“The mind of man is capable of anything.”

Joseph Conrad



Reading Schedule

Chapter 1Fri 1/31
Chapter 2Fri. 2/7
Chapter 3Wed. 2/14
Apocalypse Nowtbd
Heart of Darkness:
An Introduction
Heart of Darkness:
Conrad and His Legacy
Heart of Darkness:
The Reading Experience
Heart of Darkness:
Frameworks for Reading

Some Reading Tips


  • Don’t ignore Conrad’s word choice; don’t gloss over his vocabulary to “get the gist” of his ideas. The power of the work is within the nuance.
  • Mark the books, take note the of the words and images, and carry them to the forums and class discussion! Use this as a real chance to expad your own understanding and thinking!

Syntax and Paragraph Style

  • It’s easy to become daunted by the thickness of Conrad’s prose. Instead, recognize that form and content are linked. The very thickness of the paragraphs–the windings of the sentences–are themselves mirrors of the jungle, of the psyche, of the ironies in the novel.
  • Sometimes stopping to unpack a sentence or two–or even a paragraph–can offer huge rewards!

Layers of Meaning

  • The novel can be read at numerous levels, and these levels all compound Conrad’s theme.
  • Of course, it is a novel that represents a bit of autobiography and also of colonialism in Africa; but it is also a novel of the psyche, a metaphorical trip into the unconscious; and it is further a novel of the nature of evil and how we might come to understand it.
  • More, with post-structuralist theory, it is a novel of meaning and meaninglessness of signification, a metaphor for the readerly experience of phenomenology, of post-colonialism and Neo-Marxism. It is ripe for re-reading in these lights.
  • As I suggested choosing a single symbol for Invisible Man to trace, consider choosing a single layer of meaning to follow here for your first reading.

From His Writings

From a reflective writing, c.1920:

It was in 1868, when nine years old or thereabouts, that while looking at a map of Africa of the time and putting my finger on the blank space then representing the unsolved mystery of that continent, I said to myself with utmost assurance and an amazing audacity which are no longer in my character now:
       “When I grow up I shall go there.”
. . . . Yes.  I did go there:   there being the region of Stanley Falls which in ’68 was the blankest of blank places on the earth’s figured surface.


Canary Islands, 15 May 1890

My dear little Aunt,

Suppose I tell you at the beginning that I have escaped the fever thus far!  If only I could assure you that all my letters would start with this good news!  Well, we shall see!  Meanwhile, I am comparatively happy, which is all one can hope for here on earth. . . .  One is skeptical of the future.  For indeed, I ask myself, why should anyone have faith in it? And so why be sad?  A little illusion, many dreams, a rare flash of happiness; then disillusion, a little anger, and much pain, and then the end—peace!  That is the program, and we have to see this tragic-comedy through.  We must resign ourselves to it.

The screw turns, taking me into the unknown. . . .

Early September, 1890

Everything was dark under the stars.  Every other white man on board was asleep.  I was glad to be alone on deck, smoking the pipe of peace after an anxious day.  The subdued thundering mutter of the Stanley Falls hung in the heavy night air of the last navigable reach of the Upper Congo, while no more than ten miles away, in Reshid’s camp just above the falls, the yet unbroken power of the Congo Arabs slumbered uneasily. Their day was over.  Away in the middle of the stream, on a little island nestling all black in the foam of the broken water, a solitary little light glimmered feebly, and I said to myself with awe, “This is the very spot of my boyish boast.”

A great melancholy descended on me.  Yes, this was the very spot.  But there was no shadowy friend to stand by my side in the night of the enormous wilderness, no great haunting memory, but only the unholy recollection of a prosaic newspaper “stunt” and the distasteful knowledge of the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration.  What an end to the idealized realities of a boy’s daydreams!  I wondered what I was doing there, for indeed it was only an unforeseen episode, hard to believe in now, in my seaman’s life.  Still, the fact remains that I have smoked a pipe of peace at midnight in the very heart of the African continent, and felt very lonely there.


Discussion Questions

  1. Kurtz is physically feeble, yet prior to meeting him, he is greatly feared.  Why?
  2. The Russian/“harlequin” is probably some kind of archetypal character.  What role does he serve?
  3. Who is the dark-skinned woman who beckons to Kurtz from the shoreline?  Contrast her to Kurtz’s Intended back in England.
  4. What is suggested by the phrase “unsound method”?  Why does Marlow react as he does to it?
  5. How does the realization of Kurtz’ acts impact our earlier discussion of the opposition between civilization/nature? Does he have morals?  Why do you say so?
  6. If the novel is a psychological metaphor, what do we learn about our minds from the character Kurtz?
  7. Consider Marlow’s interaction with Kurtz.  How does he feel about Kurtz?  Why?
  8. “The horror!  The horror!”  Define.
  9. Consider Marlow’s final discussion with the Intended.  What do we learn of her?  Why does Marlow answer her as he does?  (In a sense, this is one of the most significant parts of the novel.)
  10. What is the final response of Marlow’s audience at the end of the novel?  What does it suggest?



On Heart of Darkness and On Writing

Conrad, 1902

The interview of the man and the girl locks in—as it were—the whole 30,000 words of narrative description into one suggestive view of a whole phase of life, and makes of that story something quite on another plane than an anecdote of a man who went mad in the center of Africa.

Conrad, 1920

Fiction-if it at all aspires to be art—appeals to temperament.  And in truth it must be, like painting, like music, like all art, the appeal of one temperament to all the other innumerable temperaments whose subtle and resistless power endows passing events with their true meaning, and creates the moral, the emotional atmosphere of the place and time.  Such an appeal to be effective must be an impression conveyed through the senses; and, if fact, it cannot be made in any other way, because temperament, whether individual or collective, is not amenable to persuasion.  All art, therefore, appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its high desire is to reach the secret spring of responsive emotions.  It must strenuously aspire to the plasticity of sculpture, to the colour of painting, and to the magic suggestiveness of music—which is the art of arts.  And it is only through complete, unswerving devotion to the perfect blending of form and substance; it is only through an unremitting never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences that an approach can be made to plasticity, to colour; and the light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words:  of the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage.

Conrad, 1905:

That a sacrifice must be made, that something has to be given up, is the truth engraved in the innermost recesses of the fair temple built for our edification by the masters of fiction.  There is no other secret behind the curtain.  All adventure, all love, every success is resumed in the supreme energy of an act of renunciation.  It is the uttermost limit of our power; it is the most potent and effective force at our disposal on which rest the labours of a solitary man in his study, the rock on which have been built commonwealths whose might casts a dwarfing shadow upon two oceans. . . .