Study Guide to
Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"
-- Part One --

Note: For this Study Guide to be useful, you will need to print it out.  But if you plan to print this out from one of the KSU public computer labs, be sure first to go into the File menu, choose "Page Setup," and click on "Black Type."  This will ensure that text in color prints out (in black) instead of coming out blank.


Before undertaking the Writing Assignment on this novella, plan on reading it all the way through in light of this study guide (which is in three parts).  Page references are to the Dover Thrift Edition.

Throughout the story, you want to keep systematic track of the motifs that show up in the work's title -- of "darkness" and "heart," literally and metaphorically.  This means, too, that you'll want to keep track of their various contraries (or supposed contraries) -- of "light,"  and of such different things conventionally distinguishable from the "heart" as the "intellect," "will," "appetites," "soul." 

Be alert for the possibility that "darkness" (and "black") may take on a variety of connotations (evil? unclarity/obscurity? ignorance?), depending on the specific context, and that "light" (and "white") may not always be able to be trusted to indicate the contraries of these (goodness, clarity, knowledge or insight).  That is, there may be ironic play at work about appearances and reality in connection with these notions.

Notice that the entire tale is conveyed by a frame narrator, who describes to us the situation in which Marlow, the protagonist/narrator of the main story, tells that story to his audience.  The frame narrator introduces Marlow, telling us certain important things about him, and relating some of Marlow's reflections that motivate him to recall and relate his story, and then in effect quotes from memory the entire story Marlow relates, occasionally intruding when Marlow briefly breaks off, and then receding into the background until the final paragraph of the novella.

What seems to be the narrator's own attitude towards the history of British maritime imperial enterprise?  (p. 2)

Make it a point to note what the narrator says sets Marlow apart from other seafarers.  (3) How are these qualities of personality important in the story that Marlow eventually tells? 

What is it about the surroundings of the moment that leads Marlow to tell the story that makes up the main business of the novella? (3-4)  What is his sense of the kind of enterprise the Roman conquest of Britain was?  What are his feelings about it?  What are his feelings about the different sorts of people involved in it?  How does he think it compares and contrasts to the British imperial enterprise of his own day? 

When you finish the novella, return to Marlow's ruminations about the Roman projection into Britain.  How does his sense of the Belgian imperial project compare with his feelings towards the British Empire?  Do you think Conrad agrees with him?  Are do we have here a narrator that we are supposed to part company with in some important respects?

Marlow's story begins on p. 5.  Make a descriptive note in the top margin of the appropriate page where each of the following episodes begins.  This will make it easier for us to find our way through the text during class discussion.  (You must, of course, bring your text with you to class.)


London and Brussells.

Marlow explains how he came to get the job that led to the adventure that is the substance of his tale.

Checking the maps:  what's this stuff about a snake charming a bird?  (Where later on in the story does the idea of "bewitchment" come in?)

Working through his aunt to get connections. 

What episode opened the opportunity for him to get a job with the Company?  How does Fresleven's fate function as a foreshadowing of what Marlow will encounter later on?

What is ironic about the juxtaposition of the deserted African village (described in a flashforward) and the metropolis of Brussels (the capital of Belgium)?  What is ominous about the impression Brussels makes on Marlow?

The appointment at the Company.  Look carefully at the elements and structure of this mini-episode.  How are the two women at the door described?  the maps?  the secretary?  the CEO?

Ave!  Morituri te salutant.  "Hail!  We who are about to die salute you":  this is how the gladiators in the Roman Colosium addressed the spectators.

The appointment with the company doctor:  what impression does this leave?

The goodbye/thank-you visit to his aunt:  what are his aunt's ideas about him?  (How do these evidently affect his reception later on, when he's working his way up the Congo?  How do they connect with the kind of reputation Kurtz has?)

P. 10, end of 3:  what are some different things we might conceive to exist at "the center of the earth"?  (In what sense does this sentence turn out to be appropriate?)


The trip on the French steamer.

What's the impression we get of the European contacts with the edge of the African continent?

What mentality is testified to by the gun-boat shelling the bush?  (What have we already heard of that this calls to mind?  What do we eventually meet with that in turn calls this to mind?)


The trip from the mouth of the river (the Congo) to the Company's Outer Station.

What is the opinion of the Swedish captain of the seagoing steamer concerning what's going on?  What question does he plant in our mind?


The Outer Station.

What is signified by the "boiler wallowing in the grass"?

What's implied by the statement that the blasting is "objectless"?

What can we infer from the appearance of the chain gang?  What attitude on the part of Marlow is conveyed by his referring to the man in charge of them as "one of the reclaimed, the product of the new forces at work"?

What is the point of Marlow's disquisition on the various kinds of devils he's seen?

Be on the alert for where this motif gets picked up later on.

The "grove of death."  What does Marlow encounter here?  (What's the implication of the hole being as it is?  of there being all these smashed imported drainage pipes?  What's the condition of the people?  What is Marlow's reaction?  Should it / could it be anything else?)

The Company Accountant.  What's striking about his appearance and behavior?  Do we detect any irony in Marlow's description of this personage?

What do we make of his attitude towards the sick person?

What do we make of his remarks about his laundry woman?

First mention of Mr. Kurtz:  what expectations are aroused for Marlow by the Accountant's remarks?


The trek from the Outer Station to the Central Station.

What are the chief things Marlow encounters along the way?

What's his attitude towards his white companion on this journey?


The Central Station.

What's running the show here?

"White men with long staves in their hands appeared languidly...":  this is Marlow's first acquaintance with what he comes to dub "the pilgrims."  Keep your eye out for his attitude towards them, and the reasons for it.  Also:  why do they appear this way?  What are they hanging around for?  What is their attitude towards the natives around them?

Marlow learns the steamer he's to pilot up the river has been sunk.  How did this come about?  What does it seem to indicate about the quality of management at the station?

The Manager of the Central Station.

What initial impression does he make on Marlow?  Does this impression change later on?  Does it intensify?

What impression is made by his explanation of how the steamer ended up getting its bottom torn out?  What are we to infer the Manager has really been up to?  (Cf. the last sentence of the last full on p. 19.)

What are "the redeeming facts of life" that Marlow fought to keep his hold on?  How did he do this?

What attitude to you see developing on Marlow's part towards the "pilgrims"?  (Look carefully at the full description.)

What's signified by the reaction of people at the CS to the burning of the grass shed warehouse?

What does Marlow overhear during the fire, between the manager and the first-class agent?  What is his "take" on it?

What's the first-class agent's job?  What do we learn of the personality of the first-class agent, from Marlow's relation of his conversation with him?

Why does this person want to make the acquaintance of Marlow?

Study carefully the description Marlow gives of the painting attributed to Kurtz.  What meanings is this susceptible to taking on, in the light of the story that follows?

What is the first-class agent's opinion of Marlow?  of Kurtz?  How does he feel towards what he sees as the new breed of agent being recruited by HQ?  Why does he feel this way?

What is Marlow's attitude towards the first-class agent?

Can you paraphrase the sense of Marlow's disquisition upon lies?

What attitude does Marlow find himself taking on towards Kurtz?

[Here the frame narrator intrudes for a little while.  Why do you think Conrad arranged for this to happen this way, here?]

What's Marlow getting at, concerning the first-class agent, with all his (Marlow's) carrying on about rivets?

What does the incident with the hippopotamus remind us of?

What does Marlow think is crucially important about work?

What is Marlow's attitude towards the native foreman, boilermaker by trade?

What shows up instead of the rivets?

What's implied by the name the expedition has been given?

What's its purpose?

What is the relationship of the expedition's leader to the manager of the CS?

What is Marlow's impression of this leader?

What is Marlow's curiosity about Kurtz?


  Go to Part Two of this Study Guide.

  Go to the Writing Assignment on this story.

  Suggestions are welcome.  Please send your comments to lyman@ksu.edu

  Contents copyright 1999 by Lyman A. Baker

Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.

  This page last updated 28 March 1999.