Tag Archives: Marlow

Childish Games of the Empire

“I kept to the track though–then stopped to listen. The night was very clear: a dark blue space, sparkling with dew and starlight, in which black things stood very still. I thought I could see a kind of motion ahead of me. I was strangely cocksure of everything that night. I actually left the track and ran in a wide semicircle (I verily believe chuckling to myself) so as to get in front of that stir, of that motion I had seen–if indeed I had seen anything. I was circumventing Kurtz as though it had been a boyish game.”

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and Other Tales. “Heart of Darkness”, 172. Oxford: Oxford NY, 2002.

This passage continues Conrad’s thematic comparison between childishness and imperialism. Marlow’s chase through darkness in search of Kurtz mirrors the chase for ivory that he is supposed to be on, but he is preoccupied with other issues. Clearly Kurtz takes the place of the ivory in Marlow’s eyes. Marlow makes a contradictory statement by saying that he was “cocksure of everything,” but later reveals that he had at the time been unsure if he has even seen Kurtz. This image mocks the assurance of those empires who make guesses of where they can find wealth then send men to go excavate it (while “chuckling” to themselves). The parallels between his silly game and imperial conquest create a frame of both satire and criticism in Heart of Darkness.

Race in Heart of Darkness

“All their meagre breasts, the violently dilated nostrils, the eyes stared stonily up-hill. The passed me within six inches, without a glance, complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages. Behind this raw matter one of the reclaimed, the product of the new forces at work, strolled despondently, carrying a rifle by its middle…white men being so much alike at a distance, that he could not tell who I might be.”

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and Other Tales. “Heart of Darkness”, 117. Oxford: Oxford NY, 2002.

Going off of the conversation with which we left off last class, this passage serves for and  against Achebe’s argument that Heart of Darkness is a racially charged text.  The language Conrad uses is suggestive of racism whereas the African men are described as animals instead of humans. Conrad writes that Marlow observes the Africans as being ‘savages’, dehumanized and stripped of their identities. Conrad uses the delayed specification of referents which conveys emotions that need not be explicitly written: for instance, the reader gets a sense of not belonging from the sample text. Marlow refers to the Africans with racist language, but he feels he does not fit in with the white group as well. Marlow knows that he too is white but is hesitant to identify with the other white men. This issue suddenly does not seem so much a racial concern but rather a state of the human condition, which relates to Woolf’s theory on modernism.

Is Marlow Racist?

“Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this. What saves us is efficiency—the devotion to efficiency. But these chaps were not much account, really. They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force—nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. 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. What redeems it’s the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea.” (chapter 1, paragraph 13)


Originally I believed that Marlow did not consider the colonists to be negative in any way. However, he quickly contradicts his notion that the colonists are simply bringing civilization to the other races. Now it appears that Marlow believes the colonists are only concerned with the potential profit and conquering the different race of people.

A real man knows his place!

“It was unearthly, and the men were-No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it-the suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity-like yours-the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you-you so remote from the night of first ages-could comprehend. And why not?”

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and Other Tales. “Heart of Darkness”, 139. Oxford: Oxford NY, 2002.

I absolutely love this passage! It’s interesting to get such a clear glimpse of this  “better than thou” colonial attitude. What I find even more telling of the times, is how, even in his attempt at semi-identification with the African people, he still leans heavily on the condescension. If you were a real man, you might slightly identify that you have some connection with these lowly people.

Never So Hopeless

“I looked around, and I don’t know why, but I assure you that never, never before, did this land, this river, this jungle, the very arch of this blazing sky, appear to me so hopeless and so dark, so impenetrable to human thought, so pitiless to human weakness. `And, ever since, you have been with him, of course?’ I said”

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and Other Tales. “Heart of Darkness”, 165. Oxford: Oxford NY, 2002.

The thing that seems to Marlow the bleakest is not the suffering of the Africans, but the way that the Russian is enthralled by Kurtz.

Kicked loose from the earth

“I tried to break the spell—the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness—that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions. This alone, I was convinced, had driven him out to the edge of the forest, to the bush, towards the gleam of fires, the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations; this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations. And don’t you see, the terror of the position was not in being knocked on the head—though I had a very lively sense of that danger too—but in this, that I had to deal with a being to whom I could not appeal in the name of anything high or low. I had, even like the niggers, to invoke him—himself—his own exalted and incredible degradation. There was nothing either above or below him, and I knew it. He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! He had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air.”

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and Other Tales. “Heart of Darkness” Oxford University Press, Oxford NY, 2002. pp. 173-174.

The point being made here is somewhat confusing yet interesting. Perhaps it can be seen as Marlow explains Kurtz’s state almost as though he has become free from worldly limitations; that somehow with his integration into the natives’ lives has made him become one who should be acknowledged and remembered for his “enlarged mind”.