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Free Study Guide for Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad-BookNotes/Summary
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CHAPTER 2

Notes

Chapter two of Heart of Darkness contains the core of Marlow's psychological anguish over his place in Africa. This anguish is a sort of identity crisis in which all that Marlow has relied upon for mapping his place in the world is gone. Marlow is preoccupied with the immensity of nature, its power and mystery, because he is used to a much different kind of nature--trimmed, clipped, arranged in ornamental lawns--in short, dominated by people.

Traveling on a steamboat, Marlow has been led to believe by his European culture that he is at the apex of people's power over nature. The technology of capturing steam and channeling it to drive a boat is part of the European mastery of nature. On the Congo River, the steamboat is small and its power is puny compared to the ancient forest. Marlow's sense of mastery as a European man is severely threatened.

Marlow responds to the threat to his identity with several coping mechanisms. He takes interest in his work, a task that lets him feel in control. He speculates on the inferiority of his fireman, an African who sees the technology of the steamboat and thinks it is run by an angry god instead of by science. He critiques the petty meanness of the other Europeans, and he imagines Kurtz as a sort of savior, a man who redeems imperialism with hard work and a firm moral grounding.


Much of Marlow's descriptions of the natural scene, of the Africans, of Kurtz, and even of the Europeans, can be read as projections. In psychological terms, projection is a common phenomenon. When a person finds her or his own feelings to be too difficult to handle directly, she or he often projects those difficult feelings onto an exterior object or person. Marlow has never seen or heard Kurtz speak; yet he imagines all sorts of things about Kurtz's motivations. It is useful to read these imaginings as projections of Marlow's own ideas and concerns. He does the same with nature and with the Africans.

Part of the reason Marlow so obsessively thinks about Kurtz is that petty and mean-spirited Europeans surround him. He realizes that the Manager has probably delayed Marlow's repairs intentionally since he fears the competition of Kurtz. The Manager knows that Kurtz is in trouble, sick and without supplies, and he delays the arrival of help in order to get rid of the competition. As a sort of moral relief, Marlow turns to an idealized image of Kurtz as a sort of ally.

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