Heart of Darkness gives the reader the impression that they are fighting their way through a forest when reading, the language is so dense and complex. Joseph Conrad intended this difficulty, as he wanted to give the reader the feeling of traveling through the Congolese forest just like Marlow. It’s important to understand more about Conrad and the time this book was written to be able to write well-informed Free Response Essay for your AP English Literature Exam.
Conrad was born in 1857 in Ukraine. As a young man, he dreamed of traveling to the Congo and eventually became a sailor and took command of a Belgian steamship and traveled to the Congo in 1890. The trip to the Congo took a severe toll on his health, and he went to England to recover.
Heart of Darkness is what’s known as a frame tale, where the story is told to us, not through the eyes of a first person narrator, but framed by a second source. Marlow’s tale is told to us by an unknown narrator, who listens to Marlow’s story on the deck of the Nellie. This frame narrator’s views of imperialism and the Company are changed after hearing Marlow’s tale of Kurtz and his voyage into the heart of the Congo. Conrad uses the character Marlow in several of his other works, including Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, and Nostromo.
This novella perfectly encapsulates the precipice upon which Conrad stood, between Victorian values and modernism. Heart of Darkness exemplifies the change in Conrad’s generation, and the effects imperialism had in the homeland and on those who they colonized. The book was well received during its time, but not recognized for its criticism of imperialism. Because the novella is set on board a Belgian ship and colony, it was easier for the British people to look away from the picture of themselves Conrad was painting. This context will help you create a well-rounded essay for the Free Response Question and enhance your score on the AP English Literature Exam.
Heart of Darkness Ap English Lit Essay Themes
Imperialism and Colonialism
The most important and complex themes in Heart of Darkness and run through the core of the novella. Marlow arrives in the Congo observing European colonialism in the traditional way: as a force to spread good to a savage land. What he sees instead is colonialism as a means of exploitation, both of the people and the land. The Europeans take what they want from the Congo and leave nothing but death and destruction. The language describing the imperialist actions perpetrated by the Company men is intentionally ambiguous; Company men describe their work as “trade”. Kurtz is more direct, and describes his actions of taking ivory from the natives as“extermination”. Conrad argues that the uncivilized Africans are less corrupt than their European counterparts. By analyzing the adverse effects colonization and imperialism has on the hearts and mind of the Company men and Kurtz, Conrad illustrates that colonialism only brings about man’s regression. The savagery affects the white colonizers and the Africans they are colonizing, though Conrad does portray the Africans as being more honest about their true nature. At the heart of the novella, Conrad is telling the audience that any system that allows one man to hold power over another must be a force for corruption; this is the core of imperialism.
A key theme in Heart of Darkness. Conrad’s view of evil is ambiguous and confusing. There is no good and evil; there is simply the choice between the lesser of two evils. Marlow is asked to choose between the vicious hypocrisy of the colonial men or the anarchy and malice of Kurtz. As Heart of Darkness progresses, it becomes clear that it is pointless to try and use traditional social mores to make judgments on these characters actions. In a world that’s gone insane, can there be insanity? Through his travel deeper into the jungle, Marlow encounters absurd situations, whose stakes range from the mundane to life and death. Each situation is given the same level of importance, showing that this world’s core moral fiber is hypocritical and confusing.
A controversial and important theme in this work. Conrad makes the argument that Africans are truthful and the Europeans are dishonest, due to the corrupting influence of colonialism on those who perpetrate it. Europeans are portrayed as the oppressors and the Africans as the oppressed. This does not mean that Conrad’s book is without racial prejudice. The Africans in this book are not treated as individuals, but as chattel. Marlow even refers to the African men who helm his boat as machinery. The struggle of these Africans becomes nothing more than a background for Marlow to play out his personal philosophical debate. The dehumanization Africans suffer at the hands of Conrad’s narrative is much more sinister than the open violence and hypocrisy of European colonialism. In attempting to define the faults of colonialism, Heart of Darkness oppresses the nonwhites it professes to defend.
Civilization versus Savagery
The critical struggle within Heart of Darkness. Conrad argues that man creates civilizations to achieve a higher plane, by creating laws and moral codes. London, which serves as a symbol of enlightenment, was at one time in Conrad’s words: “one of the darkest places of the earth”. Once it has been civilized, man’s natural instincts toward savagery are repressed by the chains of civilization, but they never disappear. Conrad argues that, while in a civilized society like London a man can easily maintain his civility, removed from that society he can quickly descend back into his natural state of savagery. When Marlow meets Kurtz, he sees his opposite, a man who is removed from civilized society and devolved into his most primitive and savage form. Marlow represents the restraints of civilization, and he sees what he could become in Kurtz. Conrad’s core argument is that every man has a heart of darkness, that civilization is superficial, and that when removed physically from the civilized world men will give into that darkness.
Plays a dual role in the Heart of Darkness. The Congo is responsible for the mental and physical disintegration of the Company colonists. Madness serves, ironically, to give the reader some sympathy with Kurtz. Marlow is told from the beginning of the book that Kurtz is mad. When we put Kurtz in the context of the Company’s madness, his madness becomes harder to pin down. Madness also demonstrates the need for social mores on man. Though Conrad depicted mores as superficial constructs, removed from society, we see the Europeans slip into madness. Society is a necessary construct to maintain the individual’s security and the group’s unity.
How to use Heart of Darkness for the 2012 AP English Literature Free Response Questions
In this Free Response Question you are asked to take the surroundings of the character and describe how it plays into their psychological and moral development. These surrounding do not have to be restricted to the physical. In Heart of Darkness, the physical location along with the absence of civilization make this novella an ideal choice for this AP English Literature Free Response Question.
“And, after all, our surroundings influence our lives and characters as much as fate, destiny or any supernatural agency.” Pauline Hopkins, Contending Forces
Choose a novel or play in which cultural, physical, or geographical surroundings shape psychological or moral traits in a character. Then write a well-organized essay in which you analyze how surroundings affect this character and illuminate the meaning of the work as a whole.
The Congo appears almost as another character in Heart of Darkness; it exerts so much influence over the mental, moral and physical well-being of its characters. Joseph Conrad uses the physical location of the novella to move not only his characters but to represent his most important theme: the effects of colonialism. Conrad argues in Darkness that men built civilized societies like London to repress their savage nature. London now serves in the novella as a beacon of enlightenment. When these Europeans are removed from civilization and enter into the jungle of the Congo, we see them deteriorate mentally, morally and physically and we witness their reversion to their original savage nature.
We see this deterioration in the Company men and Kurtz. The Company men describe their actions in the Congo as “trade,” but what Marlow sees is the slaughter of natives and plunder of the natural resources. The claim that these colonizers are here to bring the “good” of civilization to the natives rings hollow when Marlow faces their utter hypocrisy. Kurtz, on the other hand, is entirely open about his means of colonization. He is frank with Marlow that he is exterminating natives to obtain ivory. Kurtz is not covering up his savagery; he has embraced and reverted to man’s most primitive form. In both cases it is the lack of civilization and the geographic location that is the driving force in the madness that we see rampant in this novella. Heart of Darkness at its core is about colonization and the colonizers; the Congo is key to moving the story forward and bringing this theme to light.
How to use Heart of Darkness for the 2010 AP English Literature Free Response Questions
In this Free Response Question you will be asked to describe the experience of exile and its effects on character. You are asked to not only look at the negative, but the positive impacts this experience has on the character. Said’s quote perfectly captures that journey, and Marlow’s complex journey is a fantastic choice for this Free Response Question.
Palestinian American literary theorist and cultural critic Edward Said has written that “Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted”. Yet Said has also said that exile can become “a potent, even enriching” experience.
Select a novel, play, or epic in which a character experiences such a rift and becomes cut off from “home,” whether that home is the character’s birthplace, family, homeland, or other special place. Then write an essay in which you analyze how the character’s experience with exile is both alienating and enriching, and how this experience illuminates the meaning of the work as a whole.
In Heart of Darkness, all of our characters have left their homeland and are traveling. Marlow, Kurtz and the Company men are all deep in the jungle of the Congo, removed not only from their physical homes but from the protections of civilized society. These colonizers are all profoundly changed by this exile from the constraints of civilization. For Kurtz and the Company men, exile leads to a descent into madness, physical illness, and savagery. We see them commit horrendous acts of murder and degradation. For Marlow, the experience of exile is no less profound, though the changes run below the surface, on a philosophical and moral level.
Said says that “Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience” and this is something you could almost hear Marlow telling the narrator. Marlow’s journey was terrible to experience, perhaps not as terrible as Kurtz, but still terrifying. His journey may represent the journey Joseph Conrad himself took to the Congo in 1890 on a Belgian steamship. What these men can learn from their journey’s of exile, if they are fortunate enough to leave whole of body and mind, is a better understanding of themselves and the colonial construct they’ve participated in.
Conrad sets up a narrative in which Marlow’s homeland represents enlightenment and civilization and the Congo savagery. When any civilized man is removed from his home and placed into the unconfined African jungle, he reverts to his darkest self. Though Conrad believes civilized society is empty and hollow, he does acknowledge the necessity to restrain the darkness that rests in all men’s hearts. Kurtz’s last words “The horror! The horror!” reflect what he’s seen within himself in the Congo: the horror of man’s wrath over another unchecked by society.
With this guide and an in-depth knowledge of Heart of Darkness, you can have great success on the AP English Literature Exam. There are many resources out there to help you practice for the AP English Literature Exam, such as How to Study for the AP English Literature Exam. For an in-depth breakdown into Free Response questions, you should check out The Ultimate Guide to 2016 AP English Literature FRQs. You can take practice online exams at Albert’s AP English Literature Free Response Questions page.
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Heart of Darkness
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