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Submitted Literature

Heart of Darkness

By Joseph Conrad


Conrad’s classic novel Heart of Darkness tells the story of Marlow’s journey by steamboat into the interior of the African continent following his appointment as an agent for a river trading company.  Ominously, even before setting out, the company’s doctor asks him if there is any madness in his family, points up his interest in ‘the mental changes of individuals’ and warns: ‘ “In the tropics one must before everything keep calm.”   . . .  He lifted a warning forefinger . . . “Du calme, du calme.  Adieu.”  (17)  As the journey progresses, seeking out the chief ivory trader Kurtz, deep in the interior, his health and station in jeopardy, there is a growing unease that Maslow’s journey will be into psychological and spiritual as much as cultural and physical darkness.  He witnesses a ‘touch of insanity’ in a French man-of-war firing its guns into a dark, inscrutable jungle with its unseen natives, learns of a Swedish captain hanging himself and begins to experience the mental fragility of those around him as the strangeness, brooding silence and threat of the continent intrudes.  Reference to ‘lunatics’, the ‘asylum’, ‘madhouse’, nightmares, wildness and dream-like states builds a backdrop of mental anguish that peaks on arriving at Kurtz’s trading-post, where its manager is dressed in motley and the sick chief has clearly given himself over to a savage existence, with decapitated heads on sticks marking the boundary of his accommodation.  Kurtz, an enigmatic, gifted but deeply flawed individual is living among the natives like a god, ruling with the ‘thunder’ from his guns.  He has become a voracious brute despite his cultural refinement in oratory, poetry and musicality.  Although his ‘nerves’ have been deemed to go ‘wrong’ (71) ‘forget[ting] himself’ (81), presiding at midnight dances with the natives ‘ending with unspeakable rites’, Marlow diagnoses in Kurtz a moral madness.  Finding him ‘out to the edge of the forest’ and trying to bring him away from ‘the gleam of fires, the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations’ as another native ritual unfolds, Marlow comments: ‘And I wasn’t arguing with a lunatic either.  Believe me or not, his intelligence was perfectly clear ... But his soul was mad.  Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens!  I tell you, it had gone mad.’ (95)  

Key Themes:

  • Diversity and Ethnicity
  • Isolation
  • Revealing Reads

Significant Quotes / Pages

‘The old doctor felt my pulse, evidently thinking of something else the while.  “Good, good for there,” he mumbled, and then with a certain eagerness asked me whether I would let him measure my head.  ... “I always ask leave, in the interests of science, to measure the crania of those going out there,” he said. “And when they come back, too?” I asked.  “Oh, I never see them,” he remarked: “and, moreover, the changes take place inside, you know.”  He smiled, as if at some quiet joke.’ (16-17)

‘“Ever any madness in your family?” he asked, in a matter-of-fact tone.  I felt very annoyed.  “Is that question in the interests of science, too?”  “It would be,” he said, without taking notice of my irritation, “interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals, on the spot, but ...”  “Are you an alienist?” I interrupted.  “Every doctor should be – a little,” answered that original, imperturbably.’ (17)

‘The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy.  The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us – who could tell?  We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse.’ (51)

‘... the dream-sensation that pervaded all my days at that time.  Perhaps I had a little fever too. ... I had often “a little fever”, or a little touch of other things – the playful paw-strokes of the wilderness, the preliminary trifling before the more serious onslaught which came in due course.’ (59)

‘I looked around, and I don’t know why, but I assure you that never, never before, did this land, this river, this jungle, the very arch of this blazing sky, appear to me so hopeless and so dark, so impenetrable to human thought, so pitiless to human weakness.’ (79-80)

 ‘“This man suffered too much.  He hated all this, and somehow he couldn’t get away.  When I had a chance I begged him to try and leave while there was time; I offered to go back with him.  And he would say yes, and then he would remain: go off on another ivory hunt; disappear for weeks; forget himself amongst these people – forget himself – you know.”  “Why!  He’s mad,” I said.  He protested indignantly.  Mr Kurtz couldn’t be mad.  If I had heard him talk, only two days ago, I wouldn’t dare hint at such a thing ...’ (81)

‘I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself.’ (95-6)

‘His was an impenetrable darkness.  I looked at him as you peer down at a man who is lying at the bottom of a precipice where the sun never shines.’ (99)

‘I found myself back in the sephulchral city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams. ... Their bearing, which was simply the bearing of commonplace individuals going about their business in the assurance of perfect safety, was offensive to me like the outrageous flaunting of folly in the face of a danger it is unable to comprehend.  I had no particular desire to enlighten them, but I had some difficulty in restraining myself from laughing in their faces, so full of stupid importance.  I daresay I was not very well at that time.  I tottered about the streets ...’ (102)

‘He lived then before me; he lived as much as he had ever lived – a shadow insatiable of splendid appearances, or frightful realities; a shadow darker than the shadow of the night, and draped nobly in the folds of a gorgeous eloquence.’ (105)

Reference: Joseph, Conrad. 1902. Heart of Darkness. Penguin, 1973


Professor Paul Crawford
Date Review Submitted: Tuesday 4th August 2009