English 417: The Victorian Period
Art Young, Fall, 1992
Clemson University, Clemson SC 29634-1503

Writing Assignment #6. Due In Two Parts, November 18 and November 25.

ou will have a final exam question on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Assignment #6 is designed to enhance your understanding of this novel in collaboration with a classmate. The assignment follows:

1. Reflect on your reading of Heart of Darkness and then write a 200-300 note (legible handwriting is okay) to a classmate in which you describe some aspect of the novel that you are having trouble understanding--a specific area you are having difficulty interpreting or fully comprehending. You should make distinctions where you can--that is, describe what you do understand and what you don’t understand. You should refer to one or more particular passages in the novel where you are experiencing difficulty. Don’t just say "I don’t understand the passage beginning on line ten of page 227." Provide a context for what you don’t understand--so your reader can see your difficulties and thereby give you some assistance. I hope this exercise will help you clarify your thinking about Conrad’s novel as well as describe a particular problem(s) to a classmate that you really want to know more about. This brief writing is due Wednesday, November 18 in two copies— one for your classmate and one for me.

2. Take the note a classmate has given you and consider it carefully, review Heart of Darkness and our class discussions about it, and then respond to your classmate with a thoughtful note of explanation and exploration. Explain where you can, and where you are not sure of particular aspects yourself, explore reasonable possibilities. Again, my hope from this assignment is that you will not only help your classmate understand and gain a better critical appreciation of Heart of Darkness, but that in constructing your response you will learn more about the novel as well. This note should be 400-500 words long and typed. Due November 25 in two copies--one for your classmate and one for me.

If you are absent November 16, you are responsible for exchanging notes with your partner at the earliest possible time thereafter-but not later than November 20.


Letters exchanged by students: Set #1


On page 149, Marlow makes a general statement about women after having a conversation with his aunt, saying, "it’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there had never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up, it would go to pieces before the first sunset." After reading the novel, I could see how Marlow would think that Kurtz’s Intended fit into this stereotype. She did really seem to be totally out of touch with reality, and she didn’t seem to have a clue about the man she loved. The question I want to ask is whether the African woman described near the end of the novel on page 226 fits into this stereotype. Actually, I would like to know where and how she fits into the novel at all, beyond the insinuations of being Kurtz’s mistress. I think this woman must be symbolic of something, although I am not exactly sure of what. Is she a living, breathing human embodiment of the ‘heart of darkness," the wilderness of the African Congo, as seems to be indicated on page 226?

Yours, Emily



In class, we discussed the possibility that Heart of Darkness is a masculine novel. This idea seems supported by the narrator’s reliance on patriarchal assumptions and Marlow’s unsympathetic view of women and perhaps, by the subject matter which focuses on plotting, murder, intrigue and male adventure. Based on these assumptions, the savage woman’s role can be explained as a symbolic representation of the things to which this man feels alternately attracted and repulsed—woman and Africa.

Before the trip, Marlow has, as you mentioned, stated his demeaning and subordinating attitude towards women (that they’re out of touch with truth). But that description fits his Aunt and the Intended specifically, while this savage woman seems a striking deviation from this stereotype. When considering the savage woman in the context of Marlowe’s stereotype, I came up with several possibilities.

Some possibilities for the purpose of this woman were suggested briefly by Achebe. he believes that she serves as a direct contrast or opposite to the Intended. If so, I wonder why Conrad would deliberately draw this contrast with his own view of woman who is embodied in the Intended? When you consider the dichotomies presented (Thames/Congo, Africa/England, civilized/savage, good/evil), this contrast of the powerful, wild savage with the civilized, naive Intended is a fitting echo of the division being made by Marlow. But does Marlow’s image of women represent what he wants them to be? I think he does because he willfully hides the truth from the Intended by lying about Kurtz’s last words.

Yes, I think it’s important that, to Marlow, truth is available to men only. It is a masculine concern. So if the woman represents Africa, which he suggests is the case by such comments as "...the whole sorrowful land. . . seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul" (76), then she has a strong connection with truth. As I see it, the primitive and savage is the vehicle for truth in Heart Of Darkness: therefore, this woman conveys, or threatens to convey, truth.

She is a threatening image, although we never hear what Marlow’s feelings are about her. But his description of her includes words of awe, mystery and dread. He is uneasy and disquieted by her "ominous" progress, and the "tragic" and "fierce" expressions on her face. Although Achebe believes that Marlow "approves" of her because she is in her place, I sense that he fears her while being simultaneously attracted to her. He acknowledges that she is "gorgeous" and "superb" as well as "barbarous" and "savage".- So could her purpose in the novel be to reinforce and symbolize his feelings about Africa and the truth that is found there? I think that’s a strong possibility because there is a sense in which all women in Marlow’s tale are symbols—perhaps symbols of his fears and inadequacies. Because he obviously holds chauvinistic attitudes, it makes sense that (using our modern perspective of Freudian analysis) he fears them. Therefore, his masculine tale to his group of male friends reduces women to symbol. For example the women knitting wool, who are said to be associated with the Fates, represent his fear of his fate on this journey. however, I’m not sure how his Aunt or the laundress would fit into this interpretation. In any case, he sees the savage woman as the jungle. Like Africa, this woman is dark, mysterious, wild and powerful. As such, she is everything he believes a woman is not or should not be.

However, another purpose this woman serves is to help explain Kurtz. The implication that she was his mistress makes Marlow and the reader consider her as a real woman, one who is capable of having a relationship with a white man. It’s interesting to consider whether Conrad created her to represent how savage Kurtz had become or to show us that our kinship with Africa is real. I think an important question is whether she represents a positive alternative to the deluded, meek Intended or whether she represents the darkness which lured Kurtz into madness. That question asks, I think, a major decision to be made about the novel.

Hope this helps, Alyson

Dear Scott,

I’ve always thought it interesting that the narrator of Heart of Darkness is not the one who has the main story—rather, Marlow does. Why not have the whole story written from Marlow’s point of view, instead of having the narrator repeat all that Marlow said? The conclusion that I came to was that Conrad, in letting us view Marrow from the outside through the narrator, is giving us the opportunity to judge Marlow, just as Marlow has judged Kurtz. My question is, How should we judge Marlow? I’d specifically like to figure out what Marlow’s motive was in traveling into the heart of darkness—were his intentions noble?—and whether in remaining loyal to Kurtz he somehow corrupted himself.

In Marlow’s prelude to the tale, he says that what redeems the conquest of the earth is the idea only, an unselfish belief in the idea. This passage especially interests me now that I have a background of the Victorian sense of duty, the white man’s burden, etc. Was this why Marlow was going? I can’t really tell, because before he even departed, he realized that something was not quite right about it all. When he says that it appeared to others that he would be an emissary of light, a lower sort of apostle, he sounds sarcastic, but could that just be hindsight at work? Once on his journey, he encounters people who consider the natives to be enemies and who "hate the savages," but what does Marlow think? I think it may be telling that towards the end of the story, when Marlow describes Kurtz’s madness, Marlow says that because of his own sins, he had to go through the ordeal of looking into Kurtz’s mad soul himself.

So. Are we by to judge Marlow? If not, why not, and If so how should we judge him?



Dear Rosemary,

I think that Marlow was a kind of Buddha figure, a sage and wise man, but he represented the wisdom of the worldly Victorian, which is one of his major distinctions: for the most part, the Victorian characters with whom we have been made familiar have, for the most part been wholly ignorant of and often willfully disdainful of culture, knowledge, and wisdom originating outside of the European circle of enlightenment. It is, was, a creeping form of Eurocentrism that can be narrowed further to a kind of Victorian-centrism. They were not unjustified—as far as Marlow and the rest of the Victorians had any ken, theirs was the best and brightest civilization on the Earth: industry, standards of living, education, democracy, happiness (how unique) and prosperity for all could be a concern. Ah, there it is, that wonderful pan of the idealistic pie; they believed that because they were happy with their civilization/culture, that every other human being would be just as happy given the same circumstances. So I guess, in their own narrow way, they could "jolly well feel good about civilizing those bloody savages" because, from their own perceived position at the top, it would be beneficial to the abyres to be civilized by/for the "Motherly auspices of the Crown.

You know, Conrad himself was not a Victorian. . . he was a thoroughly displaced Pole, forced to speak Russian, then German, French, and finally English. He spent eight years wandering the ocean with the British merchant navy. He was not born Victorian or raised/accultured Victorian. He was the ultimate outsider to the culture. Though, bitter about his own culture (the destruction thereof), his view point and the could afford him an overview of British culture that none of it’s inhabitants could achieve.

Perhaps this is why Conrad felt that he could so easily remove himself from Marlow, in narration and spirit, because to Conrad, Marlow was a Victorian. In a way, Conrad is generous to Marlow by not attributing malice to Marlow’s own prejudices, few though they seem. Marlow is, in more ways, Conrad himself; a voyager adrift in the real world, absorbing everything in order to and make sense of himself and his own world, carrying with him his unconscious values and prejudices without forcing them onto the people or word around him. There is the judgment of Marlow: he carries the value/idea "Victorian" around with him, but he does not force the world to conform to his ideas. Kurtz is/was the embodiment of those ideas that Marlow holds, his own hero. Witnessing the actual implementations of those ideas and finally watching Kurtz’s decline and facing his Intended is what brought Marlow to fully question those ideas, to face their actual lack of enlightenment; to return to England and face the actual heart of the darkness.

Yours truly, Scott

Dear Kelly,

My first question comes from the end of the story where Conrad writes that the Thames "seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness." What do you think he’s talking about exactly? "Heart of darkness" usually refers to Africa, I know, the Dark Continent as well as the dark forces dormant in men’s souls. To me, the story seems to be about discovering those forces as we are taken out of civilization, so isn’t it ironic that he uses this reference now when the story is back in civilization? I ask this because at the beginning of the story he uses as much dark imagery describing London as he does for Africa. It doesn’t seem to be that they are leaving the lighted safe city for the dark jungle so much as they are going from a place where "darkness’ is underneath to where it comes to the surface.

This brings me to my second question--do you think they go to Africa and learn to be corrupt or that they are corrupt and use Africa as the excuse? (Their passions run wild because they expect them to.) At one point, Marlow runs down the city as corrupt when he is talking about first going to sign up for the job, but then he goes to find the same forces at work where he thought he would escape them. Is the darkness there out of civilization, or do they bring it with them.



Dear Cookie:

In his introduction to Heart of Darkness and Other Tales, Cedric Watts writes the "darkness of the book’s title refers to many kinds of darkness: moral corruption, primitive savagery, night, death\ ignorance, and that encompassing obscurity of the pre-rational which words seek to colonize and illuminate" (xvii). The last line of Heart of Darkness, "seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness," corresponds to Marlow’s comments only a few pages into the novel when he says of England—"and this also has been one of the darkest places of the earth." Marlow seems to use dark imagery to describe land in its primitive state, as it is used to describe the Belgium Congo. Yet I believe that the more important implication of the imagery of darkness is the corruption and evil in every man. This evil is found in all men, but lies dormant, controlled by civilization. That Marlow begins by saying that England was once dark and concludes by saying that it is still dark reveals that he believes that it is not simply the land which is dark, or that civilization ends darkness, but that the darkness remains a part of each man on every continent. Marlow describes "the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men" as if the wilderness is removed by civilization (140). But the actions of the English men belie his belief that efficiency has saved them and removed the darkness. Efficiency, Marlow’s word to describe the importance of civilization, merely hides the darkness. The moral corruption that seems to exist in Africa also exists in England; it is merely kept underground, only whispered about

Several examples of corruption in England are present in the novel. It is in England that the Ivory Company makes its plans to send Englishmen into the Congo to take ivory. It is in England where Marlow, who believes lying to be abominable, is forced to lie to the Intended. He rips the words "Exterminate all the Brutes!" from Kurtz’s report thus aiding continuation of sending Englishmen to Africa to "enlighten" the Africans with Christianity.

In England, one steps "delicately between the butcher and the policemen, in the holy tenor'd scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums" (206). Although men are corrupt with evil urges and desires, society prevents them from being acted on most of the time by threatening with hangings or confinement. "When they we gone you must fall back upon you own innate strength, upon your own capacity for faithfulness"(206).

In Africa, the English men are not more corrupt than they were in England. Instead, the power or strength they hold over the Africans and the lack of societal constraints enables their corruption to shine more brightly. The men are internally corrupt and being in Africa simply allows their corruptness to manifest itself externally as well. The men no longer have to whisper. Because they we more powerful than the Africans, due to weapons and explosives, they are able to prey on them without fear of reprisal.

Your friend, Kelly

Reprint permission granted by Art Young, Campbell Professor of English and Engineering, Clemson University (SC).

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