Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Part II, Section 2 Analysis (pages 100-123)

Marlow describes a kind of new awareness dawning upon him—something he also refers to in the opening pages of the story. In the jungle, he realizes that what people usually think is important really isn't: " 'One gets sometimes such a flash of insight. The essentials…lay deep under the surface' " (101). One interpretation is that this is the terrible knowledge, gained from traveling into the "heart of darkness", starting to work upon him, or rather he is starting to gain that knowledge. Earlier he had said one cannot be initiated to such understanding, meaning that one could not suddenly gain a full understanding—it had to come slowly.

Akin to the terrible knowledge is the subject of cannibalism. Marlow alludes to it in the beginning of the book when he mentions British expeditions that were forced into cannibalism to survive. During the story, he travels with a pack of twenty (thirty?) hungry cannibals and wonders at their restraint: " 'I would just as soon have expected restraint from a hyena prowling amongst…corpses' " (106). Marlow realizes that in order for the cannibals to refrain from eating the white men aboard the steamer, they must possess "civilized" traits. This is another instance of Conrad demonstrating the universality of human nature—that the Europeans have more in common with the "savage" natives than they would like to believe.

A good example of the "terrible knowledge" theme discussed above appears when Marlow describes his experience listening to Kurtz speak. Kurtz speaks as if everything belonged to him. One interpretation of these statements is that Kurtz had knowledge of all things (Marlow earlier stated that everything was in the human mind). This enlightenment, however, cost Kurtz dearly: " 'Everything belonged to him—but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own' " (115).

The two major themes discussed in this guide—the hypocrisy of Imperialism and the idea of gaining forbidden knowledge at great cost—are combined in the essay Kurtz writes for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. This is a long, eloquent essay that speaks to how savages perceive white men as divine, and thus white men can control them in order to perform acts of benevolence. Scribbled at the end of the essay, presumably after Kurtz had fallen prey to the forces of darkness, is "Exterminate all the brutes". Kurtz had set out with the high ideals of Imperialism—bringing light into the heart of darkness—but was instead granted knowledge of truth and expressed it, thus exposing the root of those hypocritical ideals.