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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How do Wilson’s character traits inform his actions?
Wilson loses his temper when his pride is injured (like when he plays games with Harris or hotly tries to provoke Scobie about Louise). He also has a tendency to lie to protect his pride (like not revealing the truth about his poetry to Harris). The fact that he works in the field of espionage suits Wilson and informs his duplicitousness. Louise is the only one who recognizes this and as a result, warns Scobie to watch his step around the mysterious new Brit. Scobie is not always the most perceptive man, but he does recognize Wilson's eagerness to please and his curious inclination to change himself depending upon the context. In one of Wilson’s interior monologues, he expresses his desire to appear as other men do, but Greene notes that Wilson's sensitive eyes betray him. Overall, Wilson desperately wants to be loved, accepted, and esteemed, but his propensity to lie and his temperamental nature can be an obstacle to intimacy.
What is Greene's perspective on the Catholic Church in The Heart of the Matter?
The Heart of the Matter is part of Greene’s “Catholic Trilogy” because the central conflict is Scobie’s struggle with his faith. However, Greene does not adhere to traditional Catholic dogma and doctrine. Instead, he poses provocative questions about the Catholic Church’s teachings, especially in terms of understanding human impulses and emotions. Some critics have even described the novel as heretic because Greene calls the immutability of the Church's laws into question. Scobie wonders (inconclusively) whether or not Pemberton was able to escape eternal damnation even though he committed suicide. Father Rank, whose title positions him as the mouthpiece of the Church, tells Louise she cannot be too sure that Scobie went to Hell after committing suicide because the Church cannot know what goes on in a human heart. Ultimately, Greene exposes the limitations in the rules of the Catholic Church.
What does Scobie’s preoccupation with pity/responsibility lead him to do?
Initially, Greene presents Scobie’s preoccupation with responsibility as a positive character trait. Even though he does not love his wife, Scobie feels responsible for her happiness and works to secure her passage to South Africa. He also continues to engage in the hollow platitudes and rituals that keep their marriage functioning (at least on the surface). However, as the novel progresses, Scobie’s sense of responsibility begins to appear more disingenuous. Scobie feels pity for people that he believes to be unattractive or deficient in some respect, and helps them because he prides himself on being a good and honorable man. That pride leads Scobie to lie, engage in corrupt business practices, and tumble down a slippery moral slope. By the end, Scobie's responsibility for others is inextricably attached to his own unhappiness as well as his inability to be forthright and decisive. Ultimately, Scobie ends up hurting almost everyone with whom he comes into contact with.
How does the setting of the novel affect the characters' actions?
Several characters in the novel reference the setting and the climate. Scobie describes the colony as a place where the inhabitants are honest and open their flaws. He also notes that this is not a place for strong emotions like “hate or love” (31) because they can carry a man away. When Wilson attacks Scobie angrily, he tries to convince Wilson that his aggression is a result of the climate. Similarly, Father Rank confesses to Scobie that he is feeling low and blames it on the rains. The colony is a place of extreme weather (rain, heat, and dryness) and it brings out strong emotions in its residents. This means that people living in the colony need to recognize this effect and quell their extreme emotions in order to stay sane. Pemberton, meanwhile, is an example of someone who could not moderate his behavior to accommodate the setting.
Is Father Rank’s belief that Scobie loves God more than anyone, including himself, accurate?
Scobie chooses to commit a mortal sin and ostensibly doom himself to an eternal separation from God, which does not appear to be an act of love on the surface. However, Scobie's internal monologue reveals how desperately unhappy he is to be disappointing God, especially towards the end of the novel. After Ali’s death and during Louise's campaign to get him back into Church, Scobie's guilt for his sins lead him to want to punish himself. He feels desperately alienated in Church and feels that his presence alone is an affront to God. Scobie believes that he will always feel this distance from God as long as he lives, even if he does ask for forgiveness. Therefore, Scobie chooses remove himself from God's protection in order to save his Heavenly Father from further insult. In this way, Scobie's love and respect for God ultimately lead to his demise.
How and why does Scobie choose to commit suicide and why is it significant?
Scobie spends most of the novel fighting his desire to commit suicide - his religious faith keeps him from following through. Scobie is not very self-aware - when he starts his affair with Helen, he seems taken aback by his own actions. The affair is contradictory to Scobie's usual behavior because he tries to refrain from immoral activity. The affair, coupled with Scobie's decision to burn the captain’s letter signals his moral descent. Also, Scobie’s life is characterized by futility. Once he starts his affair with Helen, he cannot seem to extract himself from it. Ultimately, the magnitude of Scobie's sin begins to weigh on him, and he feels incapable of repentance. Even if he were to ask for forgiveness, Scobie would feel like he was insulting God every time he went to Church. Scobie is trapped, and ultimately decides that suicide is his only release. His devotion to God (although he may not recognize it as such) finally leads him to take action rather than simply coasting along on a river of defeat. Then, he tries to conceal his suicide by planting false evidence supporting him dying from angina. He does this because he is ashamed of his sinful choice, and also that he wants to save Louise and Helen from the certain pain of his decision to give up.
How is Yusef relevant to Scobie’s narrative and to the plot as a whole?
Yusef is a foil to Scobie in the sense that he knows himself, what he wants, and how to attain it. He is openly manipulative and duplicitous but is far more authentic than Scobie. Yusuf is the only character with whom Scobie feels like he can be himself. With Yusuf, Scobie does not have to pretend to be above suspicion and is honest about his troubles. The conspiracy surrounding Yusef, Tallit, and the diamonds allows readers to recognize Scobie's tendency to become embroiled in situations without really considering the ramifications. His first rash act is burning the captain's letter and his second is taking loan from Yusef. As a result of these two decisions, Scobie ends up trapped in a position where he is passing Yusuf's contraband to the captain and lying to his superiors. Thus, the diamond plot reveals that ever-present sense of futility that hangs over Scobie; he never regains control of his affairs and his deceit keeps pulling him down.
What role does Louise play in the novel?
Louise can sometimes be whiny and depressive, she is also quite perspicacious and intelligent. She is the only character who sees Wilson for what he is from the first time she meets him. She is also very committed to her marriage even though it is loveless, and cares deeply for her husband’s eternal soul. As for her role in in the plot of the novel, she represents Scobie’s perverse commitment to responsibility. Louise is the embodiment of Scobie's religious commitment - he feels so guilty about the fact that he does not love her that it consumes him. In Freudian terms, Louise is the superego while Scobie struggles with his id (which is represented by his affair with Helen and his spiritual despair).
Do the events in the novel support Scobie’s claim that no one can truly understand anyone else?
Greene suggests that human beings can never truly know one another. The consistent lapses in communication are proof of this assertion. The characters in The Heart of the Matter have difficulty connecting with each other. While Louise does understand the fact that Scobie does not love her, she is not able to save him from himself. Characters perform actions that even they don't understand (Wilson goes to the brothel but hates himself for it). At the end, Greene appears to believe that only God can truly understand the human heart, which reinforces the notion that human beings can never fully comprehend each other’s motivations, desires, and fears.
What is the importance of Ali to the plot of the novel?
Ali is the only character with whom Scobie has an uncomplicated relationship. Scobie loves Ali without feeling a sense of pity or responsibility. When Scobie is with Ali, he feels a sense of peace. Ali does not ask Scobie for any emotional support nor does he openly judge Scobie for his choices. When Scobie and Ali travel to investigate Pemberton’s suicide, Scobie thinks that he “could be happy with no more in the world than this – the grinding van, the hot tea against his lips, the heavy damp weight of the forest, even the aching head, the loneliness” (85). Unfortunately, Scobie’s descent into lies and questionable moral behavior leads him to suspect even Ali of betrayal, and he tacitly endorses Yusef's offer to “take care” of Ali. Scobie is shocked out of his paranoia when he finds Ali's dead body - but it is too late. For Scobie, Ali's death represents a point of no return. His own moral indiscretions lead Scobie to suspect the same kind of behavior in even the most innocent of souls.