(Written by Fran Tytell)
Directions: You may download these questions from my website and simply type your answers in the color of your choice, with a name and color legend.
Section I (pp 1-27): The Thames Setting:
How are the tide, river, and ships described? Who are the friends of Marlow who are on board the Nellie with him?
Marlow is like the setting of the river—the “brooding” nature that he describes. What is suggested by his sitting position and his state of mind?
As the ship sits at anchor on the Thames, Marlow is reminded of the past. The Thames is a “waterway . . . to the utmost ends of the earth”; the river represents the “spirit of the past.” Why has the Thames been “one of the dark places”? What is the significance of the reference to the invasion of the Romans?
Preparation for the Journey:
Look at the description of the map that Marlow studies as he contemplates his journey. Why is the river like a snake?
Marlow builds a series of images to describe the Company Office. Many of these destails have traditional symbolic meanings. Try to connect as many as possible either to the Bible or to classical mythology:
As Marlow rides down the coast of Africa on the French steamer, he is struck by the appearance of the coastline, the brightness of the sun, the ridiculous shooting into the jungle by the warship, the mixture of death and trade. What feelings about Africa, about Europeans, and about the job he is about to assume are aroused by these first encounters of his journey?
Describe what Marlow sees at the Outer Station. What does the abandoned machinery, the chaotic appearance, the suffering of the slaves, signify? What is the “devil of rapacious and pitiless folly”?
In the “grove of death” Marlow sees a slave wearing a bit of “white worsted” about his neck. How does that detail connect to the theme of the European invasion of Africa?
Why does Marlow regard “work” as important?
Describe the Chief Accountant. Why does Marlow notice him? What does he represent? Do you admire or dislike him? Why?
Find the reference to Kurtz. What kind of person do you think he is? Why?
Who is the “flabby devil” who is “running the show”? Why is Marlow so frustrated by what he sees in Africa and by the Europeans he meets?
Where does Marlow find his steamer? How does the manager react to this? How does Marlow react to the manager’s reaction? What does he mean when he says there are “no external checks”?
Marlow hears about Kurtz again. What does he learn?
As he assumes his task, Marlow says that work is a way of keeping hold on “the redeeming facts of life.” What does he mean? Why is this attitude toward work important for him in Africa?
What details do you learn about the character of the brickmaker? What is a “papier-mache Mephistopheles”?
Look at the description of the oil painting by Kurtz of the blindfolded woman. Remember this image; it will have important connections at other points in the novella. What impression does the painting give of the character of Kurtz the painter? Of the woman?
Why are rivets important to Marlow?
Who is the dark figure in front of the manager’s hut?
Some general questions over Part I:
Conrad uses racial terms that would clearly be offensive today. Is this book racist? Why or why not? Do these terms make you uncomfortable?
What view of the “savages” do we get from Part I?
Why does Conrad use the frame narrative device?
Section II(pp 27-50): The Journey to the Inner Station
What does Marlow learn when he overhears the manager and his uncle? What new image of Kurtz is suggested? Discuss the mixture of idealistic beliefs and rumors.
Study the descriptions of the river—the “hidden evil” and “the profound darkness of its heart.” Find other descriptive phrases. The journey from the Central Station to the Inner Station takes two months. How long does it seem in the narrative? What does Marlow say going up the river is like? What does he mean by the contrast of “surface truth” and reality?
Why does the voice of the first narrator intervene at this point in the narrative?
Life on the River
In what dual sense i Marlow “penetrating deeper and deeper in the heart of darkness”? What do the circumstances of his journey contribute to his assertion that human beings need “a deliberate belief”? do you agree with him? What is his belief in?
Marlow again insists on the importance of his work, of being at work. Why?
Marlow says that the “essentials of this affair lay deep under the survace.” How does his subsequent description of the landscape capture that hiddenness? How does the fog affect Marlow’s attitude toward his work?
Marlow is very complimentary of the cannibals on board his ship. Why? Think about the ways in which the Europeans Marlow has met have not shown “restraint.”
Who is the “enchanted princess sleeping in a fabulous castle”? Is the language of the description appropriate?
Why do the natives attack? Why does Marlow react as he does to the death of his helmsman? Why does he throw away his shoes? The pilgrims shoot into the jungle. Remember the warship shooting into the African coastline? What is Marlow suggesting is alike about the two?
This is a very important section of the novel. What does Marlow say about belief and the loss of belief? Consider the voices: the voice of Kurtz; of the first narrator; of the Intended. What is the voice of civilization? What is its value? What do these voices mean?
Marlow says that all of Europe is responsible for Kurtz. In what way is this true? Kurtz is a man who is eloquent with words; he is also the man who declares, “Exterminate all the brutes!” Explain this irony of his character.
What is the bond Marlow feels for Kurtz? How is the theme of restraint important here?
When Marlow looks at the Inner Station through his binoculars, what exactly does he see?
Describe the harlequin. What does he symbolize? What advice does he give Marlow? What is the book that Marlow gives him? In what way do you think the harlequin’s mind has been enlarged?
Section III(pp 50-72): The Inner Station
Why does this section take place in the middle of an action? Is that what happens with Section II? Are these seeminly abrupt breaks appropriate in any way? What do you think Marlow intends to convey by this three-part division of his story?
What new interpretation of the harlequin is suggested by this opening section?
What are the knobs Marlow describes?
Look at Marlow’s response to Kurtz. What other motifs in the novel can you connect to Marlow’s emphasis on his lack of restraint, the fact of his eloquence when he is actually “hollow at the core”? Examine Marlow’s feelings about Kurtz and the manager. What changes in attitude is Marlow experiencing? How does he feel about each of these men by the time they begin the journey back down the river and as that journey progresses?
How is Kurtz’s life related to the flow of the river and the heart of darkness of the jungle? What is “the horror”? What motifs that have been developed throughout the novel are recapitulated here? What is Marlow’s view of Kurtz at the end of this section?
What has Marlow learned from his journey? What darkness does he see in himself?
Describe the woman and her environment. Recall the painting by Kurtz and the description of the native woman mourning his departure. What similarities do you see in colors and gestures? What differences are there?
What interpretation of the Intended’s role in the novel is suggested by her appearance, the appearance of her surroundings, and her statements?
Examine carefully each statement that is made by Marlow and by the Intended in their interview. What ironies do you see?
What “lie” does Marlow tell? Do you agree with his decision to do this? Why did he do it when he has said how much he hates lying? How is this decision related to his earlier comments about women?
Consider the possibility that in a certain way, Marlow does not lie to the Intended. What is the connection between “her name” and “the horror”?
Why is Marlow—again—described as a Buddha? What is meant by the comment, “We have lost the first of the ebb”?