Page 104. " an ulster "
An illustration of an Ulster overcoat (1903)
Public DomainAn illustration of an ulster overcoat (1903) - Credit: Men's Fashion from the Turn of the Century

An ulster was a long, loose overcoat, usually belted and originally made of Irish frieze. It was worn by Victorian men as a working daytime overcoat with a cape and sleeves. After the Edwardian period it lost its cape but continued to be used as a heavy-duty overcoat, often in a double-breasted style.

Page 106. " Some sorcerer, some witch-man, no doubt: it looked fiend-like enough "
West African fetish magician (c. 1904)
Public DomainWest African fetish magician (c. 1904) - Credit: Robert Hamill Nassau

If there was ambiguity in Marlow's previous reference to 'witch-men', his description here clearly suggests the demonic.

In more recent times, witchcraft has become an increasingly problematic feature of sub-Saharan African society, with widespread witch-hunts throughout the continent often targeting vulnerable members of society such as children, the elderly and albinos. Ironically, much of this can be traced back to early Christian missionaries whose preaching intensified belief in a tangible spirit world while simultaneously demonising native belief systems that had previously been morally unbiased in character and generally free of the negative connotations of European witchcraft.




Further reading:

Rune Blix Hagen, The Witch-hunts on African Sorcerers

Page 108. " the splashing, thumping, fierce river-demon "
Troops landing at Yambuya (c. 1890)
Public DomainTroops landing at Yambuya (c. 1890) - Credit: Maurice Culot and Jean-Marie Thiveaud

Marlow’s ‘fierce river-demon’ can be read as a familiar trope used to suggest ‘primitive’ animistic interpretations of European technology, but it may be closer to the truth than Marlow realises. The steamboat played an instrumental role in the colonisation of the Congo: it both opened up the African interior to European commercial exploitation and brought to the African people slavery, persecution and the destruction of their traditional way of life.

Page 109. " bearing us down towards the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress "

This appears to be a fairly accurate description of Conrad’s own return journey downstream on the Roi des Belges. The steamer is thought to have left Stanley Falls on 9 September 1890, and was in Kinshasa once more on 24 September, a journey of eighteen days compared with the up-river journey of twenty-seven days.

Page 110. " He desired to have kings meet him at railway-stations on his return "
Henry Morton Stanley (1895)
Public DomainHenry Morton Stanley (1895) - Credit: Cassell's Universal Portrait Gallery

When Henry Morton Stanley arrived at Marseilles Railway Station on 8 January 1878, after completing a journey across Africa from Zanzibar to Boma, he was met by emissaries of Leopold II.

Although this may be the only allusion to Stanley, the explorer and author of works such as In Darkest Africa and Through the Dark Continent was clearly an important figure in the genesis of Heart of Darkness, and not only for the role he played in the founding of the Congo Free State. Stanley’s search for David Livingstone has parallels with Marlow’s journey towards Kurtz, as does the explorer's later expedition to relieve Emin Pasha.

Page 112. " Mistah Kurtz - he dead "
T.S. Eliot
Public DomainT.S. Eliot - Credit: Library of Congress

Heart of Darkness is often described as an important influence upon and precursor to the literary movement of Modernism. The debt is perhaps confirmed by T. S. Eliot's use of this quotation as the epigraph to his 1925 poem ‘The Hollow Men’.




The Hollow Men 


In a neat piece of inter-textuality, Francis Ford Coppola would incorporate Eliot’s poem into Apocalypse Now, Coppola’s movie adaptation of Heart of Darkness set during the Vietnam War.


That Heart of Darkness had a special significance for Eliot can also be seen in references made to it in 'The Waste Land', as described in this note to the essay 'Notes on the Publishing History and Text of The Waste Land' (reproduced in The Waste Land Casebook Series, 1964):

In the first of the published letters between Pound and Eliot on the poem, Pound said, ‘I doubt if Conrad is weighty enough to stand the citation’ [...] Hugh Kenner ... learned from Eliot that Pound referred to Eliot’s quotation of ‘The horror! The horror!’ from Heart of Darkness. As Pound suggested, Eliot removed the quotation. But Pound apparently was unaware that the words in lines 268-70 of The Waste Land were derived from the first page of Heart of Darkness ... and that various passages in the poem concerning the Thames are strongly reminiscent of the first few pages of Conrad’s novel.

The lines from 'The Waste Land' referred to are from part III, the Fire Sermon:


Red sails

The barges drift

With the turning tide


This would appear to be inspired by a passage from the second paragraph of Heart of Darkness: 'In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished spirit.'

Page 113. " Since I had peeped over the edge myself "
Edgar Allan Poe
Public DomainEdgar Allan Poe - Credit: C. T. Tatman
Illustration for Edgar Allan Poe's story 'Descent into the Maelstrom' (1919)
Public DomainIllustration for Edgar Allan Poe's story 'A Descent into the Maelström' (1919) - Credit: Harry Clarke

This may be an allusion to Edgar Allan Poe's short story 'A Descent into the Maelström' (1841), a tale in which a man recounts how he survived a shipwreck and whirlpool.

It shares with Heart of Darkness a frame-narrative structure. Conrad considered the tale 'about as fine as anything of that kind can be - so authentic in detail that it might have been told by a sailor of sombre and poetical genius in the invention of the phantastic'.


Page 116. " who took snuff during the interview "
Painting of a man taking snuff using the thumb & forefinger method
Public DomainPainting of a man taking snuff using the thumb and forefinger method - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Snuff is a tobacco product made from ground or pulverised tobacco leaves which is sniffed up the nostril rather than smoked. Originating in the Americas, it was in common use in Europe by the 17th century.

Page 117. " some other feeling perhaps "

In a letter to David S. Meldrum, house reader at Blackwood’s Magazine, Conrad claimed Heart of Darkness offered ‘A mere shadow of love interest just in the last pages.

The significance of this episode is difficult to ascertain, but it may anticipate the role played by an older Marlow in Chance where, according to Cedric Watts, the romance motif ‘reaches its ironic conclusion in the closing pages ... when Marlow, an ageing bachelor, successfully acts as matchmaker for a younger seafarer and a widow.’ 



Page 118. " he seemed to stare at me out of the glassy panel "
Charles Dickens
Public DomainCharles Dickens - Credit: Heritage Auction Gallery
Marley's ghost (1843)
Public DomainMarley's ghost (1843) - Credit: John Leech

Perhaps inspired by the scene in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843) where Marley's face similarly confronts Scrooge as he faces a door:

And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Scrooge, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change—not a knocker, but Marley's face.

Marley's face. It was not in impenetrable shadow, as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Scrooge as Marley used to look: with ghostly spectacles turned up on its ghostly forehead. The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath of hot air; and, though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless. That, and its livid colour, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be in spite of the face, and beyond its control, rather than a part of its own expression.

Page 118. " a sombre and polished sarcophagus "
Ancient Roman sarcophagus (1892)
Public DomainAncient Roman sarcophagus (1892) - Credit: Rodolfo Lanciani

A sarcophagus is a stone coffin, often inscribed or decorated with sculpture. The name comes from the Greek lithos sarcophagos (meaning flesh eating stone), which came to refer to a particular kind of limestone that was believed to decompose the flesh of corpses interred within it.


Tomb of the Sarcophagi
Public DomainTomb of the Sarcophagi - Credit: D. H. Lawrence
Page 122. " that I shall never see him again, that nobody will see him again, never, never, never "

The lamentations of Kurtz’s fiancée owe something to Lear’s response to the death of Cordelia:

Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!

Shakespeare, King Lear V:3 309-10


King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia (c. 1786)
Public DomainKing Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia (c. 1786) - Credit: James Barry
Page 122. " a tragic and familiar Shade "
The Shade of Samuel Invoked by Saul (1857)
Public DomainThe Shade of Samuel Invoked by Saul (1857) - Credit: D. Martynov
Charon Ferrying the Shades (c. 1735-40)
Public DomainCharon Ferrying the Shades (c. 1735-40) - Credit: Pierre Subleyras

A shade is a spirit or ghost that dwells within the Underworld.

Shades feature in the Bible (in the First Book of Samuel, the Witch of Endor conjures the shade of Samuel), and in Ancient Greek and Roman literature (in Homer's Odyssey, when Odysseus experiences a vision of Hades; and in Virgil's Aeneid, when Aeneas journeys through the Underworld). Dante, in the Divine Comedy, uses the term to refer to the dead, as well as to his spirit guide, Virgil.

The term, which may originate from the Biblical Hebrew tsalmaveth (literally death-shadow), was popularised by Alexander Pope in his epitaph for Nicholas Rowe: Peace to the gentle Shade, and endless Rest.

Page 122. " stretching bare brown arms over the glitter of the infernal stream, the stream of darkness "
Aeneas and Charon (17th century)
Public DomainAeneas and Charon (17th century) - Credit: Wenceslas Hollar

In the Aeneid there is a similar description of Shades in the Underworld who 'stretched their arms out in longing' to Charon as they stood on the shore of the Styx, another river of darkness.



Charon Carries Souls Across the River Styx (1861)
Public DomainCharon Carries Souls Across the River Styx (1861) - Credit: Alexander Litovchenko
Page 123. " The heavens do not fall for such a trifle "

Marlow is recalling the Latin maxim, 'Fiat justitia ruat caelum' ('Let justice be done, though the heavens fall').

Conrad quoted this phrase in a letter to Marguerite Poradowska in March 1890, shortly before departing for the Congo.

Page 123. " in the pose of a meditating Buddha "
Creative Commons AttributionBuddha - Credit: nomo

As Robert Hampson notes, the comparison between Marlow and a Buddha is partly ironic and partly straight. On the one hand, if Marlow is the possessor of knowledge, it is knowledge of darkness rather than of enlightenment. On the other hand, Marlow as a story-teller can be seen as offering a teaching-tale comparable to the Buddhist Jataka.


Further reading:

H. C. Brashers, 'Conrad, Marlow and Gautama Buddha' (1969)

Peter Caracciolo, 'Buddhist Teaching Stories and Their Influence on Conrad, Wells and Kipling' (1986)

William Bysshe Stein, 'Buddhism and the Heart of Darkness' (1956); 'The Lotus Posture and Heart of Darkness' (1956); 'The Heart of Darkness: A Bodhisattva Scenario' (1969)

Page 124. " seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness "
Stowage of the British slave ship Brookes under the regulated slave trade act of 1788
Public DomainStowage of the British slave ship Brookes under the regulated slave trade act of 1788 - Credit: Library of Congress

If the novel's 'heart of darkness' is largely concerned with imperialism and the exploitation of 'those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves,' Conrad's story, with its River Thames setting, ends on an unmistakable note of complicity.

Situated on the Thames, London was Britain’s major port, and the city played a central role in the transatlantic trade in enslaved peoples from West Africa to the Americas during and after the reign of Elizabeth I. Ships owned by London merchants dominated the slave trade during the 17th and early 18th centuries.


The Slave Trade (1840)
Public DomainThe Slave Trade (1840) - Credit: François-Auguste Biard


Etymologically, there is another link between the River Thames and darkness. The river’s name is thought to derive from the Middle English Temese, which originated from the Celtic, Tamesas. Along with the Irish teinheal and Welsh tywyll (both meaning darkness), the word is believed to originate from the Proto-Celtic temeslos, meaning dark water. This word, probably Proto-Indo-European in origin, is considered a cognate of the Sanskrit word for darkness, tamas  – in classical Indian philosophy a word with highly negative connotations, with some relevance to the thematic concerns of Heart of Darkness.