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Close-Reading Questions

Okay, this is the longest part of the site. Hopefully. Also the most useful. Hopefully. But at any rate, it’s here. Some Close-Reading Questions to help you find things to write about in your essay.

(A note: Close-reading questions are questions which, according to our English teacher, you should have been thinking about as you read the book. However, many of these questions cover topics we never even recognized NEEDED any thought. And some of it seems so inconsequential, we question including it, but we feel that if it may help, then all the better. As with many of our other essay help pages, if you think of anything you feel should be added, e-mail us below and we’ll probably add it. Oh, BTW, the page numbers included refer to a copy of Heart of Darkness that also has The Secret Sharer in it. Actually, before it. In it, HOD starts on page 65. Well, that’s about it really- on to the questions.)
Blue Bar

  1. How is England made to parallel Africa on page 69? How, then, to England and Africa become symbolic? Of what?

    Both were considered barbaric by the more "civilized" nation, and those "civilized" countries sent people to "civilize" the barbarians. (Rome to England, England to Africa). They symbolize the "salvation" of the countries (England and later Africa), perhaps of man’s soul. (We have very little idea where this answer came from, but there it is.)

  2. What does Marlow mean when he says that a conqueror’s “strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others”? (p. 69)

    A conqueror can’t conquer unless those he’s conquering are weaker than him. When that is true, he appears to be strong to the subjugated lands; to someone stronger than he, he would appear weak and he could not conquer them.

  3. How does Marlow imply that men justify “the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion”?

    He implies that people decide that someone “different” from them must not deserve the land.

  4. What might be symbolized by the flames in the river on page 70? For what concept are flames often archetypical? For what concept is water archetypical?

    Fire is often used to signify destruction or hatred. Water often signifies life, or renewal and peace.

  5. What is the equation Marlow establishes between blankness and darkness? (p. 71)

    He suggests that blankness, once filled, becomes darkness. The unknown “blank spaces” on his map are “good” things, sources of childish wonder, but once they become known and filled in, they become sources of darkness.

  6. What are the implications of comparing the “mighty big river” to “an immense snake uncoiled”? (p. 71)

    It becomes dangerous, a threat, an ominous symbol.

  7. What does Marlow imply about human nature that he is not surprised that Fresleven, “the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs,” had brutally attacked a native during a quarrel about two black hens? (p. 72)

    He implies that men, though seemingly gentle, can have a double-sided nature and that the uncivilized side of that nature will dominate when the veneer of society is removed.

  8. What significance can you attach to the colors on the map in one of the Company’s offices? (p. 73)

    Red is the area that is “civilized,” signaling the white man’s bloody (violent) nature. The others (purple, blue, etc.) are various degrees of civilization. Yellow isn’t civilized. The yellow part of the map (yellow signifying fear, sickness, etc.) is contaminated by the ivory trade. Green=growth, new things. (Most of these are in mentioned in our Symbolism section.)

  9. How does the Company map suggest Conrad’s perception of humanity? (p. 73)

    The Map shows what Marlow thinks humanity’s perception of life is- removed and ordered.

  10. What does the dim light in the Company office suggest symbolically?

    It suggests the “darkness” of the Company and perhaps of man’s soul.

  11. What images suggest to Marlow that the two Company women are “guarding the door of Darkness”? (p. 74)

    Through his description of the two women, Marlow portrays them as similar to the Fates, who spin the thread of life and cut it when time is through- in essence, controlling (and guarding) the “door” to death (here, darkness). The older “Fate” would know the fate of all who pass through the room, and the younger introduces them to the Company’s darkness. (Yeah, sure... Something like that.)

  12. What are the implications of the doctor’s behavior in measuring Marlow’s head? (p. 75)

    The doctor has a theory that when people go to the Congo, their brains change, perhaps a bit of foreshadowing the fact that the Congo, the removal of society and civilization, changes a person.

  13. What evidence does Marlow provide for believing that women are “out of touch with truth”? (p. 76)

    He uses his Aunt as an example of women, and states that they should be kept in their own little worlds.

  14. Edward Weeks writes that Conrad’s “sentences are etched with acid” as Marlow describes the two women at the Company. (p. 74) What does he mean? How does it foreshadow Marlow’s disillusionment?

    We’re working on this one. If you have something that even resembles a good answer, e-mail us below please.

  15. Clarify the metaphorical implications of Marlow’s observation that “the oily and languid sea, the uniform somberness of the coast, seemed to keep me away from the truth of things.” (p. 78)

    Marlow is isolated from everything, not a part of the other men. He is different from them, and unable to see the truth because of his isolation from them and the world in general.

  16. What are Conrad’s implications about civilization when Marlow observes the French man-of-war “shelling the bush” when “there wasn’t even a shed there”? (p. 78)

    He implies that civilization is just a facade behind which man hides his violent nature, and that without it, man will search for and use any excuse to unleash that violence.

  17. How does Marlow’s description of the water suggest his opinion of the man-of-war as “incomprehensible, firing into a continent”? (p. 78)

    The water is described as “oily, languid” to represent the greasy, slimy state of humanity and as such, the man-of-war.

  18. How does Marlow use tone and diction to suggest his opinion as a French crew member refers to “a camp of natives as ‘enemies’”? (p. 78)

    His sarcastic tone clearly indicates that he finds it ridiculous.

  19. How does Conrad suggest the relativity of progress/technology by the description of the railway project? (p. 80)

    The railway truck is “dead” and the “civilized” white men blew up the cliff for no apparent reason. The implication is that for a place to be civilized, you have to blow things up and bring in railways, regardless of what you destroy, which does not seem to fit into the common perception of the purpose of civilization.

  20. Discuss the irony in the following description: “Behind this raw matter [the abused native criminals] one of the reclaimed, the product of the new forces at work, strolled despondent, carrying a rifle by its middle.” (p. 80)

    One of the natives is helping the white men destroy his culture, even though the white men still don’t think of him as a person... He is called “raw matter,” like an object, rather than a human being.

  21. Discuss the irony of Marlow’s observation that white men are “alike at a distance.” (p. 81)

    The white people think that the black men look alike- his observation that white men look alike creates an interesting comparison.

  22. Identify the bestial images used to describe the dying natives. (p. 82)

    “crouched,” “drinking from the river on all fours,” “blind white flicker [the eyes, which aren’t even recognized as part of a human being, but included as in the description of an animal], the natives “crawl away”

  23. what are the implications of the bestial images used to describe the dying natives? (p. 82)

    The white men have treated them so badly, and been destroying their culture so much, that neither they nor it are recognizable as human. (Although we wouldn’t recommend using the phrases “so badly” or “so much” in an essay- it might be a problem, depending on the teacher. It would have with ours.) (Oh, adding the bit about the cultures might not make much sense at times-what does make sense in this literature stuff-but it sounds good if you phrase it right.)

  24. Identify the ghostlike images used to describe the dying natives. (p. 82)

    “sunken eyes,” “”phantom,” “black shadows,” etc.

  25. What are the implications of the ghostlike images used to describe the dying natives? (p. 82)

    The natives are spiritually dead; their spirits are crushed under the white men’s greed and callousness.

  26. What does Conrad accomplish by the contrasts between the dying Blacks and his description of the Company’s chief accountant? (p. 83)

    He gives English teachers something to babble on about, and their students to BS about in their essays. And he emphasizes the contrast between the blacks and whites. Consider the above descriptions of the blacks as opposed to the accountant, who is clean, privileged, more polished and authoritative, and dressed in white- an outward show of good (white) that hides the blackness of the white man’s soul?

  27. How does the description of the accountant’s office suggest the values of the Company?

    The Company is in Africa for money. They don’t want to spend money to patch holes in the walls, they want to use it to get the most ivory they can the cheapest way they can. The Accountant is more concerned with paperwork than the sick man. The bugs in the room that stab are an example of the Company and what it is doing to the natives, stabbing the life out of them, spreading the disease of greed more completely.

  28. What does Marlow reveal about his own values when he finds it “annoying, you know, to hold your own coat like a parasol over a man’s head while he is coming to”? (p. 86)

    Like the accountant, he does not want to be inconvenienced by anyone. Marlow doesn’t care any more about other people than the Company does. Also, it suggests to the reader that such callousness on behalf of the Company and its employees, perhaps the white man or even humanity as a whole, is not limited to one ethnic group.

  29. Why does Conrad call attention to the old doctor’s observation during Marlow’s “two-hundred mile tramp”? (p. 86)

    Marlow felt like he was going crazy, according to the doctor’s thought on what the Congo does to a man.

  30. What is the “real significance,” which Marlow professes to have missed, of the wrecked steamer? (p. 87)

    If the steamer hadn’t been wrecked, Marlow wouldn’t have had the chance to focus on individual people and the natives. He wouldn’t have been able to learn what he did wind up learning. On a different aspect, it also is one of the signs of the political struggle amongst the Company’s employees for position- if the steamer hadn’t been wrecked, Marlow could have reached Kurtz much quicker and perhaps he could have lived... Kurtz was to take the job of the Manager, and the Manager didn’t want to lose his sense of power. (A good thing to consider- was the steamer wrecked by accident, just ignorance of what would happen, or was it sent out in complete knowledge of the risk, and a hope that it would wreck, making it impossible for Kurtz to be “rescued” quickly?)

  31. What details does Marlow use in his description of the Manager to characterize the Company, and the colonization of Africa? (p. 88)

    His eyes are “remarkably cold,” in much the same way the Company is indifferent when looking upon the natives they are abusing. Just as the Company looks upon the Africans as less than human and crush them mercilessly, so can the manager’s glance “fall on one as a trench-and and heavy as an axe. Everything else about him “disclaims the intention,” hides it behind a veneer of... civilization, perhaps. His smile, “something stealthy... was unconscious,” and served to make his speeches “appear absolutely inscrutable. The Company used fine language, clothes, and technology to uphold its own evil and confuse the natives into working with and for it, just as the manager’s smile does to his speeches.

    Same old blue bar...