Heart of Darkness

by

Joseph Conrad

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Heart of Darkness can help.

Heart of Darkness: Allusions 4 key examples

Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Part 1
Explanation and Analysis—Drake and Franklin:

At the beginning of the novella, before Marlow even begins telling his story, the novella’s narrator describes the sun setting over the Thames, plunging London into darkness. Looking out at the river, he reflects on its place in England’s history and imperial power by alluding to two of England’s most famous explorers:

“[The Thames] had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled—the great knights-errant of the sea. It had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time, from the Golden Hind returning with her rotund flanks full of treasure, to be visited by the Queen’s Highness and thus pass out of the gigantic tale, to the Erebus and Terror, bound on other conquests—and that never returned.”

Both of the narrator’s allusions actually carry a double meaning. Sir Francis Drake, who captained the Golden Hind, is generally remembered for circumnavigating the globe in 1570. Yet, while Drake is generally remembered as a noble explorer, his voyage’s real goal was to undermine Spain’s naval power. This predicts one of the novella’s central themes: colonizers’ lofty ideas about civilization and public service are usually just a meaningless pretext for their selfish pursuit of wealth, power, and fame. Similarly, Sir John Franklin was an English explorer who led the ships Erebus and Terror on an ill-fated expedition to the Arctic. Franklin and his entire crew died on the journey from a combination of cold, poisoning, and disease. Franklin’s men even cannibalized crew members who died first. This foreshadows the foolish, perilous journey at the center of this story and the pathetic circumstances of Kurtz’s death.

The narrator makes another important allusion when he calls Drake and Franklin “great knights-errant of the sea.” The “knight-errant,” a wandering knight who seeks to prove his virtue through chivalrous deeds, is an archetypal character from medieval literature (such as the 16th century Spanish novel Amadís de Gaula). But today, the best known knight-errant novel is undoubtedly Cervantes’s Don Quixote, which parodies the genre by depicting a self-important, insane nobleman who wreaks havoc around Spain while wrongly believing that he is saving the world. Thus, while the narrator appears to praise Drake and Franklin by comparing them to knights-errant, Conrad’s allusion is really intended to suggest that men like Marlow and Kurtz are just the latest iteration of a timeless archetype: the arrogant wannabe hero who causes more harm than good.

Just as the narrator wrongly idolizes Drake and Franklin in this passage, for most of the book, Marlow wrongly idolizes Kurtz. Yet Conrad hopes to show that these idols are not noble representatives of enlightened European civilization, but rather terrifying examples of the ruthless, animalistic darkness at the core of human nature. In turn, he hopes that his story will help people like the narrator abandon their optimistic  view of European colonialism in general.

Explanation and Analysis—Mephistopheles:

When Marlow reaches the Central Station, he meets the General Manager and his spy, a man who calls himself the Brickmaker but never actually makes any bricks. Reflecting on their conversation, Marlow remarks to his fellow sailors:

“I let him run on, this papier-mâché Mephistopheles, and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe.”

Papier-mâché is a glue and pulp mixture that artists use to create hollow sculptures, and Mephistopheles is a mythical demon. Thus, when Marlow calls the Brickmaker a “papier-mâché Mephistopheles,” he’s saying that the Brickmaker is both empty and evil. Then, he underscores this point by suggesting that there’s “nothing inside [the Brickmaker] but a little loose dirt.” Company men like the Brickmaker are evil not because they have evil principles, Marlow suggests, but rather because they have no principles whatsoever—they just do whatever they are told, and whatever will get them more power and money.

Crucially, Mephistopheles isn’t just any demon—specifically, he’s the demon from the famous Faust legend, which tells of a brilliant but unhappy scholar named Faust who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for infinite knowledge (and Mephistopheles’s loyal service for several years). This legend has appeared over and over again in Western literature, but its most popular versions are two plays: the two-part Faust (1806–1831) by German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the earlier Doctor Faustus (1592) by English playwright Christopher Marlowe. Notably, Conrad also names his protagonist Marlow, which suggests that the Faust legend is a particularly strong influence on his work. Specifically, in this passage, he suggests that men like the Brickmaker have made a kind of deal with the devil by joining colonizing enterprises like the Company. Indeed, they are actively trying to sabotage Kurtz in order to take over his important place in the ivory trade, and the Brickmaker is offering Marlow a deal with the devil by encouraging him to give up damning information about Kurtz. Men like the Brickmaker have chosen power over morality, and while they might gain wealth and power in the short term, in exchange, they will eventually have to give up their souls—or even their very humanity.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Explanation and Analysis—Romans:

Marlow begins his story by noting that London was once “one of the dark places of the earth”—until the Romans conquered and civilized it. He imagines that the Romans felt the same way about the Thames as he felt about the Congo when he first arrived:

“I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago—the other day .... [...] Imagine him [a Roman commander] here—the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina—and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages—precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink.”

Of course, Marlow alludes to the Romans in order to draw a parallel between England and the Congo. Both have been colonized, just at different times. This suggests that there’s no fundamental difference between “civilized” Englismen and “savage” Congolese people. While other Europeans view Africans as morally, culturally, and intellectually inferior to themselves, Marlow has learned the truth from his time in the Congo: all people are equally human, which means that they’re equally capable of both unfathomable brilliance and unspeakable cruelty. The colonizers only view themselves as morally superior because this helps them justify the atrocities they commit. Yet, at base, colonization is still a futile endeavor.

Soon after this allusion, after he signs up for the Company’s expedition in Brussels, Marlow notices the Company secretary knitting black wool (which symbolizes death) and comments:

Ave! Old knitter of black wool. Morituri te salutant. Not many of those she looked at ever saw her again—not half, by a long way.”

“Ave Imperator, morituri te salutant” is a famous Roman slogan that means, “Hail to the Emperor, we who are about to die salute you.” The men who said this were criminals sentenced to fight to the death in a naval battle for entertainment. Thus, when Marlow quotes this phrase, he is comparing his job at the Company with Roman criminals’ futile death sentence. His point is clear: the Company’s naval expeditions to Africa are pointless suicide missions. Of course, this later quote also gives important context to his earlier meditation on the Romans, because it suggests that he’s fully aware of how Roman leaders used senseless brutality and violence to control their people and maintain power. Europe, Conrad suggests, was doing precisely the same thing by colonizing Africa.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Explanation and Analysis—Eldorado:

While he waits for steamboat repairs at the Central Station, Marlow meets a group of foolish men (led by the General Manager’s uncle) who call themselves the Eldorado Exploring Expedition. Their name alludes to Spanish conquistadores’ decades-long search for El Dorado, a storied golden city that never actually existed. Conrad’s implication is clear: the Eldorado Exploring Expedition’s search for treasure is also foolish and futile. Indeed, if the word “Eldorado” doesn’t set off alarm bells, the absurd, redundant term “Exploring Expedition'' should. (All colonial expeditions are for exploring, after all) It’s no surprise that the Eldorado men embody the worst traits that Marlow sees among his fellow European colonizers in Africa. In Part 1, he observes:

Their talk [...] was the talk of sordid buccaneers: it was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world. To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.

In other words, the Eldorado men’s vision of greatness has nothing to do with contributing to the world and everything to do with stealing other people’s wealth and resources for themselves. They aren’t even looking for any specific place or people, just setting off into the jungle with the vague expectation that they will strike treasure. Of course, this is just a more extreme version of the general pattern that Marlow sees throughout his time in Africa: Europeans claim to be changing the world and bringing glory to their nations, when their real goal is to seize as much of other people’s wealth as they possibly can. It’s no surprise that the Eldorado men disappear into the wilderness, never to be found again. In Part 2, Marlow explains:

“In a few days the Eldorado Expedition went into the patient wilderness, that closed upon it as the sea closes over a diver. Long afterwards the news came that all the donkeys were dead. I know nothing as to the fate of the less valuable animals. They, no doubt, like the rest of us, found what they deserved. I did not inquire.”

“The less valuable animals” are the men themselves, and their foolishness invites their senseless deaths. Clearly, Marlow has little respect for them, and for good reason: they symbolize how all of European colonialism in Africa is just as pointless and needlessly destructive as the search for El Dorado.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Part 2
Explanation and Analysis—Eldorado:

While he waits for steamboat repairs at the Central Station, Marlow meets a group of foolish men (led by the General Manager’s uncle) who call themselves the Eldorado Exploring Expedition. Their name alludes to Spanish conquistadores’ decades-long search for El Dorado, a storied golden city that never actually existed. Conrad’s implication is clear: the Eldorado Exploring Expedition’s search for treasure is also foolish and futile. Indeed, if the word “Eldorado” doesn’t set off alarm bells, the absurd, redundant term “Exploring Expedition'' should. (All colonial expeditions are for exploring, after all) It’s no surprise that the Eldorado men embody the worst traits that Marlow sees among his fellow European colonizers in Africa. In Part 1, he observes:

Their talk [...] was the talk of sordid buccaneers: it was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world. To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.

In other words, the Eldorado men’s vision of greatness has nothing to do with contributing to the world and everything to do with stealing other people’s wealth and resources for themselves. They aren’t even looking for any specific place or people, just setting off into the jungle with the vague expectation that they will strike treasure. Of course, this is just a more extreme version of the general pattern that Marlow sees throughout his time in Africa: Europeans claim to be changing the world and bringing glory to their nations, when their real goal is to seize as much of other people’s wealth as they possibly can. It’s no surprise that the Eldorado men disappear into the wilderness, never to be found again. In Part 2, Marlow explains:

“In a few days the Eldorado Expedition went into the patient wilderness, that closed upon it as the sea closes over a diver. Long afterwards the news came that all the donkeys were dead. I know nothing as to the fate of the less valuable animals. They, no doubt, like the rest of us, found what they deserved. I did not inquire.”

“The less valuable animals” are the men themselves, and their foolishness invites their senseless deaths. Clearly, Marlow has little respect for them, and for good reason: they symbolize how all of European colonialism in Africa is just as pointless and needlessly destructive as the search for El Dorado.

Unlock with LitCharts A+