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OTHER ELEMENTS

THE SETTING

Although most of the action in Heart of Darkness is set in the jungles of the African Congo, the tale itself is narrated by a sailor aboard a pleasure boat at the mouth of the Thames River outside London. Both the time of day and the spot are significant. It's sunset; as the tale turns gloomier, images of darkness get more and more pervasive. The evening grows gradually darker, so that by the time Marlow finishes, late in the night, his listeners have literally been enveloped in darkness.

The setting right outside London would put them next to the great seat of civilization (for an English novelist, at least)- a strategic place from which to hear a tale of the wilderness. In fact, for an English sailor the mouth of the Thames would mark the point between the light of civilization and the unknown ends of the earth. But by the end Marlow has made it clear that the "darkness" he is talking about has almost as much to do with the city as with the jungle.


Marlow's adventure takes place in the Congo Free State, an area that at the time was the personal property of Leopold II, king of the Belgians. There had been a lot of empty talk about Leopold's philanthropic and civilizing activities in the Congo, but by 1899, when Heart of Darkness first appeared, the grim conditions that actually prevailed there and the grotesquely inhumane treatment of the African natives were becoming widely enough known to create an international scandal. Conrad, who served as skipper of a Congo steamer himself in 1890, knew the true conditions, and much of the gruesome detail is drawn from observation. But he exaggerated a few points for literary purposes.

Specifically, the Congo was already far more tamed by Conrad's time than the novel suggests. The river was dotted with active trading stations, and the station that would have been the equivalent of Kurtz's Inner Station had a number of company agents, not just one. Conrad's departures from the reality serve to emphasize the isolation of his characters, and thus to intensify the theme of solitude.

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