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Literature: Heart of Darkness
The horror! The horror!

Heart of Darkness is a novella by Joseph Conrad, originally published as a three-part series in Blackwood's Magazine in 1899.

The book starts in the 19th century with five close friends on a boat in the Thames river just outside London, waiting for the tide to go out. As they fill the time with pleasant conversation, one of them suddenly speaks of how the very land they are on was once "one of the dark places on earth" i.e. how the land was once savage, untamed, and incredibly inhospitable to all who entered. He goes on to explain how he got to know this darkness, along with its effect on people, so incredibly well. It all started when he was just starting out as a seaman... This serves as a Framing Device for the tale of woe.

The tale tells the story of Charles Marlow, a seaman just hired as a ferry captain for a Belgian trading company after the last one was killed by the natives over a petty dispute. The objective, as laid out by his employer, is to pick up and return with the ivory harvests collected by each trading outpost along the way. As he visits the various trading posts and their leaders, he is forced not only to bear witness to, but try not to succumb to the savage environment, the brutal enslavement of the Africans at the hands of the settlers, and the human heart at its absolute darkest. In the center of all of this is Kurtz, a man shrouded in mystery but known by all for both being the manager of the top-earning post and for his controversial methods.

The novella went on to inspire or serve as the base of countless other works, and has long been held as the archetypal anti-colonialist novel for its harsh depictions of the exploitative "grab for Africa" policies used by European powers.

In 1979, the novel finally got a film adaptation in the form of the legendary Apocalypse Now. It's a loose adaptation with the story taking place in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, with Kurtz being an American Colonel gone rogue and Marlow (renamed "Willard") being the soldier in charge of taking him down, but otherwise stays true to the novel's focus on the seemingly inherent evil present in humanity.

If you were looking for the totally unrelated video game, you can find it here.

The Tropes! The Tropes!:

  • Apathetic Citizens: Overlaps with Ignored Epiphany. After Marlow finishes talking about his journey to Africa, one of the listeners responds with, "We have lost the first of the ebb." One of the most common interpretations of this line is that shows just how callous most people are to the brutality going on in Africa.
  • A-Team Firing: One character describes a French attempt to quash rebellious locals. They used a warship to bombard open brush, regardless of the fact that they didn't even know of anyone hiding in it, basically shelling the continent itself.
  • Bald of Evil: Kurtz. His skull, symbolically enough, is described as ivory-like.
  • Big Bad: Kurtz.
  • Character Filibuster: A seventy-page novella with sixty-four pages being pure, uninterrupted dialogue from Marlow. Justified though, since none of the others felt like talking at all during their gloomy trip, not even to interrupt Marlow, and might as well have been asleep. The format of the book is essentially him telling the story anyway.
  • Circles of Hell: The further up the river, and deeper into the heart of Africa that Marlow is, the darker it gets, culminating in the arrival at Kurtz's house.
  • Clothing Reflects Personality: Every single major person Marlowe encounters as he goes upriver has worse and worse clothing to reflect the increasing divisions from European society and civility. While the Chief Accountant at the outer station wears fancy and rich clothing, Kurtz is nearly naked.
  • Composite Character: Kurtz is inspired by several Europeans who "made their mark" on the Congo. The name is a take off on one in particular, George Antoine Klein ("kurz" is German for short; "klein" is German for small).
  • Darkest Africa: Marlow subverts the trope by telling his audience that "this also...has been one of the dark places of the earth" referring to Britain. The ancient Romans, he says, regarded Britain as a "savage" land where colonists had to be "men enough to face the darkness".
  • Everyone Calls Him Barkeep: The novella only has three characters that have names (Marlow, Kurtz, and a minor character called Fresleven). Others include the Narrator, the Accountant, the Manager, the Director, the Director's Uncle (the Bricklayer), the Pilot, Kurtz's Mistress, Kurtz's Intended, Marlow's Aunt, the Russian, etc.
  • Famous Last Words: "The horror... the horror..."
  • Foil: Kurtz is in the story for only a short time and there's little to suggest his motivations or internal conflicts. However, his presence easily adds much more insight to Marlowe's character.
  • For Science!: The attitude of the doctor who checks up on Marlow before his journey. He is a phrenologist, measuring Marlow's skull to determine his character, and to see how his skull (and thus, according to the theory, his personality) have changed.
  • God Guise
  • Going Native: According to one reading, Kurtz possibly goes native in horrifying ways, inverting the European life he came from. In an alternate reading, while he has shed his civilized persona, he still hasn't gone native in a meaningful way. Instead, an unnatural and immoral co-dependent relationship has formed, where the natives worship him as a god, while he in return treats them with utter ruthlessness, much like an unloving god would.
  • Gone Mad From The Revelation: Kurtz's reaction to the jungle definitely qualifies.
  • Hungry Jungle
  • I Will Wait for You: Kurtz's fiancée. Presented as pathetic, because she has deluded herself about Kurtz to the point that she's barely functional as an independent person.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: The cannibals who aid the voyage. Despite this habit, they are portrayed as sensible and reserved compared to the European crew.
  • Infallible Narrator: Marlowe remembers every single detail of his voyage, and the events before and after it, despite his story taking place over at least a few months.
  • Informed Ability: Everyone who meets Kurtz can speak of him only in the most hyperbolic praise. He's a genius without equal and has a mesmerizing presence that causes people to worship and adore him (see below). However, none of this is actually demonstrated to the reader, so you just have to take their word for it.
  • Jerkass: The Director.
  • Kill 'em All: Kurtz's last written suggestion: "Exterminate all the brutes!"
  • Meaningful Name: Subverted. Kurtz (kurz is German for "short"), is described as nearly seven feet tall. His name also makes a pun on the English word "Cursed", and on the word "curt", meaning to be terse or brief (while Kurtz himself is renowned as a great speaker who can enthrall listeners for hours).
  • Mighty Whitey: Subverted..
  • My God, What Have I Done?: A possible interpretation for Kurtz's last words.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Henry Morton Stanley might or might not be Kurtz.
  • Noodle Incident: What exactly Kurtz did among the natives is only half hinted at.
    But this must have been before his—let us say—nerves, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites, which—as far as I reluctantly gathered from what I heard at various times—were offered up to him—do you understand?—to Mr. Kurtz himself.
  • Nothing but Skin and Bones: Kurtz.
  • Only Sane Man: Marlow, though he's clearly disturbed by the end of the book.
  • Persecution Flip: Marlow ruminates on the colonial relationship by invoking the Roman invasion of Britain and wondering aloud how the Ancient Britons saw the colonial system from the other side. Later, he suggests a counterfactual scenario:
    The population had cleared out a long time ago. Well, if a lot of mysterious [blacks] armed with all kinds of fearful weapons suddenly took to travelling on the road between Deal and Gravesend, catching the yokels right and left to carry heavy loads for them, I fancy every farm and cottage thereabouts would get empty very soon.
  • The Power of Legacy: Marlow lies to Kurtz's fiancée when asked to recount Kurtz's last words.
  • River of Insanity: Trope Codifier.
  • Scenery Gorn / Scenery Porn: Marlow's descriptions of the jungle oscillate between the two.
  • Send in the Search Team: Marlow's party is tasked with finding and checking up on Kurtz.
  • Start of Darkness: Marlow, who has claimed that he detests lies, lies to the Brickmaker to help Kurtz (whom he didn't even know), but then feels regret and realizes that he's not different from the 'Pilgrims'. At the end, however, he notices that nothing bad happened after he deceived Kurtz's fiancee, after all...
  • Sympathy for the Devil: Marlow respects Kurtz even after seeing his misdeeds.
  • Talkative Loon: The Russian.
  • Title Drop: "The brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness." is one example. The "Heart of Darkness" comes up frequently, especially near the end of the book.
  • Truth in Literature: As revealed by Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, King Leopold's Congo Free State really was every bit as brutal as Conrad depicted it. If anything, Conrad's vision of it might be a bit of an understatement, considering anywhere from five to ten million natives are estimated to have died in the Congo during the time period. See also Composite Character above.
  • Übermensch: Kurtz
  • Unable To Support A Wife: Marlow speculates that part of the reason Kurtz went to Africa was to make enough money to marry.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Although it's never stated explicitly in the novel, the framed narrative device suggests that Marlow could be lying.
  • What You Are in the Dark: A core point of the book, which examines how humans react to separation from all the controls of society.
  • With Great Power Comes Great Insanity: Kurtz is seemingly corrupted by the power he has over locals.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: The 'rebels' executed by Kurtz.

Harrison BergeronSchool Study MediaThe Histories
Hard Times 19 th Century LiteratureHeidi

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