Of Darkness EssayJoseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, relies on the historical period ofimperialism in order to describe its protagonist, Charlie Marlow, and hisstruggle.
Marlow’s catharsis in the novel, as he goes to the Congo, rests on howhe visualizes the effects of imperialism. This paper will analyze Marlow’s”change,” as caused by his exposure to the imperialistic nature of thehistorical period in which he lived. Marlow is asked by the organization forwhich he works, to travel to the Congo River and report back to them about Mr.
Kurtz, a top-notch officer of theirs. When he sets sail, he doesn’t know what toexpect, but by the end of his journey Marlow will have changed forever. Heart ofDarkness is the story of a man’s journey through the African Congo and the”enlightenment” of his soul. It begins with Charlie Marlow, along witha few of his comrades, cruising aboard the Nellie, a traditional sailboat. Onthe boat, Marlow begins to tell of his experiences in the Congo. Conrad usesMarlow to reveal his personal thoughts and emotions during the course of thisjourney.
Marlow begins his voyage as an ordinary English sailor who is travelingto the African Congo on a “business trip”. He is an Englishmen throughand through, and has never been exposed to any drastically alternative forms ofculture, such as the one he will encounter in Africa. Throughout the book,Conrad, via Marlow’s observations, reveals to the reader the naive mentalityshared by most Europeans. Marlow as well, shares this naivete in the beginningof his voyage, however, after his first few moments in the Congo, he realizesthe ignorance he and his comrades possess. We first recognize the generalnaivete of the Europeans when Marlow’s aunt is seeing him for the last timebefore he embarks on his journey. Marlow’s aunt is under the assumption that thevoyage is a mission to “wean those ignorant millions from their horridways”(Conrad, 18-19). In reality however, the Europeans are there in thename of imperialism, and their sole objective is to earn a substantial profit bycollecting all the ivory in Africa.
Another manifestation of the Europeansobliviousness towards reality is seen when Marlow is recanting his adventurewhile aboard the Nellie. He addresses his comrades on board, saying: “Whenyou have to attend to things of that sort, to the mere incidents of the surface,the reality–the reality I tell you—fades. The inner truth is hidden luckily,luckily. But I felt it all the same; I felt often its mysterious stillnesswatching over me at my monkey tricks, just as it watches you fellows performingon your respective tight ropes for—what is it? Half a crown atumble”(Conrad, 56). Marlow is saying that while he is in the Congo,although he has to concentrate on petty things, such as overseeing the repair ofhis boat, he is still aware of what is going on around him, including thehorrible reality, which he is in the midst of.
On the other hand, his friends onthe boat simply don’t know of these realities. It is their ignorance, as well astheir innocence which provokes them to say “Try to be civil,Marlow”(Conrad, 57). Not only are they oblivious to the reality, whichMarlow is exposed to, but their naivete is so great, they can’t even comprehenda place where this ‘so called’ reality would even be a bad dream. Hence, theirresponse is clearly rebuking the words of a “savage” for having saidsomething so ridiculous and “uncivilized”. Quite surprisingly, thismentality does not pertain exclusively to the Englishmen in Europe. At one pointduring Marlow’s voyage down the Congo, his boat hits an enormous patch of fog.At that very instant, a “very loud cry” is let out(Conrad, 66).
AfterMarlow looks around and makes sure everything is all right, he observes thecontrasts of expressions between the white and black men. It was very curiousto see the contrast of expression of the white men and of the black fellows ofour crew, who were as much strangers to this part of the river as we, thoughtheir homes were only eight hundred miles away. The whites, of course greatlydiscomposed, had besides a curious look of being painfully shocked by such anoutrageous row. The others had an alert, naturally interested expression; buttheir faces were essentially quiet(Conrad, 67). Once again, we see thesimple-mindedness of the Europeans, even when they were exposed toreality. Their mentality is so heavily engraved in their minds that eventhe environment of the Congo can’t sway their belief that people simply don’t dothe horrible Things, Marlow recounts. The whites are dumbfounded and can notcomprehend how people, in this case the natives, would simply attack innocentpeople.
The blacks, however, who are cognizant of the reality in which theylive, are “essentially quiet”. They feel right at home, and are notphased by the shriek. Similarly, the difference of mentalities is shown whenMarlow speaks of the portion of his crew who are cannibals. While in the midstof his journey, Marlow quite casually converses with these cannibals, even abouttheir animalistic ways. As Jacques Berthoud said so accurately in his JosephConrad, “what would be unspeakable horror in London…
becomes, on the Congoriver, an unremarkable topic of conversation(Berthoud, 47). These”unspeakable horrors” are hardly unspeakable in the Congo because theyare normal occurrences there. On the Nellie, Marlow explains to his comrades,the basic difference between living in Europe, and being in the Congo. Hestates: “You can’t understand. How could you? With solid pavement underyour feet, surrounded by kind neighbors ready to cheer you or to fall you,stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror ofscandal and gallows and lunatic asylums—how can you imagine what particularregion of the first ages a man’s untrammeled feet may take him into by the wayof solitude—utter solitude without a policeman—by the way of silence uttersilence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbor can be heard whispering ofpublic opinion(Conrad, 82). In Europe, there are “kind neighbors”who help each other to make sure that everything is all right. The Europeanlives his life “stepping delicately between the butcher and thepoliceman”.
Everywhere he looks, there is always someone there who can”catch him if he is falling”. On the other hand, once a man enters theCongo, he is all alone. No policeman, no “warning voice of a kindneighbor”…no one! It is when Marlow enters the Congo and begins hisvoyage, that he realizes the environment he comes from is not reality, and theonly way he is going to discover reality is to keep going up the river. There isone specific theme in Heart of Darkness in which the reader can follow Marlow’sevolution from the “everyday European” to a man who realizes his ownnaivete and finally to his uncovering of his own reality.
This evolution comesabout as a direct result of Marlow’s observations of how things are named. Thissounds very unusual, that a man would find his true reality by observing thenames of certain things. However, it is precisely these observations whichchange Marlow forever.
Marlow first realizes the European’s flaw of not beingable to give something a name of significance, in the beginning of his voyage,when he has not quite reached the Congo, but he is extremely close. Once, Iremember, we came upon a man of war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even ashed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one oftheir wars going on there-abouts. Her ensign dropped like a limp rag; themuzzles of the long six inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy,slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In theempty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible,firing into a continent.
Pop, would go one of the six inch guns; a small flamewould dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectilewould give a feeble screech—and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. Therewas a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in thesight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestlythere was a camp of natives—he called them enemies!—hidden out of sightsomewhere(Conrad, 21). Conrad is teaching us something extremely important.Berthoud points out that the “intelligibility of what men do depends uponthe context in which they do it.” Marlow is watching this occurrence.
Hesees the Europeans firing “tiny projectiles” and their cannonsproducing a “pop”. The Europeans, however, see themselves fighting anall out war against the savage enemies in the name of imperialism. The Europeansfeel that this is an honorable battle, and therefore, get emotionally excitedand fight with all they have. Marlow, however, sees it differently. He is now inAfrica where reality broods; it’s lurking everywhere. The only thing one has todo to find it is open his mind to new and previously ‘unheard’ ideas.
He looksat this event and reduces it from the European’s image of a supposedly intensebattle, with smoke and enemies everywhere, to a futile firing of “tinyprojectiles “into an empty forest. For the first time, Marlow recognizesthe falsity of the European mentality, and their inability to characterize anevent for what it is. At the end of the passage, his fellow European crewmemberis assuring Marlow that the allied ship is defeating the “enemies”,and that they just couldn’t see the them because they were “hidden out ofsight somewhere”. In actuality, they were shooting at innocent natives whohave probably fled from the area of battle already. Marlow is beginning torealize that “what makes sense in Europe no longer makes sense inAfrica”(Berthoud, 46).
With that passage, Conrad informs the reader ofMarlow’s realization. From that point on, Marlow is looking to define if inactuality, the mentality instilled upon him in Europe is similar to this, or ifthose are atypical Europeans who are living in a dream world. As the novelcontinues, Marlow recognizes that this flaw of not being able to see somethingfor what it is, and in turn, not being able to give it an accurate”label”, is indeed “the European way”.
There are some namesgiven by the Europeans that simply don’t fit the characteristic of the objectbeing named. Marlow points out that the name ‘Kurtz’ means short in German.However, at Marlow’s first glance at Kurtz, he remarks how Kurtz appears to be”seven feet long”(Conrad, 101).
Conrad shows us, through Marlow’sobservation, how Kurtz’s name is just a blatant oxy-moron. Marlow recognizes yetanother obvious misrepresentation, meeting a man who is called the”bricklayer”. However, as Marlow himself points out, “therewasn’t a fragment of a brick anywhere in the station”(Conrad, 39).
Duringhis voyage, however, Marlow doesn’t only observe this misnaming, but realizesthe importance of a name. While overhearing a conversation between the managerof the station and his uncle, he hears Mr. Kurtz being referred to as “thatman”(Conrad, 53). Although Marlow hasn’t met Kurtz yet, he has heard of hisgreatness.
He now realizes that by these men calling him “that man”,they strip him of all his attributes. When one hears Kurtz, they think of a” very remarkable person”(Conrad, 39). These men are now, by notreferring to him by his name, denying Kurtz’s accomplishments. This same idea ofdistorting a person’s character by changing his name is displayed elsewhere. TheEuropeans apply the terms ‘enemy’ and ‘criminals’ to the natives. In actuality,they are simply “bewildered and helpless victims.
..and moribundshadows”(Berthoud. 46). Clearly, the injustice done by the simple misnamingof someone is unbelievable. After witnessing all of these names which bare notrue meaning, as well as possibly degrade a person’s character, Marlowunderstands that he can not continue in his former ways of mindlessly givingrandom names to something in fear of diminishing the essence of the recipient.
As a result, Marlow finds himself unable to label something for what it is.While under attack, Marlow refers to the arrows being shot in his direction as”sticks, little sticks”, and a spear being thrown at his boat “along cane”(Conrad, 75-77). When Marlow arrives at the inner station, hesees “slim posts.
..in a row” with their “ends ornamented withround carved balls”(Conrad, 88). In truth, these are poles with skulls ontop of them. Marlow can formulate a name even for the simplest of things and seethem for what they are. Taking a step back and looking at his voyage, Marlowrealizes the insignificant, mindless, meaningless labels, which theEuropeans use to identify with something, and he wants to be able to give toexperience, names that have some substance.
At this point, he is similar to Adamin the Garden of Eden who is “watching the parade of namelessexperience” go by. However, Marlow is missing an essential ability, whichAdam possessed. As opposed to Adam, who was delegated by God to nameexperiences, Marlow lacked this authority to name. It is Kurtz who will becomethis authority, and eventually teach Marlow the essence of a name.
Mr. Kurtz isthe Chief of the Inner Station. He is a “universal genius, a prodigy, anemissary of pity science and progress”(Conrad, 40-45).
It is Kurtz who willteach Marlow what a name is, for one simple reason. “The man presentedhimself as a voice…of all his gifts, the one that stood out preeminently, thatcarried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, hiswords—the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating(Conrad,79). Kurtz was “little more than a voice”(Conrad, 80), but there wasno one with a voice like his.
He could speak with remarkable eloquence, he couldwrite with such precision…he could name with true meaning! “You don’ttalk with that man Kurtz, you listen to him”(Conrad, 90). Marlow hasheard enough about Kurtz, in this case from his devoted pupil, to know that itis he who can provide Marlow with the authority to offer correct and substantialnames Indeed, Kurtz gives Marlow everything he is looking for.
However, he doesit in a very unconventional way. Kurtz teaches Marlow the lesson with his lastwords. “The horror! The horror!”(Conrad, 118). These last words areKurtz’s own judgment, judgment on the life which he has lived.
He is barbarous,unscrupulous, and possibly even evil. However, he has evaluated his life, and hehas “pronounced a judgment upon the adventures of his soul on thisearth”(Conrad, 118). Marlow sees Kurtz “open his mouth wide—it gavehim a weirdly voracious aspect, as though he wanted to swallow all the air, allthe earth, all the men before him”(Conrad, 101). Kurtz takes everything in.He takes his life, and puts it all out on the table.
“He had summed up—he had judged…The horror!”(Conrad, 119). Kurtz’s last words is his way ofteaching Marlow the essence of a name were that a name is not merely a label. Itis one man’s own judgment of an isolated event. However, unlike the Europeanswho judge based on already existing principles which they have ‘acquired’, Kurtztaught Marlow to look inside of himself and to judge based on his own subjectivecreeds.
While Marlow is recounting the story, he says to his comrades: “Hemust meet that truth with his own true stuff—with his own inborn strength.Principles won’t do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags—rags that would flyoff at the first good shake. No, you want a deliberate belief. An appeal to mein this fiendish row—is there? Very well; I hear; I admit, but have a voicetoo, and for good or evil mine is the voice that can not be silenced (Conrad,60).” This judgment must be from one’s own internal strengths.
That is whyMarlow says, “for good or evil, mine is the speech that can not besilenced”. As Kurtz has taught him with his own judgment, a judgment oftruth overpowers morality. To find one’s own reality, one must not rely solelyon other people’s morality, others people’s ‘principles’; he must assess his ownlife. Kurtz showed that regardless of whether the truth is good or bad, one mustface up to his reality. He must face up to his own actions even when theconclusion is “the horror”, and by doing so, he will find his truereality.
Marlow understands that being true to yourself is not followinganother’s moral code, but being able to judge one’s self honestly and uncovertheir own reality. It is because of this understanding that Marlow claims thatKurtz’s last words are “a moral victory paid for by innumerabledefeats”(Conrad, 120). Despite Kurtz’s immoral ways, he is victoriousbecause he didn’t run away from the truth, and that is his moral victory; he istrue to himself. On his voyage, Marlow notices at one of the stations, a picturethat Kurtz had drawn when he was there. It is a “sketch in oils on a panelrepresenting a woman draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch.
Thebackground was sombre—almost black”(Conrad, 40). At the time, Marlowdidn’t really know what it meant. However, this is a precise representation ofKurtz himself. First, the background was “sombre—almost black”.
Thisis a manifestation of Kurtz because his life is full of darkness. He kills, hesteals, and he is worshipped as a God. Kurtz cannot be without blackness andsurvive. In addition, the picture displays the lesson itself. It is a picture ofthe lady of justice holding a torch.
This is Kurtz’s role. Unlike Europe, whichimposes their principles upon others, he is merely there to illuminate. Kurtz isthere to expand the peoples minds, to introduce them to a broad new spectrumof reality.
However, he does not impose his own reality upon them. Hence, he isblindfolded in the picture. To him, they make a subjective decision and theyfind their own truth, regardless of what that truth may be. Eventually Marlowrealizes that Kurtz’s picture was in essence, a self-portrait. The same thingwhich Kurtz conveyed with ‘the horror’, he conveyed with this picture. Marlow’srealization is evident with this remark. “I don’t like work—no mandoes—but I like what’s in the work—the chance to find yourself.
Your ownreality—for yourself, not for others”(Conrad, 47). Marlow learns theessence of ‘naming’ and understands what it means to ‘be yourself’. However,Marlow has encountered two extremes.
The European mentality, which is completelyoblivious to reality, and Kurtz, a man who has found his reality, but it is oneof horror and no restraint from any wrongdoing. He is now returning to his hometo deal with his former world, however, he now possesses his new’understanding’. Marlow cannot return to his previous ‘European ways’ simplybecause he has ‘been enlightened’ and lost his naivete.
However, why can’t headapt Kurtz’s ways and live the other extreme? At one point, Marlow had”peeped over the edge”(Conrad, 119). Why didn’t he ‘jump over’? Marlowis repelled from joining Kurtz for several reasons. Firstly, Kurtz had”kicked himself loose from the earth…he had kicked the earth to pieces.
He was alone, and I Marlow before him did not know whether I stood on theground or floated in the air”(Conrad, 112). Kurtz had denied any sort ofmoral convictions in order to be worshipped as a God. Because of thisunmonitered power, Kurtz lost all sense of restraint and became the savage thathe was.
Marlow, however, has not lost his sense of morality. What Marlowrejected in Kurtz was the complete absence of any humane or remotely saneactions. It is because of Marlow’s rejection of both the Europeans, who Marlowclaims are full of “stupid importance”, and of Kurtz’s inability toestablish his own moral code, that Marlow chooses an “alternativereality”(Berthoud.
60). The first time the reader witnesses Marlow’s choiceand becomes a centrist, is when he first gets back to Europe. Marlow findshimself resenting the way the Europeans went about their life, “hurryingthrough the streets to filch a little money from each other”(Conrad, 120).Not only did he find their lives meaningless, but he mocked them to himself.
“I had no particular desire to enlighten them, but I had some difficultyrestraining myself from laughing in their faces so full of stupid importance…I tottered about the streets…
grinning bitterly at perfectly respectablepeople. I admit my behavior was inexcusable” (Conrad, 120). Although Marlowlooked down upon these Europeans, he says something remarkable. He judged hisown actions and found them ‘inexcusable’.
This is his manifestation of breakingaway from Kurtz’s extreme. Unlike Kurtz who lacked all restraint and would neverfind looking down on people bad, Marlow realized that he couldn’t hold itagainst them simply because they didn’t know better. Clearly, Marlow has edgedtoward a middle ground. He has been able to create some comfortable fusionbetween Kurtzs edge of complete reality with a lack of moral conscience, withthat of the unknowing, and apparently uncaring world from which he came.BibliographyBerthoud, Jacques A. Joseph Conrad: The Major Phase (British AuthorsIntroductory Critical Studies).
Cambridge Univ. Press. 1978 Conrad, Joseph.Heart of Darkness: Backgrounds and Criticisms. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1960.Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York: NortonCritical, 1988.English Essays