' is first mentioned (37). Note how he is described by the Chief Accountant (37-38). What is it that makes his 'remarkable'?
  35. Note the articles of exchange: ivory for rubbishy cottons, beads and brass wire (37).
  36. The 200 mile walk to Central Station is defined by 'solitude', desertion, death and silence. Images of the absurd continues ( the drunk white man maintaining the road - 39). Note the sardonic tone here. Marlow's attraction, though, is clear: responding to the drums, he finds them 'weird, appealing, suggestive, and wild' (39). The drums are given a serious significance, possibly equating their meaning with that of church bells (39). Is the value Marlow gives them redressing the popular view of Africa as savage and uncivilised?
  37. Marlow's companion makes European motive clear: he is in Africa to 'make money, of course.' (40)
  38. We are reminded of Marlow's visit to the doctor before departure. Reflecting upon the mental changes that fascinated the doctor, Marlow says: 'I felt I was becoming scientifically interesting.' (40)
  39. Note the description upon arriving at the Central Station and Marlow's second reference to the 'flabby devil' who ran the show (40).
  40. White men with staves. An image of what?
  41. The absurdity ( or stupidity, as Marlow says) continues: the steamer is sunk but everyone 'had behaved splendidly! splendidly!' (40-41). Compare the fire in the grass shed (44) and the symbol of the leaking bucket.
  42. Note the description of the manager of the Station - the sense of something unpleasant (41-42). Marlow defines the quality as 'inspiring uneasiness' (42).
  43. Despite the manager's lack of qualifications or suitability, he has kept his position through good health and because he 'could keep the routine going' (42). Compare the Chief Accountant.
  44. The Manager is another hollow man: 'Perhaps there was noting within him ... 'Men who come out here should have no entrails.' (26) Compare this with the description of the Chief Accountant as a hairdresser's dummy.
  45. Kurtz as a figure of admiration, gossip, etc (27). Marlow's response at this stage ('Hang Kurtz' - 43), uttered in frustration, will be reversed by the novel's end.
  46. Marlow contrasts the imbecilic rapacity of the imperial world with the 'great and invincible' wilderness, waiting for the passing away of 'this fantastic invasion.' (44) Note the pilgrims passage.
  47. Note the maternal image - the wilderness takes the beaten 'nigger' 'into its bosom again.' (45)
  48. The sinister suggestion is made that the manager does not want Marlow to reach Kurtz, seeing the accident as unfortunate. Why does he not want Marlow to journey upstream? Note the Mephistophelian image of the first-class agent: ' a forked little beard and a hooked nose.' (45) He is later referred to as a 'papier-mache Mephistopheles' (48), a figure with 'nothing inside' (48).
  49. The images of purposelessness continue - the agent and his fellow pilgrims awaiting something so that he can make bricks (45).
  50. The 'philanthropic pretence' (46) of empire - 'The only real feeling was a desire to get appointed to a trading-post where ivory was to be had (46).
  51. The painting by Kurtz (30) - an image of Justice?, Liberty? Its stately gait will be repeated in the stateliness of Kurtz's African mistress.
  52. Look closely at the agent's description of Kurtz (47) - a prodigy; an emissary; providing the higher intelligence, wide sympathies and singleness of purpose they lack, a special being. Note also his fear of him, not wanting Marlow to misunderstand him (48).
  53. The references to the wilderness continues - the 'silence of the land went home to one's very heart, - its mystery, its greatness, the amazing reality of its concealed life.' (48) Marlow juxtaposes the temple-like vegetation, the great, glittering river, and the great, mute wilderness with the jabbering fool (49). Marlow wonders: 'Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us?' 'What was in there?' Marlow asks (49).
  54. Marlow and lies (49). Reliability of narrator. What of his final lie?
  55. Kurtz as merely a word at this stage (50).
  56. Note the way Marlow struggles to express himself and to get his meaning across. His narrative breaks off momentarily (50).
  57. The first narrator, in a sense, reflects our response as audience: a 'faint uneasiness inspired by this narrative.' (50)
  58. Kurtz, in the agent's words, as a 'universal genius' (51).
  59. Look at the language used to describe the arrival of the Eldorado Exploring Expedition (54-55). They provide Marlow with another opportunity to comment on the European presence in Africa: 'To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no moral purpose at the back of it' (36).
  60. The section ends with Marlow's comment on Kurtz, pre-empting the journey he is soon to continue: 'I was curious to see whether this man (Kurtz), who had come out equipped with moral ideas of some sort, would climb to the top after all, and how he would set about his work when there.' (37).

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