ENGL 3906: Literary Methods
Discussion Questions for Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899)
As you read Heart of Darkness , mark passages and quotes in your text that will help you answer and/or illlustrate the following questions and issues:
1. The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe has claimed that Heart of Darkness is an "offensive and deplorable book" that "set[s] Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe's own state of spiritual grace will be manifest." Achebe says that Conrad does not provide enough of an outside frame of reference to enable the book to be read as ironic or critical of imperialism. Based on the evidence in the text, argue for or against Achebe's assertion.
2. As you read the novel, be aware of how Conrad uses repeated "doubling" patterns of opposition and contrast in Heart of Darkness: light and dark, white and black, "savagery" and "civilization," outer and inner? What does Conrad accomplish by this contrast, especially of light and dark?
3. Marlow constantly uses vague and often redundant phrases like "unspeakable secrets" and "inconceivable mystery." At other times, however, he is capable of powerful imagery and considerable eloquence. Why does Marlow use vague and "inconclusive" language so frequently?
4. Why does Heart of Darkness have two competing heroes? Make the case for either Marlow or Kurtz as the true "hero" of the book. How do you define "hero" for this book? Why doesn't Marlow kill Kurtz?
5. Think about the framing story that structures Heart of Darkness. Why is it important to narrate Marlow in the act of telling his story? Why is the framing narrator unnamed?
6. Interpret Kurtz's dying words ("The horror! The horror!"). What do they mean? What are the possible "horrors" to which he is referring? Why is Marlow the recipient of Kurtz's last words?
7. What do women represent in Heart of Darkness? There are three significant women in this story: Kurtz's Intended, Marlow's aunt, and the African woman at Kurtz's station. How are they described? Contrast Kurtz's African mistress with his Intended. Are both negative portrayals of women? Describe how each functions in the narrative. Does it make any difference in your interpretation to know that Conrad supported the women's suffrage movement? What does Marlow mean early in Part 1 when he suggests that women are "out of touch with truth" and live in a beautiful world of their own?
8. Describe the use of "darkness" both in the book's title and as a symbol throughout the text. What does darkness represent? Is its meaning constant or does it change?
9. How does physical illness relate to madness? How does one's environment relate to one's mental state in this book?
10. Why does Marlow lie to Kurtz's fiancée about Kurtz's last words? Why not tell her the truth, or tell her that Kurtz had no last words, rather than affirming her sentimental and mundane ideas?
11. If you were, like Francis Ford Coppola (who shifted the setting to late 1960s Viet Nam in his 1979 film Apocalypse Now) to retell Heart of Darkness in another setting, where and when would you set it?