Heart of Darkness

Affiliation: Department Of English Education, New York University

Heart Of Darkness: Parts 1 and 2


In September of 1889, Conrad began writing his first novel, Almayer's Folly, but he was more interested in beginning an adventure which was to provide material for one of his most widely read works, Heart of Darkness.

Years before, in 1868, when he was a boy of nine, Conrad had been staring at a map of Africa. Pointing with his finger to the blank space that was the then unexplored heart of the continent, he said, "When I grow up I shall go there."

Now, twenty-one years later and in different country, Conrad decided to make good on his boyhood promise. The blank space on the map of Africa was no longer blank; it was the Belgian Congo Conrad decided to ask for the job of captain on one of the steamers that plied the river which leads into the center of that territory.

Thus, in September of 1889, a letter was presented to Albert Thys, acting head of the Societe Anonyme Belge pour les Commerce du Haut-Congo, recommending Captain Korzeniowski for the job. In January of 1890, Captain Koreniowski (or Conrad, as he will be called from now on) wrote to an aunt by marriage, Madame Marguerite Poradowska, asking her to see what she could do to help him to obtain his appointment. Madame Poradowska was a woman of thirty, beautiful, and surrounded by a circle of influential friends. If anyone in Brussels could help Conrad, she could. On the fifth of February, Conrad began a trip from England to the Ukraine, where he was to visit relatives. He stopped of in Brussels to see Madame Poradowska, and then continued his trip. He spent several months in the Ukraine, but he corresponded with Madame Poradowska about his hoped-for job. Finally, on April 29, 1890, Conrad arrived for a second time in Brussels, this time to sign a contract to act as a riverboat pilot on the Congo River in Africa. On May 11, 1890, he set out for Bordeaux, France, where he would get a boat that would carry him off to Africa. The story Marlow tells in Heart of Darkness, about how he came to go to Africa, is almost exactly the same in the important details as the experience that Conrad had in 1889-1890. Later, when we compare the diary that Conrad kept of his Congo adventures with the part of the story that takes place in Africa, we will again notice how closely Conrad followed the details of his actual experience when he wrote his story.

The Narrative Technique Of Heart Of Darkness:

Heart of Darkness is written as a narrative within a narrative. The first narrator never enters into the story itself; he merely describes events that occur on the deck of a yacht, the Nellie, anchored in the Thames in the middle of London. This first narrator is Conrad himself. He describes the deck of the Nellie where he and a group of four other persons have gathered: the Director of Companies, the Lawyer, the Accountant, and Marlow, "the only man of us who still 'followed the sea." It is Marlow who narrates the adventures in the Congo. From time to time, the scene moves back to the deck of the yacht, and the first narrator picks up the story.

Why has Conrad gone to the trouble of introducing a character, Marlow between the story to be told and the author, Conrad himself? One possibility is that Conrad felt he needed an additional character, not identified with the "pilgrims" (Conrad's ironic name for the agents of the Societe... HautCongo) of the trading company, nor with the author himself. The function of this character would be to establish a norm against whom we can compare the actions of the other characters. Marlow stands for Man as he usually is, while the "pilgrims" and Kurtz stand for Man when he deviates from the norm. If this is the case, however-if both Conrad and marlow are represented in the story - we must be careful about ascribing feelings and ideas of Marlow's opinions, Conrad is not Marlow; the two are separate.

If we think of Marlow as a bit of a mystery, and he is, how much more mysterious in his creator! Marlow, we are told early in the story, is "inscrutable", that is, he is incapable of being understood. Fortunately Marlow does tell us how he feels about the things that happen around him. Although we may not understand him, at least we know whose side he is on. We never can be sure about that other narrator, the fifth person on the deck of the yacht. He merely reports what is going on around him.

The Plot Of Heart Of Darkness. Part 1: Toward The Heart Of Darkness

To the four other men on the deck of the Nellie, which is anchored in the Thames, Captain Marlow proposes to tell of an adventure that happened to him years ago. Before he begins his story, he thinks about the history of England at the time when it was a backward country and Roman soldiers came to it to plunder and to conquer.


Conrad wishes us to compare England two thousands years ago to Africa in the nineteenth century. Just as Marlow is about to travel into the heart of a wilderness. An accident of time separates Marlow from those Roman soldiers. Perhaps Conrad is suggesting that the veneer of civilization merely covers the primitive foundation which gives structure to any society, whether it be in England in prehistoric ages, Africa in the nineteenth century, or, by extension, America in the twentieth century.

Marlow first describes how he came to make the trip to the Congo. He was a young man out of a job; he had been interested in the Congo for a long time; he had an aunt who could help him to get an appointment as a river-boat pilot. In short, Marlow retells the story that Conrad had actually experienced. He takes a French steamer to the mouth of the Congo River. The steamer has made many stops along the way and Marlow is impressed with the sameness of the jungle landscape, and the mysteriousness of it. They pass a French gunboat firing shells into the jungle. Marlow is told that there are natives in the jungle, but the idea is apparently ludicrous to him (as if one could shoot the jungle, as the Roman emperor tried to beat the sea because it would not obey his commands).

Finally, the steamer reaches the mouth of the Congo and Marlow disembarks. He boards a smaller steamer, this one commanded by a Swedish captain, and starts on the first leg of his journey up the river. Before Marlow leaves the Swede, he is told about another Swede who hanged himself; apparently, the jungle has a dangerous effect on the people who travel in it. Marlow leaves the Swedish captain at the Company Station. This station is hardly the model of efficiency that one might expect. In fact, we are told only of the broken machinery, the useless effort, the dying natives, and one strangely incongruous dandy, complete with starched collar and polished boots. It is the dnady, the company accountant, who first tells Marlow of Kurtz.


We are not told very much about Kurtz in the beginning. From this point onward we are given bits of information, a few at a time, about him. The effect of this information is to create a mystery about Kurtz rather than to make him a clearly drawn character.

Marlow spends a total of ten days at the Company Station before he continues his journey up the river. The next stage of his journey is through the jungle because the river is not navigable for a stretch of two hundred miles. In the jungle Marlow sees further signs of the inefficiency and chaos that pervade the story. He comes upon the body of a native, shot through the forehead. Along the path are abandoned native villages; the countryside had been deserted. A drunken European settler is camped by the side of the path, anxious to tell his story of frustration and disease. At the end of fifteen days of walking through the jungle, Marlow reaches the Central Station.

The company manager does not invite him to sit down. Instead, he confronts him with yet another obstacle: the steamer which he is to pilot is at the bottom of the river. Not only must Marlow raise the steamer and repair the bottom, but he must do it without the proper tools because, inexplicably, no rivets can be found upstream, although they lay strewn all over the station two hundred miles down the river. In all, it will be three months before the steamer is repaired and Marlow can start upstream on the next leg of his journey. One further accident vexes the Europeans at this station. A shed mysteriously bursts into flame one night: One of the company employees attempts to fight the fire, but he fails to notice that the pail he is using has a hole in the bottom. Such is the inefficiency of Europeans in Africa. The narrative is sharply interrupted at this point with the words, "He was silent for a while."


Here is the first of several occasions when the mysterious, unnamed first narrator on the deck of the Nellie back in London breaks in upon Marlow's narrative. In our imaginations we jump several decades and several thousands miles from one paragraph to the next. Such a shift reminds us of the fictional nature of the story we are reading while the details and direct conversation given to us by Marlow convince us of the truth of the story. Thus we have two opposing forces at work, reality and fiction, which generate a tension within the story. This "story-within-a-story" technique in fiction is very much like framing a painting with an ornate frame. The frame helps us to distinguish between the painting and the surface upon which it hangs (our living-room wall, say). So the literary framework, the first of the two narratives, helps us to distinguish between what is happening in the Congo, and what is happening around us (we are actually sitting in school, say).

The first part of the narrative draws to a conclusion with additional comment on the "pilgrims".


Apparently, there are not one, but two kinds of "pilgrims": there are the "pilgrims" who are in Africa to make a fortune, and there are "pilgrims" who are there with a sense of mission. This mission translates into something like "white man's burden" for us today, but in the late nineteenth century the idea was probably less formulated. Then, that sense of mission might have been a little more tolerable than it is now. Kurtz seems to be one of the "new men", that is, he is an idealist. He is also extremely successful: no one ships more ivory to the coast than he. His success bothers the profit-motivated "pilgrims" because they feel that their own position in the company is being challenged. All these ideas are introduced when Marlow meets the agent in charge of brick making, and when the "Eldorado Expedition" arrives at the Central Station.

The Plot Of Heart Of Darkness Part 2: In The Heart Of Darkness

Just as Part 1 opened with Marlow on deck, the deck of the Nellie in London, as Part 2 opens with him on another deck, the deck of the little tin river-boat at the Company Station, several hundred miles up the river in the Congo. While he is lying on the deck one evening, the chief agent strolls by in the company of his uncle, who is leading the Eldorado Exploring Expedition. They stop alongside the boat, which has been drawn up upon the river bank to be repaired; and unaware of Marlow's presence, they begin to discuss Kurtz. They recall how, one year ago, Kurtz started down the river with a shipment of ivory. After travelling three hundred miles, Kurtz turned back with only four oarsmen and a single canoe. Even though he was out of supplies with which to trade with the natives for ivory, he decides to go back more for more. Why has he done this? Marlow imagines that Kurtz returned because he was "a fine fellow who stuck to his work for its own sake."


It is at this point that the dichotomy between Kurtz, one of the "pilgrims" with a sense of mission, and the other agents or "pilgrims", becomes clear. Although Marlow is still an impartial observer, when he has his choice between the types of men who go to Africa (he will call it choice of "nightmares"), he chooses Kurtz.

The interview between the chief agent and his uncle is abruptly brought to its conclusion when they realize that Marlow is on the deck of the river-boat listening to their conversation. The two men have been discussing the mortality rate among the agents in the Congo. The uncle says that one can trust to the jungle, the river, the sunlight and the shadow. Marlow, who has been listening and watching, is so startled that he jumps to his feet.


Why is Marlow so startled by the appearance of the jungle? It is the contrast between the blackness of the jungle itself and the brilliance of the sunlit surface that amazes him. He says that he expected the jungle to make some answer to the two men. Marlow has been wakened from dozing when the two men talk beneath the deck of his beached boat. He himself tries to offer an explanation for his own strange reaction to the gesture of the leader of the "Eldorado Exploring Expedition". He says, "You know the foolish notions that come to one sometimes." But foolish notions or not, what Marlow's words do is to suggest that the jungle does have a personality of its own, and that personality is not at all friendly.

The river-boat is finally repaired, and a party of "pilgrims", led by the chief agent, begins the trip up the river to Kurtz's station. In all, the trip will take them two months. Marlow, of course, is the pilot of the boat, and for a crew he has a party of cannibals. They must chop wood every day, the wood used as fuel for the river-boat. As the boat progresses up the river, Marlow is consistently impressed by the primitive nature of the country around him. He compares the trip up the river to a trip back into time, back to the beginning of time itself.


We are reminded, at this point, of Marlow's earlier statement, at the very beginning of the story. Then he imagined what a Roman soldier, fresh from the civilization from Rome, must have felt as he travelled up the then primitive Thames.

Marlow insists upon the mysterious nature of the trip up the river. The jungle, he says, in all its silence seemed to be a brooding, sinister force. All of his attention was taken up by the daily job of avoiding snags and rocks in the river that would sink the boat. (What a hair-raising job it must have been!) The strain of constantly attending to the physical world begins to seem unreal, and he is aware of another kind of presence, one that watches him as it watches those who are listening to him. Once again, Marlow's tale is interrupted by a voice from one of his auditors on the deck of the Nellie. It is a voice reported to us by the first narrator, Conrad himself.


Again, we notice the sudden shift we must make in our imaginations: from the Congo to the Thames; from the past to present; from the wilderness to an outpost of civilization. In addition, we cannot fail to notice how noncommittal the words of Conrad are in his own story: it is impossible to judge, from his own words, what he is thinking and feeling.

Marlow continues his preoccupied musings on the nature of the wilderness. As the river-boat goes deeper and deeper into the heart of the continent, he says it goes deeper and deeper into the "heart of darkness". He wonders at the primitive people who live along the shore of the river. To Marlow, the most wonderful thing about them is that, despite their savagery, they are human. More than that, it is wonderful to realize that we too are savage, in the same way that these primitive people are, but we manage to conceal our savagery. In a sense, continues Marlow, we have, in our own minds, the experiences of the past.


More remarkable than Marlow's understanding of the nature of primitive people, both civilized and uncivilized, is the appearance here of ideas that we have come to associate with Carl Jung, doctor of medicine, psychiatrist, philosopher, mystic and thinker. Jung published his own ideas about the continuance of cultural history (that we inherit certain cultural ideas in the same way that we inherit the color of our eyes) long after Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness.

Fifty miles before Kurtz's station, Marlow and the "pilgrims" discover a ruined hut and wood, already cut and stacked. There is a note attached to the pile of wood. The note contains both a plea for help and a warning. While the cannibals and the "pilgrims" load the wood onto the boat, Marlow investigates the ruined hut. Within, he discovers a book, An Inquiry into Some Points of Seamanship. It is obvious that the book had been used well: the pages are very soiled, the covers have come off and the pages have been resewn to the binding, and extensive notes have been made in the margins, apparently in code.


Marlow is amazed, and delighted, to discover this sign of civilization and of order in the wilderness. He has noticed nothing but chaos and disorder for the hundreds of miles he has travelled in the Congo. Now he suddenly comes across a seaman's manual, an English book, hundreds of miles from England. No wonder he later says the experience was like running into an old friend. (Wallace Stevens, the American poet, describes a similar feeling in his poem, Anectode of the Jar.Stevens sees that the jar imposes order upon the wilderness around it, just as the book makes sense of the wilderness and just as Marlow makes sense of the "pilgrims" and of Kurtz).

The manager remarks that an illusive renegade trader must have left the wood for them. Thus, with a new mystery, Marlow guides his little riverboat into the innermost heart of darkness. In two days' time they are eight miles from Kurtz's station, but they have to anchor because it is evening and the river is too treacherous to navigate at night. When the morning comes, it brings with it a dense, thick, warm, clammy white fog. The "pilgrims", of course, are completely immobilized. Then, when they are unable either to move or to see, they hear a loud cry, first by a single voice, then by many voices. Marlow says that the voice seemed to be that of the fog itself. The "pilgrims" are terrified.


Perhaps in no other part of the story has Conrad so clearly insisted upon the idea of reality, and ist antithesis, the idea of dream. Continually, Marlow says that the reality "fades" around him. At this exciting point in the story - we are waiting to see Kurtz; the journey is almost finished; strange sounds and sights surround the boat (a little island of civilization in the wilderness) - Conrad most clearly reveals to us that life is a process of passing between dreams and reality, and that none of can be completely sure which is which. Later, in a separate essay on the fogs, mists, lights, and darknesses, we will see how carefully Conrad has worked out a pattern of dreams (and nightmares) in his story.

The "pilgrims" are afraid the natives in the jungle will attack. The cannibals who are working on the river-boat hope they will. When Marlow asks them why they want to fight the natives, the cannibals reply that they want to catch them and eat them.


This brief piece of action is important for two reasons: it illustrates Conrad's idea about cannibalism which was generally accepted in his day, although it appears amusing and old-fashioned to us; and it suggests his attitude about self-discipline. Of course, we now know that cannibalism is primarily a ritualistic action, and has nothing at all to do with satisfying the hunger for food. Conrad, however, assumes that the cannibals enjoy human flesh, in the same way that we, for example, might the partial to pork chops. The second idea is much more important: if the cannibals do enjoy human food, and we know their own supply for food, hippo-meat, has long since gone bad, what has prevented them from devouring the "pilgrims" long ago? The only answer to this question must be that the cannibals have exercised a very severe kind of discipline over themselves: they have overcome their own hunger (and if you have ever been really hungry, you know what a strong feeling that is) and they have subordinated that hunger to an idea. The idea may be as prosaic as "One doesn't eat one's employer", or it may be considerably more complex; but whatever it is, the cannibals respect it enough to go hungry for days. Clearly, they have a great deal of self-discipline, more than the "pilgrims" who later will shoot innocent natives on a whim.

[Hear Cannibals' Self Discipline]

Marlow, however, believes the natives on the shore will not attack, because the wailing sounds they are making are more like cries of grief than cries of warlike hostility. As it turns out, no one is completely correct. The fog lifts, and the steamer continues up the river. Only a mile and a half below their destination, according to Marlow's calculations, they come across an island in the river. To pass by the island, it is necessary to choose a channel which takes the river-boat quite close to the shore; as a matter of fact, the boat is so close that it brushes against the bushes growing from the river bank. Then the natives attack. First, in perfect silence, thousands of arrows fly through the air, killing the poleman who operates the sounding pole. Marlow leans over to close the shutter and not ten feet away he sees the natives hidden among the bush on the shore. Marlow's helmsman, a native himself, becomes hysterical and lets go of the wheel to fire a rifle into the bush. He is hit by a spear thrown from a shore, falls back into the cabin, and dies in silence in a pool of his own blood. At this point Marlow blows the river-boat's steam whistle, which terrifies the natives on the shore. The shooting stops. Marlow's shoes have become soaked in the blood of his helmsman, so he pulls them off and throws overboard. It occurs to Marlow that Kurtz himself must be dead.


Throughout this, the most action-filled scene in the story, the figure of Kurtz has been looming in the background. Before the fog has lifted, when the "pilgrims" are worried about being attacked by the natives, Marlow thinks to himself that getting to Kurtz is as difficult as reaching "an enchanted princess in a fabulous castle". While still in the fog, the chief agent has told Marlow he could take whatever risks he wanted to reach Kurtz (although Marlow doubts, and rightly so, his sincerity). Finally, when the helmsman is killed by a spear trown from the shore, it is of Kurtz that they think.

Marlow is very disappointed when he believes that Kurtz must be dead. Only now does he realize how much he has been looking forward to a talk with Kurtz. As Marlow gives way to a feeling of profound sorrow over the loss of Kurtz, he is made aware again of the sorrowing noise made by the natives in the bush. At this point there is another of those dramatic shifts, from Africa to England, as someone on the deck of the Nellie lets out a sigh.


The natives, Marlow, and the listener on the deck of the Nellie, all sigh for the same reason. Marlow has already said that the noise of the natives was more of sorrow than of rage; and by anticipating a bit, we realize that the sorrow of the natives is for the loss of Kurtz.

That omniscient (all-knowing, because he can report on everything that happens) first narrator is back with us again. Now he describes Marlow on the deck of the Nellie in London, as Marlow strikes a match to re-light his pipe. His eyelids are drooped, his face seems to recede and advance in the little light of the match until-the match goes out.


We have already seen, in Lord Jim, how Conrad loves to introduce tiny points of light (remember Jim on the beach of Patusan, all the sunlight gathering into him), to illuminate, that is, to throw light upon, his main characters with these points of light, and then to have the dimness, the obscurity, the darkness close in again.

Marlow, we have been told by the narrator, has become little more than a voice. Now Marlow, speaking of Kurtz, makes the same observation; for him, Kurtz had become little more than a voice. Marlow interrupts his narrative to anticipate his story and tell us something about Kurtz, and about the fiancee whom Kurtz calls "my Intended". Kurtz is bald.


Kurtz, metaphorically speaking, is also dead. When Marlow describes Kurtz's baldness, he says, "They say the hair goes on growing sometimes". Clearly, he is thinking of the tradition that a dead man's hair and fingernails continue to grow. May critics feel that Marlow is taking a trip into Hell itself, the real heart of darkness. If this is so, then the idea of Kurtz's death begins to make sense; who else but a dead man could we expect to find in Hell?

Marlow sees to the burial of his helmsman in the river. He says he wants to remove temptation from the eyes of the hungry cannibal crew. Meantime, the "pilgrims" have been discussing the probability of Kurtz's death and of the destruction of the company trading post. As they discuss plans to flee down the river, the trading post comes into view. It is not destroyed. Marlow scans the area with his glasses and notices several posts around the large shed on the summit of the hill. He assumes these are the remains of a fence. Standing on the shore is a man, a European, beckoning the ship to land. The man is dressed in a suit that has been patched with many brightly colored pieces of cloth. Marlow remarks that he looks like a harlequin, a clown. Marlow lands the river-boat. The manager and the "pilgrims" go up to the house while Marlow interviews the strangely dressed newcomer. It is he who left the cut wood down the river, and it is he who has been reading Towson's book on navigation, An Inquiry into Some Points of Seamanship.


At this point, the end of the second section of Conrad's short story, we are in the very heart of darkness itself. We can expect to reach the point of the story soon, although we must remember that the first narrator has called Marlow's tales "inconclusive". That clownishly dressed European has turned out to be a Russian, and we remember that Conrad himself was a Pole who had lived, as a boy, in Russia.

The Plot Of Heart Of Darkness Part 3: Out Of The Heart Of Darkness

This, the last part of the story, begins with the most detailed picture we have had thus far of Kurtz. The young European, a Russian, has known him on and off for two years. He tells the story of those years. Kurtz, it seems, is a very persuasive speaker. He has made a disciple of the young Russian, who has nursed him back to health on several occasions; and he has made disciples of the villagers who have accompanied him on raiding parties to the neighboring villages for more ivory. Now Kurtz is very ill, and the young Russian advises Marlow to take him away quickly from the village.


What is the nature of Kurtz's influence over the natives? Why does the Russian say that they love Kurtz? Why had Kurtz been identified earlier in the story with the new kind of company agent who has a sense of mission? Marlow never tells us the answer to these questions, but they do lead us to some speculations about Kurtz's personality. Is he a fanatic?

At the end of the Russian's narrative Marlow again looks toward the hill and the house upon it. This time, from a closer vantage point, he can more clearly see the posts around the house. They are not part of a fence as he had originally supposed; each post is topped by a human head. Marlow speculates about the reasons for Kurtz's strange lusts, lusts that were aroused when he came out to the jungle. Marlow's answer to his own question is, "He was hollow at the core".


The mystery about Kurtz is at once identified and made less clear. We realize that Kurtz has indulged in "ceremonies" in part help Kurtz to keep the admiration of the natives. Conrad was a great admirer of Henry James, and sent him copies of his books as they were published. Eventually, they became good friends. Conrad is being clever in the same way Henry James was clever in the Turn of the Screw. In his tale about the depravation of young children, James never tells us in what way the young children were depraved. Thus each of us provides his favourite form of depravity when we read the story. No doubt, that depravity we supply is in many ways more interesting to us than any James might have supplied. So Conrad has left undetermined the nature of the "ceremonies", allowing our own imaginations to do that for him.

Now the "pilgrims" appear, bearing Kurtz on a stretcher. Marlow looks through his glasses and describes him. He appears very tall, seven feet, and has a bald head and piercing eyes. As the "pilgrims" descend the hill there is a howl from the natives and they pour from the forest until the cleared space is filled with them. Kurtz raises himself to speak to them, and Marlow sees that he is nothing but skins and bones. Kurtz speaks to the natives, and they quietly disappear into the forest again. Kurtz is brought aboard the river-boat with his papers. Two of the natives stand watch on the shore, and with them, a beautiful and apparently wealthy native woman. She walks up to the edge of the river and shakes her arms in the air, as if in anger.


Now we have a sample of Kurtz's influence over the natives: he changes them from a howling mop into a docile, obedient assembly. That beautiful native woman apparently loves Kurtz very much. She will appear later when the river-boat leaves the jungle. Conrad's women are interesting because they are not very clearly drawn. In Heart of Darkness we have several sets of women. First there is Marlow's aunt who helps him to get his job. There are two women sitting in the "sepulchral city" knitting black wool when Marlow appears for his interview. There is the native woman who loves Kurtz, and there is Kurtz's "Intended", whom both we and Marlow meet at the end of the tale. At the beginning of the tale Marlow, speaking of his aunt, has remarked, "It's queer how out of touch with truth women are". When we consider another of Marlow's statements, that there is nothing that he hates so much as a lie, and when we consider his final lie to Kurtz's "Intended", we begin to get an interesting picture of Marlow's attitude toward women. They are at once to be protected from the truth and to be denied it.

The manager and Kurtz have an argument in Kurtz's cabin. Kurtz points out that it is the ivory, not Kurtz, that the manager is interesting in saving. The manager leaves the cabin and sees that Marlow has overheard the argument. He claims that Kurtz is sick, by way of excusing the shouted accusations. Further, the manager complains that Kurtz's method is "unsound". Marlow is horrified. Marlow tells us that he turns to Kurtz for relief, that the very air he breathed seemed vile. He says that he has a choice of nightmares.


Marlow, we recall, has been looking forward to meeting Kurtz all throughout the voyage; his first reaction, however, is one of the horror. However, when he hears the mean excuses that the manager makes, when he realizes that the only objection the manager has to those "ceremonies" is that they will temporarily interrupt normal trade relations with the natives, Marlow is disgusted all over again. If he is faced with depravity as the more heroic of the two vices. Of course, Marlow himself does not become depraved. Remember that he is the normal man who is to act as a basis of comparison for us when we view the "pilgrims" and Kurtz. Marlow is indeed caught between two kinds of nightmare.

Now the young Russian enters to continue the information he has been giving about Kurtz. It seems that it was Kurtz himself who ordered the attack upon the steamboat. After delivering this additionally shocking information, the Russian borrows some rifle shells and some tobacco from Marlow and disappears into the wilderness. The Russian was not at all sure that Kurtz might not again order such an attack, especially if he were to suffer a renewed attack of his illness.


What is the function of that mysterious Russian who briefly appears in the middle of the jungle, only to disappear into the same jungle? Probably, is too simple to suggest that he is there to tell us the things about Kurtz that Kurtz himself could never tell us. Nevertheless, he does get that much done. Still, on the surface, he might be there to give us a glimpse of a European who was as influenced by Kurtz as the natives were. Finally, we can't forget Conrad's nationality, especially because he himself was so aware of it all his life.

Marlow awakes at midnight to discover that the Russian's warning has been all too prophetic. Upon peering into Kurtz's cabin, Marlow discovers that Kurtz has disappeared. He is deeply shocked. Rather than give the alarm (Marlow says that he must be true to his choice of nightmare), Marlow immediately sets out in pursuits. On the bank of the river he finds a broad trail through the grass: Kurtz, to weak to walk, has crawled toward the jungle. Marlow takes off after Kurtz; he wants to prevent him from reaching the natives who are gathered around large fires in the jungle. Marlow has fantasies of the two knitting women being at the end of the path.


One way of interpreting the action of the story is to see it as a descent into hell, an idea used in such classical epics as the Odyssey and the Aeneid. If we read the story in this way, then those knitting women back in Brussels can be interpreted as the Fates, who spin, measure off, and cut the thread of life. Who then would be a more appropriate figure to find at the end of that jungle trail, practically in the very center of the heart of darkness, than she who measures off our lives, and ends them?

Marlow manages to circle around a head of Kurtz, but they are only thirty feet from the nearest fire when Marlow confronts Kurtz. Kurtz has but to raise his voice to summon the natives. Marlow tries to reason with Kurtz, telling him he will be utterly "lost" if he refuses to return to the river-boat.

Kurtz replies that he was on the threshold of "immense plans" which are now being spoiled. Of the ensuing argument, Marlow says that Kurtz himself was rational, but it was his soul that was mad. Marlow wins and half carries Kurtz back to the river-boat. The next day leave on the trip down the river.


Marlow has but narrowly won the battle with Kurtz. The battle is spiritual, not physical; it is a test of wills. It would not do to have Kurtz win; that would be immoral. He does, however, come very close to winning. Marlow must have respect for Kurtz to be able to battle with him. Kurtz must be a worthy, if nightmarish, opponent.

The river-boat leaves amid violence and murder. As it swings around in the river, the natives gather on the shore. In the front are three medicine men and the beautiful woman. Marlow sees the "pilgrims" on the deck of the river-boat preparing to fire upon the unsuspecting natives, so he blows the steam whistle again and again until the frightened natives run from the terrifying sound. Only the majestic woman remains unmoved by the screeching noise of the whistle. At this point the "pilgrims" open fire on the natives. Kurtz has been moved to the pilot house, so he and Marlow have the opportunity for long talks as they travel down the river. Kurtz tells Marlow of his hopes for the future, of his plans, of the girl he wishes to marry, his "Intended".

One evening, Kurtz tells Marlow that he expects he will die. Marlow tries to comfort him, but suddenly Kurtz changes his expression, as if he had a glimpse of the life after death. He cries, "The horror! The horror!". Later that evening one of the servants announces, "Mistah Kurtz-he dead".


These are perhaps the most famous of Conrad's words: "The horror! The horror!" and "Mistah Kurtz-he dead". T.S. Eliot, in his poem The Hollow Men, uses the latter as an epigraph. Of course, the arguments of the critics have been hot and furious over what Kurtz meant. However, isn't it a mark of Conrad's artistry that he could introduce this ambiguity at so crucial a moment in the story, and demand of his reader that he supply the "horror" just as earlier he demanded of the reader that he supply the concrete form for those "ceremonies"? Whatever the nature of the "horror", it shows us that Kurtz died in torment, both disappointed in that he failed to accomplish his goals, and perhaps horrified by the nature of those goals.

The "pilgrims" bury Kurtz, and Marlow's next are that they very nearly buried him. Marlow himself falls deathly ill after Kurtz dies, probably of some jungle fever, and his next memories are of being back in the "sepulchral city". Marlow's last act in the story is to visit the woman Kurtz was to marry. It is now a year after the events on the river. When Marlow calls on Kurtz's "Intended" he finds her dressed in black, so that her white face seems to float in the air. She questions Marlow about Kurtz's last words. Marlow lies. He tells her that Kurtz's last words were of her. Again we flash, for the last time, back to the deck of the Nellie, and the story concludes with Marlow sitting silently, "In the pose of a meditating Buddha".


So the first narrator has been true to his words: Marlow has told one of his "inconclusive" tales. We are given, so to speak, the pieces to a vast and complicated puzzle. What are we to do with them? As with any puzzle, we examine the pieces to see how they fit together. There are many correspondences: the Buddha-like posture of Marlow as he sits on the deck of the Nellie; the constant use of words that remind us of death and hell; those classical parallels that make the tale a modern version of the descent into Hell; the ironic device of calling the Europeans "pilgrims"; all these demand explanations. In a later section, which describes the views of some of the more important critics, suggestions at least will be offered for these puzzles.

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