An Approach to Heart of Darkness


I want to focus our discussion on the aspects of Heart of Darkness that are relevant to understanding its relationship to Apocalypse Now. As you're thinking about the novel, keep in mind that the film uses material from it in five major ways:

  1. The Story Structure.
    A journey upriver, culminating in an encounter with Kurtz.

  2. A Reflective First-Person Narrator.
    Willard is the Narrator, who, like Marlow, tells the story of a journey in which he reflects and comments on what he sees and learns as he moves through a series of symbolic events.

  3. The Three Major Characters.
    Colonel Kurtz is based on Mr. Kurtz; Willard on Marlow; the Photo-Journalist on the Russian.

  4. Lines of Dialogue.

  5. The Arrow attack and the Spear-death of the Chief.

When you've finished reading through this document, go to the HEART OF DARKNESS DISCUSSION Forum and post the answers to your assigned question or questions.

Marlow's Journey

Marlow tells the story of his experiences going to Africa to command a steam-boat up the Congo river. He has a series of encounters on his trip, but he doesn't just neutrally report his experience but critically evaluates what he sees and hears. We want to discuss the major events of his journey and how he judges what he sees.
  1. Meeting with his Aunt--27-28.

    Marlow's Aunt is largely responsible for getting him the Captain's job with the Belgian Company. When he goes to see her to say good-bye, he discovers that she has a certain view of the significance of his journey to Africa--he is one of the "Workers." #1 : What does she mean by that? " She talked about 'weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways..." What did she mean? What is Marlow's response to her views?

  2. Along the African Coast:The French Man-of-War--32.

    In travelling along the coast of Africa, Marlow comes upon a French Gunboat "shelling the bush." #2: How does he interpret what he sees?

  3. At the Company Station--34

    There are three major incidents at the Company Station that we'll discuss.

    1. The Construction of the Railroad.--35-36.

      The railroad is the great late 19th century, early twentieth century symbol of Progress. #3: What building process does Marlow see going on at the Company Station? What's the significance of the blasting that's going on? What's the significance of the group of "criminals" he encounters?

    2. The Work. --37-42.

      Marlow stumbles into a ravine and discovers more evidence of the kind of Work with a capital "W"that the Company is doing in Africa. #4 What does he encounter?

    3. The Accountant--42-48

      Marlow suddenly sees a strange figure--the Company's chief accountant. #5:What is so amazing and unsettling about him? What is ironic about him? The Accountant is the one who first mentions Mr. Kurtz. What does Marlow find out about Kurtz from the Accountant?

  4. At the Central Station--50.

    After hearing about the "remarkable" Mr. Kurtz from the Accountant, Marlow becomes curious and begins to be engaged with figuring out who Kurtz is. Marlow gradually becomes a detective trying to piece together the bits of information into a picture of Kurtz. At the Central Station he picks up two more "clues" about Kurtz--from the Station Manager and from the discovery of Kurtz's painting.

    1. The Station Manager.--76.

      The Station Manager is successful because he's never sick. He says 'Men who come out here should have no entrails.' Of course this is a nice ironic statement, because the Manager has nothing within. He's missing more than just "entrails." He, along with his assistant the Bricklayer, are interesting moral specimens. But the most significant clue about Mr. Kurtz that Marlow picks up from the Station Manager is when he overheards him discussing Kurtz with his Uncle. The Manager quotes Kurtz's words: "Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing."--76. These words are a valuable clue for understanding Kurtz. #6: What did the Station Manager think about them? What do you think they reveal about Kurtz?

    2. Kurtz's Painting--57-58.

      Marlow is startled to discover a small sketch in oils done by Mr. Kurtz. #7: What is the content of the painting? What does it reveal about Kurtz?

  5. At the Inner Station.

    When Marlow reaches the Inner Station and finally meets Mr. Kurtz, he is shocked to find that this man who ventured into Africa "equipped with moral ideas" had thrown off all restraints and is playing the role of god to the natives, plundering the land for ivory with his tribe of followers, engaging in "unspeakable rites" with his worshippers. Marlow struggles to explain to his audience who are safely surrounded by policemen, butcher shops and MTV what happened to Kurtz and why he, Marlow, finally judged Kurtz to be "a remarkable man."

    But before we examine what he means by this judgment, let's look at the assessment of Kurtz by two other characters, the Station Manager and the Russian.

    • The Station Manager.

      The Station Manager's judgment about Kurtz's activities is simple: his "method is unsound." [130-131] #8: What does he mean by that? What does Marlow think about his judgment? What do you think about his judgment?

    • The Russian.--107-117; 134.

      Like the Accountant at the Company Station, the Russian is a bizzare figure to find in the middle of Africa. Marlow is not only astonished by his unexpected presence, but by his attitude toward and understanding of Mr. Kurtz. #9: Who is this character and what is his understanding of Kurtz? What is Marlow's view of the Russian and his view of Kurtz?

    • Marlow and Kurtz.

      There are a number of key moments in which Marlow engages in extensive reflections on Kurtz.

      1. The first is the moment after the Chief's spear-death. Study paragraph 103.

        • Here Marlow gives an extensive explanation of what happened to Kurtz in the Congo. #10: What is his analysis?

        • In this paragraph, Marlow discusses Kurtz's Report to the "International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs." This is a key document for understanding the character of Kurtz. #11: What does the quotation from it reveal about Kurtz? What does the later P.S. reveal?

      2. A second key reflection on Kurtz is in Paragraphs 115-116 which issues in Marlow's famous judgment about Kurtz: "he was hollow at the core...". This line becomes the inspiration for T.S. Eliot's poem, "The Hollow Men," which Colonel Kurtz recites in Apocalypse Now. #12: What does Marlow mean ? Who else in the novel is "hollow?"

      3. The final moments are when Marlow is travelling back down river with the dying Mr. Kurtz.--154-158.

        • Marlow watches the final moments of Kurtz's dying and hears his final words: "The horror! The horror! [ 154] #13: What does Kurtz mean?

        • Marlow's final judgment about Kurtz is that: "He was a remarkable man."[158] #14: What does Marlow mean?

  6. Marlow's return.

    Marlow returns to Brussels carrying some of Kurtz's documents, including the Report to the "International Association for the Suppression of Savage Customs." How has Marlow's experience with Kurtz changed him? He has a number of encounters with people who want to know about Kurtz, culminating in his visit with Kurtz's "Intended." Why does Marlow give people Kurtz's Report with the P.S. torn off? Why doesn't Marlow tell any of them the truth about Kurtz?