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Heart of Darkness


The Author
In Europe
Belgian Congo Coast
To Central Station
At Central Station
To Inner Station
At Inner Station
Home to Europe



Questions for Study and Ideas for Answers

Q: The structure of The Heart of Darkness is that of a ‘frame tale’.  What does this mean?

Ideas: The novel is about Marlow’s journey to Africa, which he tells on the ‘Nellie’ to some friends of his. One of those who are listening is the narrator of our book and what we read is his recollection of Marlow’s tale. The book is, therefore, a story within a story and is thus called a frame tale. It is left to the reader to establish the accuracy of facts given to us by the narrator.  We do not know what his status is apart from the fact that he is in the company of a Lawyer, an Accountant and a Director.

Has the impact of Marlow’s tale been tempered in any way?

That is for the reader to decide having regard to the actual history of colonizing European nations.


Q: What are the factors that brought about Kurtz’s degeneration?

Ideas: Power : The Company gave Kurtz complete control over the Inner Station. His only task was to produce as much ivory as possible for which he was well paid. Absolute power corrupts.

Morality : The Company had no means to police Kurtz’s activities, although it was understood that Agents of the Company would try to civilize the local inhabitants. Kurtz was not interested in this because it had no bearing on the productivity of the extraction of ivory. Any loyalty he had for his Intended soon vanished and he had at least one black mistress.

Greed : He had an all-consuming desire to produce as much ivory as possible being oblivious to the needs of those around him.  Anyone who stood against him faced the ultimate punishment – death.

Egotism : As his excesses grew he became a god-like figure to the primitive natives of his station.  He displayed the heads of those that opposed him around his house on stakes like trophies.  He allowed the dark side of his personality to take control of his life thus becoming a tyrant.


Q: Most of the colonials degenerated because of their stay in Africa, but Marlow seems to have resisted this.  Why?

Ideas: It is clear that the climate and the poor immunity of whites to the local diseases make it an inhospitable place for Europeans to live in. These oppressive conditions generally make the Company workers lethargic and when they do engage in work it seems inefficient and pointless.

Marlow, however, keeps himself busy mainly by working on his boat by repairing it and keeping it going so he is able to immerse himself in this almost spiritual work.  Although there are signs towards the end of the story that the Dark Continent may claim him as another victim, the sight of Kurtz is enough to make him pull back and he decides to return to Europe. In a way, through Kurtz’s death and the final realization that he has become evil, Marlow is shocked into pulling back from the abyss.

One can also assume that Marlow keeps in mind the words of his aunt telling him to civilize and give salvation to the natives. This clearly cannot be done by working for the Company and so he returns home.


Q: Why do you think Conrad uses the title ‘Heart of Darkness’ for this story?

Ideas: There is a light and dark side to everyone and this story explores the dark side of human nature in all its ugliness.

Conrad suggests that man is able to suppress this dark side while he is living in a civilized society.  Suppression is made easier with the fact that those people who give in to the temptations of evil are punished by society. However, where there is no rule of law as was the case in Africa at the turn of the century, it is easier for man to let evil corrupt and take over his life.

The location of the novel in Africa is not accidental, as it was known at that time as the Dark Continent full of mystery and primeval forces.  It was the duty of colonizing nations to bring about enlightenment to this dark, non-Christian land.

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