Heart of Darkness

by

Joseph Conrad

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Heart of Darkness: Foreshadowing 2 key examples

Definition of Foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which authors hint at plot developments that don't actually occur until later in the story. Foreshadowing can be achieved directly or indirectly, by making... read full definition
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which authors hint at plot developments that don't actually occur until later in the story. Foreshadowing can be achieved... read full definition
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which authors hint at plot developments that don't actually occur until later in the... read full definition
Part 1
Explanation and Analysis—The Hole:

The mysterious hole that Marlow sees when he first reaches the Congo foreshadows Kurtz’s death at the end of the novella. In Part 1, when he arrives at the Outer Station, Marlow sees the incomprehensible cruelty and wastefulness of European colonialism for the first time. He is surrounded by dying people, from the native laborers collapsing in the “grove of death” to the severely ill European agent who arrives at the camp from upriver to die. He sees how white colonizers have enslaved native Congolese people, rebranded them “criminals,” and given them pointless jobs, like blasting into a cliff face that isn’t even in anyone’s way. Then, Marlow sees a hole—which, because it comes shortly after the cliff blasting, also seems to be a pointless waste of resources:

“I avoided a vast artificial hole somebody had been digging on the slope, the purpose of which I found it impossible to divine. It wasn’t a quarry or a sandpit, anyhow. It was just a hole. It might have been connected with the philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do. I don’t know.”

The unfathomable hole adds to the sense of mystery and disorientation that defines Marlow’s experience in the Congo. However, unlike the cliff, it actually does serve a purpose. Just as it is surrounded by death when Marlow first sees it, the hole foreshadows a crucial death at the end of the novella: Kurtz’s. In Part 3, Marlow recalls:

I went no more near the remarkable man [Kurtz] who had pronounced a judgment upon the adventures of his soul on this earth. The voice was gone. What else had been there? But I am of course aware that next day the pilgrims buried something in a muddy hole.

Immediately after this scene, Marlow nearly dies of the same tropical disease as Kurtz—but he ends up surviving. Instead, he returns to the “sepulchral city” (which represents a different, symbolic kind of grave). While it isn’t clear whether Kurtz is buried in the same hole that Marlow saw at the beginning of the book, it doesn’t actually matter very much—there’s still a clear, symbolic relationship between these two holes. At the beginning, Marlow’s ignorance about the hole’s purpose represents his broader ignorance about European colonialism and human nature. But later, when Kurtz dies, his body gives the hole an identifiable purpose, which represents Marlow’s ultimate conclusion that colonialism is corrupt and irredeemable. Thus, Kurtz’s burial hole suggests that incomprehensibility doesn’t have to mean emptiness. Many things in this novella, like Kurtz’s madness and the secrets of the rainforest, are incomprehensible because there is no truth behind them at all. But the hole is different: Conrad does eventually give it meaning. This suggests how difficult it can be to distinguish between things we merely do not know yet and things that will always be essentially unknowable.

Explanation and Analysis—Marlow's Journey:

In the first part of Heart of Darkness, Conrad establishes an atmosphere of gloom and dread by vaguely foreshadowing the outcome of Marlow’s journey to the Congo. In his first words, Marlow calls London “one of the dark places of the earth.” While this is technically a reference to the Romans colonizing England, it also foreshadows the conclusion he reaches at the end of the novella: Europe is at least as dark, corrupt, and immoral as Africa. Then, when Marlow describes how he thinks Roman conquerors must have felt upon reaching the site where London now stands, he foreshadows the entire course of his journey to the Congo:

Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him—all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination—you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.

In fact, in the rest of the novella, Marlow “land[s] in a swamp,” then spends 15 days “march[ing] through the woods,” and then discovers “the utter savagery” of European colonization when he meets Kurtz at his “inland post” (the Inner Station). He realizes that Kurtz’s “mysterious life” in the woods is both “incomprehensible” and profoundly evil (or “detestable”). And his experience has left him with an enduring “fascination [at] the abomination[s]” that he saw.

Conrad uses foreshadowing in passages like this one to set expectations for his readers. He sets up the novella’s dark tone, introduces all the emotions that Marlow will feel on his quest, and all but declares that this quest will turn out to be a profound failure. But he doesn’t give away the novella’s plot or clearly state what will so profoundly horrify Marlow at the end of his tale (meeting Kurtz). In fact, since this passage is supposedly about the Romans encountering England’s “utter savagery,” it strongly suggests that Marlow will feel disgusted at the Africans he meets, and not at his fellow Europeans. Of course, many of Conrad’s readers would have expected the same, given that many racist ideas about Africans were considered common sense in Europe in 1899 (when Heart of Darkness was published). Indeed, when he foreshadows Marlow’s disgust and disappointment without saying at whom it’s directed, Conrad deliberately leaves this racist expectation intact—precisely so that he can subvert it later on.

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Part 3
Explanation and Analysis—The Hole:

The mysterious hole that Marlow sees when he first reaches the Congo foreshadows Kurtz’s death at the end of the novella. In Part 1, when he arrives at the Outer Station, Marlow sees the incomprehensible cruelty and wastefulness of European colonialism for the first time. He is surrounded by dying people, from the native laborers collapsing in the “grove of death” to the severely ill European agent who arrives at the camp from upriver to die. He sees how white colonizers have enslaved native Congolese people, rebranded them “criminals,” and given them pointless jobs, like blasting into a cliff face that isn’t even in anyone’s way. Then, Marlow sees a hole—which, because it comes shortly after the cliff blasting, also seems to be a pointless waste of resources:

“I avoided a vast artificial hole somebody had been digging on the slope, the purpose of which I found it impossible to divine. It wasn’t a quarry or a sandpit, anyhow. It was just a hole. It might have been connected with the philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do. I don’t know.”

The unfathomable hole adds to the sense of mystery and disorientation that defines Marlow’s experience in the Congo. However, unlike the cliff, it actually does serve a purpose. Just as it is surrounded by death when Marlow first sees it, the hole foreshadows a crucial death at the end of the novella: Kurtz’s. In Part 3, Marlow recalls:

I went no more near the remarkable man [Kurtz] who had pronounced a judgment upon the adventures of his soul on this earth. The voice was gone. What else had been there? But I am of course aware that next day the pilgrims buried something in a muddy hole.

Immediately after this scene, Marlow nearly dies of the same tropical disease as Kurtz—but he ends up surviving. Instead, he returns to the “sepulchral city” (which represents a different, symbolic kind of grave). While it isn’t clear whether Kurtz is buried in the same hole that Marlow saw at the beginning of the book, it doesn’t actually matter very much—there’s still a clear, symbolic relationship between these two holes. At the beginning, Marlow’s ignorance about the hole’s purpose represents his broader ignorance about European colonialism and human nature. But later, when Kurtz dies, his body gives the hole an identifiable purpose, which represents Marlow’s ultimate conclusion that colonialism is corrupt and irredeemable. Thus, Kurtz’s burial hole suggests that incomprehensibility doesn’t have to mean emptiness. Many things in this novella, like Kurtz’s madness and the secrets of the rainforest, are incomprehensible because there is no truth behind them at all. But the hole is different: Conrad does eventually give it meaning. This suggests how difficult it can be to distinguish between things we merely do not know yet and things that will always be essentially unknowable.

Unlock with LitCharts A+