Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Examine the group presences in the book. What are similarities between the natives and the pilgrims?

    Answer: The natives and pilgrims, superficially polar opposites, act in similar ways in this novella. Both operate not as individuals but as members of a group, and as such they are not identified by name. They feel group emotions, such as bloodlust or fear.

  2. 2

    Which literary devices in the novella are proto-Modernist?

    Answer: Conrad uses an unreliable narrator, a hallmark of Modernist writing. The narrator is not by his nature a liar, as in some Modernist fiction, but rather put under great pressure by his environment. As we learn at the beginning of the novella, Africa has driven mad a great many men. Themes of alienation, confrontation of the other, and disjointing of man from the natural world are also proto-Modernist.

  3. 3

    What effect does introducing the idea that Kurtz has a fiancee create at the end of the novel?

    Answer: Kurtz is presented throughout the novella as an other. He is half Englishman, half native, and it is strongly suggested that he has an African lover. It comes as a shock, therefore, when the reader finds that he has a fiancee. It reattaches him to the material, hierarchical world of England.

  4. 4

    What might Conrad's intentions have been in beginning with one narrator and, de facto, switching to another? Which is a more reliable source of information?

    Answer: The framing narrative is a literary device dating back to Victorian novels, and it usually works to provide some truth-claim to the novel (the narrator finds a packet of papers or a diary to support the story, for example). In Heart of Darkness, however, the narrator listens to the other storyteller in real time.

  5. 5

    Water is a constant presence in this novel. Freshwater and saltwater do not play quite the same role. What is the difference in the way that they are regarded by the narrator and by Marlow?

    Answer: While the unnamed narrator remains neutral on the question, Marlow is originally drawn to the saltwater. He thinks that it will set him free from the constraints of England. He finds himself mired, however, in the freshwater rivers of Africa, which are even more stifling than even the land of his home country.

  6. 6

    What is the overall impression of the natives that Conrad produces?

    Answer: Much ink has been spilled over whether Conrad produces a racist perspective on African natives. The passage in which he identifies natives as a sea of waving disembodied arms is often used as evidence that the perspective is a racist one. This passage and others do illustrate that the narrator views the natives in groups rather than as individuals, and they seem to have very similar--or identical--intentions, but there is not necessarily any racist aspect of that interpretation. Even if there is, whether Conrad agrees or not is another matter. The reader has good reasons to distance Conrad from the narrator (see the Additional Content section in this ClassicNote).

  7. 7

    This story begins as a quest. What sort of difficulties does the protagonist face? Is Kurtz a worthy "grail" figure?

    Answer: The grail is technically reached: Kurtz is found. But he is not the glorious panacea that the narrator has imagined. Rather, he reenforces the complexity of life in Africa. The protagonist must deal with some of his own shadows before he can reach Kurtz.

  8. 8

    What effect does having a double audience (those listening to the narrator as well as the reader) create?

    Answer: Building an audience into his narrative builds up the narrator's importance and credibility. By creating a rapt audience on the river in London, Conrad implies that his own readers should be similarly enthralled by his story.

  9. 9

    Sound is the primary sense associated with Kurtz. Why is his voice so powerful and important while his appearance seems less so?

    Answer: Sound is the sense most bound up with Africa, where the fog, metaphorical and physical, may be dense. In darkness, one still can hear. The Africans themselves respond strongly to sound, with all but one running away in fear from the ship's whistle. This may help to explain Kurtz's powers over them.

  10. 10

    Identify places where Marlow expresses distance from his reader. What parts of his experience does he think they will be unable to relate to and why?

    Answer: Marlow stops at several junctures in his narrative to comment that the listener (and, by extension, the reader) will be unable to identify with his experience. The sights, smells, and sounds of Africa are outside their range of experience, so he does not expect them to be able to empathize. He thus makes himself an authority as well as an Other who is no longer able to feel fully integrated in his home country.