Excerpt from Heart of Darkness

By Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) was a Polish-British writer and is considered one of the greatest novelists in the
English language. Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness tells the story of Charles Marlow’s voyage to Africa
and explores themes of imperialism and racism. In this excerpt, the narrator describes Marlow, who then
imagines what it must have been like for Romans when they first came to England. As you read, take notes
about how the narrator characterizes Marlow, especially as compared to other seamen.

The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream, and lights
began to appear along the shore. The Chapman
lighthouse, a three-legged thing erect on a mud-flat,
shone strongly. Lights of ships moved in the fairway
— a great stir of lights going up and going down. And
farther west on the upper reaches the place of the
monstrous town was still marked ominously on the
sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid1
under the stars.
“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one
of the dark places of the earth.”

He was the only man of us who still “followed the
sea.” The worst that could be said of him was that he did not represent his class. He was a seaman, but he was
a wanderer, too, while most seamen lead, if one may so express it, a sedentary2
life. Their minds are of the
stay-at-home order, and their home is always with them — the ship; and so is their country — the sea. One ship
is very much like another, and the sea is always the same. In the immutability3
of their surroundings the foreign
shores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a
slightly disdainful ignorance; for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself, which is the
mistress of his existence and as inscrutable4
as Destiny. For the rest, after his hours of work, a casual stroll or a
casual spree on shore suffices to unfold for him the secret of a whole continent, and generally he finds the
secret not worth knowing. The yarns5
of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within
the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns6
be excepted), and to him
the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out
only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by
the spectral illumination of moonshine.

  1. Lurid (adjective) shinning with a bright and unpleasant color
  2. Sedentary (adjective) somewhat inactive
  3. Immutable (adjective) unchanging over time or unable to be changed
  4. Inscrutable (adjective) impossible to understand or interpret
  5. a long or rambling story
  6. tell stories
    His remark did not seem at all surprising. It was just like Marlow. It was accepted in silence. No one took the
    trouble to grunt even; and presently he said, very slow —
    [5] “I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago — the other
    day… Light came out of this river since — you say Knights? Yes; but it is like a running blaze on a plain, like a
    flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker — may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But
    darkness was here yesterday. Imagine the feelings of a commander of a fine — what d’ye call ‘em? — trireme7
    in the Mediterranean, ordered suddenly to the north; run overland across the Gauls8
    in a hurry; put in charge
    of one of these craft the legionaries, — a wonderful lot of handy men they must have been too — used to build,
    apparently by the hundred, in a month or two, if we may believe what we read. Imagine him here — the very
    end of the world, a sea the color of lead, a sky the color of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina9
    — and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sandbanks, marshes, forests, savages, —
    precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here, no going
    ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay — cold, fog,
    tempests, disease, exile, and death, — death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush. They must have been
    dying like flies here. Oh yes — he did it. Did it very well, too, no doubt, and without thinking much about it
    either, except afterwards to brag of what he had gone through in his time, perhaps. They were men enough to
    face the darkness.”
  7. an ancient type of vessel
  8. a region of Western Europe
  9. a musical instrument resembling an accordion
    Discussion Questions
    Directions: Brainstorm your answers to the following questions in the space provided. Be prepared to
    share your original ideas in a class discussion.
  10. How can traveling the world further our understanding of it? How do you think a sailor’s
    understanding or appreciation of the world might be different from that of someone who
    stays on land? In the context of the text, how do most seamen approach their travels to
    other places? How does that compare to what you think travelers should do when they visit
    other places?
  11. How does Marlow portray the Romans who first came to England? Why did they embark on
    these dangerous journeys to largely unknown territories? What traits do you think it’s
    important for travelers, such as the Romans and Marlow, to have?