Quotes From 'Heart of Darkness' by Joseph Conrad

The Congo River and darkness are metaphors for hidden terrors

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"Heart of Darkness," a novel published in 1899, is a celebrated work by Joseph Conrad. The author's experiences in Africa provided him with material for this work, the story of a man who gives into the enticements of power. Here are a few quotes from "Heart of Darkness."

The River

The Congo River serves as a major setting for the book's narrative. The novel's narrator Marlow spends months navigating up the river in search of Kurtz, an ivory trader who has gone missing deep in the heart of Africa. The river is also a metaphor for Marlow's internal, emotional journey to find the elusive Kurtz.

Conrad wrote of the river itself:

"The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of day, after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth."

He also wrote of the men who followed the river:

"Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth!"

And he wrote of the life-and-death drama that played out on its banks:

"In and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened with slime, invaded the contorted mangroves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair."

Dreams and Nightmares

The story actually takes place in London, where Marlow tells his tale to a group of friends on a boat anchored on the River Thames. He describes his adventures in Africa alternately as a dream and a nightmare, trying to get his listeners to mentally conjure up images that he witnessed during his journey.

Marlow told the group about the sensations his time in Africa had aroused:

"Nowhere did we stop long enough to get a particularlised impression, but the general sense of vague and oppressive wonder grew upon me. It was like a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares."

He also spoke of the continent's spawn:

"The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealth, the germs of empires."

All the while he tried to re-create the dreamlike quality of his African experiences in the heart of London:

"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."

Darkness

Darkness is a key part of the novel, as the title implies. At the time, Africa was considered the dark continent, referring to its mysteries and the savagery Europeans expected there. Once Marlow finds Kurtz, he sees him as a man infected with a heart of darkness. Images of dark, scary places are scattered throughout the novel.

Marlow spoke of two women who greeted visitors to the offices of his company, who seemed to know the fate of all who entered and not care:

"Often far away there I thought of these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinizing the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes."

Everywhere was the image of darkness:

"We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness."

Savagery and Colonialism

The novel takes place at the height of the age of colonialism, and Britain was the world's mightiest colonial power. Britain and the other European powers were considered to be civilized, while much of the rest of the world was considered to be populated by savages. Those images permeate the book.

For Marlow, the sense of savagery, real or imagined, was suffocating:

"In some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him..."

And what was mysterious was to be feared:

"When one has got to make correct entries, one comes to hate those savages—hate them to the death."

But Marlow and, by derivation, Conrad, could see what their fear of the "savages" said about themselves:

"The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much."