[2015] Emma McTague (AP Literature): Heart of Darkness

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[2015] Emma McTague (AP Literature): Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

CharactersMarlow: the protagonist of the novel; he travels to the Belgian Congo to explore uncharted territory. His journey into the heart of darkness affects him greatly and represents a loss of innocence.Kurtz: is a physical manifestation of the heart of darkness; the evil inside all humans. He is in charge of a station deep within the Congo jungle. Marlow is obsessed with meeting him.Chief Accountant: Works in the humid and unpleasant outer station, however, he dresses in all whites and keeps himself and his work area extremely tidy somehow.Cannibals: hired to help Marlow run his boat through the river, they never attempt to eat anyone on the boat even when starving.Russian Trader: a loyal follower of Kurtz who meets Marlow when he arrives at the Inner Station; his boyish face and colorful clothes remind Marlow of a harlequin.Kurtz's mistress: a beautiful African woman who exerts an influence over the entire inner station. Marlow does not learn much about her.Kurtz's intended: Kurtz asks Marlow to visit her after his death. She is a naive and quiet woman. Marlow lies to her about Kurtz's last words.The narrator: a passenger aboard the ship Nellie on the Thames, he listens to Marlow tell his story.Women at the Company office: the three women that work at the Company office when Marlow goes to enlist represent the three fates in Greek mythology.

PlotThe narrator and his friends are on a boat on the Thames. One of his friends, Marlow, begins to tell his story. He joined a company to travel to the Belgian Congo in order to explore something he'd never seen before. He arrives in the Congo expecting something grand but is instead dissapointed at how inhumanely the Africans are treated and how nonsensical the behavior of the Europeans are, and begins to hear about a man named Kurtz. A caravan of Africans takes him to the next station, where he is told that the steamboat that has been prepared for him has sunk, so he is forced to stay at the station, where he learns more about Kurtz and becomes more and more obsessed with him. Finally, the voyage is underway, and two (apparently terrifying) months later the boat reaches Kurtz's inner station, but not before the ship is attacked by natives, killing the helmsman. Marlow meets up with the Russian Trader, who says ominous things about Kurtz, like that Kurtz was responsible for the attack on Marlow's ship. When Marlow finally sees Kurtz, he is being carried on a stretcher by Africans and is scarily thin and pale. Marlow sees Kurtz's mistress and brings Kurtz onto the boat. However, when Marlow wakes up later Kurtz has escaped. Marlow brings him back. The next day, they leave and the natives cry out for Kurtz. Kurtz dies on the ship, and Marlow finds his things. After returning to England, Marlow gets rid of some of Kurtz's stuff and goes to give the rest to his inteded. When Kurtz's intended asks what Kurtz's last words were, Marlow lies. Marlow ends his story and the people on the Nellie stare off into the distance.

Notable features and point of viewThe story is told in the first person perspective. However, the point of view is an unnamed narrator aboard a ship listening to Marlow tell his story, creating a frame narrative. The text is written in the modernist style, meaning that everything is meant to be a little vague and unclear.

Major themesColonialism/Imperialism is evil, ridiculous, and dehumanizing for all involved.Society as a whole is necessary but morally ambiguous.

"The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness."This quote, which occurs when Marlow enters the area of the Inner Station, demonstrates another major theme, of darkness. It is incredibly foreboding and foreshadows that whatever Marlow will see here will not be good and will affect him forever.

"It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: 'Exterminate all the brutes!'"This quote emphasizes Kurtz's madness and the veneer of civilization. This message that he wrote is in sharp contrast to his supposed eloquence and efficiency.

"Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams...no, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone." This quote emphasizes one of the main themes of the story -- the lack of clarity and uncertainty throughout; the unknown that will never become known. It also further establishes a mysterious and foreboding tone that is present throughout.

Motifs and symbolsFog: there is often fog hanging over the characters. This represents the uncertainty and ambiguity of the points Conrad was trying to make, as well as a general sense of ambiguity and uncertainty present in the novel as a whole.Darkness: even when it is daytime, there is often a feeling or sense of darkness present. Marlow's first line is even "And this also...has been one of the dark places of the earth." It represents the evil and maddening nature of colonialism, and the futility of civilzation.Ivory: symbolizes the greed and corruption of the Europeans who participate in colonization. The more Ivory someone in the novel possesses, the more evil and insane they are (for example, Kurtz possess the most ivory of any character).White vs. Black: these two are often presented in stark contrast in the novel, for example, the bright white, startched clothes of the chief accountant compared to the black, dying bodies in the shade. However, Conrad does not say that either is purely good or purely evil; they are both still ambiguous.


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