Heart of Darkness

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Introduction

This is a Heart of Darkness study guide.  The book is a novella written by Joseph Conrad. Before its 1903 publication, it appeared as a three-part series (1899) in Blackwood's Magazine.

Perhaps the strongest theme in the novel is that of darkness.  Indeed, darkness seems to pervade the work.  Marlow's tale begins and ends in literal darkness; the setting of the novel is often dark, such as when the steamboat is socked in by fog or when Marlow retrieves Kurtz; dark-skinned individuals inhabit the entire region; and, of course, there is a certain philosophical darkness that permeates the work.  But within the tale darkness operates in several ways. 

As any child knows, darkness symbolizes the unknown; it gains its power from its ability to conceal things we are too frightened to face.  Several times in the novel we see characters afraid, not of the darkness itself, but of that which potentially lies within it.  One of the most alarming scenes occurs when the men aboard the fog-bound steamer hear a shrill cry from somewhere around them.  It is particularly frightening because the men know some potential threat is near, but they cannot see it; it is simply out there in the darkness, waiting. 

Darkness also effectively conceals certain savage acts.  It is possible to operate in the cover of region's darkness in ways that would not be possible in the more civilized Europe.  For example, when the Manager suggests that the "scoundrel," who is suspected of helping Kurtz procure his ivory, should be hanged as an example, his uncle agrees, noting that such actions are possible in the Congo, a region far from the "light" of civilized action.  And Kurtz's most disturbing act, the placement of human heads atop poles surrounding his station house, is only possible in the concealed Congo.  

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