Study Guide to
Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"
-- Part Two --

Note: For this Study Guide to be useful, you will need to print it out.  But if you plan to print this out from one of the KSU public computer labs, be sure first to go into the File menu, choose "Page Setup," and click on "Black Type."  This will ensure that text in color prints out (in black) instead of coming out blank.

A reminder of some business carried over from Part One of this Study Guide.

Throughout the story, you want to keep systematic track of the motifs that show up in the work's title -- of "darkness" and "heart," literally and metaphorically.  This means, too, that you'll want to keep track of their various contraries (or supposed contraries) -- of "light," and of such different things conventionally distinguishable from the "heart" as the "intellect," "will," "appetites," "soul." 

Be alert for the possibility that "darkness" (and "black") may take on a variety of connotations (evil? unclarity/obscurity? ignorance?), depending on the specific context, and that "light" (and "white")may not always be able to be trusted to indicate the contraries of these (goodness, clarity, knowledge or insight).  That is, there may be ironic play at work about appearances and reality in connection with these notions.

The Central Station [continued].

Marlow is lying on the deck of the steamboat he is repairing, when he overhears a conversation between the Manager and his uncle, the leader of the Eldorado Exploring Expedition. 

What are the important things he learns from this exchange?

What is the uncle gesturing towards at the end?

When the EEE leaves, news filters back about what became of it.  What is Marlow referring to by the phrase "the less valuable animals"?

The journey by river steamer from the Central Station to the Inner Station.

The opening paragraph of this section, a sort of overture:  what seem to be its main themes?

[The frame narrative intrudes, and then recedes:  why did Conrad arrange for this at this point, and why did he arrange for it to happen on the issue it does?]

Marlow's meditation on prehistoric humanity, and on the earth (then) as an "unshackled monster":  what are the important notions that get elaborated here?  What does their relevance turn out to be in the sequel?

What does Marlow say kept him from succumbing to madness?

What is Marlow's attitude towards the fireman in charge of stoking the boiler on the steamer?  Its complicated.  What elements does it seem to be composed of?  Which element predominates?

About 50 miles below the Inner Station:  a woodstack (for what?) and a warning (what?) 

What questions does this encounter raise?

What else does Marlow find there?  What impresses Marlow about it?  (How does a man like Towson differ from, say, the "pilgrims"?)

When they are once again under way,

what does the manager think accounts for what they found?

What does Marlow mean when he says, "The manager displayed a beautiful resignation"?  (What's the tone here?)

What would Marlow be saying if he were to "talk openly with Kurtz"?

What temptation is Marlow near to when he has the sudden feeling that "What did it matter what anyone knew or ignored?  What did it matter who was manager?"

What insight is Marlow referring to when he says, "One gets sometimes such a flash of insight"?  How does this claim square with the one that follows:  "The essentials of this affair lay deep under the surface, beyond my reach, and beyond my power of meddling."

About 8 miles below the Inner Station, at evening, the manager wants to wait until morning to proceed further, Marlow anchors the boat in the middle of the river.

What is heard and seen as dawn breaks, in the fog?  (Why is fog appropriate here, by the way?)

What does this indicate?  What is the reaction of the passengers?

Summarize Marlow's meditation on the cannibal crew?  What is he impressed with? 

This moral trait will play a huge role in Marlow's reflections later on, when he encounters Kurtz.  Keep this passage in mind.  How does it relate to Marlow's fantasies about what the Roman imperial enterprise was all about in its day?

Marlow flashes forward to tell his audience that later on that what they had taken as the motive of the event that scared them was way off the mark.  How so?

After the fog lifts and they get under way again, what happens a little up the way, when the boat has to enter a narrow channel?

What's the reaction of the pilgrims?  What does it remind us of?

What happens to the helmsman?

What is Marlow's reaction to this?

What possibility concerning Kurtz does this episode raise, for the manger?

What is Marlow's reaction to thinking about this?

What explanation does he give for this?

In the course of this explanation, we are introduced to the idea of Kurtz's "voice" -- of Kurtz as "voice."  This is a motif to be sure to trace from here on out.

[At this point, there is another interruption of Marlow's narrative, by some conversation that takes place in the frame narrative:  Marlow stresses the contrast between the situation of his hearers and the situation he is narrating.  This will come up again later on, when Marlow moves into talking about the topic of "civilization."  When this latter eventually turns up, be on the lookout for some irony.]

Marlow jumps forward to mention something about his encounter with Kurtz.  What does he telegraph was the nature of this overcoming of his premature disappointment?  Was he thrilled?  Or was he set up for being more deeply disappointed?

He also gives us a flashforward to his conversation with Kurtz's "Intended" (i.e., fiancée).

How does he say he lays the "ghost" of Kurtz's voice to rest?

How does this square with his earlier remarks (p. 23) on the topic of lying?

How does he justify not telling Kurtz's Intended the truth about Kurtz?

What assumptions does this reveal, on Marlow's part, about how the world is divided up, between women and men, and about what is proper to each domain?  [What's your own view on these issues?]

How, supposedly, does their staying, with "our" [who is "we" here?] help "in that beautiful world of their own" contributing to "our" world not getting worse?  Worse in what way?  How are lies necessary to sustain this "beautiful world"?  How can a world sustained by such means help prevent the world outside and surrounding it from getting worse?

Take note of an ambiguity in the connotations of the phrase "be[ing] out of it"?  Are there some things on the level of conduct and action that you would want very much to "keep out of" that on the level of knowledge you would nevertheless not want to "be kept out of"?

What effects does Conrad allow for by having Marlow refer throughout to Kurtz's fiancée as his "Intended"?  (Do you recall this term when you get, for instance, to Kurtz's remark at the beginning of the last ¶ on p. 60?)

Note that Marlow doesn't disclose to his hearers at this time what precisely that truth was about Kurtz that he came to know but withheld from Kurtz's fiancée.  Nor does he tell us exactly what fib was by which he covered up this truth.  Conrad, then, behind the scenes, is manipulating us, his actual readers, to read forward with certain curiosities in mind.

When you get to the scene (pp. 68-71) in which Marlow visit's Kurtz's Intended, you will want to be asking yourself whether his conduct to her is best described as "respectful" or as "condescending."

He then returns to his earlier anticipation of the narrative (his flashforward to talking about his eventual conversation with Kurtz). 

Why, do you figure, does Conrad arrange for these two breaks with chronology to occur?  (Consider that he may be getting multiple businesses done, and this with each.)

Actually, the interruption is significantly more complicated than the phrase "two breaks with chronology" above suggests.  The forward pressure of the direct narrative at this point (p. 44) is delayed further by an interweaving of four elements, only one of which advances the direct reportage of events (and only slightly) .  Marlow does not resume with chronological order until p. 47).  This interlude is clearly one of the most important extended passages in the whole narrative, and bears careful attention and restudy.  Throughout, you want to trace the implications of the thematic strands that are the basis for Marlow's bringing these separate elements together.  The four interwoven elements are:

(1) this flashforward to his meeting with Kurtz (continued after the interruption by Marlow's flashforward to his meeting with Kurtz's Intended);

Pay close attention in these passages to the theme of "possessing" and "being possessed by."

Here also we get some important information (in two places) as to what measures Kurtz has adopted in recruiting the natives to his purposes in harvesting ivory.

Let's look again at the manuscript of the report Kurtz had been commissioned to write for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs.

(2) the report of the rescue expedition's taking possession of the ivory stored in the huts at the little clearing where they've just stopped (8 mi. downriver from the Inner Station) to take aboard the wood that had been stacked in anticipation of the steamer's arrival;

(3) Marlow's direct questions to his audience (on the deck of the boat of the River Thames, waiting for the tide to go out so that they can return to the city and Marlow depart on his mission as captain);

What are the the most important different sorts, in "civilized life," of external constraint?  Some are negative, some positive.  What are the examples Marlow mentions to convey some idea of the variety kinds of factors he thinks are important?

And from the standpoint of origin, there seem to be two kinds as well:  nurture (or social environment) and nature.  (What kind of strength is "innate strength," if you have it?  Check the dictionary on this important term if you don't already know it.  What is the meaning of the Latin prefix and root out of which it is formed?) 

Here's an occasion where an alert reader will want to push the demand for conceptual clarification beyond where the narrator does.  Note that Marlow seems to regard the two orders of distinction -- I've called them operation and origin -- as equivalent.  Certainly they are related, but are they, really, identical?  Marlow seems to believe that, if you leave civilization, your only recourse is to fall back on your "innate strength."  Let's examine what the consequences of this view is, and whether it must be accepted as true?

Note that if this is so, then if you happen not to be one who happens to have been born with the power of moral restraint in the face of (what?), can there be any hope for you?  This picture, that is, commits us to the view that, in the ethical realm, there is a natural aristocracy:  some people are born with the power to autonomously act in a moral fashion, and others -- we might call them the "ethically vulgar" -- are doomed to behave immorally, unless they are restrained by external considerations.  Some people, it seems, are simply born without any "capacity for faithfulness" of the requisite sort.

But does it make sense to suppose that some people are born without the capacity to have faith in their own ability to stick to a difficult task?  Isn't this sort of faith something that people develop (or fail to develop) in virtue of their experiences?  That is, even if one admitted that there might be some who were innately without the capacity to develop this faith, are not those who do develop it beholden not merely to their inborn capacity but to their experiences for developing it?  Surely the faith in question does not spring full-blown and full-born into the world.  This means that if those experiences were never had, then one would not develop this faith in one's ability [to do hard things] even if one did possess the innate capacity for [i.e., to develop] this faith.  And this fact means we have to acknowledge a category that Marlow's way of speaking seems to rule out:  an inner strength to "do the right thing" autonomously (i.e., when police and neighbors are not looking over one's shoulders) that is nevertheless a product of social nurture (as well as natural capacity).  We have also to dispense with a category that Marlow centrally relies upon:  a strength that is purely and simply innate. 

Here then is a matrix that displays what Marlow's way of speaking seems to entail:


restraint that, if present, is present simply innately

restraint that is owing to social factors, ranging from praise and blame by neighbors (shame) to fear of jail or the gallows

externally motivated self restraint

[No such thing.]

This is exhibited by everyone except (one might suppose) sociopaths (who are such in virtue of either natural defects or defects of upbringing or both).
autonomously activated self-restraint

This is exhibited only by (rare) individuals who posses a "power of devotion, not to yourself but to an obscure, back-breaking business."

[No such thing.]

In contrast, here is what our reflections have led us to:


restraint that, if present, is present simply innately

restraint that is owing to one's life experiences, including social factors, ranging from praise and blame by neighbors (shame) and fear of jail or the gallows to whatever in one's informal education fosters a sense of self-respect for adherence to certain ideals introduced by society and taken over as one's own

externally motivated self restraint

[No such thing.]

This is exhibited by everyone except (one might suppose) sociopaths (who are such in virtue of either natural defects or defects of upbringing or both).
autonomously activated self-restraint

[No such thing.]

This is exhibited by individuals who have, in the course of their up-bringing and wider life experiences, internalized the values imparted to them by their culture, and so are able to act upon them in the absence of social institutions of repression (police) and without the active pressure (encouraging or censorious) of a vigilant public opinion.

Those who belong in the upper right-hand box of the rightmost column but not in the lower -- that is, non-sociopaths who nevertheless are "not able" to restrain themselves in the absence of police or public opinion -- may be further theoretically divided into two sub-categories:  those who are innately incapable of developing a sufficiently strong sense of self-respect (we don't in fact know if this set has any actual members) and those who, though capable of developing this, never realize this capacity, for lack of the particular experiences the development of it requires.

Those who do belong in the lower right-hand box may also be usefully divided (on a different principle) into two sorts:  those who, on a given occasion requiring self-restraint, actually do "rise to the occasion" and exercise the restraint of which they are capable, and those who, on some such occasion, do not.  That is, we'd want to allow for someone's failing to exercise self-restraint not out of "incapacity" but out of deliberate choice or negligence.

Note that if a person fails to exhibit self-restraint on some occasion in which it is called for, this may be either because he is incapable of doing so (because he hasn't developed the powers of resistance that would have enabled him to do so) or because, though capable, he just didn't.  To determine which case we had to do with in a particular instance, we'd need to have some fair degree of knowledge of the particular facts of the individual's life.  Assessing a person's moral character in this sense would not necessarily be simple.

Why is all this important?  It opens the possibility that we are not necessarily to see Marlow as a completely reliable guide to what Conrad would understand as the appropriate way to understand moral failures.  On the other hand, we want to remain open as well to the possibility that Marlow is speaking for Conrad in this passage, and that the confusions we have uncovered are confusions of the novella rather than part of the subject of the novella.  It may be that we do not wish to endorse the work's vision of how things are in this respect.

(4) Marlow's meditations about what happened to his steersman.

Now the main narrative resumes [journey upriver between the Central and Inner Stations]: 

Marlow throws the corpse of the dead helmsman overboard.

What determines him to do this?  How does this relate to his attitude towards the dead person?

Conversation arises on deck among the "pilgrims."

What is Marlow's attitude towards the remark of the "red-headed pilgrim"?

What opinion in general does he have of their conduct during the attack from the bank?

Arrival at (what turns out to be) the Inner Station. 

Note that it does not become definitively clear until somewhat later that the station the boat comes upon is indeed the Company's Inner Station.  Why is this?

What is odd about the response of the man who is shouting to them to land to their news that they've been attacked?

What assumption do we eventually discover he must have been acting upon, when he responded this way?

What is odd about his reaction to the evidence (later on:  the blood on the pilot house) that his assumption was mistaken?

What is odd about the man's appearance?

What connotations attach to the idea of a "harlequin"?  (Check your dictionary on this one.)  What is the simple realistic explanation that accounts for this appearance?  In what respects does the idea of this person as a "harlequin" turn out to be symbolically apt?

Where does he say Kurtz is?

As we will see in Section III of the novella, the main function of the "harlequin" is as a lens on Kurtz, before we actually encounter the latter.  But In the rest of this section (II) he says only one thing about Kurtz.  What is that? 

What does it indicate, perhaps, about Kurtz?

What does it indicate, perhaps, about the harlequin?

In the remainder of Section II, the main business is to give an impression of the lens itself through which (in Section III) we will approach Kurtz.  (Recall that there have been other lenses, downstream, and that our evaluation of Kurtz so far has been affected by our evaluation of the media through whom we were getting our impressions of him.)

What is his history?  How has he come to be here?  (We can from now on alternatively refer to him as "the Russian trader.")

What kind of a person was he before he met Kurtz?

It turns out to be he who stacked the wood at the clearing 8 miles downstream.  How did he come to leave his place there?  (The nautical manual is his:  how did it get left behind.)  What questions does the answer to this one raise in turn?

It is here (p. 49) that we first here a phrase that we are going to hear repeatedly from this personage:  the idea of "enlarging the mind."  What ironic overtones does this take on, in its future appearances?

A question for here and further on:  has his encounter with Kurtz changed him in specific ways?

  Return to Part One of this Study Guide.

  Go to Part Three of this Study Guide.

  Go to the Writing Assignment on this story.

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  This page last updated 28 March 1999.