Charting Terra Incognita
Maps, Guidebooks, and Guides in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

by Christopher Dow




By the time Joseph Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness, the great age of European global exploration and colonization begun during the Renaissance had drawn to a close. The globe had been circumnavigated, the seas charted, and the shapes of the continents mapped. The last major exploratory discoveries—those by Burton, Speke, and Livingstone during the middle of the nineteenth century—mapped the heart of Africa and charted its two major water courses, the Nile and the Congo River. Like all seekers into the unknown, these later explorers depended on existing maps and guidebooks to take them as close as possible to unknown territories and then relied on the personal, first-hand experiences of others who had delved into terra incognita to guide them safely into and through its mysteries and dangers. Conrad’s Marlow follows a similar pattern as he wends his way up the Congo in search of the renegade Mr. Kurtz.


Marlow, in common with many Europeans, “had a passion for maps...[and] all the glories of exploration” (10-11). As a boy, he would look at maps, at the blank white spaces of terra incognita, and wish to go there. “There was one yet,” he says, “the biggest, the most blank, so to speak—that I had a hankering after.” (11) Marlow wishes to be not simply an explorer, but a discoverer of great mysteries. During Marlow’s boyhood, this was Africa, but by his adulthood, this particular terra incognita “was not a blank space any more. It had got filled...with rivers and lakes and names” (11). The map in the office of the company he works for reaffirms this repletion, showing a patch-work of colors filling what was formerly white terra incognita (14-15). Marlow thus finds himself in the unfortunate position of desiring to be an explorer in a world whose physical boundaries and features have already been discovered and documented.


Even so, for Marlow the lure of the Congo River is irresistible. “It fascinated [him] as a snake would a bird” (11). The fascination, begun with his boyhood view of the blank whiteness on the map, is further exacerbated by two encounters. The first is with the two women who knit at the door to the company office. Marlow sees in the look of one that she does not expect to see him again. This indicates to him that his journey might be perilous, even life threatening. As an experienced seaman, he is familiar with the possibility of physical danger, but the second encounter, that with the company doctor, redefines the nature of the danger. The doctor reaffirms the physical danger by saying he has not examined anyone who has returned from Africa, as if to say that no one does return, but he also measures Marlow’s skull, saying, “The changes take place inside” (17). He then asks Marlow if there is madness in his family and expresses an interest in observing psychological changes of individuals as they occur. The encounter with the doctor indicates that there remains a vast unknown territory that has yet to be mapped—the terra incognita of the psyche, which is exactly where Marlow is about to journey.


The intimation of undiscovered territory is all the inducement Marlow, the thwarted explorer, needs to spur him on. Like any good explorer, he seeks maps, guidebooks, and signposts that will lead him to the terra incognita of the mind. He finds his first aid in Towson’s text, An Inquiry into Some Points of Seamanship (62). The book is not a guidebook in the usual sense of speaking about places; instead, it describes techniques of traveling. The text is meticulously written, though its subject matter, “the breaking strains of ships’ chains and tackle” (63), appears, at first glance, to be mundane. What really intrigues Marlow is the marginalia, written, he believes, in cipher. This cipher, this unknown language, gives Marlow the clue that the journey into the territory of the psyche requires a knowledge deeper and more arcane than the simple facts and figures that govern the mundane world of ships’ chains and tackle. It also implies that such a journey must have its own language. Thus the book invites scrutiny on a symbolic level, hinting that the terminus of Marlow’s journey is knowledge of the breaking strain of the chains and tackle of the human psyche.


As Marlow’s journey continues, he tries to maintain a form of quantifiable progress and guidance by attempting to use trees as if they were mile posts. But this effort fails, for he cannot focus on the trees long enough to give meaning to their demarcations (64). Already, as foreshadowed by Towson’s book, Marlow’s ability to rely on the dependability of maps and recorded facts is breaking down, and it culminates when he stops the boat the night before reaching the Inner Station. “Eight miles meant nearly three hours steaming for us” (65), he says, as if still believing that the quantifiers of known territory apply equally to terra incognita. But as terra incognita of the mind represents an altered state of consciousness or of being instead of simply altered location, there are no exact equations or correspondences that lead from known territory into the unknown. Instead, a quantum leap is required to take Marlow from reliance on external patterns of behavior to an understanding of psychological motivation and complexity.


The nature of that quantum leap is hinted at when the manager urges Marlow to stop for the night before proceeding at dawn to the Inner Station (64). It is significant that this act of caution is motivated by the voice of personal experience—or, a guide. The manager has been to the Inner Station and knows there are dangers. Thus the manager’s warning suggests the importance of real experience over second-hand knowledge gained from maps and guidebooks. Maps can delimit unexplored territory and guide one to it, but within the blank whiteness of terra incognita only the word of personal experience—of those who have been there—is sufficient guide. And then Marlow personally enters psychological terra incognita.


His entrance is symbolized by a physically tangible counterpoint to the white space on the map—a fog that enshrouds the river in blank whiteness that both obliterates the physical features of the terrain and leaves Marlow in a state of psychological limbo. Marlow says, “Were we to let go our hold of the bottom, we would be absolutely in the air—in space. We wouldn’t be able to tell where we were going to—whether up or down stream, or across” (70-71).


Lost in the blank whiteness, Marlow experiences a condition in which maps cease to have validity—a condition in which only the internal sense of psychological direction has meaning. Contemplating the implications of being lost in psychic terra incognita gives him understanding of the dangers inherent in the situation. While the pilgrims, rooted in the physical world, fear physical attack by the natives, Marlow says that “the danger...was from our proximity to a great human passion let loose” (72). Without a solidly physical foundation in which to anchor the psyche, reason and morality are set adrift. He realizes that it is no longer sufficient to look at the world as a merely physical place with physical dangers, but that the human psyche and its pitfalls must be understood as well.


The fog lifts, and Marlow immediately faces his first personal decision when the river splits into two channels. He chooses the path of logical expediency, steering the boat into the channel that passes closest to the station. The channel quickly grows narrower, arrows rain down, and, most significantly, Marlow’s pilot is killed. Still trying to cling to the logic of the physical world, Marlow has only succeeded in endangering the boat and losing his pilot, his last symbol of guidance by external means.


Luckily for Marlow, he quickly meets a guide—the Russian. The Russian’s motley makes him an embodiment of the archetypal Fool—the man who, through his seemingly mad criticism of the temporal realm, helps guide kings. And it also recalls Edgar, in Shakespeare’s King Lear, whose tattered and patched clothing is quickly noted by Lear and equated with madness, yet who becomes Lear’s own guide into the realm of the psyche. But even more to the point, the Russian’s motley recollects the multicolored map hanging in the company office.


Further indicating the Russian’s function as guide is the fact that Towson’s book belongs to him, and the marginalia were written by him in his native language. Instead of testifying to Marlow’s foolishness in considering the marginalia a mysterious cipher, the revelation of the truth of its language indicates that Marlow, having entered the terra incognita of the psyche, now discovers that there is, indeed, a real and decipherable language that can begin to describe the new territory. Marlow may not personally understand this language, but it is intelligible to those who have been to the terra incognita of the mind. With study, such a language can become comprehensible—one simply has to have the key.


But the Russian, like all Marlow’s previous maps and guides, can only point the way further into terra incognita. The Russian has not personally traveled deeply into it but only skirted its edges. To get the final word, Marlow must hear Kurtz, who has delved there more deeply and dwelt there longer than any other. This is exactly the reason Marlow must talk to Kurtz—Kurtz has “been there” and has a first-hand knowledge of the way through the terra incognita of a psyche loosened from the restraints of the world.


Marlow places much emphasis on Kurtz as a voice, as speech, for what Kurtz has done is not as significant as the information he has to impart about where he has been. Ultimately, however, the reader hears none of what Kurtz says firsthand. It is as if Marlow suggests that such knowledge is so tied to personal experience that without that experience to inform the facts, the facts become just so many disconnected words that can mean anything. Kurtz’s final, “The horror!”, taken out of context, is open to a variety of interpretations, any of which are probably false without the meaning supplied by context. The point is that the geography of the mind cannot be mapped because it is too personal, but even so, understanding may be possible for the individual within the limits of that individual’s context.


Realizing that physical exploration of the world had gone about as far as it could, Conrad indicates that now human exploration must go inward. If he denotes that such a search is necessary through his depiction of the casual brutalities inflicted by so-called civilized Europeans, he also connotes that the search is inevitable by showing that humans have the drive to journey to the ends of every tributary of knowledge, even if all that is to be found at the end of some of them is horror.


But Conrad also has an important message about the external world as we know it—a world composed entirely of terra cognita. Heart of Darkness exposes European colonialism at its worst as an attempt to impose a system of order for the purpose of plunder. But what is significant is that this system of order does not hold in the new territories carved from terra incognita, for these territories embody, not disorder, but antiorder, at least in terms of the European concept of order. What Conrad is saying is that the very act of exploration, whether in the real world or in the realm of the psyche, changes the parameters of life so drastically that the old concepts of order must, perforce, give way to new paradigms. In a sense, he’s espousing a sort of humanistic version of Heisenberg’s principle that any observation of any system alters that system. In other words, if the world is opened up to encompass a global awareness for all peoples, then all peoples must take part in shaping that world and its meanings.


It is interesting to note in this regard the context in which Conrad tells his story. He puts it into the mouth of Marlow, who, in turn, tells it to an audience composed of archetypal representatives of the British empire—the Director of the Companies, the Lawyer, and the Accountant. While their motives were, admittedly, exploitative rather than benevolent, these men, and other Europeans like them, did open up much of the world and create, for the first time, an awareness among all men of the extent of the global community.


But, having done so, their influence immediately begins to wane, symbolized by the fact that Marlow’s narrative begins at dusk and ends in full darkness, for now the sun has set on the British Empire at last, and the new world of tomorrow belongs to all peoples of the global community.






Conrad, Joseph.  Heart of Darkness.  New York: Bantam Books, 1981.