Heart of Darkness Active Reading Guide

Category: Heart of Darkness
Last Updated: 10 May 2021
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Fifteen days after leaving the outer station Marlow “hobbles into the Central Station”, which was being run by “the flabby devil”, referring to the greed of the Europeans. There he finds out that his ship had been sunk when they tried to take off before he got there. He also meets the manager of the Central Station who is only employed because he never gets sick, and the brick maker who doesn’t actually make any bricks. He overhears a conversation between the manager and his uncle, who is leading the “Eldorado Exploring Expedition” that passes through the station.

They are talking about Mr. Kurtz. This all occurs two months before they reach Kurtz’s station.  Marlow then takes off in his newly repaired boat (Conrad 21). Fifty miles before Marlow reaches the Inner Station where Kurtz is, he comes across a hut on the side of the river. They approach and see a sign on a pile of wood that says “Wood for you. Hurry Up. Approach Cautiously”. Then inside a hut, Marlow finds a book entitled An Inquiry into some Points of Seamanship inside of which are notes written in what Marlow says “looked like cipher”. Eight miles before Marlow and his crew reach Kurtz they get stuck in a heavy fog, and are unable to move for quite a bit of time. Then once the fog lifts they are able to proceed, but find themselves stuck once again one and a half miles before reaching Kurtz. Here they are attacked by the natives. They blow the whistle on the boat and the natives are scared away . Finally, Marlow reaches the Inner Station.

The first person that he meets is the Russian/Harlequin, who idolizes Kurtz. He then meets Kurtz who is taken aboard the steam boat. Kurtz dies aboard the steamboat, and Marlow returns to Europe. In Brussells, Marlow goes to visit Kurtz’s intended. She is distraught over Kurtz’s death, so Marlow lies to her about the reality of what really happened, saying Kurtz was a good and honorable man .  While Marlow is in the Central Station, page 23, he is required to repair his ship which had sunk before he reached the Station. Marlow says: I went to work the next day, turning, so to speak, my back on that station. In that way only could I keep my hold on the redeeming facts of life. Still, one must look about sometimes; and then I saw this station, these men strolling aimlessly about in the sunshine of the yard.

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In this passage, when Marlow states he is turning his “back on the station” he is referring to the lack of work that goes on at the Central Station, and how his hard work repairing his steam boat looks in contrast. When he says that work allows him to “keep his hold on the redeeming facts of life” it lets the reader know that he values work, and thinks it encourages people to become better. * Still at the Central Station, Marlow makes another comment on the work ethic of the Europeans who are at the station saying that their pretending to work was as unreal as everything else as the philanthropic pretence of the whole concern, as their talk, as their government, as their show of work .They intrigued and slandered and hated each other only on that account but as to effectually lifting a little finger oh no”.

His sarcastic tone toward the end of the excerpt, shows that he views their refusal to work as silly and ridiculous. The way he can so easily see through their pretence also shows how little effort they put into everything in the Congo, because they are driven by greed, and greed alone. When Marlow comes across the book in the hut on the side of the river he exclaims that it was “not a very enthralling book; but at the first glance you could see there a singleness of intention, an honest concern for the right way of going to work, which made these humble pages, thought out so many years ago, luminous with another than a professional light”. The fact that Marlow is so impressed by the book because it appreciates hard, honest work, shows what an anomaly this outlook is down in the Congo. Marlow appreciates the book so much because the book lines up with his same views on work. On page 18, when Marlow is talking to the Chief Accountant, the Accountant mentions how he is able to keep such clean clothes saying I’ve been teaching one of the native women about the station. It was difficult. She had a distaste for the work. This is more representative of the European’s view of work than of Marlow’s. The Europeans believe that work is something for slaves and people who aren’t as privileged as they are. Overall, Marlow believes that work is highly beneficial to a person. When someone works, they are kept sane, and are kept honest.

Not only are they more sensible, and productive, it makes one a better person in the long run, unlike the ridiculous Europeans overcome by greed and laziness. One reference to futility in the novel occurs after a fire starts in the Central Station. The people in the camp are rushing to put it out, and as one of them ran past Marlow he notices “there was a hole in the bottom of his pail”. This shows how ineffective much of what the Europeans were doing, as a pail with a hole is not able to transport nearly as much water as an intact bucket. This also shows how ignorant the Europeans are about matters in the Congo as the man holding the bucket is not aware of the hole in it, even though that detail is so vital to his plight.  When Marlow needs to fix his ship, he only needs one material to fix it, which would be rivets. However, there are none to be found at the Central Station. Marlow says that at the Outer station, “You could fill your pockets with rivets for the trouble of stooping down”, but “there wasn’t one rivet to be found where it was wanted”.

This example shows yet again the ignorance of the Europeans. They have an ample amount of something that is quite unnecessary in one place, but are blind to the needs of those in other places. Just like they have an ample amount of people digging for ivory in the Congo, but they pay no attention to the needs of the natives.  Only 8 miles from the inner station, Marlow and his ship get trapped in the fog. Marlow has a conversation with his manager: “The manager muttered something about going on at once, I did not even take the trouble to answer him.

I knew, and he knew, that it was impossible…’I authorise you to take all the risks,’ he said, after a short silence. ‘I refuse to take any,’ I said shortly; which was just the answer he expected” . This conversation is an excellent example of futility, because the conversation is merely for show. There was no actual reason for the conversation to take place, because the conclusion had already been arrived at. This is similar to when Marlow sees the men blowing up parts of the cliff to build a train track, even though the cliff was not in the way .

When Marlow first comes to the Inner Station he describes it by saying, “Through my glasses I saw the slope of a hill interspersed with rare trees and perfectly free from undergrowth. A long decaying building on the summit was half buried in the high grass; the large holes in the peaked roof gaped black from afar; the jungle and the woods made a background. There was no enclosure or fence of any kind; but there had been one apparently, for near the house half a dozen slim posts remained in a row, roughly trimmed, and with their upper ends ornamented with round carved balls.

The rails, or whatever there had been between, had disappeared. Of course the forest surrounded all that. The river-bank was clear, and on the water side I saw a white man under a hat like a cart-wheel beckoning persistently with his whole arm. Examining the edge of the forest above and below, I was almost certain I could see movements—human forms gliding here and there. I steamed past prudently, then stopped the engines and let her drift down. The man on the shore began to shout, urging us to land. ‘We have been attacked,’ screamed the manager. ‘I know I know. It’s all right. yelled back the other, as cheerful as you please. ‘Come along. It’s all right. I am glad. ’ His aspect reminded me of something I had seen something funny I had seen somewhere. As I maneuvered to get alongside, I was asking myself, ‘What does this fellow look like? ’ Suddenly I got it. He looked like a harlequin”. And then later states, “You remember I told you I had been struck at the distance by certain attempts at ornamentation, rather remarkable in the ruinous aspect of the place. Now I had suddenly a nearer view, and its first result was to make me throw my head back as if before a blow.

Then I went carefully from post to post with my glass, and I saw my mistake…I had expected to see a knob of wood there, you know. I returned deliberately to the fist I had seen and there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of teeth, was smiling too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber” . This passage shows excellent impressionistic style, because of the unreliability of the narrator.

The scene is described exactly as it first appeared to Marlow. He first sees the heads on the poles, and thinks that they are knobs of wood so instead of saying, “I saw something on the poles that I later found out were human heads”, Conrad allows the reader to believe that they are indeed, only knobs of wood, for as long as Marlow believes that they are knobs of wood. It is also shown in the slightly erratic narration, which doesn’t follow an exact order, but instead jumps around wherever Marlow’s mind happens to be at that exact moment in time.

Another clue, would be Conrad’s use of commas. Impressionist writers tend to use a wide variety of commas, which some believe are also symbolic of the short brush strokes of impressionistic painters.  Kurtz shows interest in two very different women in the novel. The first we are introduced to is his native lover. she is described as being “savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her”. This woman is powerful and wearing “the value of several elephant tusks upon her”.

She shows her emotions openly, but does not allow weakness to show through. Kurtz’s intended on the other hand is described as having “a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief for suffering. This fair hair, this pale visage, this pure brow, seemed surrounded by an ashy halo from which the dark eyes looked out at me”. The intended is more meek, and full of suffering. She claims that she is the only one who understood Kurtz, and Marlow feels the need to protect her from the truth.

With the native lover, one of the men onboard says that he would have shot her if she had intended to board the boat. One of the women inspires fear, while the other inspires pity. But they are both very similar in their fierce loyalty to the man they love, Mr. Kurtz.  The first motif that I noticed was that of the “savages”. They are often referred to by names which are not usually used to describe a human, because they were not thought to be human the way the Europeans were thought of as human.

The first example that I found was on page 6 when Marlow is describing what his occupation includes, “Sandbanks, marshes, forests, savages precious little to eat fit for a civilized man”, which implies that he believes that food that the natives find acceptable, wouldn’t be good enough for him, because he is better than the natives. The second example was on page sixteen when Marlow describes the faces of the chain gang that walks past him saying, “They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages. This shows the way they group all of the “savages” into one conglomerate mass, saying there is no difference between one of them, and the next. The third example was one page eighteen. Marlow walks through a group of dying natives, and picks out one in particular. “While I stood, horror-struck, one of these creatures rose to his hands and knees and went on all-fours towards the river to drink”. This sentence doesn’t refer to the native as something resembling a human. The words “creatures”, “hands and knees” and “all-fours” are phrases that are only used to describe animals, which reflects on the European opinion of African natives.

The fourth example was a comment made by the Chief Accountant when he has a sick native recuperating inside his “office”. “When one has got to make correct entries, one comes to hate those savages hate them to the death”. This comment puts his work, and his accounting, over the well being of human beings. Meaning he values the lives of the natives less than he values his work. The last example was on page 24 when Marlow talks of viewing the man who was beaten, when a fire starts in the Central Station.

He says, “A nigger was being beaten nearby. They said he had caused the fire in some way; be that as it may, he was screeching most horribly. I saw him, later, for several days, sitting in a bit of shade looking very sick and trying to recover himself: afterwards he arose and went out and the wilderness without a sound took him into its bosom again”. This shows the treatment of the “savages”. The fire obviously started for absolutely no reason, but still they insist on blaming the fire on the native, rather than on one of their own. The second motif that I chose, was that of the jungle. The jungle is obviously a main part of the story, because most of the land around the Congo River is jungle. The first instance that I found was on page six of the novel Marlow says “all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. ” The jungle is often referred to as wilderness, which is a good example of what it represents. The jungle is the wild aspects of the world, and the uncivilized parts of the earth. he second example was on page 23. Marlow speaks of the difference between the station and the surrounding area, “And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion. ” This quote is interesting, because Marlow speaks of the Europeans in the Congo as an “invasion”. Meaning, the forest is a separate entity, and is not just there for the Europeans to take as they please.

The third example is on page 24, when Marlow is talking about the native that was beat for the fire he says “the wilderness without a sound took him into its bosom again”. This shows that the wilderness is only cruel to those that aren’t used to it, meaning the Europeans. it is a kind home to the natives just as Europe is a kind home to the Europeans. The fourth example was page 27 where Marlow says, “Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us? I felt how big, how confoundedly big, was that thing that couldn’t talk and perhaps was deaf as well”.

Marlow usually describes the forest as being silent, which is usually associated with a sense of foreboding. This shows the unknown threats and dangers that can be found in the jungle. The last example was on page 33 where Marlow describes the silence again saying “The high stillness confronted these two figures with its ominous patience, waiting for the passing away of a fantastic invasion”.  The third motif that I chose was the river. This is the most integral part of the story, because it is the primary mode of transportation.

On page five he asks, “What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unkown earth! ” The river is a connection between civilization and wilderness, ancient times, and modern. The second example is on page 14 where he says, “Nature herself had tried to ward off intruders; in and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened into slime, invaded the contorted mangroves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair”. Here he is describing the rivers as the embodiment of the suffering the Europeans are causing.

The third example is spoken by the unknown narrator who describes listening to Marlow, “I listened on the watch for the sentence, for the word, that would give me the clue to the faint uneasiness inspired by this narrative that seemed to shape itself without human lips in the heavy night-air of the river”. Here he uses personification, by saying that the river itself was actually the one telling Marlow’s story. The fourth example is on page 34 when he says “Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth, and the big trees were kings. This again shows the connecting power of the river from ancient times to modern. The last example was on page 35 where Marlow says, “The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return”. He views the river as a one way path into “the heart of darkness”. 7. * The first example of assumptions made in the book would be Marlow’s interaction with his Aunt. Because his Aunt has only heard what the companies are telling the world, she believes that the sole purpose of expeditions to Africa is to civilize the “brutes” who live there.

This is, in her mind, a worth while undertaking, so she praises Marlow for his decision. However, if she had actually understood that the reason that the Europeans were in the Congo was to destroy the country in their search for ivory, and mistreat the natives, then her reaction, may not have been as kind.  The second example would be the first interactions between Marlow and the brick maker in the Central Station. Because the brick maker believes that Marlow has connections with officials who are high up in the company, the brick maker is extremely nice to Marlow and immediately attempts to befriend him.

He only does this, because he assumed that being friends with Marlow would allow him to get a boost in his standing with the company.  The third example would be the interaction between Marlow and Kurtz’s intended. Marlow who has quite a misogynistic view of women says, “It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there had never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Because he has this preconceived notion of women being so fragile, he acts cautiously when he meets Kurtz’s intended, and eventually, this preconceived notion causes him to lie to her about exactly the kind of man that Kurtz really is. “The horror” that Mr. Kurtz refers to would partially be his involvement in the European presence in the Congo. Unlike the other managers of stations, Kurtz is not completely detatched from the natives. He gets to know them on a personal level, until they idolize him as a God, and I believe that eventually he began to feel remorse for the way that he was using them.

He could never have a real, true relationship with them, because he still had to report to a company, so the main basis of their relationship would always be extortion. Kurtz eventually realized how wrong this was, but at that point he was so involved that there was no way he could reverse the damage he had done there. I feel that he was also, in his last dying breath, attempting to continue the legacy that he had managed to build for himself. Throughout the entire book it seems as if people idolize him for his speeches, but are never able to give real substance for why he is this fantastically, amazing person they describe him to be.

This would be a great example. No one will ever be able to explain exactly what “The horror! The horror! ” refers to, but the words are just haunting enough that Marlow will never be able to go a day without contemplating what they could possibly mean. In this way, Kurtz is ensuring that his legacy will live on. I believe that the frame structure is very important, because it gives credibility, and a sense of meaning to the story. A story being relayed by the person who experienced it may or may not be interesting or of extreme importance.

But, because Conrad chose to have another narrator relaying Marlow’s story, it shows that Marlow was not the only one who thought that the story was worth hearing. It lends that the narrator heard the story from Marlow, and decided it was worth while enough that other people besides those that heard it from Marlow, should hear the story. It also allows Conrad to skip over the least important parts of the story, and only leave those details that are crucial to the story line.

Works Cited

  1. Conrad, Joseph, and Robert Kimbrough. Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Essays in Criticism. New York: Norton, 1971. Print.

Cite this Page

Heart of Darkness Active Reading Guide. (2018, May 20). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/heart-of-darkness-active-reading-guide/

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